This Saturday, February 22nd, marks the 40th anniversary of what I believe was the greatest moment in U.S. sports – the “Miracle on Ice”.
There is so much to be said about this game and its meaning. From the players, head coach Herb Brooks, the political tension, to the sheer magnitude of the upset. Instead of competing with all the great stories already out there, I am reposting something I wrote two years ago, plus a few links to other notable sources.
- This ESPN article takes a fresh look at how the U.S. team triumphed, despite several key game statistics heavily skewed against them.
- If you have not seen Miracle, go watch it. Kurt Russell is outstanding as Herb Brooks.
- Of Miracles and Men is an ESPN documentary of the game from the Soviet perspective.
- Some great Herb Brooks quotes from his foundation’s website.
- Lastly, here is the previously-written post. For context, it was written for an investment management firm’s blog before the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“Great Moments are Born from Great Opportunities”
A long-term trend has been broken, and it has nothing to do with volatility, bull markets, nor economic cycles. In this year’s Winter Olympics, the men’s ice hockey tournament will be played with non-NHL players. The last time this occurred was the 1994 Lillehammer Games. As a fan, it is disappointing to not see the world’s best players putting their professional rivalries aside for two weeks and donning their country’s jerseys. On the other hand, it could be an opportunity to view some rising stars and unsung heroes.
This is also a reminder of arguably the greatest sports moment in U.S. history – the “Miracle on Ice” – when, in 1980 a group of college players, defeated the heavily-favored Soviet Union on their way to win a previously unthinkable gold medal. The Soviet Union had won the previous four Olympic hockey tournaments. The cold war political climate added even more historical relevance to the game.
The virtues of sports and how its personal benefits transfer to life and business are well known. This game and team is a showcase of numerous positive attributes, including work ethic, leadership, unity, perseverance, and grit. There are a couple of things that also stand out to me, and both stem from the team’s coach – the late Herb Brooks. They also are rooted in psychology, which is not surprising since that is what he studied in college. Put simply, it’s people and process.
Brooks’ style was often brash, but he was an excellent motivator and knew how to get the most out of his players. He famously gave the team a psychology test during training to help find the right type of player. The type of player he sought was also not necessarily the one leading in stats. He looked for the right mentality.
“You win with people, not talent. So, the quality of people is very important in building your team. I always looked for people with a solid value system. Then I recruited kids from a cross-section of different personalities, talents, and styles of play.”
This thinking can apply to manager research, company due diligence, and hiring. Vetting a product or an opportunity often can be boiled down to “fit” or some other non-quantifiable characteristic. In sports, it’s the “intangibles”. Championship teams regularly attribute their success to the “locker room” – the team chemistry. Factors that lead to success do not always show up in a box score. Successful teams have diversity of style, opinion, backgrounds, and skills, but share a common focus and unending desire to get better and realize a team is not a collection of individuals.
Building the team is one piece. Devising, getting buy in, then executing the right strategy is another. Brooks did this well, too. He got his skaters to believe in themselves, each other, and what they were capable of. He also did not shy away from the intimidating Soviet Union. The players he assembled were chosen with the intention of going head-to-head with them. That team adhered to a methodology that allowed them to play with, and defeat, a more experienced and talented team.
“Success is won by those who believe in winning and then prepare for that moment. Many want to win, but how may prepare? That is the big difference. A sound value system held water then, holds water today, and will hold water in the future.”
In The Success Equation, Michael Mauboussin explains how in a David versus Goliath matchup, the underdog is best served by complicating the game and forcing a superior opponent to play outside their strengths. Brooks realized this and instilled it in the young Americans. They played a smart, tough, fast, unselfish game that the Soviets were not used to seeing. Brooks recognized they would be taken lightly and surprised the Soviet team. Brooks was undeterred throughout training and tournament play in his approach to the players and the strategy. The U.S. team came from behind in each game because they believed in the process and did not change in the face of adversity.
Again, we can draw a line from the rink to the office. As a quantitative firm, we employ rigorous processes in our approach to investing. There are times when markets will test those strategies, but there is a realization that consistent application of the right strategy will sometimes have challenges on the road to success. Long-term results outweigh near-term volatility. Mental toughness and belief in the process can get you through those times. Being opportunistic also helps. Sometimes people or companies get too complacent in their beliefs and do not adapt. Being open-minded and flexible allows for continual development to keep the appropriate strategies in play.
I can go on about that historic night in Lake Placid and all the amazing stories surrounding the game and people involved. As an athlete, coach, parent, student, and employee, there are many useful takeaways. A large amount of my professional development and learning revolves around behavioral finance and how psychology plays a role in our decision making and success. Many of the pioneers in the field understand people and how they really operate. I am putting Herb Brooks in this camp as well, since he put it into practice.
The behavioral coach.
 This was also when Peter Forsberg scored his “Golden Goal” that later became memorialized on a Swedish stamp.
 His life ended too soon, but his legacy and contribution to hockey, and life, are plentiful. He will always be remembered. I encourage all to check out the books, articles and movies made about Brooks and the 1980 team.