(Originally Published March 2000)
By Harry Thompson
China may be the traditional gift for a 20th anniversary, but every Feb. 24 is a golden celebration for USA Hockey.
It was 20 years ago that a team of American college hockey players shocked the world and united a nation by winning the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
There have been significant changes in the hockey landscape over the last 20 years. Some members of the golden group went on to play in the NHL or in Europe, while others found new avocations in such varied fields as insurance, the bond market and broadcasting. The Olympics entered a new era as professional hockey players now dress out in national colors for a star-studded tournament. The players grew bigger and the game got faster. But nothing can take away from what took place in Lake Placid, and what it meant to millions of Americans and to the growth of USA Hockey.
The game enjoyed a coming of age in 1960 when a spirited American squad upset the powerful Russians and Canadians to win the gold in Squaw Valley. The "Miracle on Ice" in 1980, helped by network television, captured the hearts of a nation caught up in this real life "Rocky" played out on skates. As much as was made of the underdog nature of this team, the fact remained that this was a team of talented, well-coached and well-conditioned athletes who did not win by luck alone.
"In 1960 they clearly showed that Americans were good enough to play at the next level but still weren't given the opportunity," said team captain Mike Eruzione.
"In 1980 we opened those eyes again. It also showed once again that Americans could play. For years people didn't give Americans an opportunity in the National Hockey League and thought we were just kids who played college hockey.
"Now you look at NHL rosters and you see so many American players. I think maybe we had a little to do with that. What we did in 80 was one level, and you look at what the young American players are doing today when you look at NHL rosters today, they brought it to a level beyond what we did."
Along the way, the events of Lake Placid may have laid the foundation for expansion of hockey to other parts of the country that had never been caught up in it before. As the tournament went on and the Americans built steam through the preliminary round, the games transfixed American television audiences and transformed them from hockey novices to hockey nuts overnight.
Eventually, these 20 players who weren't known outside of Madison, Wis., Boston and Minnesota were suddenly household names. Even coach Herb Brooks, with his checkered sports coats and his unique sayings, known as Herbisms, became an overnight celebrity even though he won three National Championships as coach of the University of Minnesota.
While most of the players on that team may have quickly slipped back into oblivion, the effects of that gold medal effort took roots in parts of the country where hockey was a foreign as Swedish meatballs.
"I think more kids have an opportunity to play because of what we accomplished," said Eruzione, who fired the shot that sank the Russians. "It popularized the sport in terms of people starting to see the game in markets where we never had it before. It showed people that, one, it's a great game, and that it doesn't have to be played by kids in certain areas."
The historic ties that brought the players together in 1980 binds them still. Eruzione, a color commentator for Boston University hockey games, sees his teammates and friends as he crosses the country. In addition to working with his alma mater, the Boston native also does motivational speeches and is working with an Internet start up company called GymAmerica.com.
"Since 80 we've had sporadic moments where we've had eight guys here or ten guys there," Eruzione said.
Their biggest reunion came in December in New York when Sports Illustrated honored the team with an award for the greatest sports moment of the century.
"It was pretty special. We as a team never had an idea that what we accomplished was as big as it was," he said.
It's obviously a great feeling of pride knowing that not only touched my life but also touched so many people's lives in a positive way. That to me was very special."
To mark the 20th anniversary, the U.S. team stages their own celebration in South Carolina, where Jack O'Callahan is arranging a fishing and golf getaway for the 20 players of the team.
While the names Pavalich, Johnson, Craig and Morrow may have slipped back into anonymity of America's sporting consciousness, the accomplishment continues to stand the test of time. Since 1980, there have been more talented and perhaps better-coached teams that have failed to bring home the hardware. In Eruzione's eyes, it just goes to show how difficult it is to put it all together for two-week Olympic tournament.
"Obviously things fell into place for us," he said. "There have been some awfully good U.S. teams that have gone over there and some have played outstanding hockey and didn't fare well and others haven't played as well.
"I think the team that came after us in '84 had a very difficult row to hoe. People wanted to see what we accomplished happen again. I think Americans have to realize it's not easy to win that, and when you do it's something that's unique and special."
Especially now, as the 20th anniversary brings the footage of Olympic glory back into focus, Eruzione still refuses to step back in time. He has all seven games on videotape back home, but they have never seen the light of day. Maybe some day he'll get nostalgic and watch the tape of his 25-foot wrist shot that beat Russian goalie Vladimir Myshkin.
"It was 20 years ago and life has moved on," he said.
For now he's happy to use a montage of clips in his new role as a motivational speaker.
"I talk about how important teamwork is in achieving your goals," Eruzione said. "Obviously if you're in business you need that chemistry and that teamwork to reach your goals. That's what we had 20 years earlier. Not only were our abilities pretty good but we had a great work ethic and a great chemistry."
There's a note of sadness in Eruzione's voice when he talks about NHL players in the Olympics these days. . With two weeks to get ready there's no time to build the camaraderie that was established in 1980. The big dreams of a collection of college kids have given way to lofty expectations when millionaires merge for two weeks. Just as USA Hockey has grown up over the past 20 years, so to have the Olympics. Eruzione, who was a commentator for ABC Sports at the 1984 and 88 Games, knows this is a fact of life.
"I would like to see the Olympics go back to what they were when they let the college or amateur kids play. But I'm also a realist and I understand that the Olympic Games of the 2000s aren't the same Games of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Times have changed and the corporate dollar is so powerful and how much money they spend for the rights to put these games on," he said.
"I think if you polled 100 people, you'd get 50 who'd say they want them and 50 who said they didn't want them. Although I don't like to see it, I'm still sitting in front of my TV set when the games begin hoping that these kids can go out and do what we accomplished. If they do, again, it sends a message to the hockey world how good American hockey players are."