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John Powers

Reflections on covering a miracle in Lake Placid 40 years ago

Associated Press file and Boston Globe photos/Illustration by Katie McInerney

John Powers has covered 21 Olympics for the Boston Globe. Today, he reflects on one of the classics: Lake Placid and Miracle on Ice, ahead of the game’s 40th anniversary on Feb. 22.

I remember America’s newest favorite son, his hair still damp from the shower, emerging from the Olympic Field House and being chided by his mother.

“Michael,” Mrs. Eruzione exclaimed, “you’re going to give me a heart attack!”

That was how the Miracle on Ice was for everyone four decades ago. The Boys of Winter, the irrepressible collegians-next-door, weren’t expected to do anything in the Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., except go home early. When they stunned the Soviet Union, 4-3, and went on to win the gold medal, they sent their country into cardiac euphoria.

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“I’m still running into people who talk about it, who tell me where they were when we beat the Russians,” Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal, told me 20 years later. “It’s like Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination and the Challenger. But those were terrible tragedies. Ours was a hockey game.”

Yet it was far more than a hockey game for the American people, who were desperate for a feel-good moment to celebrate. The previous couple of years had been disheartening. Inflation was soaring, unemployment was up, the Ayatollah still had the hostages in Iran, the Red Army had invaded Afghanistan, and Jimmy Carter was calling for a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow.

“It was definitely a low time in the American spirit,” said defenseman Jack O’Callahan. “We were getting pushed around all over the world.”

Nobody expected that the US hockey team could do much to change the mood. The big story figured to be Eric Heiden’s bid for a record five gold medals in speedskating. The hockey tournament was a foregone conclusion. The Soviets had won five of the previous six golds and hadn’t lost an Olympic game since 1968. They’d gone unbeaten at the 1979 world championships, outscoring their rivals by a 61-14 aggregate. And they’d humiliated the NHL All-Stars, 6-0, at Madison Square Garden a year earlier using their backup goaltender.

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The weekend before the Games began, the Soviets belted the US team, 10-3, in a Garden tuneup.

“Forget it,” Mark Johnson, the Yanks’ top gun, told himself. “They’re in another world.”

The Americans, who’d won only one Olympic hockey medal since their 1960 gold, had been seventh at the worlds the year before.

“If there’s a word for an under-underdog, that’s what we are,” Eruzione told me in January.

Flag-waving fans filled the Lake Placid arena.
Flag-waving fans filled the Lake Placid arena.AP file/Associated Press

They were the youngest team in the tournament (average age 22), the youngest the United States ever had sent to Olympus. And they were starting off with the Swedes, whom they hadn’t beaten at the Games since Squaw Valley in 1960. They were down, 2-1, with goalie Jim Craig pulled, on the verge of taking a loss before the Games had officially opened. Then Billy Baker scored on a slapper with 27 seconds to play that salvaged a draw and kept the US in the mix.

It was the next game, a smackdown of the Czechs, that opened eyes. I remember when things got chippy late, seeing Eruzione shouting at a blue-helmeted rival who’d hit him from behind and pointing to the scoreboard: 7-3.

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“We began thinking, ‘Hey, we can take a medal out of this thing,’ ” said forward Dave Silk.

US goalie Jim Craig, of Easton, makes a save against the Soviets.
US goalie Jim Craig, of Easton, makes a save against the Soviets.AP file

Still, nothing was guaranteed. The Romanian victory was the only easy one. The Americans trailed Norway, a collection of plumbers and taxi drivers and salesmen. They fell behind the Germans by two goals. Even though they were unbeaten in their group, they finished second to the Swedes on goal differential. That meant the US team drew the Big Red Machine in the first game of the medal round.

“Maybe we shouldn’t show up,” coach Herb Brooks suggested jokingly. “The rules say we lose only 1-0. Then we go into the second game down only a goal. What do you think? Would they kick us out of the tournament for that?”

The way the players saw it, they’d already had a nightmare outing against the Soviets and lived through it.

“We knew they could kill us,” said O’Callahan, whose knee had been caved in by a defenseman in the New York loss (“Vasiliev nailed me”) but who still made it back for the Czech game. “So there was no need being tense about it.”

If you were in Placid watching the Soviets, you could see that they were playing only as hard as they had to to advance. They were trailing the Finns with five minutes to play and pulled it out. They were down two goals to the Canadians and won by two. The Soviets had collected enough gold over the years to stock a pawn shop. They’d crushed the NHL.

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“What do they have left?” Brooks asked his players. “They’re ripe.”

The Olympics weren’t a best-of-seven. The US team had to beat the CCCP only once. If their meeting had been in a different year in a different country, the stakes would have been simpler, if still daunting.

But since it was 1980 in Lake Placid, it wasn’t just a hockey game. It was the Cold War on ice.

“Save us from the cancer of Communism,” pleaded a telegram on the dressing room wall.

“We’re a bunch of kids playing against a whole country,” Craig mused.

The mood on Main Street, which was jammed all afternoon, was more than patriotic fervor. It was angry, frustrated, defiant.

The game had been scheduled months earlier for late Friday afternoon, and the hockey federation refused to switch the faceoff to prime time because it would have been the wee hours in Moscow. Since ABC wanted to show the game to a massive audience, even if it had to be on tape delay, there was no live coverage in the States. There was no Internet, so you had to be inside the building to follow the action.

Inside was the Fourth of July times 8,000.

“The flags were everywhere, and they weren’t bought on the way in,” Craig said. “They brought them out of attics and basements.”

Players rush toward goalie Jim Craig after beating the Soviets.
Players rush toward goalie Jim Craig after beating the Soviets.AP

For the next three hours, the decibels were roof-shaking. The Americans fell behind, as usual, but they kept coming back. When Mark Johnson scored his goal-from-nowhere to tie the score at 2-2 with one second to go in the opening period and put Hall of Fame goalie Vladislav Tretiak on the bench, the preposterous suddenly appeared plausible.

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After the Soviets regained the lead early in the second period, Johnson drew his mates even on the power play with less than a dozen minutes to play. Then here was Eruzione coming over the dasher to the top of the circle, wristing the puck past Vladimir Myshkin through a screen, and dashing into the corner to celebrate.

Where did he come from? That was the Eruzione we’d seen in college and throughout the Games, popping up at the perfect moment.

“I’m the horse that rode out of the sunset,” he’d told me before the Games.

The decisive goal by Winthrop native Mike Eruzione eludes Soviet goalie Vladimir Myshkin.
The decisive goal by Winthrop native Mike Eruzione eludes Soviet goalie Vladimir Myshkin. AP file

There were exactly 10 minutes to play, and for the Americans, they were the longest imaginable. The clock never seemed to move, and when it did, the sense of foreboding kept increasing. What if the Soviets did what they did to the Finns — three goals in a minute and 19 seconds?

None of the Americans wanted to be the one who took a penalty, who turned over the puck, who made the fatal error. So they sacrificed their bodies, dropping to their knees to block shots.

“We’ll do anything to win,” O’Callahan told himself. “And they won’t.”

The clock ticked down to 2:00, then 1:00, and then the Americans were throwing their sticks and gloves in the air.

“Shock for everybody,” star Soviet defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov told me years later. “I knew we were going to score a goal, even in the last seconds.”

What I remember as much as the US celebration was watching their gracious red-clad rivals waiting patiently on their blue line to shake hands with the victors. Some of them were even smiling, amused. What the Americans had done would never be forgotten, Fetisov told me. It was a great example of how young kids can get together with a big goal in their minds and make the impossible possible.

“If you’re going to lose, you should lose like this,” Johnson observed. “It’s a classy way to lose.”

The US team, of course, hadn’t won a thing yet. If the Americans lost by two goals to the Finns on Sunday and Sweden tied the USSR, they’d leave the Adirondacks empty-handed.

The Yanks twice fell behind the Finns, and Brooks warned them that they would “take it to your [expletive] graves” if they didn’t win. This time, their comeback came with medals, the flag, the anthem, and their captain beckoning all of his colleagues (“C’mere, c’mere!”) onto the podium with him.

Jack O’Callahan (foregound), of Charlestown, whoops it up at the conclusion of the game.
Jack O’Callahan (foregound), of Charlestown, whoops it up at the conclusion of the game.Frank O’Brien/globe staff file

It was the most wondrous of stories, but it was especially delightful for Boston readers because it was also a local tale.

Four Boston University alums, all Massachusetts kids, were on that podium. Craig (“Where’s my father?”), the triumphant goalie. O’Callahan, the exultant face of victory in the iconic photo by the Globe’s Frank O’Brien. Silk, who set up two of the tying goals against the Soviets. And the captain and dispenser of heart attacks. The real miracle was that everyone finally learned how to pronounce “Eruzione.”

“By the end of the week, everyone was saying my name right,” he said. “All my life I’ve never had that happen.”

The young Americans took a victory lap at the arena after receiving their gold medals.
The young Americans took a victory lap at the arena after receiving their gold medals.Getty file/Getty Images

John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.