• Sal Maiorana

Even at 40 years, the Miracle on Ice never grows old

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (Feb. 22, 1980) – If Mike Eruzione could have heard Al Michaels asking the world, “Do you believe in miracles?’’ he surely would have said “yes’’ before Michaels answered his own question seconds after the United States’ never-to-be-forgotten ice hockey victory over the Soviet Union became a reality.

“I certainly believe in miracles because I lived through one,’’ Eruzione said years after captaining the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to the gold medal at the 13th Winter Games.

But Michaels definitely beat the more than 10,000 fans crammed into the Olympic Field House, as well as the millions who were watching the tape-delayed semifinal game against the mighty Russians on television.

It seemed like minutes after the final buzzer sounded before anyone would truly dare believe it had happened. Sure, the standing room only crowd was going wild, and Americans all across the land were dancing in their homes, but still, there was a subconscious hesitation.

And can you blame anyone for doubting the moment? It was too improbable, too incredible to fathom that a bunch of American college kids – teammates barely six months – had just slayed the Communist hockey beast made up of hardened pros who had played together for years, had beaten National Hockey League teams, and had won Olympic and world championship tournaments by the fistful.

It was all like some kind of magical dream, the site of goalie Jim Craig being buried by a sea of red, white and blue jerseys; of Mike Ramsey laying on the ice and toothless Jack O’Callaghan kneeling on top of him as if he was applying CPR; of Eric Strobel hugging his fellow Minnesotan Rob McClanahan who still had his stick raised in triumph as if he was frozen in time; and of the classy but crestfallen Russians lined up at their own blue line watching in shock the mad celebration as they waited for the traditional postgame handshake.

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes.”

Finally, as it began to sink in that the United States had beaten the Russians 4-3 courtesy of Eruzione’s goal with 10 minutes remaining in the third period, all was well for a troubled America, at least for this night. Forgotten ever so briefly was the plight of the American hostages still being held in Iran; forgotten was the fact that the Russian military had invaded Afghanistan, throwing the world’s power structure into flux; and forgotten was the soaring level of inflation that was strangling the U.S. economy.

All that mattered was that the U.S. had beaten the hated Soviets. America had something to cheer about, and it went something like this: “USA, USA, USA, USA, USA ... .”

“I can’t believe it,” said center Mark Johnson. “I can’t believe we beat them. But we did and now we’re only 60 minutes away from the gold medal, baby, only 60 minutes away.”

And two days later, those were among the longest 60 minutes the Americans ever encountered as Finland very nearly brought this storybook tale to a most-disappointing conclusion.

The Finns took a 2-1 lead into the third period of the gold-medal game, and before his team returned to the ice for the final period, coach Herb Brooks told them, “Twenty minutes, gentleman. If it’s not 20, you’ll never live it down. This will haunt you for the rest of your lives.”

Inspired one last time by their hard-driving leader, the United States rallied on goals by Phil Verchota, McClanahan and Johnson to claim its first Olympic tournament since 1960.

One of the most enduring images in Olympic history occurred after the Finland game when Craig was shown on camera searching for his father in the stands, but in truth, the victory over the Finns was anti-climactic, coming as it did on the heels of the monumental upset of the Russians.

The Soviets controlled the opening period the way everyone figured they would, but they were only ahead 2-1 because Craig stopped 16 of their 18 shots. And then, they weren’t ahead. They fell asleep in the final few seconds of the period, and it cost them dearly.

Dave Christian fired a shot from the red line with three seconds left that hit goalie Vladislav Tretiak’s pads and the goalie got careless thinking the period was about to end, letting the puck skid out in front of him. Johnson, sensing an opportunity, slipped between two defensemen, gained control of the puck, deked Tretiak with a nifty move, and deposited a shot into a virtually open net with one second remaining.

“They (the two defensemen) surprised me,” Johnson said. “It was like they thought the period was over, they weren’t awake. When I got to the puck the time element went totally out of my mind. I was thinking only about putting it in. If I had thought about the time I would have just shot right away. After I put it in I looked up at the scoreboard and there were three big zeroes and I thought I had screwed up.”

Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov was incensed by Tretiak allowing that last goal, so he pulled his star netminder and inserted Vladimir Myshkin, the 23-year-old who had shut out the NHL all-star team in 1979 to win the third and deciding game of the historic Challenge Cup series. Of course, it didn’t really matter who was between the pipes in the second period because the Americans barely got a whiff of the Soviet net.

The Soviets were clearly frustrated, knowing they should have been ahead by more, and they played tentatively early in the third. When Vladimir Krutov high-sticked Neil Broten, the Americans took advantage of the power play as Johnson benefited from a lucky bounce to beat Myshkin to produce a 3-3 tie which sent the crowd into hysterics.

Less than 12 minutes remained and now it was anyone’s game to win. And Eruzione, the captain, the only player on the roster who would not go on to play professional hockey when the Olympics ended, stepped onto the ice and fired the most famous shot in Olympic ice hockey history.

Schneider had been on the ice with his linemates, John Harrington and Christian. Schneider took a pass from Christian, fired a long slap shot that Myshkin turned aside, and then skated to the bench asking for relief.

Before Brooks could say anything, Eruzione hopped onto the ice and joined the play. The puck was behind the net where Harrington and Vasili Pervuhkin were fighting for it. Pervuhkin chopped it around the boards but Pavelich reached it first and just as Sergei Mahkarov laid him out, Pavelich managed to steer the puck toward the slot. And here came Eruzione, cruising in from the bench, gaining control of the puck and snapping a 25-foot wrist shot through a screen that zipped past Myshkin and nestled into the back of the net.

“I shot off the wrong foot and it went in,” said Eruzione. “Of all the goals I’ve scored in my life where I didn’t know what was going on, I knew exactly what I was doing then. I knew either the defenseman had to come at me and if that happened I’d give it to Baker, or the defenseman would go down and try to block the shot. He tried to do that, so I used him as a screen. It went by him and I don’t think the goalie saw it either.”

It was a moment like no other as the entire U.S. bench bounded on to the ice to mob Eruzione. The fans were beside themselves and the Field House looked like one big American flag flapping in the breeze. Only one man in the building, Brooks, managed to contain his glee, and it wasn’t that hard because there were still 10 minutes left to play, an eternity for the Soviets.

The minutes ticked by slowly, but they ticked by, and finally the clock wound down inside a minute and the roar from the stands served as gasoline in the Americans’ tank. They forechecked ferociously, looking as fresh now as they did when the puck was first dropped more than two hours earlier. No one dared to look up at the clock, but then they didn’t have to as the fans counted down the final 10 seconds in perfect harmony.

When the buzzer sounded, pandemonium broke out. Sticks and gloves and bodies went flying through the air, landing in various piles on the ice. Other events were being contested in and around Lake Placid, but no one paid attention because they were too busy celebrating this remarkable victory.

All along Main Street, incessant chants of “We’re No. 1” and “USA, USA, USA” filled the chilly night air. Around the country drivers honked their horns, somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz flashed the news via light to a nearby Soviet intelligence ship, and at the White House, President Carter grabbed the hot line and called the American locker room to personally congratulate the team and tell them he loved them.

It was only a hockey game, but the result seemed to galvanize the nation. “People needed something to escape to,” said Eruzione. “And we were the ones that people seemed to take joy and pride in. I can’t remember another country pulling off something like that. We showed that this country is still great, and if everyone works hard at what they do best, we’ll do OK.”