1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team still making believers out of us

Forty years later, dreamers keep coming back to the ‘Miracle on Ice’ and the call that cemented it.

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The U.S. hockey team pounces on goalie Jim Craig after a 4-3 victory against the Soviet Union in the medal round of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

AP

On Feb. 22, 1980, a miracle occurred. Forty years later, that miracle is still viewed with such reverence, even people who didn’t witness it believe in its power.

For those who did, the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team’s upset of the Soviet Union on the way to the gold medal is one of those “Where were you when …” moments. But you don’t need Al Michaels to have asked if you believe in miracles to appreciate it.

A second generation of Americans is trying to glean anything it can from that time, whether it be from a movie based on it or a living, breathing disciple of it.

“I can’t tell you how many coaches that have called me before the big game, ‘Can you say something to my team?’ ” said U.S. team captain Mike Eruzione, 65, who scored the winning goal midway through the third period to beat the Soviets 4-3. “I just think it’s something they can look at and can think that, ‘If they did it, we can do it.’

“If you would see the letters that I get in the mail, and I get a ton of letters, it’ll always start out, ‘Although I was not born in 1980, I heard about this; I watched the movie “Miracle”; my grandfather told me about it; I watched the HBO documentary.’

“And I think still that message of what makes this country so great is that underdogs could accomplish anything, can still accomplish it.”

Americans love an underdog. It seems inherent. Maybe it dates to the Revolutionary War, when our ancestors pulled off a pretty big upset themselves. Like the U.S. team, the colonists lacked the experience of their combatants yet rose to the occasion of their new nation. If you studied American history — or saw “Hamilton” —you can see the similarities.

The U.S. team was the youngest in the tournament, made up mostly of college kids. The Soviets had won the last four gold medals and were mostly professionals loaded with international experience.

The story of the “Miracle on Ice” is still alive because people keep talking about. Eruzione can’t walk through an airport without being asked, “Do you believe in miracles?” He and Michaels, who called the game on ABC, hear it walking down the fairway at celebrity golf events: “Hey, Mike. Hey, Al. Do you believe in miracles?”

“It brings so much joy to so many people to this day. They love to talk about it,” said Michaels, 75. “I know I’ve been asked this a hundred thousand times: ‘Do you ever get tired of talking about it?’ The answer is no, because people love to talk about it.”

Michaels has an underdog story, too. He had broadcast one hockey game in his life before the 1980 Olympics, and that was in 1972, when the Soviets and Czechoslovakia played for the gold medal in Sapporo, Japan.

What’s more, ABC Sports president Roone Arledge had a deep roster of announcers to choose from to call the hockey tournament: Howard Cosell, Bill Fleming, Frank Gifford, Keith Jackson, Jim McKay, Chris Schenkel, et al. But Michaels was the only one who had called hockey.

“I knew what icing and offsides were,” said Michaels, who grew up going to New York Rangers games with his father. “You didn’t need to know much more than icing and offsides and just do the rudimentary play-by-play.

“You talk about getting fortunate. As I tell people to this day, there were not a lot of miracles on the biathlon course. I could have been assigned to that.”

Instead, Michaels gave us the greatest call in the history of sports broadcasting.And it came off the cuff.

“To think about what would be said at the end of the game or how it would be said never could enter my mind as the Soviets are putting pressure on,” Michaels said of the game’s final minutes. “I’ve got to call it pass by pass, shot by shot.

“And then just serendipitous that with six or seven seconds to go, the puck comes out to center ice, and now the game is going to be over. And the word that popped into my head was ‘miraculous.’ It got morphed into a question and quick answer [‘Yes!’], and away we went.”

But Eruzione thinks Michaels topped himself with his call two days later, when the team beat Finland for the gold medal. Eruzione believes people have forgotten that the Americans could have left Lake Placid, New York, without a medal if they had lost to the Finns or without the gold if they had tied because of the round-robin format of the medal round.

“I never thought [beating the Soviets] was a miracle,” Eruzione said. “It was a catchy phrase, and it sounded right. I thought Al’s best call, which I thought got lost in this whole thing, was ‘This impossible dream comes true,’ when we beat Finland.

“Because it was an impossible dream.”

And Eruzione hopes others can use his team’s underdog story, even as it turns 40, as inspiration for their own.

“I think the moment still stands to young boys and young girls and young men and young women that look what our team did, and maybe they can do the same thing,” he said.

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