Sports

Mike Eruzione remembers when US hockey knocked off the Soviets in the 'Miracle on Ice'

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Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters
Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 gold medal winning US Olympic ice hockey team, poses next to the jersey and uniform he wore when the US defeated the Soviet Union in what is known as the "Miracle on Ice" at Heritage Auctions in New York City, February 22, 2013.

Everybody loves an underdog story, especially when it comes to sports at the highest level.

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You could easily argue it doesn’t get much better, from an underdog point of view, than the US Men’s Olympic hockey team's unlikely victory over the Soviet Union at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., back in 1980.

It’s a game that will forever be known as The Miracle on Ice, after ABC broadcaster Al Michaels’ famous question at the end of the game as the final seconds ticked away: “Do you believe in miracles?

I was nine years old at the time, watching the game on television; and I can tell you that I screamed the answer to Michaels’ question right along with the rest of America: “YES!”

Now, I’ve forgotten a heck of a lot of things in the past three decades. But one thing that's been seared in my brain since I was a kid is that moment in the third period of the game when Mike Eruzione, the captain of the US squad, slammed the puck past the Soviet goalie to give the US its first lead of the game.

I remember the way Eruzione danced on the tip of his skates until he was mobbed by his team mates. Along with an entire nation, I sweated through the remaining minutes as US goalie Jim Craig swatted away every ensuing Soviet shot on goal, ensuring the Americans a 4-3 victory.

So imagine my delight when I turned around here in the newsroom a few days ago, and Mike Eruzione was standing there. He came in to do an interview with another BBC program, but luckily had a few minutes for me.

I started by telling him what a seminal memory The Miracle on Ice was for me, that despite the fact I was so young at the time, and didn’t understand Cold War politics, I knew — somehow — that the game against the Soviets was more than just a game.

Eruzione laughed.

“People will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I remember where I was when we won that game.’ And I say we? I didn't know you were on the team.

“But that's what it felt like for people,” Eruzione said. “Around the country, and for others around the world, it was a good versus evil thing. But for us, it was just a hockey game. It wasn't going to solve the world's problems."

For Eruzione himself, who is from Winthrop, Mass., just outside of Boston, it capped off an unlikely personal path to Olympic hockey glory.

“I think you'll be surprised. I played more baseball in my life than I played hockey. And my real passion in high school was football. And I just kind of fell into hockey in high school, and then played at Boston University.”

After he graduated, Eruzione didn't go pro. For two years, he kept his amateur status so that he could try to make the Olympic team.

He remembers that 80 players were invited to the try-outs, which were gruelling. Eruzione made the initial cut down to 26, and then survived again when the team was whittled down to 20.

For that Olympic squad, the Soviets were far from their minds when they went to Lake Placid.

“The Soviets were in the other division. So we weren't even thinking about the Soviets unless we got to the medal round. In order to get to the medal round, we had to finish first or second in the division.”

“Well, in our division we had Sweden, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Norway and Romania. And Norway and Romania were the only two countries people thought we could beat. We weren't supposed to beat the other ones. But we did.”

And that's how the US team found themselves down 3-2 to the Soviets in the third period of that famous game, before Mark Johnson tied it up for the Americans, and then Eruzione scored the go-ahead goal.

One thing that continues to puzzle Eruzione: people forget that the victory over the Soviet Union was only a semi-final match-up, a stepping stone to the gold medal game against Finland, which the US went on to win 4-2.

“I've always told people, and they think I'm crazy, 'boy if we'd have lost to Finland and not won the gold medal, that would've been disheartening,'” Eruzione says. “As great as the Soviet win was, we didn't go to Lake Placid to win one game.”

But, let’s face it. It’s the ONE game that people remember, and in hindsight, Eruzione can see why.

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. The American economy was in the tank, and US citizens were still being held hostage in Iran. An upset victory over the Soviets was a welcome thing, a bit of good news.

“I think in 1980, Americans were looking for something to feel good about, and that happened to be us,” Eruzione says. “We showed that despite the obstacles and the odds, we can do anything.”

Now look at US Olympic hockey, Eruzione says. Both the men and women (there was no women’s team in 1980) are headed to compete in Russia. The Soviet Union doesn’t even exist anymore. And both US teams, Eruzione notes, are headed there as favorites, not underdogs.

When I ask about the heavy security around the games in Russia, he tells me "it's a sad commentary about the world we live in." It makes the Lake Placid games, he says, seem especially quaint in comparison.

Eruzione, who has been to many of the Winter Games since Lake Placid, says he's not going to Sochi. He says it's too long a trip, and he's too busy with speaking engagements. Besides, he says, he'd rather watch the games on television from the comfort of his home, surrounded by his kids and grandkids.

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