Reliving the Miracle in Lake Placid — 35 years later

John Harrington still likes to kid Mike Eruzione about getting a piece of the puck that beat Vladimir Myshkin and the Russians.

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This weekend, the 19 surviving members of the 1980 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team will descend on Lake Placid, N.Y. –the village in the Adirondacks where the "Miracle on Ice" took place — and relive one of the greatest moments in American sports in the arena where it happened

It’ll be the first time they’ve all been in together in Lake Placid since winning the gold medal on Feb. 24, 1980, but for most, it was the upstart Americans’ 4-3 victory over the mighty Soviet Union two days earlier, on Feb. 22, 1980, that lives on to today.

However, for those who made the miracle, there’s more to the story than one incredible victory over a world-class team they had no business skating with. Rather, it’s a series of events that led to — and followed — one of the most iconic and unlikely wins in the history of sports that makes the win over the Russians seem like yesterday.

"Sometimes everybody just gets caught up in one game, but we did play more than one game in 1980," said Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 team, during a conference call earlier this week. "I think sometimes a lot of the success of our team gets lost in the one game, and I like people to remember that it was a series of events and a series of games and a true team accomplishment that led this team to win a gold medal so many years ago."

It really is easy to forget that there were other games played and other goals scored in the tournament that year, and it was actually the Americans’ first game — a 2-2 draw with Sweden on Feb. 12, before the opening ceremony had taken place –that ended up playing an equally huge role in the U.S.’ spectacular gold-medal run.

Late in the opener, the U.S. trailed 2-1, thanks in part to the play of Swedish goalie Pelle Lindbergh. The late deficit led coach Herb Brooks to pull goaltender Jim Craig in favor of an extra skater with less than a minute to play, and then with 27 seconds left, defenseman Bill Baker released a low slap shot from just inside the blue line and beat Lindbergh to tie the game.

"All I saw," Brooks told the New York Daily News at the time, "was four jerseys pop up in front of me. … They showed the necessary tenaciousness and spirit to keep laboring back for that point. The odds were against us, and they could’ve quit, but they didn’t."

The tie with Sweden proved to be important, not only because of the role that point would later play in the medal round, but because it gave the young Americans a renewed confidence heading into their second game, against second-ranked Czechoslovakia, the silver medalist at the 1979 World Championships in Moscow.

The U.S. played the Czechs to a 2-2 draw in the first period on Valentine’s Day but responded with four consecutive goals, including a pair from Phil Verchota and Buzz Schneider separated by one minute early in the third period, and went on to win the game, 7-3, officially putting the Americans on everyone’s radar.

"We dominated the game," 1980 right wing John Harrington told FOX Sports in a phone interview this week. "I mean, we dominated that game, regardless of what the score was early. It was 7-3, and it was definitely a 7-3 game, and when it’s in that environment, it was like, ‘This is exactly what I expected the Olympics to be like.’

"The stadium was jammed," Harrington, now a scout for the Colorado Avalanche, continued. "It was Red, White and Blue, and there were flags everywhere, and I never got the feeling from that moment on, from that game on, that there was never not a standing ovation for every line shift when you went on. It was crazy in the arena."

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After the win over Czechoslovakia, the U.S. rattled off victories over Norway (which led 1-0 early before falling 5-1), Romania (in a 7-2 game that was never close) and West Germany (a 4-2 win that actually saw the U.S. trail 2-0 after one period). At 4-0-1 in group play, the Americans moved on to the medal round along with Sweden (4-0-1), Finland (3-2) and the Soviet Union, which was 5-0 in group play and outscored its opponents 51-11 in those games.

"Great as the Soviet victory was, I think sometimes what gets lost in the shuffle is how important that game was against Sweden and Billy Baker’s goal, and how huge that game was against Czechoslovakia, another country that was supposed to beat us," Eruzione said. "If we don’t win those games or tie that game against Sweden, we’re not even playing for the gold medal."

In the minds of most, however, the game against the Russians was little more than a formality for the the Soviets, which had won the previous four Olympic gold medals and 13 consecutive games coming into Olympic play.

The lack of confidence in the plucky Americans felt especially warranted given the way the favorites had crushed the U.S. 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden less than two weeks earlier, but in the American dressing room there were 20 college kids and one feisty coach who didn’t know any better than to think they had a chance.

Great as the Soviet victory was, I think sometimes what gets lost in the shuffle is how important that game was against Sweden and Billy Baker’s goal, and how huge that game was against Czechoslovakia, another country that was supposed to beat us.

Mike Eruzione

"We felt we could win," Harrington said. "We knew that we were playing well and that we were gaining momentum throughout the Olympic games. And we watched a lot of the Russian games, and they trailed Canada and they were behind Finland and had to come from behind. And Herb kept reminding us that we were a young team with young legs and that we were a great-skating team and that we could outskate them if we played our game."

In addition to regular prep, Brooks also used an unorthodox method of motivation on his guys before the team took the ice.

"I remember him telling us, too, about (Soviet right wing)  Boris Mikhailov and how he had a kind of resemblance to Stan Laurel from Laurel and Hardy, and he kept calling him Stan, saying, ‘We’re playing Stan Laurel,’ just to kind of humanize one of their better players," Harrington said. "It was kind of like, ‘Hey, these are just guys like we are,’ and I think we had a lot of confidence going into that game."

It didn’t take long, however, for the Soviets to get on the board and put a damper on some of that swagger, taking a 1-0 lead 9:12 into the first period. Schneider tied the score at 1-1 less than five minutes later, but the Russians struck again three minutes after that when Sergei Makarov made the score 2-1.

It appeared that would be the score going into the first intermission as well, but Mark Johnson beat a diving Vladislav Tretiak with a shot off a rebound with one second left in the period. The goal would end up leading Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov to pull Tretiak for backup Vladimir Myshkin and seemed to get the Russians out of their comfort zone.

"I think it was really important, our ability to just kind of hang around and keep it close," Harrington said. "The Soviets were certainly a team, if they got a multiple-goal lead on you, they started playing almost more freely and then became more dangerous because of their great passing game and great puck-possession game.

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"So just hanging around and keeping the game close and shortening the game and getting it down to the end probably brought them back a little bit from what their game is normally like. And I’m sure it would have given us at least a little bit of doubt if, at any time in the game, we got behind by more than one."

The Americans would be put in a bind again when Alexander Maltsev put the USSR back on top 3-2 with a goal 2:28 into the second period, and this time, the U.S. response wouldn’t come as quickly. After more than 25 minutes of scoreless play amid a barrage of shots from the Soviets on Craig — who stopped 36 shots in the game while the U.S. took 16 of their own — Johnson tied the score at 3-3 on a U.S. power play with 11:21 left.

"This was a chance to go on the power play, and we could put some pretty good players out there, so it was a great opportunity for us and we took advantage of it," Harrington said. "It wasn’t the prettiest goal, and it wasn’t a setup-play goal, but you make your own luck, and I don’t know if there was a little bit of destiny involved, but Mark got the goal and we were tied and all of a sudden the game was an 11-minute game."

With so little time for another comeback remaining, however, the Americans knew they couldn’t afford to give up another goal.

"As our team was playing, the big thing for us was it never got out of hand," Eruzione said. "If we were down two or three goals, then I think it would have been, ‘See ya later, the game’s over.’ but when we were able to keep it 2-1, 2-2, 3-2, 3-3, the game stayed, basically, the way I think we needed to have it fall. Four goals was probably our maximum; I didn’t think we were going to get five or six."

Fortunately, the Americans didn’t have to –and they didn’t have to wait long to take their first lead of the game, either, as Eruzione scored the eventual game-winner from the slot 1:21 after the U.S. had tied it up.

"Buzz Schneider had dumped the puck in the corner as he was going for a line change, and I think that’s how Mike ended up out on the ice," said Harrington, who was credited with an assist on the play. "He’d come off the bench and down the slot probably unchecked because he was coming off a line change. But I went after the puck in the corner, just kind of collided with the guy in the corner, and the puck came out to Mark Pavelich, and he threw it in the slot.

"I went to the net from the corner, and I tell everybody over time that I think I tipped that in," Harrington added with a laugh. "I might have gotten a piece of that at the net there. Mike doesn’t want to believe that, but when the goal went in, I was right alongside the net. I always tell everybody, ‘Boy, if (Myshkin) had made the save and I would have scored on the rebound, Mike would’ve had to work for a living his whole life and I’d have been on the gravy train that he’s been on for 35 years.’"

Still, there was the matter of playing the final 10 minutes of the game against a ticked-off Soviet team set on not having to return to Russia with anything less than a gold medal.

"It was one of those times when you want to keep your head on a swivel and not on a hinge, because you keep finding yourself looking up at the clock and it seemed like it just wasn’t going, like time was standing still," Harrington said. "It was like, ‘Gosh, there’s got to be less time than this left,’ so there was that little sense of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to keep playing.’

"You’ve seen the highlights where Herb keeps saying, ‘Play your game, play your game,’ and we couldn’t play any differently just because had this one-goal lead. We had to keep doing the things we were trying to do, but you couldn’t help but take a peek at the clock every so often because it just didn’t seem to be moving."

Finally, though, the clock ran out — as Al Michaels made his infamous "Do you believe in miracles?" call on TV, though most U.S. viewers didn’t see the game until hours later — and the Americans could celebrate their improbable victory over the world’s best team.

"I thought we played maybe even a little better than they did the last 10 minutes, and that was because of our speed and our conditioning, and I think that’s a tribute to Herb and the type of practices that we went through," Eruzione said. "But our team never got rattled, we never got frustrated, we never got nervous. I think we were pretty confident, and I think we had a great deal of trust not only in what Herb was doing, but we had a great deal of trust in each other."

"We grinded it out over 60-plus exhibition games, but when we got to Lake Placid, I’ve always said we had a maniac for a coach but he knew what he was doing, and at some point we had to trust what he was going to do as far as the preparation," Johnson said during the conference call this week. "I don’t think a lot of us might have realized it, but when we got to the third period of the Russian game all of a sudden we’re ahead."

Added Harrington: "It was absolutely amazing. You’re celebrating all over the ice, and it got to a point where there was so much noise that it was almost that quiet noise. It was such an experience and this elation, but also this feeling of, ‘Gosh, this is how I expected it to be.’ It was how you envision it in your dreams. This is what I expected to happen, and it was crazy in there, and it was amazing. You knew that it was loud in there, but it was almost a deafening noise, and that’s what you expected to hear."

I always tell everybody, ‘Boy, if (Myshkin) had made the save and I would have scored on the rebound, Mike would’ve had to work for a living his whole life and I’d have been on the gravy train that he’s been on for 35 years.

John Harrington

Still, there was the matter of the U.S.’ final game — and to say it was important would be an understatement.

In those days, medals weren’t awarded through a traditional tournament but rather through the final standings after round-robin play among the four teams in the medal round. So the win over the Soviets wasn’t a semifinal and ultimately wasn’t any more important than any other win.

With three points (two from the win over the Soviets and one from the earlier-round tie with Sweden), the U.S. controlled its own destiny — the Russians and Sweden were tied with two points going into the final game and Finland had one — but a loss to Finland would have been a disaster.

A U.S. defeat against Finland would have made the Soviets the gold medalists thanks to a 9-2 win over Sweden in their final game, with the U.S. winning bronze and Finland winning silver, by virtue of Finland’s head-to-head tiebreaker over the Americans. Worse yet, had the U.S. lost and the Soviets and Swedes tied, all four teams would have finished play with three points, with goal differential left to decide who got left off the medal stand.

Obviously, this wasn’t a position the U.S. wanted to find itself in, and Brooks made that known.

"Herb Brooks was not one to let us bask in our glory, whether it was the Russians or not, and I think he quickly brought things back into focus for us, definitely by the next morning, the next practice we had," Harrington said. "It was, ‘This thing can go right in the toilet if we don’t win this last game.’ "

So needless to say, there were hearts in many American fans’ throats after Finland took a 2-1 lead into the second intermission. But after a tournament of comebacks, the U.S. players say they knew there was nothing to fear.

"If there was anybody who had any inner feelings of nervousness about, ‘Oh boy, we’re behind,’ or anything like that, it certainly didn’t show," Harrington said. "We were confident in our abilities and the players we had, and we had been behind most of the tournament and came back to win games. So we pretty much agreed among all of us that we were going to stick around."

And after even-strength goals by Verchota and Rob McClanahan and a short-handed goal from Johnson to cap it off, the Americans had done just that — and won a gold medal.

I probably get anywhere from 30 to 60 letters a month from people wanting autographed pictures, people telling me stories of what that game meant to them. And every time they tell me a story.

Mike Eruzione

"I think there was a sense of calmness, a sense of confidence going into that third period against Finland that we were going to win the game," Eruzione said. "We didn’t know how or what was going to happen, but I think everybody going onto the ice for the third period knew that we were going to play our best period. And it ended up being our strongest period, ended up scoring some goals and finishing the deal off and winning the gold medal."

Now, 35 years later, the stars from that team still look back in awe in what they accomplished that February in Lake Placid.

"So many times during that tournament there was great cause for celebration and everybody was so excited and ecstatic about wins, and I think after that last game and getting the medal, it was really just more about extreme satisfaction in knowing how much hard work had gone into it," Harrington said.

"You dream about playing on the Olympic team, and you dream about the opportunity to win a gold medal, and you work for that and there are number of years where it’s like, ‘Geez, I might have a chance to play on this Olympic team in 1980.’ I’d have done anything to do that, and just to be in the Olympics would have been a great accomplishment. So to be up on the medal stand, it was like peace of mind knowing that I had done everything I could do to have that moment, and that moment came true."

And for the captain Eruzione, his game-winning goal against the Soviets is a memory he never wants to stop reliving.

"Every day somebody comes up to me and has a story to tell," Eruzione said. "I probably get anywhere from 30 to 60 letters a month from people wanting autographed pictures, people telling me stories of what that game meant to them. And every time they tell me a story.

"It’s usually, ‘I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up, I remember where I was on 9/11 and I remember where I was when we won.’ And they always say ‘we won,’ and I sometimes laugh and go, ‘I didn’t know you were on the team.’ But that’s what the moment meant to so many people in this country.

"There aren’t many sporting events that touched the lives of a country like ours, especially in the sport of ice hockey," he continued. "It was not a popular game that much in the ’70s and ’80s, and to think that a moment can capture the spirit of a nation is something that I think my teammates and I had great pride in knowing we were a part of. … So it really has been an incredible 35 years, and I can’t wait for 40, 50 and 60."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.