"I think if you ask many people in (the United States) who we beat to win the gold medal, everybody would say the Soviets, but the biggest game for us was still against Finland."
-- Mike Eruzione
Mike Eruzione scored what arguably is the most important goal in United States Olympic hockey history, but did Eruzione's goal in a game against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics give the Americans the gold medal?
If you ask a good number of people, the surprising answer is yes. But the real answer is that Eruzione's goal didn't even take place in the gold-medal game.
But sometimes it is better not to let facts get in the way of a good story. The 1980 USA team has been the subject of two movies and a good number of books and stories. The young Americans of 1980, most of whom were college players, somehow ended up being in the center of the Cold War. They were just concerned with hockey, not the stuff going on between the White House in Washington, D. C., and the Kremlin in Moscow.
The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, which had infuriated U.S. President Jimmy Carter. While hockey really doesn't have much to do with affairs of state, the U.S. hockey team became instant heroes.
But for USA coach Herb Brooks and Eruzione, Carter, the Kremlin and Afghanistan belonged to another world. The team had one goal, beating the Soviets -- a team comparable in talent to the 1976-79 Montreal Canadiens
' Stanley Cup teams.
The Soviets had stars -- Vladislav Tretiak
in goal, Viacheslav Fetisov
on defense and a bunch of snipers up front. The Soviets had talent and international experience. The Americans had a team devoid of NHL players -- all college kids plus one veteran minor pro in Eruzione.
The Americans were demolished by the Soviets 10-3 in an Olympic tune-up game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 9.
On the Friday afternoon in Lake Placid, N.Y., when they were scheduled to meet in the semifinals, ABC decided to broadcast the game on tape delay. Some Americans who lived near the U.S.-Canada border were able to watch the game live on CBC. It was assumed the Soviets again easily would handle the Americans and would face Finland or Sweden for the gold medal Sunday.
As expected, the Soviets took an early 1-0 lead, but the Americans tied it. The Soviets regained the lead, but Mark Johnson
scored with one second left in the first period to even the contest. Aleksandr Maltsev put the Soviets ahead 3-2 at 2:18 of the second period, but Johnson tied the game at 3-3 with a goal at 8:39 of the third period.
Less than two minutes later, Eruzione became an unlikely hero with help from Soviet defenseman Sergei Starikov
"Buzzy Schneider shot the puck in the zone and my shift was up next," said Eruzione. "Buzzy came over to the boards and it was my turn to jump over and I jumped over. The way the puck developed, it went behind the net, John Harrington
tapped it around the boards to Mark Pavelich
who deflected it into the slot which is where I was coming into the picture. I picked up the puck and there was a defenseman (Starikov) in front of me.
"My two thoughts were one, if he comes at me I will pass the puck by him to John Harrington
or Billy Baker who was breaking to the net, and the other thought was, if he stays there, I will shoot and use him as a screen. He stood, I shot.
"It went in."
All of a sudden the Americans had the lead, but there was a lot of time left in the contest and the Soviets certainly had the firepower to overwhelm American goaltender Jim Craig and a young American defense that included Ken Morrow
, Mike Ramsay, Baker and other inexperienced players.
"We were up, that's the first thing I thought of, we now have the lead," said Eruzione, the U.S. captain. "Hopefully we can hold onto the lead and win the game.
"The Soviets were such an explosive team that you know you can't just sit on that one-goal lead. They could have scored five goals in the next 10 minutes. It was nice, it gave us the lead and gave us a little momentum swing and I think that was very helpful."
Eruzione's goal seemed to have crushed the Soviets, or at least put the opponent on its heels.
"They had never been behind before to that point (in the Lake Placid tourney)," Eruzione said. "The whole game was a struggle for them. Although they played well in the first period, I think they could feel the momentum swing and things starting to come our way, and that was a big lift for us and I think it may have caught them by surprise a little and they never rallied from it."
After defeating the Russians, the Americans beat Finland 4-2 in the gold-medal game.
"I think if you ask many people in this country (the United States) who we beat to win the gold medal, everybody would say the Soviets, but the biggest game for us was still against Finland and we went out played a good hockey game, but a lot of people think it was the Soviet game," Eruzione said. "Well, if they (people unfamiliar with the real story) tell me it was, I say OK it was, I am not going to argue with anybody. But I just tell them, no, it wasn't, it was the semifinal game, but I think a lot of people got caught up in the excitement of it being the Soviet Union and they like to remember that was the team we beat rather than Finland."
Eruzione's goal might not have won a gold medal, but it remains the most important score in United States hockey history, and anyway, sometimes facts shouldn't get in the way of a great story like the "Miracle on Ice."