At the height of the Cold War, James Craig and the Olympic American hockey team lifted America’s morale to new heights when they achieved the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics after defeating the “undefeatable” Russian team to win a spot in the playoff game. In the Russia – U.S.A game Craig, a Bruins team member from 1980 to 1981, faced down the Russians, stopping 36 of the 39 Russian shots on goal to take the game 4-3. That match has gone down insportsbook lore as one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
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James Craig got his start playing hockey when he was a young child. He took to the game like a fish to water, especially to the goaltender position. “I started to play goal because I didn’t know the rules,” Craig later said. “I figured, you know, it’s not too hard. You’re just supposed to keep that puck out of the net.” He practiced in the family driveway with his brothers and other kids in the neighborhood shooting shots at him. His father remembered, “If I had a dollar for every broken window and lost puck, I’d be driving a Lincoln.”
Craig played hockey at the Oliver Ames High School and then at Massasoit Community College in Brockton. He moved to Boston University where, in 1977, he led the Terriers to the NCAA Division I hockey championship. Coach Block recruited him to the American Olympic team in 1979 where he gained recognition for his skills as the team goalie.
Olympic rules state that competitors must be “amateurs” so James Craig hadn’t yet signed with any major league teams when he was drafted to join the American ice hockey team that would play in the 1980 Winter Olympics. The Soviet Union\s team was full of older, more experienced players who had played in a number of international tournaments.
The Russian team which still had players who had participated in winning the gold in five of the six previous Winter Olympic Games, stood in sharp contrast to the American team, where only four players had minimal minor-league experience. The American team was the youngest team in U.S. national team history and the youngest team in the Olympics that year.
In the first game of the medal round, the United States was paired against the Soviets. The game came at a tense time in U.S. – Soviet relations and at a time when the overall mood in America was grim. America was in the midst of one of its biggest foreign challenges, the Iran hostage crisis, in which radicals in Iran were holding 52 Americans hostage.
The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan and taken control of the country, leaving the Americans at a loss as to how to proceed. America itself was preparing for an election and tensions were high as the question of how the U.S. should relate to Soviet aggression and non-compliance with international standards.
James Craig was the goalie for the American team. In a pre-game exhibition match the Soviets routed the Americans 10-3 which, many American fans feared, would set the stage for a similar experience in the Olympic game. Yet Craig and the American team surprised everyone. They faced off against the Soviets in a toe-to-toe match. IN the final quarter they took the lead and finished the match with a 4-3 win.
The game against Russia wasn’t the gold medal decider – that was determined two days later when the U.S. met Finland and closed the deal in a 4-2 win. The image that most people remember about the U.S. – Finland game is the image of James Craig, skating around the rink draped in the American flag mouthing the words “where’s my father?” When Craig and his father locked eyes, the whole crowd shared in the father’s pride.
Within a week of the USA-Finland game Craig found himself playing for the then-Atlanta Flames. As the season progressed Craig suffered from nervous exhaustion and an ulcer. The Flames traded Craig to the Boston Bruins where he played the 1980-81 season. His difficulties in handling the puck away from the net put him in #3 goaltender position as he continued to struggle with health issues – a broken finger, benign growth, broken ankle bone and back spasms.
Craig ended his career after the 1983-84 season with the Minnesota North Stars. Today he is a motivational speaker and president and spokesperson for Gold Medal Strategies, a Boston-based motivational sales training and speaking company. He is the author of “Gold Medal Strategies: Business Lessons from America’s Miracle Team”.