1980s – Miracle on Ice

Previous: 1970s – Major Rule Changes in 1972

In a game that some claim to be the greatest sporting event of all time, the United States defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics semi-final game by a score of 4-3. This “Miracle on Ice” was a win for the ages when no one expected the underdog Americans to defeat the heavily-favored Soviet team. The U.S.A. would later win Olympic gold by defeating Finland 4-2 in the gold medal game at Lake Placid, New York. The U.S. team was coached by Herb Brooks who had just earned his third NCAA championship of the decade while coaching Minnesota. Brooks and his coaching staff put together a team of young players whose most recent hockey season was within the college ranks. The fact that these young amateur college kids defeated the seasoned U.S.S.R. team and later won the gold medal made it that much more of an extraordinary feat. Of the 20 players on this 1980 U.S. roster, nine played for Minnesota, four for Boston University, two for Bowling Green, two for Wisconsin, two for the University of Minnesota Duluth, and one for North Dakota.

USA Olympic Hockey Team Photo in 1980
1980 U.S.A. Olympic Hockey Team. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Within the NCAA, the ECAC entered the 1980s with 17 teams. In 1983, five teams announced they were going to depart the conference because the future of the ECAC was in question due to the possibility of the Ivy League schools leaving the conference. A sixth ECAC team and an additional team from outside the ECAC – University of Lowell (now University of Massachusetts Lowell) – joined the five departing teams later that summer. These seven teams created the Hockey East Association; a new conference that began play in the 1984 season. The conference added members throughout the 1980s and saw its numbers fluctuate in the decades that followed. At its present state, Hockey East includes 11 teams. In the conference’s first 35 years of play, it sent 115 teams to the NCAA tournament – a number Hockey East touts as the most teams from any conference within that timeframe. Throughout that time, nine Hockey East teams won NCAA titles and the conference boasted 11 Hobey Baker Award winners.

The 1980s was the most successful decade for North Dakota’s hockey program. The Fighting Sioux (later renamed the Fighting Hawks in 2015) won the NCAA Division I national championship three times in the 1980s by defeating three different teams: Northern Michigan University in 1980, Wisconsin in 1982, and Michigan State in 1987. The latter championship was essentially an away game that was played in Detroit. In the end, it didn’t faze this 40-win team. The 1980s also saw the Wisconsin Badgers bring home two championships. The first one in 1981 was over the rival Gophers in the Minnesota/Wisconsin border city of Duluth, Minnesota. Wisconsin prevailed 6-3.

It’s important to note that the 1981 Division I national tournament was the first one held with an eight-team field. The NCAA previously expanded the tournament field in 1977 to allow up to eight teams to participate. However, the number of teams was to be determined on a year-to-year basis. The largest number of teams to participate in the tournament between 1977 and 1980 was six teams and that happened just once. Beginning in 1980, the new rule guaranteed eight teams for every tournament. The tournament featured three rounds of play with the first round being a two-game series with the winner moving on based on the total number of goals between two games (known as two-game aggregate). The semi-finals and finals were still single-elimination games. This eight-team format lasted for seven years.

In 1988, the NCAA expanded the number of teams again to allow 12 teams to make the national tournament. This was due to the growing number of programs that were fielding Division I hockey teams. The increased number of teams forced the tournament to expand to a fourth round of play. The first two rounds consisted of two-game aggregate series while the semi-finals and championship game were still single-elimination. This format only lasted a year because in 1989, the NCAA kept the same number of teams but moved away from two-game aggregate series in the first two rounds. Instead, the winner was determined through a best-of-three series for the first two rounds.

The NCAA created a Division III national tournament for men’s hockey in 1984 to determine a national champion. Babson College (Massachusetts) blanked Union College 8-0 in the inaugural championship game. The Division III men’s national tournament continues to this day.

The ECAC took control of the East Coast women’s hockey tournament in 1984. The University of New Hampshire won an impressive six championships in the nine years from 1980 to 1988. Throughout the 1980s, women’s college hockey was still strictly located within the East Coast. That would change the following decade.

Next: 1990s – Frozen Four Rebrand and Rise of U.S. Women’s College Hockey