The captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s ice hockey team hears the same line wherever he goes.
“I walk through an airport and somebody will say, ‘Hey, Mike Eruzione, do you believe in miracles?’”
“You know, I never thought it was a miracle,” Eruzione said of Al Michaels’ famous call after Team USA defeated the mighty USSR 4-3 at the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980, “but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right. I thought Al’s best call, which I thought got lost in this whole thing, was, ‘This impossible dream comes true,’ when we beat Finland.”
In that game two days later, Team USA came back from a 2-1 deficit to beat Finland 4-2 and claim one of the most improbable gold medals in U.S. Olympic history.
“I’m talking about this was a dream that we had as players to go to the Olympic Games and win a medal,” Eruzione said, “let alone have a chance to win the gold medal.”
And yet it’s the Feb. 22, 1980, game against the Soviet Union, which became known as the “Miracle on Ice,” that people remember. Sports Illustrated called the upset win the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.
Eruzione scored the game-winning goal with 10 minutes left and Team USA held on, thanks to goaltender Jim Craig, who finished the game with 36 saves.
“I still think to this day people think we only played one game, that the only game we played was against the Soviets,” said Eruzione. “People didn’t know that if we lost or tied Sunday against Finland we could have come in fourth place and not even won a medal, depending on the circumstances of other games.”
Sharing Their Stories
Now a popular public speaker, Eruzione said people tell him what the victory over the USSR meant to them. Those who weren’t born in 1980 talk about the movie “Miracle,” which came out in 2004 and starred Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks, the demanding Team USA hockey coach.
“For some it was a hockey victory and for some it was a political meaning,” Eruzione said. “I guess we brought a lot of pride back to a country that was looking for something, and it happened to be us.”
The nation was in the midst of a hostage crisis in Iran and the economy was struggling with long lines for gasoline.
Eruzione said people will tell him, “I remember where I was when we won.”
“And I always say, ‘We? I didn’t know you were on the team,’” said Eruzione, who said he didn’t see a tape of the game until years later and has only watched it two or three times in its entirety. He’s never watched any of the other games.
“But people felt a part of it, and it’s nice to know 40 years later … that people remember and share some great stories about what we did so long ago.”
At Radio City Music Hall, the Christmas show featuring the Rockettes was stopped so the score could be announced. When skiers at a resort in Vail, Colorado, found out, they lit candles and went down the slopes carrying their candles.
Members of the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team celebrate their win over the USSR at the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980 on Feb. 22, 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The Voice Of The Miracle
Michaels earned the plum position as play-by-play man because ABC’s “Mount Rushmore of announcers” including Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson and Jim McKay had never called a hockey game. He had – one game – at the Sapporo Games eight years earlier.
“I’ll think back upon it always as it galvanized the country,” Michaels said of the iconic moment he helped name. “It was an event that brought people together.”
And Michaels, who is now an NBC announcer, said he never tires of talking about it. “It brings so much joy to so many people to this day,” he said.
Michaels said he didn’t plan what he would say if the U.S. pulled off the upset. He was just trying to call the game alongside Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden.
With six or seven seconds to go, Michaels said, the puck came out to center ice, “and now the game is going to be over. The Soviets have no time to mount a last rush. And the word that popped into my head was miraculous… and it got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went.
“It was from my heart. It had nothing to do with what it meant to the country or anything beyond sports, but as somebody who’s loved sports since I was 5 years old, this was a gigantic, gigantic upset.”
Sandy Caligiore, the play-by-play voice for WNBC radio in nearby Saranac Lake, New York, also made a call for posterity. As the game ended, he proclaimed, “I can’t believe it! This is a miracle!”
“Al and I were on the same wavelength,” said Caligiore, who still lives in Lake Placid and handles pubic relations for USA Luge. “It was the biggest thing to happen here. It was the biggest thing to happen, period.”
Caligiore said the “very vocal and rabid home crowd” in the arena, which held about 8,500, helped the American team. “If everybody who said they were at the game that night were actually there, it would have been 75,000 people in the building,” he said.
David vs. Goliath
Going into the Games, the Soviet Union had won four straight Olympic gold medals. Team USA’s best finish over that stretch was fifth in 1976 and also in 1964, when Brooks was a member of the team.
And now the Soviets were bringing a veteran team while the U.S. fielded an all-star collegiate team composed solely of Olympic rookies. Many were from Minnesota, where Brooks coached before taking on the Olympic assignment, and they were bitter rivals with players from schools such as Wisconsin, Boston University and Bowling Green.
Eruzione said Brooks came up with the idea of “us against him.”
“He thought it would be best suited if he was the bad guy, if everybody hated him, and that bonded our team together,” Eruzione said, but he hastened to point out, “There were a lot of times we didn’t like Herb, but there was never once a time we didn’t respect him.”
The strategy worked with Brooks as “bad cop” and assistant Craig Patrick as “good cop.”
Brooks made sure the players were in top-notch condition and also stipulated that the team play dozens of exhibition games starting in September 1979 to get ready.
“Frankly, I don’t think anybody really knew after the 61 exhibitions how good they were,” said Mike Moran, then the director of communications for the United States Olympic Committee.
“The consensus was it was going to be a good team. They had (Brooks’) style down. They certainly had his conditioning down.”
However, a week before the Games, Team USA met the Soviet Union in Madison Square Garden and lost by a dispiriting score of 10-3.
“I think our players were absolutely cowed by the Soviets,” Moran said. “It wasn’t as weird as the Angola basketball players going over to get the Dream Team’s autographs in Barcelona, but they kept staring at the Soviets out of the corner of their eye. I can’t help thinking Brooks was pleased with the outcome.
“I think it fed into his grand design.”
In Lake Placid, Team USA roared through the round robin in its division.
Bill Baker scored to tie Sweden 2-2 in the opener, a goal that Eruzione said was “huge,” its significance “lost in the shuffle.” Team USA then defeated Czechoslovakia 7-3, Norway 5-1, Romania 7-2 and West Germany 4-2 (after trailing 2-0) to place second in the group behind Sweden.
When ABC realized that the United States would meet the Soviet Union, the top team in the other division, at 5 p.m. in the final round, the network tried in vain to switch the game to 8 p.m.
ABC offered money to the Russian hockey federation, Michaels said. “We were willing to pony up, but maybe they wanted more and at a certain point ABC finally had to stop.”
The decision was made to show the game on tape delay at 8 p.m. since a live game at 5 p.m. would not draw as many viewers.
However, with no internet or social media, Michaels said “you could truly keep a lot of people in the dark as to what the result was.”
And many people still insist they watched it live.
“Remember the U.S. is trailing three separate times, 1-0, 2-1, 3-2,” Michaels said. “As it turns out, the U.S. had been out-shot 39-16, so the Soviets really dominated so much of the game, and there was never a moment where I really felt, ‘Hey, the U.S. could win this game.’”
Caligiore said he didn’t think that crossed the Soviets’ minds either. “You could tell the Soviets weren’t really taking this team seriously,” he said. “They had a 2-1 lead late in the first period and as the clock is expiring, the Soviets all were skating toward the players bench leading to the locker room. And Mark Johnson skated past them in the opposite direction and picked up the puck and scored with a second to go to tie the game.”
Jim Craig slides to save a goal against the USSR at the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980 on Feb. 22, 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“Play Your Game”
Vladislav Tretiak, considered the greatest goalie in the world, did not start the second period, replaced by Vladimir Myshkin, also a venerable goaltender who was in the net when the Soviets beat the NHL All-Stars 6-0.
“It didn’t matter to us,” Eruzione said. “We were never concerned about what other teams were doing. If you ever watch the games, you’ll hear Herb say constantly, ‘Play your game. Play your game.’ In the Soviet game and the Finland game, he said it a thousand times.”
Despite penalties in the second period, Team USA trailed by only a goal. Johnson tied it at 3-3, and then Eruzione scored to take the lead.
“With exactly 10 minutes to go, ‘Whoa, holy mackerel, is this possible?’” Michaels said. “And then at that point the crowd is just going out of its mind.”
Caligiore said the Soviets were “completely unprepared” for the situation.
“At the end of the third period, when they’re trailing 4-3, they did not even pull the goalie,” he said. “They had no idea that this was going to happen.”
Moran rushed to the local high school, which housed the media center, to get ready for the press conference. Although he knew Brooks had not been allowing the players to give interviews during the tournament, he wasn’t expecting the blackout to continue.
Moran asked for Brooks, Eruzione, Johnson and Craig.
One of his assistants reached him by walkie-talkie and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but (Brooks) is not going to make anybody available.”
With the 600-seat auditorium filling up, Brooks eventually relented. He sent over Patrick and Steve Janaszak, the backup goalie who had not played.
“The mood in the room was not happy,” Moran said. “We all knew at that point this was a seminal moment in American sports history and a huge story and yet we had no access to these people.”
The next day, Walter Bush, president of the U.S. hockey association, and USOC officials pressured Brooks to allow media to talk to players for half an hour after practice.
Moran said that when he introduced Brooks as a guest speaker at the 1992 Olympic Assembly in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Brooks said, “Before I start, I want to tell you something, Mike. You were part of the group that made me make the team available on Saturday. We came out slowly (against Finland). We were behind 2-1. We were playing like dogs. If we lost that game, it would have been on you.”
“I didn’t know quite how to take that,” Moran said.
Pep Talk For the Ages
Eruzione said he and his teammates “very rarely” talk about the Olympics – “When we get together we don’t talk about what happened in Lake Placid, we talk about our lives today and what we’re doing and where we’re going” – but over the years they’ve discussed what Brooks said in the locker room before the final period against Finland.
“Herb walked in, he stood in the middle, he pointed his finger and said, ‘If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your grave,’ and he walked out,” Eruzione said. “He stopped at the door outside the locker room, he pointed his finger and he said, ‘Your grave.’ And clearly there were a couple of words in front of ‘grave.’
“But he was so right. To come so far, to work so hard and for us to accomplish so much, to let it slip away would have stayed with us forever. We did not go to Lake Placid to win one game. We went there with the hope and dreams of winning the whole tournament – and we were 20 minutes away from that.”
Phil Verchota broke the 2-2 tie and Rob McClanahan, set up by Johnson, scored the winning goal.
“I think the third period against Finland was the best 20 minutes that we played throughout the whole Olympic Games,” Eruzione said.
Had Team USA lost, Moran said, “I think that emotionally it would have been one of the most crushing moments in our Olympic history.”
Instead, he said, “The gold medal had a cathartic effect on the American public for weeks. The response was incredible. When we took that team to Washington, on the bus ride from the airport to the White House people were lined up on the streets. I remember this one sign, ‘U.S. Olympic hockey team – best thing on ice since vodka.’”
Caligiore said he saw a bumper sticker that said, “Free the hostages or we’ll send in the hockey team.”
The Flame Lives On
At the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002, the members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey Team had the honor of lighting the cauldron.
Players will gather in Las Vegas today for a reunion. Sadly, Brooks was killed in an automobile accident in 2003 at age 66 while team member Bob Suter died of a heart attack in 2014.
“I wish more of my teammates were recognized for what they did,” Eruzione said, “because it wasn’t three of us or four of us – it was 20 players, two coaches, the doctors, the trainers. Everybody in two weeks in Lake Placid put forth an effort that was amazing and spectacular that led to us winning.”
He believes that the underdog nature of the story appeals to everyone.
“I just think it’s something they can look at and can think that, ‘If they did it, I can do it or we can do it,’” said Eruzione, who still gets “a ton of letters” from people asking for autographs.
Teams watch the movie “Miracle” for motivation before big events “so it’s become somewhat of a rallying cry for teams when they’re faced with challenges,” Eruzione said.
Three of his grandchildren, ages 5, 6 and 7, skate at the Mike Eruzione Center in his hometown of Winthrop, Massachusetts.
“They don’t even know who Mike Eruzione is, but they know about the ‘Miracle,’” he said. “They know about this moment.”
Eruzione believes that by knocking off the Soviet Union – which went on to win the Olympic gold medal in 1984, 1988 and 1992 – American college players proved they deserved to play in the National Hockey League.
“Maybe we opened the door and today’s players have knocked it down,” he said. “But I also tell players we were a hell of a lot better than people thought. Kenny Morrow won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders. Neal Broten, Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian played 15, 16, 17 years in the National Hockey League. So you know, we weren’t a goofy bunch of guys that got together.
“Herb used to call us the ‘lunch pail hardhat’ group of guys, but we had some talent. We had some skills. And Craig Patrick (was) a great coach who put everything together. I just want people to know that our team was — we were pretty good.”