May 14, 2020 – A look back at the Croatian American connections in the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Gold Medal triumph.
Many Americans over the age of fifty will remember vividly, the “Miracle on Ice” and what Sports Illustrated called the greatest sports upset of all times. It was roughly forty years ago that the 1980 Winter Olympics were held February 12-24.Twelve hockey teams traveled to Lake Placid in New York. The USA Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviet Union, rated the best hockey team in the world and went on to win the Gold Medal!
It’s a historical fact that the 1980 Winter Olympics were almost boycotted since the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Winter Olympics almost did not happen. American Coach Herb Brooks was not even sure the Olympics would be held untillate in December, 1979.
How many Croatian Americans know that the American hockey line of a center and two wings that scored the most points for the 1980 American Olympic hockey team were all from Minnesota (my home state) and two were Croatian Americans? It is with pleasureand pride tha
t I share a few more details about Mark Pavelich and Buzz Schneider, the two Croatian Americans from the Iron Range of Minnesota who paired up with John “Bah” Harrington from Virginia, Minnesota (my dad’s hometown) to help lead the Americans to the gold medal.
First, the Mark Pavelich story about the Olympic star who actually setup the winning goal against the Russians. Mark, son of Croatian immigrants, grew up in Eveleth Minnesota. Eveleth was the hometown of another famous hockey player, Croatian Johnny Mayasich, who many considered the best hockey player of all time in Minnesota and a two time Olympian. Also, it was the home of Joe Begich, longtime Mayor there and Minnesota State Representative and the Uncle to former US Senator Mark Begich, from Alaska (son of Congressman Nick Begich).
Mark was a hockey star at Eveleth High School and then was off to college and hockey at nearby University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD). Mark played three seasons there before joining the U.S. Olympic team. The assistant coach there at UMD was Croatian AmericanMike Sertich from Virginia, Minnesota and a neighbor to our Rukavina family in this Iron Range city.
Mark Pavelich played 355 games in the NHL, mostly with the NY Rangers and even scored five goals in one game, the only American ever to do so. This was in a game against the Hartford Whalers on February 23, 1983 which was all after his stardom in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Next, is Buzz Schneider and he tells the story that as a baby his Croatian grandmother kept calling him “buraz” (the Croatian word for brother) and his name was turned into Buzz. This Croatian American born in Grand Rapids, home of Judy Garland, was a hockey star in Babbitt, Minnesota. He played three years with Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota and they were national champions in 1974. I actually met Buzz in 1974 since his first cousin Greg Trebnick was a football teammate of mine nearby at St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minnesota and Greg told me about Buzz’s Croatian roots.
Buzz had three great years at University of Minnesota and then joined the 1976 US Olympic team led by captain Steve Sertich from Virginia, Minnesota (Coach Mike’s brother) which was held in Innsbruck, Austria and where the Americans took a fifth place. Buzz caught the Olympic bug with that Winter Olympics and stayed on to make the team again in 1979 under his former college Coach Herb Brooks.
The 1980 Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, New York on February 12-24 with 12 hockey teams. The Russians and the Czechs were considered the two best hockey teams of all and the American squad was not even considered a medal contender.
The Americans drew Sweden in the first round and started out in trouble and had to score in the last minute to salvage a tie with the Swedes. This tie was a huge factor for their advancement to the medal round. Bill Baker’s goal with 27 seconds left in the game had evened the score.
The next game was against the highly ranked and favored team from Czechoslovakia. Buzz Schneider scored two goals to lead the Americans to a big win against second best team in the world with a surprising 7-3 score. Mark Pavelich added a goal and an assist. It’s an interesting fact that the Czech players, Milan Novy, Peter Stastny, Jaroslav Pousaz were the three highest soccers overall in the 1980 Olympic hockey tourney and yet, the young college kids from the United States won by four goals.
The next three games saw the Americanseasily beat the Norwegians and Buzz had a goal in the game. The American 7-2 win against Romania saw Buzz score two more goals and Mark Pavelich added a key assist on one score. The Americans then dominated and won a solid 4-2 victory against the highly touted Germany team.
The Americans had qualified for the final four and medal round of competition with their four victories and one tie in five games. The next opponent would be the Olympic favorite and the best hockey team in the world. This is the Soviet team that beat the NHL All-Stars by 6-0 a few months earlier and the American squad 10-3 on February 10, 1980. The Americans had not beat the Soviet Union in 20 years in Olympic hockey.
The game against the Russians was set to be played before a loud and sold out Hockey Arena in Lake Placid on Friday Feb. 22nd with the American flag and red, white and blue scattered all over the arena. All the telegrams to Coach Brooks (before the Internet) were inspiring and one that point blank said “Hope you beat those Commie bastards.” Before the game, Coach Brooks paused and looked around the locker room and told his players, “This is your time and great moments are born from great opportunities.”
(Steve Sertich and Buzz Schneider (front row-1976 US Olympic team))
It was not a surprise that the Russians scored first with Vladimir “the Tank” Krutov giving the Soviet Union a `1-0 lead at 9:12. Next, the Croatian American, Buzz Schneider, tied the game at 14:03 with an assist from fellow Minnesotan, Mark Pavelich. Buzz’s score got the mostly American crowd to their feet and shouts of “USA-USA” filled the air.
The Russians scored again to take a 2-1 lead at 17:34 and luckily, American Mark Johnson scored with one second left in the first period to tie the
game just before the first intermission. The Russian coach then pulled Vladislav Tretiak, and replaced his best goalie in a major move that shocked many hockey experts. The second period was dominated by the Soviet team and the Russians went on to outshoot the Americans 12-2 in this period and they took a 3-2 lead at 22:18 and held it throughoutthe second period.
In the final and third period,Mark Johnson’s second goal of the game tied the score at 3-3 at 48:39.It was just eighty-one seconds later at the 50:00 mark that Mike Eruzione scored the fourth American goal on a power play with a Russian in the penalty box. The Americans were now in the lead and it was Mark Pavelichand John Harrington assisting on the go-ahead goal which a few sports reporters called the “shot heard around the world.”
There was still ten minutes left and the Russians swarmed the American net endlessly in those last 600 seconds. Jim Craig, the American goaltender came up with a few incredible saves and stopped 36 of 39 Russian shots on goal that historic day. The USA won this game with only 16 shots on goal which tells a story in itself about the valiant effort that was required that day to make the winning difference.
(Scoreboard after the US-Soviet Union game)
It was in the last few seconds of the game the ABC sports broadcaster Al Michaels uttered the famous phrase, “Do you believe in miracles” and a few seconds later the game was over. The Americans had pulled off the biggest upset in international hockey ever. Buzz Schneider said in an interview many years later, “There was a feeling of magic there and it’s like we were a team of destiny.”
The gold medal round game was Sunday against a tough and talented Finnish team and the upstart young Americans prevailed with a 4-2 win that clinched the gold medal. Again, it was a bunch of inspired, well-conditioned and well-coached 21 year olds that had beat the Czechs, the Russians and finally, the Finns to claim the gold medal.
The three American teammates from the Iron Range of Minnesota that skated together in the 1980 Olympics on one line, had scored the most points overall in the seven hockey games played at the 1980 Winter Olympics. The Iron Range line, called the “Coneheads” by the Coach Herb Brooks tallied twenty points overall at this Winter Olympics. The two Croatian Americans, Buzz Schneider with eight points and Mark Pavelich with seven points earned Olympic hockey immortality for their team’s triumphant success at the 1980 Winter Olympics. They both have my support for selection and inclusion within the newly created National Federation of Croatian Americans Cultural Foundation-North American Sports Hall of Fame.