The anniversary of a Miracle

Twenty-five years today, the U.S. Olympic team shocked the Soviets and the world.

By wire services
Published February 22, 2005

Mike Eruzione is 50 years old. Half his lifetime ago, he scored the winning goal as the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union 4-3 and the Americans went on to win the gold medal in the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The fact that feat still resonates, a quarter-century later, is perhaps the biggest miracle of all.

As the 25th anniversary of the upset - named the greatest sports moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated - is marked today, Eruzione keeps waiting, in wonder, for the day it fades from the nation's consciousness. It hasn't happened yet.

Corporations booked Eruzione for 110 speaking engagements last year, and 45 in the first three months of 2005.

Goalie Jim Craig, his 1980 image frozen in a flag and looking for his father, is on a speaking tour full time.

The team lit the Olympic flame at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The well-received movie Miracle, released last year, prompted goose bumps for a whole new generation. The team got together and walked the red carpet the night the movie premiered in Los Angeles.

"Kids that weren't born walked out of the theater just as jazzed up as the people (back) then," said Rob McClanahan, the team's erudite and bruising forward.

The message echoes, especially now. The silver anniversary of the U.S.-Soviet game on Feb.22, 1980, comes less than a week after the NHL's season was first canceled, then possibly salvaged, then canceled again due to a labor dispute.

"Perhaps everybody at that level that's involved in that taffy pull between the owners and the players needs to go back 25 years, take a look at the landscape and be a little more thankful, be a little more humble, and sit down and work those details out so they can bring hockey back," said 1980 defenseman Jack O'Callahan, the day before the plug was pulled on the NHL season.

In 1980, players were trying for a medal, but were also playing for something else - to prove they were good enough for the NHL, a league dominated by Canadians who felt American players were a step below.

Thirteen of the 20 U.S. Olympians from 1980 wound up playing in the NHL. Two of them, defenseman Ken Morrow and forward Neal Broten, won Stanley Cup titles. Future American players benefited in the NHL draft, the Olympians say.

Unlike today's millionaire players, most of the 1980 Olympians didn't make enough money to retire when their NHL careers ended. Now they are Realtors, investment bankers, options traders, a dentist, pilot, coaches and real estate investors and salesmen.

In 1980, future earnings were not on their minds. When the U.S. team of mostly college, mostly amateur players beat the world's best in the Soviets, people remember where they were when they heard.

It wasn't just that the U.S. team had been seeded seventh of 12 teams in the Olympic tournament. Or that the Soviets, each of whom could actually grow a beard, had won every gold medal since 1964 and featured legendary names such as Vladisov Tretiak and Boris Mikhailov. Or that they had hammered the same U.S. team 10-3 days before the Games at Madison Square Garden, and also defeated the NHL All-Star team.

Or that coach Herb Brooks, who died in a car crash in August 2003, felt his team was so intimidated by the Soviets he had to find unusual ways to motivate.

People reacted so emotionally because they needed something to feel good about. American hostages were being held in Iran. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and President Carter was threatening a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Eruzione has made a career of talking, but it's when he listens that he's humbled most by what happened 25 years ago.

Vietnam war veterans, spat on when they returned home, tell Eruzione they saw the U.S. team win and finally felt good about the country they had fought for.

But it's the sons that get to Eruzione most. Guys come to him after his speeches and describe how they sat with their dads and watched a hockey game become a fairy tale.

"Guys will say to me, "I was 15 years old and my dad sat in the chair and he was crying and crying,"' Eruzione said. "And I couldn't figure what it was all about, but now I realize it."