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'Do you believe in miracles? YES!' ... we did during USA hockey team's run to gold medal

Mike Eruzione, left, is hugged by teammates John

Mike Eruzione, left, is hugged by teammates John O'Callahan, David Silk, and goalie James Craig after scoring the go-ahead goal that beat the Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice” at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid on Feb. 22, 1980. Photo Credit: AP

Broadcaster Al Michaels' words from Feb. 22, 1980, are frozen in time, still instantly identifiable 35 years after a team of amateur Olympians representing the United States beat a seemingly unbeatable Soviet national hockey team as the Cold War again was intensifying.

'Do you believe in miracles? Yes!' "If it wasn't the greatest upset in the history of sports, I don't know what was," said U.S. captain Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal in the Americans' world-shaking 4-3 victory. Two days later, the U.S. beat Finland and won the gold medal.

The Games were being played against the backdrop of political tension between the United States and the USSR over the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter had threatened -- and eventually ordered -- a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and anti-USSR sentiment was high among American fans attending the games.

The Soviets had won the last four Olympic gold medals, fielding a team of veterans who had played together for many years and rarely lost. The American team was composed of amateurs averaging 21 years of age, many of whom had spent more time playing against each other in college than as teammates.

Three days before the Olympics, the two teams played an exhibition at Madison Square Garden in which the USSR owned both nets in a 10-3 romp.

Eruzione, 60, will join his former teammates Sunday in Lake Placid, site of the historic game, for a reunion of what is now known as the "Miracle on Ice."

In the past 35 years, the players have relived their heroics almost on a daily basis.

Ken Morrow, 58, who played on four Islanders Stanley Cup championship teams, said, "Thirty-five years later, I think we still look at each other in amazement at the attention that we get to this day. It's been an incredible ride for us. It's like the never-ending miracle."

Eruzione said, "People say they remember where they were when we won, they don't say 'when you guys won.' That's great to be a part of something like that.'"

As is the case with miracles, few could have envisioned one after the exhibition game at MSG. "We taught them how to play hockey," Soviet center Vladimir Petrov, 67, said in the recent ESPN documentary "Of Miracles and Men."

The American players were awestruck at the Garden, or as Eruzione put it, "Oh, my God, look at who we're playing!"

This was essentially the same Soviet team that a year earlier had beaten the NHL All-Stars -- with a score of future Hockey Hall of Famers -- in a best-of-three series.

"Now we're playing them," said center Mark Johnson, 57. "Who are we to say we would ever have beaten them?"

From the perspective of the U.S. team, the Soviets basically won the Garden exhibition before it started. "Playing them in New York for the first time, I remember warming up, it was almost like they were the Harlem Globetrotters and we're the Washington [Generals]," right wing John Harrington said. "I'm seeing players that I only had seen on television. We were watching them play instead of playing them. It was hard not to get mesmerized."

Enter coach Herb Brooks, a taskmaster who let the players know what was at stake when the team went to Lake Placid.

"It was negative reinforcement," Harrington said. "He was going to tell you how bad you were. He had guys who would challenge that and say, 'Oh, yeah? We'll show you.' He was old-school. You needed to run through the wall."

Brooks died in a 2003 auto accident. His son Danny agreed with that assessment of his father, saying, "He always said he tried to pull greatness out rather than push it in. He wanted to be very distant from that team. He said it was hard for him because they were such great guys. But he felt he had to be the bad guy. Essentially, it was a college all-star team, and to bring them together as one, perhaps a common enemy needed to be established.'' And that common enemy was Brooks.

And despite muted expectations, Brooks did that. The U.S. was seeded seventh out of 12 countries. "We thought a bronze was very possible," Eruzione said. "I don't think you could ever go in expecting to win gold. We wanted to get to the medal round. That was the thing Herb kept talking to us about. We had to get through Sweden, Czechoslovakia and West Germany, three countries that were supposed to beat us."

The Soviets were meandering in the round-robin tournament, coming from behind to beat Canada and Finland. "We knew they were good and they proved how good in New York," said right wing Dave Silk, 57, "but watching them in the Olympics, they looked like they were missing some spark or some degree of intensity. They looked as if they were going through the motions a little bit and that a gold medal was a fait accompli. Most certainly they underestimated us, and they had every right to. Why wouldn't they? More importantly they misjudged how easily a march to the gold medal would be for them."

The Soviets took a 1-0 lead on Alexei Kasatonov's goal, but Buzz Schneider tied it. Sergei Makarov made it 2-1, and Johnson beat renowned goalie Vladislav Tretiak with one second left in the first period to tie it again.

Soviets make change in goal

Then came one of the most controversial moves in Olympic history. Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled Tretiak -- who some said was the best goalie on Earth -- for backup Vladimir Myshkin.

"Definitely an 'ah-ha' moment," Silk said. "I think it showed, not necessarily vulnerability, but maybe a crack of doubt perhaps."

The Soviet coach years later called his decision to remove Tretiak "the biggest mistake of my career." Tikhonov died last November in Moscow at the age of 84.

The Soviets took a 3-2 lead in the second period on a power-play goal by Alexander Maltsev. The game stayed that way until the third period, when Johnson scored the tying goal.

"You could see the rafters shake," said backup goalie Steve Janaszak, who now resides in Babylon.

Then, with 10 minutes remaining, Eruzione drilled a 25-foot wrist shot past Myshkin and the U.S. had a 4-3 lead. "I remember saying, 'Geez, we score another goal and this place is going to come down,' " said Janaszak, 58. "Sure enough, Mike scored. It literally exploded in that building."

Now, for the anxious Americans holding the lead, the game clock seemed to freeze. "There was always that possibility that the Russian bear wakes up," Janaszak said.

Harrington added, "I'm watching the clock and saying, 'Tick, tick tick.' "

Defenseman Mike Ramsey, now 54, was on the ice in the waning moments. "The last shift of the game, my defensive partner was Kenny Morrow," he said. "The puck came up his wall with 25 seconds left. I'm yelling, 'Get it out over the blue line! Get it out over the blue line!' He ended up reversing it and throwing it back behind the net. I yelled 'No!' but it was the right play because it was all jammed up, but I didn't want it back in the zone in my corner. But it worked out."

Silk recalled the last sequence. "I was the last guy to touch the puck," he said before mimicking the call of ABC's Michaels, who actually said, "You've got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now, Morrow up to Silk, five seconds left in the game . . . Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

Silk said, "I ran into Al Michaels years ago. I told him it was a good thing my last name wasn't Schmidlap or he would have screwed up the call and be calling Double-A ball in Toledo, Ohio. Good thing it is one syllable and an easy name to call."

Michaels, through an NBC spokesman, said that Olympic moment and his call remain the highlight of his career and is "set in stone."

Harrington, observing the Soviets in defeat, said, "They were looking down the ice. You could almost sense their thought: 'Something big just happened here, but not for us.' "

The postgame celebration was kept to a minimum because Finland was up next, less than 48 hours away, in the gold-medal game. Harrington said, "I didn't want to fall asleep because I didn't want to wake up and say was that just a dream or did it really happen?"

The U.S. players were basically sequestered in the Olympic Village and did not immediately know their victory had sent shock waves throughout the U.S. -- and beyond. That wouldn't come until a few days later, when they went directly from Lake Placid to the White House to meet President Carter. "We knew it was an upset, but we had no idea how it grabbed our country," Ramsey said.

Goalie Jim Craig, who stopped 36 of 39 shots against the Soviets, said the U.S. team realized the political overtones.

"I'd like to say they were just athletes, but all of us knew what was happening," said Craig, now 57. "You're competing for America and democracy against Russia and communism. I don't think there was any doubt about that."

Donald Abelson, a director of the Canada-U.S. Institute and director for the Center for American Studies at the University of Western Ontario, has observed U.S.-Soviet relations over the years. "Publicly, there was very little discussion about it [in the Soviet Union],'' he said, "but in private, absolutely, the Soviet leadership was humiliated by the American victory in Lake Placid."

Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov, now 70, said in an interview last year, "I really don't like remembering that Olympics. Even today, there's an unpleasant aftertaste."

Finnish-ing touch

As huge as the victory over the Soviets was, there still was the gold-medal game against Finland on Sunday. Brooks held a grueling practice Saturday.

"He skated our [butts] off,'' Eruzione said. "We were like, 'Why are you so ticked off? We just beat the Soviets.' People forget we had to still beat Finland. If we lost or tied Finland, there would be no miracle on ice, no story. Nobody would be talking to us."

Center Rob McClanahan, who played for Brooks at the University of Minnesota, said, "Usually Herb had a speech mapped out. Against the Finns, he walked in and said, 'If you lose this game, you'll take it to your graves.' And he walked to the door and said, 'Your [expletive] graves.' "

Janaszak, who also played for Brooks at Minnesota but saw no ice time during the Olympics, said Brooks' missive resonated. "I remember sitting there thinking, 'My God, I'm going to be 40 years old someday and telling somebody we were this close.' That was a horrendous thought."

McClanahan scored the winning goal in the 4-2 victory over the Finns. "Mark [Johnson] gave me the pass from behind the net, and when I saw that go in, we all knew right then and there it was over," McClanahan said. "We said there's no way we're losing this game."

The victory produced a most iconic moment when Craig, draped in an American flag, scoured the stands for his dad.

"When you looked at that flag, it symbolized the innocence and the pureness of our team in the moment," Craig said. "There was no agent telling me to put a flag on my back, nobody telling me where to look for the camera. This wasn't staged, just as the chant 'U-S-A!' was real. For 35 years, people have been chanting 'U-S-A!' Everybody believed, and that's what made it so powerful. I sign everything 'Believe,' because that's what our team did."

Amazing after all these years

The players continue to bask in the spotlight of their Olympic victory. Two movies, especially Disney's 2004 "Miracle," starring Kurt Russell as Brooks, refocused the spotlight on the team.

Brooks' son said his father didn't view it as a miracle. "He didn't like the word 'miracle' because he worked so hard. He put his heart and soul into it. His players did also. He felt they deserved it. He felt it belittled what they did to call it a miracle."

Ramsey maintains the "miracle" label remains operative, saying, "You could take our team and play that team 50 more times and we ain't gonna beat them again.''

Epilogue

Eruzione often makes speaking engagements and said mentioning his name invariably brings the 'U-S-A!' chant.

He said he was contacted a few years ago by a collector who said he had sold his game-winning puck for $80,000. "I jokingly said, 'You should have let me sign it and we'd split the money.'

"We weren't paid millions of dollars to play. We weren't paid any money to play. We don't make any money off our success, other than memorabilia signing and speaking engagements. We're still working-class kids who have gone on and lived our lives."

Silk added, "Everyone would have loved to have had a little financial remuneration but we didn't go into it thinking that if we win a gold medal we're gonna make a ton of dough. We didn't even go into it thinking if we could win a gold medal."

A player or two reportedly sold their medals. "It's a non- working asset and you have to make [financial] decisions," said Craig, who still has his medal.

The younger Brooks, a wealth management adviser in Minneapolis, often shows his dad's gold medal to fans. "It's like a religious event, it stirs so much emotion," he said. "They almost gasp. They almost take a knee. People get so emotional."

Some of the players have encountered their old competitors. Last year, Morrow, director of pro scouting for the Islanders, learned that Tretiak was in the press box. "I said, 'I'm Ken Morrow.' He said, 'I know who you are.' "

Defenseman Jack O'Callahan, 57, who played for the Blackhawks from 1982-87 and eventually settled in the Chicago, said his son pointed out Tretiak -- then the Blackhawks' goalies coach -- at a Chicago restaurant, but O'Callahan didn't go over to say hello.

"I already ruined one day in his life,'' he said. "Why make it two?''

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