THE FIELD HOUSE IN LAKE PLACID has seats for 8,700 people. For the game played on Friday, February 22, 1980, every one of them was filled. Another 1,000 or so must have gotten through the doors, because the aisles and rafters were jammed. People crowded in anywhere there was a place to stand and see the ice.
It would become known as the greatest sporting event of the 20th century. Millions of people would watch it when it was finally broadcast. And over the years hundreds of millions have seen the game, watched the highlights, read about it, talked about it, even cried about it. They’ve given it a name, called it a miracle. People would remember where they were when they heard the score, what they were doing, who they were with, who they hugged.
Yet, when it was played, the game was witnessed by not even 10,000 people. Hardly anybody, when you think about it. We played at 5 o’clock and ABC would air it on tape at 8.
In the Olympic Village, the game was on everyone’s mind. Americans and athletes from other countries slapped me on the shoulder, shook my hand, wished us luck. Hockey players, skiers, figure skaters, speed skaters. Especially athletes from the Eastern Bloc. “Beat the Russians,” they said quietly. “Please.”
When we arrived that afternoon at the field house, we got a taste of the mood in the rest of the country. The wall outside our locker room was covered with telegrams. Plastered with them. Not dozens — hundreds. Messages to the team from California, Michigan, Arizona, New Jersey, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Minnesota. From hockey states and non-hockey states: Illinois, Alabama, Virginia, Oregon, Ohio, Georgia, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Vermont, New Hampshire. People who had never watched a hockey game were rooting for 20 college players no one had ever heard of, and they wanted us to beat the Soviets. One telegram actually said, “Save us from the cancer of communism.”
I always felt pride putting on the USA sweater, playing for my country. But this was something I’d never imagined.
In our cramped locker room, we started pulling on skates and socks and shoulder pads. Normally it was like a circus in there: Twenty guys with the maturity of 12-year-olds talking, joking, teasing. OC [Jack O’Callahan] was up walking around, too wired to sit. But that night, you could hear the riiippp as guys wound tape around their shin pads, the clinking of the buckles as the goalies strapped on their pads. Nobody complimented Eric Strobel on his flowing golden hair. Once everyone was dressed, we just sat there, like in church. Over to my right, Billy Baker was sitting next to Steve Janaszak, our backup goalie. Billy looked at Steve, and without making a sound, he mimed the words “What do we do now?”
Steve mouthed back one word: “Pray.”
YOU COULD HEAR THE HUM as we walked down the hall and turned right to the ice. Fans in every seat, the upper deck filled, people standing. When we stepped onto the ice, it started: “USA! USA! USA!” I felt as if I were 10 feet off the ground.
We were college kids, up against a team widely considered the best in the world, bar none. At the Olympics, the Soviets had scored 51 goals in five games — an average of more than 10 goals a game. They had beaten us 10-3 earlier that month, in our last exhibition game before the Olympics.
This time, the Soviets weren’t skating rings around us; it was an evenly played game. And as we neared the halfway point of the third period, Mark Johnson, our best player, scored on a power play to tie it, 3-3.
The fans were jumping up and down, hands in the air, as jubilant as the Soviets were shocked. Even Herb Brooks, our coach, couldn’t keep up his stone face, and he raised his fists and let out a cheer. The crowd, nervous and tense moments before, was now insane, full of electricity. The chant went up again, louder than ever: “USA! USA! USA!”
It was tied. It was anybody’s game. Anybody who’s ever played sports knows the danger of letting an underdog believe. When a team that’s supposed to have no chance suddenly sees that victory is possible, it becomes a game of emotion. The other team, the one that should be winning, tightens up, feels the pressure. When that happens, destiny sometimes trumps talent.
Maybe a minute after Mark scored, Dave Christian picked up the puck behind our net, moved to the left, and passed up the wing to Buzzy Schneider.
At that point, Buzzy had been on the ice for 36 seconds, not that long. It would not have been crazy for him to carry the puck into the Soviet zone and try to make a play, and maybe score. A lot of players do that when the game is on the line: They stay on the ice, they want the puck, they want to make a play, make something happen, win the game. But if you trust your teammates, if you believe in one another, you don’t really care who scores a goal — you just care about doing the right things so that your team scores the winning goal.
Buzzy skated across the red line, slapped the puck at the Soviet goalie, Vladimir Myshkin. His line mates, John Harrington and Mark Pavelich, charged into the Soviet zone. But Buzzy raised his stick and turned to our bench. He cut his shift short to get fresh legs onto the ice. It was the smart play. And it was lucky for me.
I hopped over the boards to replace Buzz. The puck rebounded from Myshkin to the left boards. A Soviet defenseman went to retrieve it, but Harrington went hard on the forecheck. He slammed into the Russian, scrapping, not willing to let him have the puck. The puck squirted up the boards, where Pav raced after it. He slipped but managed to tip the puck. It was heading to the middle of the ice.
Just as I crossed the blue line.
I gathered the puck and turned toward the net, putting the puck on my forehand. I was in the high slot. I had a Soviet defenseman between me and Myshkin. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw both Harrington and Baker crashing toward the net. The options came to me in a split second. If the defenseman came to me, I was going to pass to Billy or John. If the defenseman stayed, I’d use him as a screen to block the goalie’s view.
The defenseman dropped to his knees to block the shot. I had a screen. I had an opportunity to make a play.
Moving to my right, I pulled the puck a bit and fired it back the other way, toward the left post.
“Just get it on net,” I said as I followed through on the shot.
I lost the puck. I couldn’t see it. What I saw was the net. The back of the net suddenly bulged out, punched back by something. It took a moment to realize it. But then I saw the fans behind the goal leaping up out of their seats, hands in the air, and I knew.
The roar was deafening. My legs took over, and I just started running on my skates, high-stepping in the corner like some crazy drum major at a halftime show. In the stands, Jeep — my father — leaped out of his seat, his glasses flying. “Oh, my God! That’s it!” he shouted. My mother jumped up, and the two of them started kissing each other and hugging. They turned and hugged my cousin Tony and Bob “Deefa” DeFelice, my high school football coach, and everybody else who was within reach, fans they didn’t even know.
Baker and Harrington got to me first. Then Pav and Dave Christian. It was so loud, I couldn’t hear anything, the screaming and cheering at jet-plane decibels.
The first thought I had was, I have to get out of this corner fast or I’ll be mobbed and trampled. Coming at me from the bench was a wave of white jerseys. The first bodies to arrive pinned me against the boards, the second group jumped into the red, white, and blue mob. O’Callahan threw his arm around my neck, put me in a headlock. The rest were slapping me in the head and grabbing my jersey and each other.
Back in Winthrop, my sister Connie was in her house, trying to get news of the game on the radio, when the phone rang. “Your brotha! Your brotha!” a friend of hers said, in a panic. “Your brotha scored!”
“Oh, that’s great,” Connie replied. She just thought it was nice that I had scored. She didn’t know the full picture. She had no idea what was going on, what the goal had meant.
“No!” her friend explained. “Your brotha scored! And they’re ahead! They’re winning! They’re beating the Russians!”
Connie hung up. She later told me she had been so stunned she thought her heart wouldn’t be able to take it. In a panic herself, she called our sister Nanci. Nanci had left her job at Logan Airport. She had heard on the radio that the game was tied 2-2, and her stomach was in knots. The tension had just been too great, so she had gone home early. Now Connie was on the phone. “You’re pulling my leg,” Nanci said. “He did not. Cut it out.” To everyone in Winthrop, it seemed too incredible to be true. Cars drove by my house, honking their horns. The p
hone was ringing again. Friends and strangers were calling in hope of getting updates on the game. Within minutes, people started to gather outside the house: neighbors, friends, people we didn’t even know. For the final minutes of the game, they wanted to be at 274 Bowdoin Street.
AFTER WE BEAT THE SOVIETS, we came from behind in the gold medal game to beat Finland. My family’s phone was ringing off the hook. People from all over — Philadelphia, West Virginia, Indiana — were calling even before I got home. “I know he isn’t home, but please thank him for us,” people said. There were stacks of letters. Five of them were marriage proposals. Companies were calling, asking me to do speeches and appearances. Reporters called nonstop for interviews. IBM wanted me to go to Florida to speak at a meeting of its top salespeople. Bob Mathias, the winner of two gold medals in the decathlon, was the main speaker. I would have to speak for only eight minutes, and for that the company was going to pay me $3,000. In minor league hockey in Toledo, I’d had to play 80 games and make sure no one took my head off to make that much money. Now I could make $3,000 just for saying a few words at a sales meeting? Sure, I’ll do that.
IBM flew me to Florida first class and put me up in the Fontainebleau in Miami. This was a new life. I’d never stayed in a five-star hotel. The company asked if I wanted to do anything in Florida. IBM had taken some customers and VIPs out deep-sea fishing. I said that sounded like fun. The next thing I knew, it had chartered a whole boat — just for me. I called a high school football friend who was living in Florida, and we rounded up a group and had the boat all to ourselves. A whole day fishing for free. When it came time to do my speech, I walked out onto a stage in a banquet room, and everyone in the crowd stood up and started chanting “USA! USA!” just like in Lake Placid. There was a clock at the edge of the stage to tell me when my eight minutes was up. The audience kept cheering and cheering, and the clock kept counting down. Six minutes, five minutes. Just cheering and cheering. When they finally sat down, I had a minute left. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “A week ago, my teammates and I did something incredible, something no one thought we could accomplish. Thank you very much.” And that was it. Easiest $3,000 I ever made. The funny thing is that IBM loved it and said it had four more meetings in Florida and five in San Francisco, and it wanted me to speak at those, too. For 10 speeches, I was going to make $30,000 — more money than my father had ever made in one year.
Everything was happening so fast. I was getting 20 or 30 letters a day, and I got my girlfriend Donna, who would become my wife, to help me deal with them. Offers were coming in from all kinds of companies. A couple of executives from Prince spaghetti came to the house to talk to me about endorsing a new product they had called Superoni. Jeep listened to the conversation and decided to suggest a slogan: “Mike Eruzione, he eats-a Superoni.” Jeep thought it was brilliant. My mother and everyone else in the house rolled their eyes.
“Dad,” I kidded him, “if you don’t watch out, you’re going to make me famous.”
Jeep had become famous himself, at least in East Boston, where he worked. People would come into Santarpio’s Pizza just to see the father of the guy who had scored the winning goal against the Russians. I was no longer Jeep’s kid; Jeep had become known as “Mike’s father.” He had pictures of me printed and gave them to anyone who came into Santarpio’s to meet Mike Eruzione’s father. He signed them “Eugene Eruzione, Famous Father.”
Within a few weeks, I had engagements booked all the way through Christmas. Every time I walked through an airport, strangers stopped me, thanked me. One person would stop me, and then two more would come over and more after that. A Hollywood producer suggested I try acting. I didn’t follow up on that. One day I made a brief appearance on a game show, Hollywood Squares. For sitting there for a couple minutes, I was given $1,000 in gifts. One was a dishwasher. I gave that to my mother. It was the first dishwasher she’d ever had.
My whole life, I’d never had money to spend. Now, suddenly, I had money. I wasn’t going to become a millionaire, but for the first time in my life, in my father’s life, in my mother’s life, we could afford to live a little. I wanted to buy my father a car. “Just get me a set of tires and replace the fan belt,” Jeep said. I wanted to buy my brother a car. My mother said absolutely not. I did get my parents a new living room set and sent my mother to Puerto Rico for a vacation. Jeep didn’t go — his fear of flying.
The offers to do speaking engagements just kept coming, and I kept doing the ones I could fit in. But I knew at some point, it would all fade away. People would move on to other things. The gold medal would be forgotten. Whenever the money stopped, I’d get a job and go to work. In 10 years, I figured, I’d be living a quiet life in Winthrop, coaching hockey probably. That’s where I’ll end up, I thought. Because nothing lasts forever.
Mike Eruzione captained the 1980 gold medalist US men’s hockey team, and is now director of special outreach at Boston University. Neal E. Boudette is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This story is adapted from “The Making of a Miracle: The Untold Story of the Captain of the 1980 Gold Medal-Winning U.S. Olympic Hockey Team.” Copyright © 2020 by Mike Eruzione and Neal E. Boudette. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.