Over the years, Mike Eruzione has become close friends with Mario Lemieux. So last season, when Mario's son Austin - a forward for the Arizona State men's hockey team - was in Massachusetts to play at Eruzione's alma mater of Boston University, they attended the game together.
Eruzione brought his wife and his 6-year-old grandson, who is just starting to get into hockey. As they walked to meet the Lemieux family in a suite after arriving at Agganis Arena, people stopped the captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team for photos and autographs.
"My grandson looks at my wife and says, 'Nana, how come people want to take Papa's picture?' She goes, 'Well, he's pretty popular around here because he went to school here and he played hockey here,'" Eruzione said.
"After the game was over, people must have realized Mario was there. He walks out and people want to take his picture. My grandson looks at my wife and says, 'Nana, him too?!' I went, 'I think he was a little better than Papa' (laughs)."
Eruzione recounted this story to members of the media at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center on Tuesday, as he is in town for the Penguins' Miracle on Ice 40th Anniversary Celebration tonight when the team hosts the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While Eruzione may not have went on to have quite the career Lemieux did, he still played an integral role in one of the most iconic moments in sports history. On Feb. 22, 1980, Eruzione scored the winning goal in Team USA's 4-3 upset victory over the juggernaut Soviet Union in the first game of the medal round in the Winter Olympic Games held in Lake Placid, N.Y. The Americans went on to defeat Finland in the Gold Medal Game.
He will be joined in sharing stories from that improbable run by Craig Patrick, the assistant coach of Team USA who went on to serve as general manager and occasional head coach of the Penguins between 1989-2006 and is currently a scout with the organization.
"Thanks to the Penguins for bringing me back with Craig Patrick," Eruzione said. "It's always great to be here. I've been here many, many times over the years. I'm happy and excited. This is cool."
As Patrick recounted on Friday, what stands out to him the most after all these years is the brilliance of Team USA head coach Herb Brooks and his master plan. The team was comprised of college players from Boston, Minnesota, Michigan and more who had competed against each other for national championships for years.
Brooks famously told Patrick that the only way he knew how to make this group of guys from rival schools to come together as a team is to come together against him. From the players' perspective, Eruzione said they never truly realized what Brooks was up to until after it was all over.
"He always said, 'There's a method to my madness,'" Eruzione said. "And we were trying to figure out what it was. When the smoke cleared and we ended up winning the whole thing, you look back to that third period - all those skating drills, all the conditioning we did all year clearly paid off. We wore teams down in the third period. What he was doing throughout the year, all the strategy, his coaching - he was way ahead of his time. The way the NHL is played today, that's how Herb was coaching us in 1980. He was a brilliant coach and a great motivator. He was the right guy with the right players."
But as Eruzione went on to point out, what gets lost in the shuffle in how important Patrick was to their team.
"Craig wasn't that much older than some of the players," Eruzione said. "So we related to Craig. He was important. When Herb was just kind of grinding at you, we would say, 'Hey Craig, come on, tell him to back off a little.' And Craig was that guy. He had a smile on his face and yet had tremendous respect from our team even though he was such a young guy. But we understood what Craig's role was and how important it was. He was a big asset to us. When we needed somebody to go to, it would be Craig."
The Penguins were fortunate enough to have both Patrick and Brooks join the organization following that victory which changed the entire landscape of American hockey forever. Patrick crafted two Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and '92 and drafted franchise cornerstones Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Brooks tragically passed away in a car accident in 2003 while serving as a Penguins scout since 1996 and having a brief stint as head coach during the 1999-00 season. Eruzione said that in the years up to that point, Brooks stayed true to form.
"He let us enjoy all the moments," Eruzione said. "People said, how come he never jumped on the ice after we won? Well, if he did, it would have been oh, now you want to be our friend, now you want to be close? He totally stayed away and let us enjoy all the success and the stories that we've had. I think it was hard for him. I think he would have loved hanging around. I think he would have loved to go out and have a few beers with us after winning the gold medal."
Eruzione and his teammates had no clue at the time how significant their accomplishment would be. To them - and a lot of people - it was just a hockey game. But to a lot more people who were looking to feel good about something in a difficult political climate, it inspired hope in a brighter future.
"That moment captured the spirit of a country," Eruzione said. "We didn't know about it until maybe a few weeks after the Olympic Games as I got out into the country and realized 'Wow, this thing was pretty big.'"
It's been amazing for him to see how the story still lives fresh in hockey fans' memories 40 years later, thanks in part to the movie "Miracle."
"I get letters from kids who are 8, 9 years old and have watched the movie and want an autographed picture, kids who have gone to Lake Placid and played in some of the hockey camps up there - they all want a piece of it," Eruzione said. "They want to know more about it. It's just great to see the legs that it has had for us as a team."