By: Michael D. McClellan | This game never lets go. Decades have passed since Mike Eruzione’s go-ahead goal gave the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team a 4-3 lead over the Soviet Union, a lead that would be fiercely tested over the final ten minutes of the final period, the Russians blasting shot after shot at goaltender Jim Craig until those final, frenetic seconds drained away, a young Al Michaels immortalizing the moment with his signature “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”, and chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reverberating throughout the Lake Placid Olympic Fieldhouse. There have been other sports moments to take our breath – moments punctuated with a Tiger Woods fist pump, or an Usain Bolt lightning bolt pose, or a Michael Phelps primal scream – but nothing to match what transpired on that sheet of ice during the height of the Cold War. That’s what happens when a team executes the perfect game plan on the biggest stage against an unbeatable opponent. Herb Brooks’ team did just that, shocking the Russians and creating a world where coaches everywhere were instantly and forever given license to dream aloud, inspiring their teams to do the impossible: Kids, let me tell you a story about a hockey game back in 1980. Time marches on, yet this game hasn’t loosened its grip. Lives turned on the outcome, and lives are affected still: Heroes made, opportunities paved, careers set in motion.
Funny thing about the “Miracle on Ice”: The average American didn’t give a damn about hockey heading into Lake Placid. Hockey was a fringe sport, a curiosity to most, goons on skates from other countries mostly, the games rarely shown on TV. People knew Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. After that, blank stares and confused looks. Hockey was a big deal across the border in snowy Canada, and popular in cold weather cities like Detroit and Chicago, but football was king everywhere else, the NFL loaded with household names like Staubach, Simpson, and Swann. Mike Eruzione? He was just another nameless, faceless kid on a team constructed of nameless, faceless kids, unrecognizable to most unless you happened to be a hardcore hockey fan.
Brooks didn’t give a damn that we didn’t give a damn, and he could have cared less that his team was constructed with a bunch of no-names. There were no stars on Brooks’ 1980 U.S. squad. He knew that beating the Soviets – Olympic gold medalists in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 – would require selfless players who could not only fit his system, but players who could be pushed beyond the limits of ordinary men.
Players like Mike Eruzione.
That Eruzione could even appear on Brooks’ radar is something of a miracle in itself, given that the Winthrop, Massachusetts native wasn’t the most fluid skater and dazzled nobody with his puck-handling. Eruzione’s sports in high school were football and baseball. He’d barely found his way onto a college hockey team, getting a scholarship offer the summer after finishing prep school and only after a recruit bailed on Boston University at the last minute. He’d toiled for the Toledo Goaldiggers in the International Hockey League before getting an invite to the Olympic tryouts in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1979. He’d made the team as much for his intangibles – an infectious, likable personality that had endeared himself to his teammates and that had caught the eye of team doctor George Nagobads, who had pushed Brooks to make him captain – as he did for his tireless work on the ice. And when a scoring slump prompted Brooks to consider cutting him from the team not once, but twice, in the weeks leading up to Lake Placid, it was Eruzione’s servant leadership that saved him. It’s hard to cut a guy whose never-say-die attitude helped keep a team together through six months of hellish practices and rugged exhibitions, all of it underpinned with Brooks’ relentless brand of psychological warfare.
“Eruzione’s your leader. You need a leader,” Gus Hendrickson – Brooks’ friend and the coach of Minnesota-Duluth at the time – said over dinner in late January, less than a month before the start of the Games. “Herbie, don’t start screwing things up now.”
It’s been said that every coach has a gimmick, and Brooks’ gimmick was playing the role of hard-ass overlord, with mind games a huge part of the arsenal. Struggle to put the puck in the net, especially the way Eruzione was struggling in the lead up to the XIII Winter Olympic Games, and Brooks wouldn’t hesitate to give other players a long look, even if those players hadn’t sacrificed and suffered like everyone else. That’s the way Brooks rolled. He was prickly, impatient, and unrelenting in his button-pushing. No one on the team, including Mike Eruzione, was off limits.
“Herb would have cut his own grandchildren to gain an advantage. He didn’t play favorites, and he didn’t get close to his players. He was hard on everyone.” – Mike Eruzione
“Herb would have cut his own grandchildren to gain an advantage,” Eruzione says with a laugh. “He didn’t play favorites, and he didn’t get close to his players. He was hard on everyone.”
Eruzione might have been the captain and the unquestioned heart and soul of this team of nondescript overachievers, but, with the Olympics looming, he wasn’t performing at the level his coach demanded. Brooks response: Bring in a willing pair of freshman forwards from the University of Minnesota, where he’d coached the Gophers to three national championships, and hold open auditions less than three weeks ahead of the opening ceremonies. That Tim Harrer and Aaron Broten would be brought in so late, without sacrifice, sat well with no one. Eruzione knew that his roster spot was on the line, and that surviving Brooks’ boot-camp grind for six months ensured him nothing. It took the team confronting Brooks for him to relent.
“If Herb had cut Eruzione, we weren’t going to go,” teammate John Harrington later insisted. “We had become a family after everything we’d been through. There was no way we were going to let Herb cut Rizzo.”
The show of unity spared Eruzione the same cruel fate that had befallen Brooks twenty years earlier, when, on the cusp of his own Olympic dream, he was singled out by his coach and sent home. Jack Riley’s decision to replace Brooks on the roster hadn’t been an easy one. He’d recruited 1956 Olympic standout Bill Cleary for months, and when Cleary finally agreed – on the condition that his brother, Bob, join him in Squaw Valley – Brooks was the odd man out. The cut occurred just days before the start of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and a cutout of Bob Cleary’s head was pasted over Herb Brook’s body in the team picture. Brooks watched on TV as the U.S. defeated the Soviets and Czechoslovakia in the medal round, winning the gold medal.
Keeping Eruzione meant that Brooks would gamble on his captain’s leadership instead of Harrer’s superior puck handling, but he still had choices to make in order to reach the twenty man roster limit. The final cuts were Jack Hughes, a defenseman from Harvard, and Ralph Cox, a forward from the University of New Hampshire. Brooks had his team.
Two weeks later, his team would shock the world.
Decades before his iconic goal broke that 3-3 tie with ten minutes left in the medal round against the Soviets, a young Mike Eruzione was growing up in Winthrop, an old seaside town on a jutting piece of land a little east of Boston, bounded on the east by Massachusetts Bay and on the west by Logan Airport and the harbor, a compact place with 20,000 people jammed into a 1.6 square mile area, a postage stamp with rows of clapboard and shingled homes shoehorned together on lots not much bigger than a penalty box. The Boston skyline rises up across the harbor but feels much farther away. Revere – connected to Winthrop by a narrow isthmus, and named after Revolutionary War icon Paul Revere – is where Eruzione would get his start playing hockey.
“Winthrop didn’t have a youth hockey program of any kind back then,” he says. “We’d skate where we could – on flooded tennis courts or in sand traps that had frozen over – but we had to go to Revere to play organized hockey. Today, Revere and Winthrop are big high school hockey rivals. A lot has changed.”
From 1880 to 1920, an estimated 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, most from 1900 to 1914, and most from southern Italy and Sicily. Italian unification in 1861 worsened conditions in those places, where the soil was exhausted, taxes and tariffs were high and young men were conscripted for seven years. In 1880 about a thousand Italian immigrant families came to Boston, the first wave to the city bypassed by most Europeans save for the Irish.
These immigrants didn’t speak English. They were forced to take low-wage jobs and exploited by middlemen. They settled in ghettos known as Little Italies: Front Street in Hartford, Central End in Bridgeport, Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, the South End of Springfield, Mass. The biggest Little Italies – the North End of Boston, Wooster Square in New Haven, Federal Hill in Providence – were once crowded tenement neighborhoods. Today they have gentrified and are now tourist attractions.
Eugene Eruzione – affectionately known as Jeep, and who worked as a maintenance man in a sewage treatment plant and as a waiter in Santarpio’s pizzeria in East Boston – was one of those Italian immigrants, settling in Winthrop with his wife, Helen, and quickly starting a family. The Eruziones lived in a three-story family compound that had been subdivided into three apartments, the place always buzzing with activity, aunts and uncles and cousins coming and going, children playing all manner of sports, the air thick with the smell of pasta sauce.
“I had a great childhood,” Eruzione says. “I had very loving parents. I lived in a three-family home, which I actually live next door to now, so in a way I never really left. We lived on the second floor, where I grew up with four sisters and a brother. Upstairs from us was my mother’s brother – he married my father’s sister, and they lived on the third floor with their five kids, which was three girls and two boys. On the first floor was my father’s other sister, who lived with her husband and their three kids. So needless to say, there were a lot of kids in the house.
“Having three families under the same roof was a great way to grow up. There was a lot of love, a lot of fun, a lot of singing, a lot of great food, and some pretty good competition among the boys in terms of sports that we were playing in the backyard. Looking back it seems like a lot of people in one house, but growing up I thought that everybody lived in a three family home. I wouldn’t change a thing about it, because my childhood was outstanding.”
Sports were a huge part of Eruzione’s childhood. Anything with a stick or a ball. His parents taught him to pursue and expect success, but to do it humbly and not to take anything for granted. His name is the Italian word for “eruption,” and that’s how Eruzione went about everything from an early age: Full throttle, with a spirit and energy that was equal parts Rudy Ruettiger and Rocky Balboa. It was this same never-say-die attitude that would later propel him to Olympic greatness, but back then it was unleashed, without prejudice, on every sport Eruzione played.
“I didn’t start playing hockey until I was around eight or nine years old. We had a big yard next door, so we played a lot of touch football and tackle football in that yard.” – Mike Eruzione
“I didn’t start playing hockey until I was around eight or nine years old,” Eruzione says. “We had a big yard next door, so we were always playing something. There was no soccer or lacrosse when I was a kid. There was no youth football. We just went outside and picked teams. We played a lot of touch football and tackle football in that yard. That’s how we got our football fix.
“During the summer months I played a lot of stick ball and Wiffle ball. I also played a lot of something called hack ball, which is a game that a lot of people don’t know about. What you do to play is cut a tennis ball in half, and then someone pitches it and you try to hit it with a broomstick handle. That was a very popular game in my neighborhood when I was a kid. When I got a little older and the cold weather came, we’d all get together and play hockey. There was no rink in my hometown, so we had to skate outside. We’d do that until baseball season started. Even then I couldn’t wait to play baseball, which was my favorite sport to that point. By the time I graduated high school I’d probably played more baseball in my life than hockey, but back then kids didn’t specialize in one sport. They played whatever sport was in season. So, in high school I played hockey, baseball and football. I have a lot of great memories from that period in my life.”
Wearing his older sister’s white hand-me-down figure skates, Eruzione begged his mother to let him skate on the lake with the older kids. Helen eventually agreed, redeeming her stash of S&H green stamps to buy him a pair of hockey skates. And then, when he wanted to sign up for organized hockey, she agreed to that, too, with one stipulation: Quitting wasn’t an option.
“Neither was pouting,” Eruzione says with a laugh. “If you didn’t get into the game or didn’t score any goals, you still worked hard and you had fun. Winthrop didn’t have a hockey team, so I actually got my start with the Revere Youth Hockey Association. In winter we had league play in Revere, where we could go skate on Saturday mornings from 6 o’clock until 8 am. That was our ice time. Mark Buckley and a handful of other guys used to run a couple of great programs – the Learn to Skate program and the Revere Youth Hockey program. It was a great way to learn, but we didn’t have a team that played anywhere. By the time I was around nine or ten years old I was starting to become a pretty good player, and that’s when I was finally old enough to play on a team in the town of Revere. A couple of years later Winthrop started up a hockey program, so I went back and started playing in Winthrop.”
Throughout his childhood, Eruzione’s natural athleticism fueled his passion for sports, but he never thought of himself as a star athlete. He wasn’t cocky, and didn’t need anyone stroking his ego.
“I never looked at it that way. I wouldn’t come home and say ‘I’m the best player on the team,’ or ‘I’m going to be a pro player because I’m better than the next guy.’ I always took things in stride and was part of a team. To me, the team was always more important than how well I was playing.”
Eruzione may have been humble and fun-loving, but he also had a competitive streak a mile wide. This trait, which helped propel a tough kid from Massachusetts to the Olympic stage, was easy to spot during those early years.
“It’s interesting what you remember from your days playing sports as a kid. I enjoyed playing baseball and football because I enjoyed the changing seasons, which allowed me to get away from the rink. Fortunately for me I was a pretty good player in both sports. We won the town championship when I was in Little League, which was pretty cool. I remember playing baseball in the Boston Record-American league when I was fifteen, which is when I made the Hearst All-Stars and got to play two games at Fenway Park. That was a pretty exciting accomplishment for me, because kids from all over New England tried out for this team and they only selected a handful. Getting an invite to play at Fenway was a proud moment. Unfortunately, the Record-American folded after that, and they were one of the largest sponsors. In high school I got to play football in the Agganis All-Star game, which is now the Massachusetts Shriners All-Star game. I was a defensive back. I have a lot of great moments and memories of the sports that I played.
“I think those experiences helped me to become a better hockey player,” Eruzione continues. “I look back on those fun moments fondly, because I was fortunate to play on some very good teams. My senior year we won our conference in both hockey and in baseball, and our football team only lost one game. Unfortunately, Swampscott was the team that that beat us, and they went undefeated and kept us out of the playoffs. It’s funny, I graduated from high school in 1972, and I still remember every play of the one football game that we lost.”
Eruzione’s focus on sports didn’t leave much time for anything else, but he still managed to have a blast in high school. Popular and fun-loving, he made friends easily, even if he wasn’t always up on the latest pop culture trends.
“Winthrop is a small town, so everybody knew everybody,” Eruzione says. “I loved my high school days – I was the treasurer of my senior class, and I was pretty active in a lot of things at my school. Socially, I hung out with my friends when I wasn’t playing sports. I didn’t have a stereo or what they later called boom boxes, so I listened to whatever was playing on the radio. I really wasn’t a big music guy. I didn’t spend a lot of time in music stores flipping through albums. At home my father would listen to singers like Jimmy Roselli, or Jerry Vale, or Connie Francis. I had some great teachers, but I think I probably spent a little more time in the gym and outside playing sports than I did in the classroom. But I think that was an era when you could get away with doing that. That isn’t the case today. My high school years were nothing but fun.”
That Eruzione has stayed put – he lives on a sloping street not more than 100 yards from Winthrop Golf Club and not even a mile from Winthrop High School, walking distance from the houses he and his wife, Donna, grew up in – gives testament to his love of the area. He holds a day job at his alma mater, Boston University, and he’s also one of the most sought-after speakers in the country, hired by corporations of all sizes to inspire and motivate.
“The requests have kept coming, even though Lake Placid happened so long ago. The demand never lets up.”
Nor has he tired of telling it. He’s shared the same story countless times through the years and it never gets old, not when he tells it as if it happened yesterday. He’s completely at ease reliving the miracle, although he doesn’t consider it one, not when that 1980 U.S. hockey team was in better condition than the rest of the field at Lake Placid, and not after all of the sacrifices made by the team to get there. An upset for the ages, perhaps, but an earned upset, nonetheless.
“We were prepared, mentally and physically,” he says. “We approached each game like we deserved to be there, knowing that we would eventually wear down the other team. It was the same approach when we played the Soviets. We kept skating and they didn’t have an answer.”
Eruzione gives dozens of speeches each year. He speaks in a thick Boston accent, the audience rapt, every eye fixed on a beloved hero who refutes the idea that winning gold was about any one individual standing out above the others. Sports Illustrated selected the “Miracle on Ice” as the greatest sports moment in history, bigger than Jesse Owens’ gold medal on Adolph Hitler’s home turf, bigger than Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, bigger than any magical moment fashioned by Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or Muhammad Ali. Eruzione knows this when he strides briskly onstage and takes control of a room. It’s clear that he’s immensely proud of what the team accomplished, and he enjoys telling the story as much as the audience enjoys hearing it, but he doesn’t assign himself any special celebrity. Spend any time with him at all and you’ll quickly learn that Mike Eruzione is a lunch pail guy, a hard hat guy, a blue collar guy. He’s never been one to put athletes on pedestals, least of all himself.
“I didn’t have a lot of sports heroes growing up, mainly because we didn’t have a television when I was kid. We never really knew what was going on in the sports world. My uncle always had the radio on, so I’d occasionally listen to Johnny Most when the Celtics were playing, but that was about it. You’d hear a name but you didn’t know much about them, other than they played for the Boston Red Sox, or the Boston Bruins, or the Boston Celtics, or the New England Patriots.
“Back then my heroes were the people that I looked up to, which were the school teachers and police officers in my hometown, because I really didn’t know a lot about the athletes.” – Mike Eruzione
“Back then my heroes were the people that I looked up to, which were the school teachers and police officers in my hometown, because I really didn’t know a lot about the athletes. Bill Russell was someone that I knew about, obviously. My dad would talk about guys like Ted Williams, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, and I admired all of them because of the stories that my father would tell. I remember guys like Gino Capalletti and Babe Perilli because my dad and my uncle would talk about them, too. Carl Yastrzemski is another one, but I was a little older when Yaz was playing, and by then we had television. I think I was around 13 years old at the time, but even then I didn’t really watch a lot of TV. Bobby Orr was someone else that I admired greatly – I was in high school when Bobby came on the scene.”
The winter sport of choice in town during Mike Eruzione’s childhood was basketball. He grew up at the height of the Bill Russell Dynasty, when the Celtics were busy winning eleven NBA Championships in thirteen years. Eruzione has long admired Red Auerbach’s team-first approach, with Russell leading the way and the Celtics putting the collective effort above individual stats and accolades, principles that resonated with him as he transitioned from youth hockey to high school sports, and then later when he survived Brooks’ tryouts in Colorado Springs.
“I was a big fan of Bill Russell and those great teams they had during the Sixties,” Eruzione says. “I went to see the Celtics play years later. A friend of mine had season tickets and I used to go to the Boston Garden with him when Larry Bird was playing. The biggest moment for me came right after the 1980 Olympics, when Red Auerbach and the Celtics contacted me to be introduced at a Celtics game. I actually sat next to John Havlicek – I’d met John at that point through some of the celebrity events that we both attended in Boston. It was unbelievable to be the guest of honor and to be introduced at a Celtics game, especially with Mr. Havlicek, as I called him back then, sitting next to me.
“I would go to a few games a year when Larry Bird played, but over the years I’ve become something of a homebody. I really like sitting at home and watching the games on television, or going down to the golf club or the local bar with my buddies and watching sporting events there. High definition television has changed everything. Back when the Celtics were winning all of those titles in the Sixties and the Celtics were on TV, and I was watching Sam Jones and KC Jones and that whole crew of players, there was no way you could see it like you see it today. Maybe in those days it was better going to the games live, but now it’s so much more enjoyable sitting at home and watching it on the big screen.”
At Winthrop Senior High School, Eruzione was the unquestioned leader of an overachieving team that reached the state tournament. Larry Bird on skates. He was all of five feet six inches and 145 pounds at the time, but his teammates will tell you a disproportionate amount of the weight was heart.
“High school hockey was a good experience for me, because we were one of the first hockey teams in the town – I think we’d only had hockey at Winthrop for four or five years at that point. We were the first hockey team at Winthrop Senior to make the state tournament. That was my junior year. Making the tournament was pretty exciting for the town and for the future hockey, because it helped inspire other kids to play the game. I was fortunate to play with some really good players. High school hockey is like any high school sport – it’s exciting, because you’re representing your town, and you are kind of like the cool kid in school, because everybody knows you’re on the hockey team, or the baseball team, or whatever. You get accepted more easily because everybody knows you.”
Mike Eruzione graduated from high school with a plan, and it didn’t include becoming the spark plug for the greatest upset in Olympic history. He’d been a multi-sport jock at Winthrop Senior High, his world oscillating from shoulder pads to ice skates to baseball bats, and he envisioned more of the same in college. Surely a school would see what he saw in himself and take a chance.
Turns out no one did.
Athletic enough to play collegiately, but not athletic enough to turn heads at the Division I level, Eruzione found himself being recruited by no one. Hustle and heart go a long way at the high school level, but it only gets you so far in the world of big-time college sports. Forced into Plan B, Eruzione decided to prep for college at Berwick Academy in Maine.
“My cousin had gone to Worcester Academy as a post graduate, and the post graduate route struck me as a good idea and a pretty good opportunity,” Eruzione says. “I wasn’t a very big guy coming out of high school – I was about 155 pounds my senior year – and I knew that I needed another year of physical growth if I wanted to play college sports. I also knew that I needed to get another year of academics under my belt if I wanted to make it in the classroom. Berwick provide me an opportunity to do both.
“My goal was to use Berwick as a springboard to go to the University of New Hampshire. I thought that UNH would be a perfect place for me, because I wanted to go to a school where I could play three sports. So I played football, hockey and baseball at Berwick, while dreaming of playing three sports at UNH. Going there was a great decision not only from an athletic standpoint, but from an academic standpoint. It helped me to prioritize education above sports. I was fortunate to go to Berwick Academy.”
Eruzione emerged from that year at Berwick four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier, and optimistic about his chances of landing a scholarship. He’d stayed in touch with the coaches at his dream school, worked hard in the both the weight room and the classroom, and grown more confident after a year spent competing at a higher level of competition. And then, just as he felt that his athletic career was back on track, Mike Eruzione got another dose of reality.
“Like I said, I wanted to go to the University of New Hampshire. The football and baseball coaches both thought I was a pretty good athlete. Unfortunately, the hockey coach didn’t think that I was a Division I player. Well, I’d put all of my eggs in one basket – for me it was the University of New Hampshire or bust. I thought it was a slam dunk. How could they not want me? I was a really good athlete, and two of the coaches liked me, so I just assumed that the hockey coach would like me also. As it turns out, none of the three coaches offered me a scholarship. It was a major wakeup call. The only school that had shown any genuine interest in me was Merrimack College. They were a Division II hockey school at the time, and I didn’t have a lot of options. So I swallowed my pride. I decided that I wasn’t going to be able to play baseball and football. I decided that I’d go to Merrimack and only play hockey.”
It was during the summer of 1973 that Eruzione’s life would change forever, even though there was no way to predict it at the time.
“I didn’t play much hockey during the summer because I played a lot of baseball, but a friend of mine called me and said, ‘A bunch of guys are going to Cape Cod for the weekend, would you be interested in playing some hockey with us?’ And I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone, sure, I’ll play.’ So I went to Cape Cod and played even though I hadn’t been on the ice since hockey season had ended.”
“It turned out that the guy refereeing the game was a guy named Jack Parker. Jack was the assistant coach at Boston University, and after the game he pulled me aside and wanted to know where I was going to school. I told him that I was going to Merrimack, and he said, ‘I remember you from high school, where did you go last year?’ I told him that I went to Berwick Academy, and he goes, ‘We have a kid from Canada that decided not to come to BU, and now we have a scholarship available. Would you like to come to Boston University?’ I went home that night and talked to my dad. He asked me if it was a full scholarship. I explained that it was for $3,500 bucks, which in 1973 was a lot of money, and I told father that I was going to BU. He was happy for me, but he wanted to know if I thought I could play for a big-time program like that. I didn’t hesitate. I told him that I could do it. The next day I went into Jack Parker’s office, sat down with him, and told him I was coming to Boston University.”
Parker, who would retire from Boston University following the 2013 season, capping a 40-season tenure that saw him amass more wins than any hockey coach at the same institution in the country, had just taken over the BU B-team and was scrambling for players. He’d seen Eruzione play before and hadn’t been overly impressed, but came away from that summer league game intrigued.
“The head coach at the time was a guy named Leon Abbott. It was early in the year, and I was playing on the fourth line – we were practicing but the season hadn’t started yet. In those days the season started a lot later than it does now. Well, Leon Abbott ended up getting fired right before Christmas and Jack Parker became the head coach. I went from being the center on the fourth line to second line left-wing and ended up leading the team in goals scored that year. I was very fortunate and blessed to have Jack Parker in my life.”
Eruzione arrived at BU two years ahead of Olympic teammate Jack O’Callahan and three years ahead of Dave Silk and Jim Craig. He would go on to become BU’s all-time leading scorer, with 208 points – averaging more than 20 goals per season – a record that Eruzione is proud of, but one that he doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on.
“The school scoring record means that I played with some good players,” Eruzione says quickly. “In team sports – especially in the sport of ice hockey – you don’t do things by yourself. I had a great center, a kid by the name of Rick Meagher, who was a three-time All-American and just a great, great college hockey player. He played in the National Hockey League for quite a while. I was fortunate to have Rick as my center man, and we kind of hit it off right away, from the first time we stepped on the ice together. He graduated as the all-time leading scorer by one point ahead of me, deservingly so, because he was a better college player than I was. You think of how fortunate you are to play with great players like Rick, and then you can’t help but think about what a privilege it was to play on those teams. When I was at BU we won four straight league championships. We went to the Frozen Four all four years. Unfortunately, we didn’t win it while I was there – and then I graduate and they win the national championship the very next year [laughs]. That tells you something about timing, but again, I was fortunate to play with great players, and anytime anyone gets the distinction of leading a team in scoring, or whatever, it’s because of the people you play with.”
In addition to the scoring record, Eruzione played in 127 consecutive games for the Terriers, never missing a contest in his four years on the team.
“That means I was lucky,” Eruzione insists. “I didn’t get hurt. I’m not a real deep person when it comes to my career and what I did on the ice. I just always did what I was told. The coach wants you to go out and play so you go out and you play. You don’t ask questions. I played as hard as I could every single game. And I guess I was somewhat lucky that I never got bruised up, or banged up, and that I was able to take a shift every time that I played for four straight years. I had some stitches here and there, but hockey players usually tend to play through those. Those types of things weren’t a big issue. I never had any knee problems until after college, at which point I had a couple of games where I got banged up a little and missed a couple of games here and there. But for the most part I was healthy. I wanted to be in the lineup every night and I wanted to play in every game.”
Even though those Eruzione-led BU teams came up short of a national championship, the Frozen Four format back then allowed for a consolation game. Today there’s a quaint nostalgia associated with a contest to essentially determine who finishes third, but talk to Eruzione and it’s easy to see why it has gone the way of the helmetless hockey player.
“I’d like to tell you that we were all excited about playing the game, but both teams were pretty frustrated and pretty depressed by the fact that they didn’t win,” Eruzione says. “I’m not going to say that we went through the motions, but the intensity in the consolation game is nowhere near the intensity in the championship game. I think that most of the players on both teams felt an intense disappointment that they weren’t in the championship game. You still have some pride, and you want to go out there and play as hard as you can, but it was such a letdown to come up short and then go out to see who was going to come out on top in a consolation game. They don’t even do consolation games anymore, and I think it’s because they realized that nobody’s really into playing for third place at that point in the season.”
As college rivalries go, the animosity that existed between the hockey programs at Boston University and the University of Minnesota during the 1970s was as intense as any rivalry in sports. BU had beaten the Gophers for the title in 1971 and had repeated as champions the following year. Minnesota – known simply as “The U” – would win the school’s first national championship in 1974, and grab its second title two years later, both with Herb Brooks as head coach.
“I think most of the intensity between the schools developed out of the tournament format in place at the time,” Eruzione says. “There were regional bragging rights involved. There was a tremendous amount of pride at stake, and to be able to say you were the Eastern champion was a pretty big thing. And then to win a national championship over a Western rival was the ultimate prize. The format has changed and you don’t have that same mentality today. Today, you could have two Western teams meeting in the finals or two Eastern teams could meet. Those teams want to win, sure, but those bitter rivalries don’t exist. When I played, the winners from the East played the winners from the West, so you went into that championship game trying to prove that your league or conference was better than theirs.
The teams would meet in the Frozen Four a total of four times during the 1970s, with none more memorable than the 1976 National Semifinal.
“That game was famous – infamous – for a bench-clearing brawl,” Eruzione says. “It was the frustrating one for us, because that was the year that we thought we were going to win the national championship. We were the number one team in college hockey all year, and we went out to Denver and played against a Minnesota team coached by Herb Brooks, four years before I got to play under Herb on the Olympic Team.
“Three or four minutes into the game a fight erupts, and it went on for what seemed like a good half hour before both teams got settled. If a melee like that happened today, both teams would be thrown out of the tournament. We ended up losing, 4-2, and Minnesota went on to win the national championship. I still look back on it and wonder if that was their game plan all along, to start this big fight to try to get us off our game. If that was Herb’s strategy it worked. It was very frustrating, because it was one of the better teams that I ever played on. That loss was one of the biggest disappointments of my hockey career.”
Despite the hard feelings, Eruzione would come to learn that Jack Parker and Herb Brooks were very much alike in many ways.
“I really didn’t know anything about Herb at that time, other than I knew that he was a very intense coach, similar to my college hockey coach, Jack Parker. I think that Herb was maybe a little more creative offensively, while Jack was more of a stickler for defense and playing both ends of the ice. Other than that, they were pretty much cut from the same cloth.” – Mike Eruzione
“I really didn’t know anything about Herb at that time, other than I knew that he was a very intense coach, similar to my college hockey coach, Jack Parker. That’s how coaches coached in that era. They were very intense. You could see Herb’s mannerisms on the bench and could tell that he was very intense and very demanding. I think they were both very similar. Herb was from Minnesota, and coached the University of Minnesota. Jack was from Boston, and coached at Boston University. Herb played hockey at the University of Minnesota, and Jack played at Boston University. They both had a passion to coach and teach. They were both strict disciplinarians. They were both in-your-face type of coaches. I think that Herb was maybe a little more creative offensively, while Jack was more of a stickler for defense and playing both ends of the ice. Other than that, they were pretty much cut from the same cloth.”
That Eruzione was elected co-captain as a senior at BU again speaks volumes about his leadership.
“My teammates respected me, and my coaches respected me,” Eruzione says. “As I’ve said, I don’t put a lot into things like that. It was nice that I had the title of captain, but it didn’t change me or the way I played or the type of person that I was going to be, or the type of teammate that I was going to be. I think that sometimes people become captains and they change, and they become different, and that’s the biggest mistake that you can make. The reason you’re elected captain is because of who you are as a person. Your teammates will know immediately if you’re not genuine and authentic. It was nice to selected as caption, but again, it wasn’t a huge thing for me.”
~ ~ ~
Each February, Boston’s TD Garden is the site of the traditional showdown between four of the city’s college hockey programs. When Eruzione played, the venue was the old Boston Garden. The Beanpot, as it’s known, has been going strong for more than 65 years, and the tournament has emerged with a lore uniquely its own.
“Growing up in Boston and being able to play in the Beanpot – and being able to play in the Boston Garden, where the Bruins played – was pretty amazing,” Eruzione says. “The building was a complete sellout and packed with hockey fans rooting for one of the four Boston-area schools: Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern. The Beanpot is still going on today, and it’s still held the first two Mondays in February. It’s an impossible ticket to get because of the rivalries of the schools and the bragging rights of the city. It’s a big recruiting tool. To be able to say that you’ve just won the Beanpot is a big selling point for your school. Huge. And for the players, it’s a memory that will last forever. The big thing for me was to be able to play in front of my family and friends. There were some years when I would get 50 or 60 tickets because we had so many people that wanted to come and watch. You always got a little extra excited when those first two Mondays in February came around.”
The first Beanpot drew 5,105 fans. By 1960, the tournament topped 10,000 in attendance. A year later, the Beanpot filled Boston Garden. Eruzione had graduated by the time the Blizzard of ’78 hit, dumping 27.1 inches of snow, postponing the final until March 1.
“I was living in Toledo Ohio at the time, but and I heard stories about it from people that I knew back home. The bus was supposed to drop the team off at the rink so they could get rid of the equipment, but the storm was so bad that the bus couldn’t make it to the BU campus. They had to let them off halfway up Commonwealth Avenue. All the guys got off the bus and went to the campus bar across the street, which is where most of them stayed the night.”
While at BU, Eruzione also played for Team USA at the 1975 and 1976 Ice Hockey World Championship tournaments, giving him his first taste of international competition.
“We were a bunch of college players, along with a couple of ex-NHL players and players who were playing in Europe, so we were in way over our heads. I think the first year we were 0-and-10. The Soviets beat us 13 to 3. We even lost to Poland that year. The losing was difficult to deal with, but for me it was just a great opportunity to represent your country. That was the first time that I had ever put on a jersey that had ‘USA’ across the front. Regardless of the fact that we weren’t very successful on the ice, just to be there and to be able to travel and see the world a little was very exciting. It was also great to meet a lot of guys from different parts of the country. There were a bunch of Minnesota guys on that team, guys like Buzz Schneider. Buzzy and I ended up teammates together later in the Olympics.”
Eruzione then spent two seasons with the Toledo Goaldiggers of the International Hockey League, being named the Rookie of the Year in 1978 while leading the team to the Turner Cup Championship.
“It was a great experience for me,” he says quickly. “It helped me to see a different level of competition that what I’d played against in college. I also learned a lot about how to prepare for an opponent, which really helped me in the Olympics. And I met a lot of great people during my time in Toledo.”
One of those people was Jim McCabe, who centered a line with Eruzione. McCabe led the Goaldiggers to two Turner Cup championships over six seasons, and connected instantly with the player everyone referred to as “Rizzo”.
“He was my winger for half a season,” McCabe says. “We got to be real good friends. He helped paint my house. He’s a great guy and he deserved everything he got. He was very patriotic. I remember him holding his hand on his heart during the National Anthem. Some of us Canadians made fun of him, but we knew that he wasn’t putting on a show. We knew that he loved his country. So for him to be a part of that 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, it couldn’t have worked out any better. I was very happy to see him win the gold medal.”
Herb Brooks had a plan.
He applied for the Team USA coaching job in 1978, fresh off the third of three national championships he would win at The U, and he’d studied the Russian style of play for years. He was obsessed with the beauty of their game, which was predicated on speed and passing, and he’d long admired the way they attacked at every opportunity, wearing down teams by sheer force of will. The Soviets were fast, strong, and above all else, skilled. Brooks knew that beating them would not only take perfection, it would take total commitment and outside-the-box thinking. He also knew that, if given the opportunity, he was as qualified as anyone to flip the script on the Russians.
Brooks may have been supremely confident in his abilities, but there was a problem: He wasn’t the first choice to lead the American men into an Olympic tournament that the Soviets were heavily favored to win. That distinction went to Bill Cleary – ironically, the same Bill Cleary that had cost Brooks a roster spot on that 1960 gold medal-winning team in Squaw Valley. Cleary would ultimately decline the offer, instead choosing to focus on a new coaching gig at Harvard. The decision opened the door for Brooks, who arranged a meeting with Walter Bush, the GM of the 1964 Olympic team Brooks played on, and the head of the Team USA search committee. Bush was keenly aware of Brooks’ résumé, and was impressed by the way he’d inherited a downtrodden program at The U and had quickly turned it into a national power. But Bush was also aware of Brooks’ reputation as a lone wolf, whose my-way-or-the-highway attitude had alienated many. Despite the trepidation, Bush decided to grant an interview.
“Jack Parker also interviewed for the job,” Eruzione says. “They were two of the best college hockey coaches at the time and both had done some amazing things, so I’m sure that it wasn’t an easy decision for the committee to make.”
Brooks arrived prepared. Armed with binders stuffed with details, he presented a radical plan to turn USA Hockey on its head, challenging conventional wisdom on everything from player selection to staffing, conditioning and pre-Olympic scheduling. Most dramatic of all, he wanted the United States to abandon the traditional, linear, dump-and-chase style of hockey that had been popular in North America for decades. The Russians’ style, predicated on speed and weaving, took advantage of the Olympic ice sheet, which was fifteen feet wider than the rinks used in the NHL. Brooks wanted to adopt the same style without sacrificing the physicality of the teams he’d coached. He called this new model a hybrid style – taking the best aspects of the Soviet game and blending it with the best qualities of North American hockey.
Walter Bush and the selection committee walked away impressed not only by the level of detail, but also by the paradigm-changing approach that Brooks was proposing. It was enough to sway the committee in his favor despite concerns that he might be difficult to work with. Two days later, they offered the job to Brooks.
“I don’t think they realized how stubborn Herb was going to be,” Eruzione says with a chuckle. “But once he got the job, he was a man of his word. He said that he was going to do it his way, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Brooks next step was selecting a team. He went to the Second Annual National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1979, where a round robin tournament and championship playoff was being held, to do just that. Sixty-eight of the nation’s best were invited, and it was here that Brooks would select the 26 men who would compete to represent the United States at Lake Placid. While there was plenty of individual talent on the ice, Brooks wasn’t necessarily looking for the most talented players or the most prolific scorers. He understood that all-star teams didn’t win games, especially against the Soviets – the NHL All-Stars found that out the hard way, losing 6-0 against them in a high-profile game at Madison Square Garden the year before. He needed hockey players willing to reconstruct their games to fit his system.
Eruzione fit that mold to a T.
“I had an opportunity to try out,” Eruzione says. “I wasn’t alone – there were a lot of people who had opportunities to make the team, because there were a lot of open tryouts. I just think my past experience – my college career, and what I did when I played in Toledo, helped to get me noticed. I think those were the things that led Herb Brooks to extend an invite to Colorado Springs. There were no guarantees. I got invited along with 68 other guys. We went to Colorado Springs and competed against each other over two weeks, out of which Herb selected selected the players who would vie for a shot at the 1980 Olympic Games. Twenty-six of us made up the team. Unfortunately, only 20 could go to Lake Placid. I was just happy to be one of the 26 who made that first cut.”
The festival ran for two weeks, with Brooks and a nine-man advisory panel assessing the talent assembled in Colorado Springs. Nothing was left to chance. Brooks ran them through grueling skating and stick-handling drills, and had them complete a 300-question test to assess their psychological makeup. That he finalized the roster without consulting the advisory panel sat well with no one, but Brooks refused to budge.
“Herb knew exactly what he wanted,” Eruzione says. “The selection committee didn’t understand what was going on in his head, but he had a very clear vision of what it was going to take to beat the Russians.”
Trimming the roster down to twenty was an early priority, but the more immediate problem facing Brooks was the intense rivalry between the players from Minnesota and Boston University. That 1976 NCAA semifinal brawl was still fresh in the minds of most, and it wasn’t long before the players were trading punches in Colorado Springs.
“The ice was a dangerous place to be those first couple of weeks. There wasn’t much trust, and there was plenty of hostility. Guys were out there looking to even the score for what happened in ’76.” – Mike Eruzione
“The ice was a dangerous place to be those first couple of weeks,” Eruzione says. “There wasn’t much trust, and there was plenty of hostility. Guys were out there looking to even the score for what happened in ’76.”
Brooks responded by giving the players a common enemy: Herb Brooks.
“He was so hard on us that we didn’t have time to worry about settling old scores. He pushed us. He played mind games with us. He kept us wondering whether we were going to make the team. I’m sure it was all part of his plan to bring us together. We couldn’t hate each other if we were busy hating him.”
While Brooks refused to become even remotely connected to the team on a personal level, he did have the foresight to hire an assistant coach with great relational skills. Craig Patrick, a former All-American and Brooks’ teammate on the 1967 U.S. national team, was a perfect counterpoint to the combative, fire and brimstone spewing coach from The U. Easy-going and naturally likable, Patrick quickly forged close bonds with the players. Brooks, on the other hand, kept his emotions behind an impenetrable fortress. He cared about the young men on his roster. He just didn’t show it.
“He absolutely did. He didn’t show it outwardly, but we knew that he cared for us very much,” Eruzione says. “Herb made a conscious decision from the very beginning that he wasn’t going to be close to this team. He didn’t feel that he could get the very best out of us if he was busy trying to be our friend. So Herb stayed away from us. He let us develop a chemistry on the ice and away from it. I think Herb would’ve loved to have been close to this hockey team, but he couldn’t do that and also demand our very best, so he chose to take the path where he was going to stay away. Craig Patrick was our assistant coach, and he was a very, very important part of our success. Herb played the part of the bad cop, and he let Craig Patrick be the good cop.”
Following an August training camp in Lake Placid, Brooks whisked the team away to Europe for three weeks of games that served two primary purposes: Gauge the team’s progress in adopting his hybrid style of play, and steer clear of NHL scouts who might try to poach his roster.
“The NHL training camps were opening up, and Herb didn’t want his players tempted by contract offers. He was paranoid about that. By the time we returned from Europe the camps had opened. Herb thought of everything. He left nothing to chance.”
In the Disney movie Miracle, the turning point when the players drop regional bias and become a family occurs during that European trip. Playing Norway, the Americans slog their way to a 3-3 tie in a game that shouldn’t have been close. Brooks, disgusted with his team’s lack of effort, famously thunders: “If you don’t want to skate during the game, then you’ll skate after it.” He then orders them to the end line, where they skate suicides – Herbies, as they became known – end line to blue line and back, end line to red line and back, end line to opposite blue line and back, and end line to end line and back. The crowd filed out and the Americans skated. The custodians turned out the lights and the Americans skated. On and on it went, Brooks commanding Patrick to blow the whistle time and again, ignoring team doctor George Nagobads’ pleas to stop. In the pivotal scene, Brooks relents only after Mike Eruzione shouts his name and allegiance to country, an epiphany that had been eluding the players due to those bitter college grudges. It galvanizes them. From that moment forward, the Americans play hockey with a common purpose.
“I don’t know that that’s what galvanized the team, especially the way that it was portrayed in the movie. In that scene I didn’t say, ‘Mike Eruzione, United States of America.’ And if I’d thought of it, I would have said it after the first suicide sprint, it wouldn’t have taken an hour and fifteen minutes to figure it out [laughs]. Still, it was probably one of the moments that helped galvanize the team, but I don’t think it was the key moment. For one thing it happened so early – it was in September or maybe October when that took place – but it was definitely one of the teaching tools that Herb used throughout the year that helped to bond our team together.”
The next night, the teams played again.
The United States won, 9-0.
“Let’s just say that we were focused,” Eruzione says with a laugh. “I don’t think any of us wanted to skate Herbies again.”
~ ~ ~
The Americans would grind through a total of sixty-one games between that August training camp and the start of the 1980 Olympics the following February. They played amateur teams in Europe. They played against professional teams in the Central Hockey League. They played a series of exhibition games against NHL clubs – a first for a U.S. Olympic team. Through it all, Brooks continued to refine his hybrid system, with varying degrees of success. Victories over Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Canada provided encouraging signs. The 3-3 tie with Norway ate at him like a cancer.
“The one thing that struck me right away was how innovative Herb was. He changed the way we played the game. He was determined to take a blend of old style hockey and a blend of the European game and combine it together. It was fun. It’s nice to try something completely different – change is good sometimes, and I think for us, as a team, Herb’s blend of the two styles fit our strengths. I loved the creativity that he gave us. The game plan was completely different from anything that I’d been a part of before, and that was exciting and new for me.
In the midst of this, Eruzione was named captain. The son of a sewage plant worker from Winthrop, the player who couldn’t convince a major college program to take a chance, the skater with what scouts considered average speed…was selected by Brooks to be captain.
“I didn’t expect to be named captain,” Eruzione says. “I’ll go back to what I said about being named captain at Boston University – it was nice, but it wasn’t a big thing. I played on an Olympic team in 1980 that had 15 college captains on it. And I can guarantee you that the five who weren’t captains of their college teams were captains of their high school teams. I’ve said over the years that I was a captain among captains. I was just fortunate to play on a team. These guys weren’t just great players, they are great people. It was an honor to be the captain of that team, but like I said, it really wasn’t that big of a deal.”
Eventually, Brooks cut the roster down to twenty, with Eruzione being spared at the eleventh hour, but not before taking the team to hell and back.
“There was also a familiarity to Herb that helped keep me centered, because he was no different than Jack in terms of his discipline and intensity,” he says. “Practices were very intense and very demanding. That’s just the way Herb handled it, and it was clear that that’s the way it was going to be all year. The scenario was that you either dealt with it or you quit. Well, we weren’t going to quit. We were going to do whatever he wanted us to do. We were going to fight through any type of adversity, perform well, and do anything that we could to keep him happy.”
That didn’t stop the players – including Eruzione – from trading horror stories over beers after practice. To them, Brooks was as cold as the ice on which they skated. The Eastern players thought he was being hard on them because they hadn’t played for him at The U. The Minnesota players, who had long lived with his dark and demanding ways, had never seen this level of diabolicalness from their coach. Despite Brooks’ heavy vibe, there were lighter moments; when the team exchanged gag gifts at Christmas before the Olympics, the players gave Patrick a plastic whistle and Brooks a whip.
The prequel played out five days before the start of the 1980 Winter Olympics, on a wintry day in New York City, the Americans and Soviets squaring off in a hockey game at Madison Square Garden. For some of the 11,243 who showed up, the game was about venting political feelings associated with the ongoing war in Afghanistan. For Brooks, the game was about getting the jitters out. He knew his players were in awe of the Russians, and for good reason: Vladimir Petrov, Boris Mikhailov, and Valery Kharlamov constituted the team’s No. 1 line, the best unit in the world. Petrov was 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a nine-time world champion, and one of the strongest players on the team. His weapon of choice was the slap shot, uncommon among Russian players of the day, many of whom favored the wrist shot instead. Mikhailov, the Soviet’s fabled captain, carried himself with a Cold War confidence that permeated every nook and cranny of country’s hockey program. The speedy and smooth-skating Kharlamov, elite in his own right, completed a line that had been together for nine years and had attained unparalleled success.
“It was hard not to be in awe of them,” Eruzione says. “They were almost mythical. They’d skated circles around the NHL All-Stars.”
Behind them was Vladislav Tretiak, long considered the best goaltender on the planet. He was protecting the net during the most dominant era of Soviet hockey, shutting down opponents on the way to gold medals at the 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979 World Championships. He was there when the Soviets won Olympic gold in 1972 and 1976. His reputation was as ironclad as his goal tending. You simply didn’t score on Tretiak.
On the bench was Viktor Tikhonov, Soviet Olympic coach. Tikhonov, known for talking incessantly during games, was Brooks’ equal in terms of his dictatorial coaching style, exercising nearly absolute control over his players’ lives. His teams practiced eleven months a year while being confined to barracks when not on the ice.
The Soviets built a 4-0 lead by the end of the first period. Eruzione put the U.S. on board by scoring a goal on Tretiak’s stick side, but the game was 6-1 by the end of two. After Phil Verchota scored just 3:25 into the third period, making it 6-2, the Soviets responded by scoring three goals in rapid-fire succession. If felt as if they could put fifteen more in the net if they wanted. The final score was is 10-3.
“I don’t mean to sound defeatist,” Brooks was quoted as saying afterwards, “but you’ve got to combine idealism with pragmatism, and practically speaking, we don’t have a chance to beat the Russians. We’ve got 10 kids who could still be playing in college, and they’ve got a team that beat the NHL’s best players last year, a team with half-a-dozen guys from ‘72 still playing.”
After the annihilation, the reclusive Tikhonov surprised almost everyone by agreeing to meet with the press. Hair still cemented in place, he used the time to arrogantly dismiss the Americans.
“We showed what we can do, and they didn’t,” Tikhonov said through an interpreter.
Asked what this game had revealed about his own team’s readiness for Lake Placid, Tikhonov replied: “To know the real strengths of a team, you must play against strong opposition.”
When asked if his team approached the game as nothing more than a glorified scrimmage, and that the Soviet skaters hadn’t tried their hardest, Tikhonov smiled smugly and said, “You are quite correct.”
If the trash talk angered Brooks, he wasn’t showing it. And when it came to his rationale for scheduling this game so close to the start of the Games, he treated it like any of the sixty other games he’d scheduled leading up to the opening ceremonies.
“I told them it doesn’t mean anything,” said Brooks at the time. “It’s our last game of spring training. We’ve played sixty games in this training time, and none of them means anything. Tuesday, it means something.”
For Eruzione, playing the Soviets so close to the Olympics wasn’t about Cold War politics or thinly-veiled mind games, nor was it about overcoming nerves so that they’d be ready to face the Russians when it counted.
“I think it was maybe just Herb trying to get us another game against a real quality team. We didn’t even know if we were going to play the Soviets in the Olympics, so it wasn’t like Herb said, ‘Let’s play them now, so that we can be ready for when we play them at Lake Placid.’ Maybe Herb thought that we needed a pretty good ass kicking, and said to himself, ‘Let’s play the Soviets and we’ll get it.’ I never really asked him about why that game was scheduled. It was something that, when the game was over, it was never really talked about again.”
The field of 12 teams were split into two divisions, with a round-robin format being played and the top two teams in each division advancing to the medal round. The U.S. was placed in the Blue Division, which included Czechoslovakia, Sweden, West Germany, Romania and Norway; the Russians were opposite the U.S. in the Red Division, along with Canada, Finland, Holland, Poland and Japan.
Sweden was the first U.S. opponent, on February 12, the day before the opening ceremonies, and Brooks’ team immediately found itself in a dogfight. Down 2-1 late in the third period, Brooks ordered Jim Craig to vacate the goal in favor of an extra skater. Then, with the Olympic Fieldhouse scoreboard showing 27 seconds remaining, defenseman Bill Baker scored on an improbable slap shot, turning a damaging loss into a valuable tie and setting off a jubilant celebration in the middle of the rink, where it looked like a 19-man human pyramid had just collapsed.
Not everyone was happy. Brooks lashed out at his team between the first and second periods, and was still upset when the game was over.
“I can’t tell you what I said between periods, there were too many bleeps in it,” he would say afterward. “But the essence was, I said if you guys want to play this game effectively you better report out there with a hard hat and a lunch pail. If you don’t you might as well go watch some old men ice fishing.”
Game 2 was played on Valentine’s Day, a day after the U.S. athletes marched in opening ceremonies in cowboy boots, sheepskin coats and blue jeans, competing against a Czechoslovakian team considered to be the second best in the world. The Czechs, skilled and physical, found themselves ambushed by a pack of hungry American wolves. The final score was 7-3. A mostly American and highly energized crowd of 7,125 people fell in love with the U.S. hockey team on the spot, emotions that would play out in living rooms and bars across the country.
“Youthfulness breeds hungriness,” Brooks said in the post-game press conference. “And in my opinion, the hungry will inherit the medals.”
Over in the Red Division, the Soviets were busy taking care of business. They opened with games against Japan and Holland, winning by a combined score of 33-4. Despite their brilliance, it was hard not to notice what the scrappy, feisty American had just done to the Czechs. The kids didn’t just beat them. They trounced them.
“We were clicking on all cylinders,” Eruzione says. “Everyone was playing together, every line was going out and doing its job. Once we got on a roll it felt like we were skating downhill.”
And just like that, the story unfolding in Lake Placid transformed itself into something far bigger than hockey.
~ ~ ~
Heading into Lake Placid, the Russians had not lost an Olympic hockey game since 1968. In the previous four Olympiads, their record was 27-1-1, their goal differential 175-44. In the two decades that had passed since the U.S. team had upset them in Squaw Valley, the Russians had beaten the Americans by an aggregate score of 28-7. Absolutely no one gave Herb Brooks’ team a chance to beat the Soviet Union, but the 7-3 demolition of the Czechs completely changed the narrative. Maybe the Americans could compete with Tikhonov’s hockey machine after all.
Game 3 was against Norway, and the underdog Americans found themselves favored for the first time. It was a role that didn’t sit well with Brooks, and after a sluggish first period in which Norway scored the only goal, it was easy to understand way. Then, just 41 seconds into the second period, Eruzione scored to spark his team to a three-goal second period. The U.S. never looked back, beating the Norwegians, 5-1.
“That was a funny game,” Eruzione recalls. “We started off flat and fell behind 1-0, but in the second period we came out and played with a lot of energy and emotion. That was the difference. When we played without emotion, we were just an average hockey team. It was something that Herb reminded us about all the time.”
Momentum was on the American side when it faced Romania in Game 4. The resulting 7-2 romp put the team at 3-0-1 in the Blue Division, tied with Sweden for first place. The tone was set by the “Coneheads” line of Buzz Schneider, Mark Pavelich and John Harrington, with Schneider getting two goals and an assist, Harrington two assists and Pavelich one.
A game later, the U.S. upended West Germany 4-2 to advance to the medal round. The Americans fell behind 2-0 in the first period when Craig allowed a 70-foot slap shot goal 1:17 into the game, and a 60-foot power-play slap shot goal just 15 seconds from the end of the first period. The U.S. was still down two goals as the game reached the halfway point, and then erupted for two goals in each of the final two periods. Rob McClanahan started the scoring and then netted the game-winner, which came with 1:17 remaining in the final period.
The game was not without a moment of high drama: Eruzione shot hit Craig in the neck during warm-ups and knocked him out cold. Brooks ordered the backup goalie, Steve Janaszak, to start warming up. Craig recovered after a few minutes and went on to play, giving up those two early goals before slamming the door.
“It was a scary moment when Jim went down,” Eruzione says. “Our first thoughts were about his health, obviously, and we were relieved when he came to, because he seemed okay. We had faith in Janaszak to step in if Jim couldn’t play, but it worked out. We gave up those two quick goals and that was it.”
Improbably, the undefeated Americans were 48 hours away from a date with the Russians in the medal round.
~ ~ ~
Players deal with pressure in different ways. For Mike Eruzione did what any good Italian would do: Spending time with family and friends.
“We all hung out at a camp site the night before the game against the Russians,” he says with a smile. “It wasn’t a big deal, really. It was just an opportunity to see my cousin, my high school football coach, my father, and some people who meant a lot to me. I didn’t want to sit in that Lake Placid trailer waiting for the game to begin. I thought it would be a good opportunity to spend some time with some of the people who meant the most to me. It was great to relax, have a few beers, have a hot dog and a cheeseburger, and still make curfew – which I think I might have missed anyway [laughs]. Yeah, I may have been a little late, but I don’t think Herb had to worry too much about me staying out all night partying. It was just a way for me to spend some time with friends and family. It was a lot of fun.”
There was plenty of pressure on everyone by the time the Americans arrived at Olympic Fieldhouse, and Brooks could sense it as his players assembled in the home team’s locker room. For six months he’d been a prick, the man demanded the best from his team at all costs. He’d kept his players at arm’s length, refusing them even the faintest hint of love. Now – if only for this moment – he knew he had to remove the wall long enough for his players to see past his own Iron Curtain. They had to look in his eyes and know that he cared, that he’d been on this journey with them all along. That he’d been so hard on them because of this moment right here.
Brooks walked into the deathly quiet locker room. He wore brown plaid pants and a camel hair jacket, and the look of a man carrying the burden of a great secret. He pulled out a yellow scrap of paper.
“Great moments are born from great opportunity,” Brooks began, and you could hear a pin drop. He paced the room like a panther. When he finally speaks, it’s in short, defiant bursts. “That’s what you have here, tonight. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight.
“One game. If we played them ten times they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can. Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Each and every one of you. You were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great team the Soviets have. Screw ‘em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”
Brooks’ words soaked the nerves out of the room.
“Herb’s speech struck the right chord, because if you’re an athlete and you think you are going to lose, then you probably will,” Eruzione says. “We knew how hard it was going to be, and we knew we had to play really well. We knew we had to play pretty much the perfect hockey game, which I think we basically did. Herb reminded us of that we need to play with maximum effort.”
MIRACLE ON ICE
The Olympic Fieldhouse was jammed to the rafters, easily over its 8,500 seat capacity, the crowd mostly raucous Americans hoping for a miracle. Petrov won the opening draw from Johnson, and the Soviets controlled the puck from the outset. An early shot on goal by forward Viktor Zhluktov tested Craig early, a wrist shot that he blocked and covered up.
The Russians kept up the pressure. When the U.S. didn’t have the puck – which was often in the early going – Brooks had all five skaters collapse into the U.S. zone on defense. Even then, the Americans had trouble keeping the puck away from the net.
“I think we were nervous and excited,” Eruzione says of weathering the early storm. “I think we had every kind of feeling that you can have before a big game, and then there were the butterflies that come at the very start. But we were in the game the whole time, thankfully that’s the way it played out for us, so we never got into a panic situation. We never had the thought of, ‘Oh my God, we’re getting killed out here, what are we going to do?’ So, I think we were very confident. And as the game played on, we were gaining more confidence. Remember that old adage, the one where they put their pants on the same way that we do, one leg at a time? As good as they were, that night we felt that we were just as good, and it turned out that we were maybe just a little better.”
The first U.S. scoring chance came when defenseman Bill Baker and winger Phil Verchota hooked up on the right side, but Tretiak made a sprawling stop to shut down the threat. Back on offense, Petrov surged into open space and ripped a shot wide right. A hooking penalty by Mikhailov gave the U.S. its first power play and a chance to take an early lead, but the Soviets emerged unscathed.
The game was still scoreless, but Tikhonov’s hockey machine was very much in control. Both teams exchanged shots, one by Russian defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov, and one by left wing Buzz Schneider. And then, with just over ten minutes remaining in the opening period, Schneider found himself behind his own net with the puck. As he began to make his move, forward Vladimir Krutov knocked the puck loose. It skidded ahead to defenseman Alexei Kasatonov, who immediately fired a shot in Craig’s direction. Krutov alertly extended his stick and deflected it into the net. There was no celebration when Krutov scored. Krutov simply headed to the bench, a Terminator on skates.
“Krutov’s goal was textbook Soviet hockey. We knew we couldn’t let them get away from us, because that’s what they did to teams. They would score that first goal, and then you’d look up and there would be five more on the scoreboard.” – Mike Eruzione
“Krutov’s goal was textbook Soviet hockey,” Eruzione says. “We knew we couldn’t let them get away from us, because that’s what they did to teams. They would score that first goal, and then you’d look up and there would be five more on the scoreboard.”
The tension in the crowd, already palpable, grew heavier after Krutov’s deflection. A shot by Valery Vasiliev went wide seconds after play resumed, and then a rebound shot by Aleksandr Golikov was blocked by Craig. The Russians were dictating tempo.
“We needed something to change the momentum,” Eruzione says. “That first goal by Buzz really helped to take some of the pressure off of us.”
The goal – a missile off of a pass from Mark Pavelich in open space – caught Tretiak guessing, a rare mistake from the best goaltender on the planet. Schneider’s goal wasn’t the result of Soviet-style artistry – intricate passes, deft skating and quick wrist shots. It was old-fashioned pond hockey, a booming slap shot from far beyond the blue line. The opening was tight, and at a sharp angle. Schneider let it fly. Tie game. The crowd erupted.
The Soviets shrugged off the goal and quickly went back to work. Forward Aleksandr Skvortsov retaliated, getting away with a slash on Schneider. The separation allowed Skvortsov to take a pass from Helmut Balderis, elude Dave Christian and fire a shot at Craig, who kicked the puck away with his skate. Balderis was there to snatch up the rebound, but his shot went wide of the net. Zhluktov recovered the puck and rifled another shot. Baker flung himself to the ice in an effort to break it up. Kharlamov fired a wrist shot not long after, but Craig was up to the task, making a spearing, sprawling stab with his glove.
The game was being played almost exclusively on the U.S. side of the ice, with relentless pressure applied by the Soviets. A twenty-foot Neal Broten wrist shot sent a jolt through the crowd, but Tretiak was up to the task, blocking it away.
With three minutes to play in the opening period, Sergei Makarov found himself with the puck and a shot at the net. Craig kicked it away with his skate, but Makarov wasn’t finished. He attacked hard on the next trip down, slicing between Ken Morrow and Mark Johnson to free himself for a drop pass from Vladimir Golikov. Makarov attempted to pass it back to Golikov, but the puck ricocheted off Morrow’s skate and back to Makarov, who ripped a shot over Craig’s glove in the upper right corner.
And just like that, the Soviets were back on top.
“We knew that they would keep coming at us,” Eruzione says, “and we knew we needed to skate with them. Herb kept reminding us to not let up.”
With less than thirty seconds remaining in the first period, Eruzione shot the puck toward the goal, but the Soviets cleared it into the U.S. zone. Morrow recovered the puck with seven seconds left and dropped it back to Christian, who skated across the U.S. blue line. Morrow screamed for him to shoot. Mikhailov relaxed, if only for an instant, possibly convinced that the Americans didn’t have enough time to score. Christian launched a desperation shot from a hundred feet out, a shot that Tretiak blocked away easily, but also carelessly, the puck rebounding in front of the net instead of into a corner.
Mark Johnson, who had just hopped onto the ice after a late line change, skated as hard as he could to get into position. He was in the right place at the right time when Tretiak’s rebound slid into open space in front of the net. He went after Tretiak, who had skated away from the net, juking instead of shooting, and catching Tretiak guessing, flicking the puck into the net as time expired in the period.
Tikhonov was incredulous. The referees huddled with the timekeeper while Tikhonov argued that time had run out. After several tense moments, it was ruled that the goal had been scored with one second remaining on the clock.
“That was a game changer,” Eruzione says with a smile. “Instead of going into the second period down a goal, we were tied, 2-2. That was huge.”
~ ~ ~
Outplayed by the Russians but tied with them nonetheless, the Americans hurried to their locker room, carried there by the raucous chants from the crowd. They were euphoric. The blowout at Madison Square Garden was but a distant memory, the Soviet intimidation no longer a factor, their air of invincibility punctured. Maybe Brooks had been right all along. Maybe they could skate with the greatest hockey team on earth.
In the other locker room a different story was unfolding. Tikhonov was busy ripping his star goaltender and preparing to bench him in favor of his backup, Vladimir Myshkin. Myshkin didn’t have the same renown as Tretiak, but he had shut out the NHL All-Stars the year before, and he certainly had the game to slam the door on the net. Still, the decision shocked Tretiak’s teammates, who had won at every level behind Tretiak’s otherworldly goal tending. Never mind that Tretiak had a track record of playing better after giving up a goal; Tikhonov had just benched his star player. It was as if Tom Brady had been yanked in a tie game with the Super Bowl on the line.
“We were very surprised when Tikhonov pulled Tretiak,” Eruzione says, “so I can only imagine what it was like for Tretiak’s teammates. Herb pointed it out to us immediately. It gave our confidence another boost.”
With Tretiak parked forlornly at the end of the bench, the second period began with the Valery Kharlamov and John Harrington getting tangled up, Harrington hooking Kharlamov and both of them spilling to the ice. The Russian hockey juggernaut had its first power play. Brooks, well aware that surviving the next two minutes was crucial, countered with speed by sending out Mark Johnson, Ken Morrow, Mike Ramsey and Rob McClanahan. Craig, dialed in, snuffed out Vladimir Golikov’s high shot on the left side. Then McClanahan got in on the action, blocking a shot by Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and trapping it along the boards.
The Americans’ attempt to control the puck was short-lived. Dave Christian passed to Bill Baker, who in turn attempted a dangerous pass to Neal Broten in the middle. The puck was deflected to Krutov, who flipped over to a speeding Aleksandr Maltsev. Maltsev blew past Christian and Baker, closed in on Craig and drilled a shot off the post and into the net. The collision between Maltsev and Craig left Craig sprawled on the ice, woozy, the score off of the power play putting the Americans in the hole yet again.
Three to two, Soviet Union.
“Things were going their way,” Eruzione says. “They were skating fast and scoring goals, but we were hanging with them. We knew we had work to do.”
Craig got up and shook away the cobwebs. He’d play magnificently to that point, but he’d still given up three goals and the second period was barely underway. If the Americans were somehow going to salvage a tie – an outright win still seemed unthinkable – then Craig would have to play perfect hockey the rest of the way.
The first test would come when Aleksandr Skvortsov deflected the puck away from right-winger Eric Strobel, who was trying to clear it from behind Craig’s net. Balderis swooped in with a punch shot. Craig blocked it away with his stick. Zhluktov attempted to put the rebound into the net, but Phil Verchota and Mark Wells were there to stymie the effort.
Rob McClanahan took a perfect pass from Dave Christian, who was streaking up the middle, and drew a bead on Myshkin. The crowd roared. Valery Vasiliev skated back on the play and delivered a check and disrupt the shot, and Myshkin was able to direct it to a teammate.
Several minutes of tense hockey followed. The U.S. controlled the puck out of a face-off in the neutral zone, before it ended up on Krutov’s stick. Krutov made his move, sprinting into the U.S. zone, but Morrow was there to meet him. The violent collision dislodged the puck and stopped Krutov cold, sending Morrow to the ice.
“We wanted them to know we weren’t backing down, that we were going to punch back,” says Eruzione.
Trailing by a goal and being out-shot 3-1, the Americans passed crisply on a sustained possession that came up empty. To this point, Eruzione hadn’t been much of a factor on offense. He crossed the red line with the puck and passed it to Christian, who in turn swept it over to Broten. The crowd, jolted by the rare scoring opportunity, sprang to its feet. Broten’s slap shot missed to the right.
“We weren’t getting a lot of clean looks at the net. Broten’s shot just missed, but we knew we had to put it out of our minds and keep skating.” – Mike Eruzione
“We weren’t getting a lot of clean looks at the net,” Eruzione continues. “Broten’s shot just missed, but we knew we had to put it out of our minds and keep skating.”
The Russians responded by dialing up their own pressure. They were skating at a sprinter’s pace, attempting to wear down an American team that looked vastly different than the young, intimidated squad that provided little resistance at Madison Square Garden. The U.S. skaters hadn’t shown up on that night. At the Olympic Fieldhouse they hadn’t just shown up, they’d brought plenty of pluck and grit and determination with them.
Grit was one thing. Shots on goal was another. The Russians were the best in the world for a reason, and rare was the game where an opponent got off more shots than them. With so few scoring opportunities, continuing to match the Soviet’s energy was critical.
Through all of this, Myshkin remained The Great Unknown. He’d been on the ice for nearly ten minutes, yet he hadn’t been tested. If the Americans could somehow get a clean look at the net, would he be up to the task?
The answer would have to wait. Craig, whistled for delay of game, put the Americans in survival mode for the next two minutes. The power play could have been disastrous, but Mark Johnson was everywhere – blocking Fetisov’s slap shot, getting a stick on Petrov’s close range blast, going down to the ice to disrupt another shot by Petrov.
Five minutes remained in the period.
The two teams continued to go at each other, Craig turning away shots and his teammates doing their part to help him out. Strobel received a pass from Ramsey, speeding past Yuri Lebedev and into open ice. The crowd reacted wildly, but the Russians quickly recovered, forcing a face-off. Broten, Christoff and Eruzione returned, only to see Kasatonov fire a shot that Craig was somehow able to smother. Krutov went after the puck, but Morrow was having none of it; he cross-checked Krutov from behind, a body shot that sent Krutov crashing into Craig, and Craig crashing to the ice. A scrum erupted in front of the net. Morrow and Lebedev went after each other behind it. Craig, meanwhile, lay flat on his back. Steve Janaszak, who hadn’t played a single minute in these Olympics, suddenly faced the very real possibility of having his number called.
“Jim was red hot, and seeing him go down like that was a scary moment,” Eruzione says.
All eyes were on Brooks’ star goaltender. Craig finally pulled himself up to a seated position, flipped the puck to the referee, and then slowly made his way to his feet. After a quick check, he signaled that he was ready to go.
~ ~ ~
Order restored and Craig upright, both Morrow and Lebedev were sent to the penalty box for their roles in the melee and the teams skated four-on-four. Three minutes remained in the period. Brooks elected to go with speed, sending Mark Johnson to take the face-off. He was joined on the ice by McClanahan, Christian, and Baker. Tikhonov countered with Petrov, Mikhailov, Vasiliev, and defenseman Sergei Starikov. Neither team could score. There were under two minutes remaining. Brooks, who had been keeping the shifts short in order to keep fresh legs on the ice, continued shuttling players in and out. The Americans weren’t finding the net, or even getting a clean look, but neither were the Russians. The constant pressure was beginning to take its toll.
~ ~ ~
The teams were back at full strength, and less than sixty seconds remained in the second period. Krutov and Lebedev attacked, the puck on Krutov’s stick, the pass on its way. O’Callahan dove at Krutov to break up the pass. Ramsey dove to disrupt Lebedev’s shot. At the beginning of training camp, Brooks had famously said that the legs feed the wolf.
“I can’t promise you that we’ll be the best team at Lake Placid,” Brooks had told them at the time, “but we will be the best-conditioned team, that I will promise you.”
Both teams were skating hard, the way teams skate during the final, frenzied moments at the end of regulation. Craig absorbed a slap shot by defenseman Vasili Pervukhin. The horn sounded. The chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reverberated throughout Olympic Fieldhouse as Craig skated slowly out of goal, removing his mask as he went.
~ ~ ~
In the locker room, the Americans prepared for the final period knowing that Craig was playing the game of his life. In the first period he had faced 18 shots and had stopped 16; in the second he’d turned away 11 of twelve. Twenty minutes remained. Brooks sensed that the Russians were beginning to wear down. This was the opening he’d preached about since that first day in Colorado Springs. He called Nagobads into his office and handed him a stopwatch.
“We need short shifts,” Brooks told him during that second intermission. “No shift can go more than thirty-five seconds.”
The players in the other locker room were convinced that the Americans had expended too much energy to keep up in the third, and for good reason: The Soviets had owned the third period for more than a decade. Wills were broken in that final period. Box scores were littered with teams that had tried to keep up and had failed, teams that had entered the third with hope and had exited on the butt end of a blowout.
With Nagobads running the watch, the Americans skated full throttle for the 35 seconds and then hopped off the ice, fresh legs replacing spent ones. With just over thirteen minutes remaining, a sense of urgency was beginning to take hold. Myshkin had been in the net for 27 minutes, and yet he’d only faced two shots on goal, and none in the third period.
Krutov fired the puck diagonally across the ice. Neal Broten chased it down along the boards, navigating his way behind the U.S. net, gathering speed, looking for an opening. Krutov gave chase, bumping Morrow before slapping Broten with his stick. The Americans had their first power play since the opening minutes of the game.
“It came at the right time for us,” Eruzione says. “We were tired, but the short shifts helped keep us a little fresher than the Russians. We were out-skating them in that third period.”
In control of the puck, Broten passed to Ramsey who in turn fired a shot at Myshkin. Eruzione tried to knock the rebound into the net, but it bounced wide. Bilyaletdinov slapped it along the boards, where Vladimir Golikov chased it down and raced across the U.S. blue line. Ramsey dropped to the ice to thwart the Soviet’s shot.
The hectic pace of the power play favored the Americans, but there was no organization to their effort. They were running out of time. Baker, behind his own net, passed to Silk, who worked his way along the left side and into the Soviet zone. Vasiliev met him there, going low to the body and dislodging the puck from Silk’s stick and sending him down to the ice. Somehow, Silk managed to get a stick on the puck and pushed it toward Mark Johnson, who was waiting in front of the Soviet net. Starikov tried to control it, but the puck bounced off his skates and into Johnson’s wheelhouse. Johnson wasted no time. He fired the shot at Myshkin, who was late to react. He dropped down, legs split, the puck sliding through and into the net.
Three to three.
Olympic Fieldhouse was deafening. Brooks thrust both arms overhead, fists clenched, exalting in his team’s effort. Tikhonov barked orders and wore a look of shock on his face. With just over ten minutes in the game, Harrington dug for control of the puck along the boards. It trickled over to Pavelich, who flicked the puck to the middle of the ice as he was falling down. Eruzione, who had just come on, skated over and caught up to it, wasting no time going on the attack. From twenty-five feet away, he rifled a wrist shot at the net, his line mates, Broten and Christoff, still making their way onto the ice. Vasili Pervukhin went down to block it. Myshkin hunched low and tried to pick up its flight. The puck was on him before he could react, whizzing between his right arm and his body, landing safely in the net.
Eruzione threw up his arms and ran along the boards, dancing joyfully, the crowd erupting. Al Michaels leaned into the microphone and shouted: “Now we have bedlam!”
The entire team raced onto the ice to celebrate. Brooks again thrust his arms overhead. A tight-lipped smile began to form until his suppressed it. He hitched up his pants and savored the moment. Tikhonov stood in silence, trying to process what had just happened.
On the clock, exactly ten minutes remained.
~ ~ ~
Behind for the first time, the Soviets began to play with a sense of urgency that they hadn’t shown all night. A shot from Maltsev hit the outside of the right post and ricocheted away from the net. Another Maltsev shot went wide. Vladimir Golikov flew in on the left and backhanded a shot at the net, but Craig blocked it. Aleksandr Golikov fought hard for the rebound, checking Schneider into the boards. The Soviet attack was suddenly blast furnace hot. Jim Craig was under siege.
“As a team, we just continued to do the things that we were doing throughout the game,” Eruzione says. “Herb kept saying the same thing to us many times: ‘Play your game.’ ‘Play your game.’ And that’s what we did. It was just a case not getting too high or too low, but rather consistently doing the things that we were doing throughout the game that put us in the position to have the lead.”
Eight minutes remained. Ramsey hurtled toward Kharlamov on the boards and leveled him. Kasatonov got his stick on the puck and fired. Craig gloved it. Petrov let loose with a shot from sixty feet. Craig kicked it away.
“Play your game. Play your game,” Brooks kept repeating, this over the din of the crowd.
“You didn’t hear anything when you were on the ice,” Eruzione says. “The only thing you heard out there was a teammate looking for a pass, or Herb yelling for us to change up. The only time you heard the chants of ‘USA! USA!’ , was when you were on the bench, maybe, and sometimes you weren’t even listening to it then because you were so focused on what was going on in front of you. It’s amazing how you can block things out – not so much intentionally, but because you’re so into the moment. I remember being dialed in and prepared for when Herb Brooks screaming out ‘You’re up for the next line change.’ So, other than the odd occasion, I don’t remember the chants so much as I remember Herb screaming out instructions and keeping us focused on the task at hand.”
Five minutes remained.
The chants continued as Nagobads continued to track time on his stopwatch, players shuttling on and off the ice, the Russians desperately trying to manufacture a goal. Lebedev shot a pass across the ice but Pavelich beat everyone else to it, dictating tempo. Harrington pulled the trigger on a shot. Myshkin gloved it.
The Americans were swarming. The Russians were panicking.
Tikhonov froze. The situation called for an extra skater, but Tikhonov didn’t pull Myshkin. Mikhailov moved the puck to Bilyaletdinov, who shot it along the boards. Petrov managed to blast another slap shot, but Craig kicked it away.
Kharlamov flipped the puck, but Johnson got to it first. He passed it in the direction of Ramsey, who slammed into Bilyaletdinov. McClanahan raced to the corner, beating Kharlamov to the puck, and backhanded it along the boards to Johnson. With nine seconds remaining, Morrow cleared the puck, hitting Silk in the arm.
Five seconds. Four. Three.
Silk swiped at the puck. Johnson pushed it out of the U.S. zone. In the ABC booth, Al Michaels immortalized the moment: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The horn sounded.
The celebration that followed was one for the ages, a joyful release of emotion eight months in the making. Players raced over to Jim Craig, swallowing him whole. Assistant coach Craig Patrick joined them on the ice. Nagobads, too. In the stands, rapturous jubilation. Brooks? Nowhere to be found. He rushed past a pair of tearful state troopers and disappeared into the locker room. Once there, he locked himself inside a dilapidated toilet stall and cried.
~ ~ ~
There was still another game to be played.
The Americans would beat Finland, completing the miracle and winning the most improbable gold medal in Olympic history.
“Two things stand out for me after all of these years,” Eruzione says. “First, we didn’t go to the Olympics to win one game. We had to win a lot of games even before that game against the Russians just to get to the medal round. We played Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and West Germany. Those were huge hockey games for us to win. If we don’t win any of those we’re not even thinking about the Soviet Union. Second, the practice that we had after the Soviet game was one of the hardest practices that we had all year. I think Herb was just making us aware that we had another game to play. And I think as a team, we realized that. We had no problem getting ready to play against Finland on Sunday.”
Eruzione cherished the moment back then, and he still cherishes it today.
“I think we take great pride in that, because it’s the Olympic Games and you are representing your country. This is not Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles, and I think that’s what separated our moment from other great sports moments in other sporting events. It wasn’t about a city or a town, it was about our country, and I think that’s what makes the Olympic Games so special. When we put that jersey on we’re representing our country, and the people who support us feel as if they’re competing with us, too.”
Time marches on. Eruzione keeps in touch with his teammates, some more than others. Regardless of how often they see each other, their bond remains unbreakable.
“I don’t see Jim that often – he’s down in Tampa now – but I played one year with Jim at Boston University and he was a solid goaltender and a good teammate. But that’s what makes this team so special. We had a team of great teammates. It wasn’t me, or Jim, or Mark Johnson. It was about 20 guys, and everybody had to do something for us to win, whether it was Mark Johnson scoring every possible big goal that we needed, or Kenny Morrow and our defense making great plays, or Jimmy making big saves at the net. Teams win championships, and that’s what we were.”
The weeks and months that followed were a blur. The Sports Illustrated cover shot, the instant celebrity…Eruzione enjoyed the doors that opened but didn’t let it change him. He was still the same Italian kid from Winthrop, blue collar and hardworking, humble to a fault.
“It was crazy. I traveled around quite a bit. I did a lot of speaking engagements, some golf tournaments, got to do a bunch of TV shows. It was a whirlwind tour, but it was pretty exciting. It’s been a great adventure over the years, and still is today – I’ve gotten to go to places that I had never been to before, and I’ve met a lot of incredible people along the way. I’m very blessed to have been a part of that team.”
Not a day goes by that Eruzione isn’t asked about what happened in Lake Placid all those years ago. Not that he minds. He’s long since grown comfortable with the fact that he’ll always be remembered for one thing.
“Beating the Russians and winning gold means that we accomplished everything that we’d worked so hard for all year long. We had six months of grueling training and countless hours of practice, and to have everything come to fruition at the end is a very proud of feeling. I look back on it and know that it’s such a special part of my life. It’s something that I’m very fortunate to have been part of.”
On August 11, 2003, Herb Brooks died in a single-car accident near Forest Lake, Minnesota, on Interstate 35. He was returning home from a golf tournament and fundraiser for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s believed that he fell asleep behind the wheel. An estimated 2,500 people visited the Cathedral of St. Paul six days later to pay their respects, among them the twenty men that he coached to glory in 1980. This was only the second time the entire team had been together since February 25, 1980, when they left Lake Placid for the White House, their worlds forever changed. They came to honor the complicated man who’d pushed them to be the very best. Eruzione stood in the pulpit and delivered a eulogy. It was unscripted, plainspoken, from the heart. He spoke on behalf of all the players when he said that Brooks was like a father whom you love deeply but don’t necessarily like all of the time because of how hard he was on you.
“I was on a plane coming back from New York when I learned what had happened,” Eruzione says. “The plane landed, and when I turned my phone on I had fifty-something messages. My heart jumped into my throat, and my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, something’s happened to my wife or kids or something’s happened at home.’ I saw the first message and called the guy back, and he said, ‘I’m so sorry about your loss.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘You don’t know?’ That’s when he told me that Herb had been involved in a terrible car accident and had died. I was in shock. Our team had experienced nothing but great moments up until that point. It was very hard. Herb was a young man. He had grandkids, and he was still coaching with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time. He had a lot of good years ahead of him. It was very sad.”
~ ~ ~
Much has changed for Mike Eruzione – “Rizzo” to those who know him best. He’s older now, thicker, but in many ways he hasn’t changed a bit. The world’s become a more complicated place, and the people in it connected in ways that he couldn’t have even fathomed in 1980. Fax machines have given way to cloud computing, telegrams to email, word-of-mouth to social media. For Eruzione, times may change, but some things never go out of style.
“Work hard for your dreams. I’ve never met a person who is successful because they were lucky. People are successful because they have a work ethic – what I like to call old-fashioned values. If you want something you have to work for it. I think those are things that my dad taught me at a young age. My dad worked three jobs, and he always said to me, ‘If you understand the value of hard work, you are going to be successful.’ So when I travel and do speaking engagements, I talk about that a lot. To me hard work is the most important key to success.”