Magazine March 23, 2020, Issue

40 Years Later, the ‘Miracle on Ice’ Still Thrills Us

The American Olympic hockey team celebrates a 4–3 victory over the Soviet Union, February 22, 1980. (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
The Making of a Miracle: The Untold Story of the Captain of the 1980 Gold Medal–Winning U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, by Mike Eruzione with Neal E. Boudette (Harper, 288 pp., $27.99)

I’m an aficionado of sports highlights and calls, and a repeat viewer on YouTube.

There are some classics that never grow old. The Shot Heard Round the World (“The Giants win the pennant!”). The gimpy Kirk Gibson home run (“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened”). The California Golden Bears’ last-second, five-lateral kickoff return against Stanford (“The band is out on the field!”). The classic Texas high-school match-up, John Tyler versus Plano East, with the wildest finish of any football game ever played—look it up (“Oh, no!! Oh, my God!!”). And because I’m a Yankees fan of a certain age, Bucky Dent (“Deep to left . . .”).

But nothing matches the last seconds of the U.S.–Soviet Olympic hockey game in 1980, with the great Al Michaels making the call of a lifetime.

“Eleven seconds, you’ve got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? . . . Yes!”

Goosebumps.

Every. Single. Time.

The 4–3 U.S. victory in that game 40 years ago was easily the greatest American sporting event of the 20th century. It packs an extra emotional punch because of the geopolitical context and the win’s contribution to national pride at an emotional low point for the country.

I can still get verklempt watching not just those final seconds but the Mike Eruzione go-ahead goal halfway through the third (“Eruzione, he scores! Mike Eruzione!”), the iconic dog-pile celebration of the star-spangled players at the game’s end, and the St. Crispin’s Day pre-game speech of coach Herb Brooks, in which he tells his underdog team, “This moment is yours.” (There’s no video of the Brooks oration, but it is movingly enacted by Kurt Russell in the movie Miracle.)

Given my tender emotions around this event, I found myself misty-eyed a couple of times reading Eruzione’s new autobiography, The Making of a Miracle.

It is not quite, as billed in the subtitle, “the untold story” of anything. The details of Eruzione’s young hockey life may not be well known, but they run so smoothly in the ruts of a tale of an unlikely working-class American sports star that they are almost a cliché, from Eruzione’s having to use his sister’s figure skates when he started playing pick-up hockey as a kid to the lucky breaks, coupled with grit and hard work, that got him in a position to attain hockey immortality.

As for the Olympic team, any somewhat plugged-in sports fan is aware of the broad outlines of its achievement. Yet when a story is this good it is worth constant retelling, and Eruzione’s book is an enjoyable refresher (an excellent, more journalistic version from some years ago is The Boys of Winter, by Wayne Coffey).

After an accomplished hockey career at Boston University, Eruzione bounced around minor-league hockey a bit. The brawling world of the likes of the Toledo Goaldiggers took some getting used to. In his second game with Toledo, he got in a fight, although he only realized what was happening after a brief delay. His coach’s advice afterwards: “If it seems like it might be a fight, it’s a fight.”

In the fall of 1979, Eruzione was still eligible for amateur hockey and made it onto the Olympic team, which was the project of Herb Brooks, the inspired coach whose strategic genius, psychological acuity, extremely demanding style, and idiosyncratic ways made the 1980 team what it was.

As a young player, Brooks had been dropped from the 1960 U.S. Olympic team at the last minute. He watched from home as that team won a gold medal, his dad commenting, not very sensitively, “Well, I guess the coach cut the right guy.”

Brooks was obsessed with Soviet hockey and wanted to turn its insights against it. No more dump-and-chase, the one-dimensional style dominant in North America that, in effect, served constantly to turn the puck over to the exceptional skaters and passers of the Soviet team. His team would be physically tough, but would be able to skate and pass, too, and be better conditioned than anyone else, giving it better legs in the third period.

Brooks told his players that he didn’t intend to be their friends and stayed true to his word. The team had a robust exhibition schedule, and when Brooks didn’t like the effort during a 3–3 tie against the Norway team, he kept his team on the ice afterwards, running it through a murderous round of skating drills, even after the rink attendant had turned off the lights and left.

In the movie version, Brooks is trying to beat the regionalism out of his players—they brought their college rivalries with them—and doesn’t relent until Eruzione calls out his name and town: “Mike Eruzione. Winthrop, Massachusetts.” Who do you play for? Brooks asks. “The United States of America.”

It’s an affecting scene, and Eruzione reports that fans are always disappointed to learn that this exchange didn’t really happen.

The U.S. team compiled an impressive 41–16–3 record during the exhibition season. But the Soviets loomed. Since their loss in 1960, they’d won the gold at every single Olympics. During this run, their combined Olympic record was 27–1–1, and they had outscored the opposition 175–44.

When they played a best-of-three series against the NHL all-stars in 1979, they won the decisive third game 6–0.

The U.S. played its own exhibition against the Soviets at Madison Square Garden two weeks before the Olympic Games and, overawed by the legends on the other end of the ice, got manhandled 10–3. The cunning Brooks seemed uncharacteristically relaxed about the game, content for the Russians to be complacent.

At the Games themselves, the U.S. team opened against Sweden and almost stalled out before it got started. Down 2–1, with a minute left, the U.S. pulled its goalie, Jim Craig, and Bill Baker tied it up with 27 seconds left.

I remember watching the game at home on a black-and-white TV. I had become a hockey fan via the woeful Washington Capitals, still a struggling expansion team at the time, so hockey success was a strange, if welcome feeling.

In the next game, the U.S. crushed the Czechs, presumed to be the second-best team in the tournament, 7–3. America got its introduction to Herb Brooks when he was caught on camera threatening to shove a stick down a Czech player’s throat after a cheap shot on an American player.

Three more victories against inferior teams left the U.S. undefeated and on a collision course with the Soviets in the medal round. Brooks believed that the U.S. team didn’t need to be capable of winning nine out of ten games against the Soviets; it needed to win only one, and if it got the Soviets into the third period in a close contest, who knew?

That’s exactly how it played out. The U.S. emerged tied with the Soviets 2–2 after one period, survived an onslaught in the second, getting outshot 12–2 but trailing only 3–2, and then magic happened in the third.

The U.S. tied it on a power play before team captain Eruzione scored his historic goal out of nowhere. He used a Soviet defender down on his knees as a screen and didn’t see the shot go in. When he realized he’d scored, he bicycled his legs in a jig of joy and was mobbed by his teammates against the glass. (Brooks always encouraged the entire team to celebrate goals to work up the crowd.)

Eruzione’s friends joke that if his shot had been three inches to the left, his post-Olympics career would have consisted of painting bridges.

Now, it was really happening. Ten minutes of Al Michaels–narrated agony ensued as the U.S. had to protect the lead against an explosive Soviet team that, at this point, easily still could have won 6–4. Instead, they were shut down as the flag-waving, “U.S.A.!”-chanting, over-capacity crowd in the Lake Placid arena grew ever more frenzied.

When the U.S. won, Brooks didn’t celebrate with his players on the ice, but left for the locker room and locked himself in a bathroom stall and wept.

The game was played at 5 p.m., yet ABC chose to broadcast it on tape delay in prime time. Most people didn’t know in real time what had happened. (Some of the suspense was killed for me and other Washington, D.C.–area viewers when the preview for the local 11 p.m. news noted in a commercial break that the U.S. had indeed won.) When word began to get out about the upset, people gathered outside the Eruzione home, singing the national anthem.

The impact of the victory is hard to fathom. (The gold medal awaited a final win against the Finns.) People cried, they sang, they chanted, they remembered later where they were that night. Ordinary sports creates an ersatz nationalism, with fans feeling a deep connection to their own team, to its history  and its colors and its past heroes. When this sports patriotism was combined with the real thing—especially when arrayed against an aggressive, malign rival power, at a time when people were desperate to feel the satisfactions and joy of national pride again—the effect was explosive.

Eruzione has never stopped riding that wave. He didn’t make it to the NHL like some of his teammates, instead going out on the speaking circuit. He and his agent thought the speaking requests would inevitably dry up. They never have. And why should they? Mike Eruzione has become the custodian of the greatest sports story ever told. May he keep retelling it, as long as America believes in miracles.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Plano East as East Plano. 

This article appears as “The Miracle That Never Ceases” in the March 23, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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