It’s been a fun three days, but it’s crazy to think that events like Hockey Weekend Across America may not exist if it weren’t for the Miracle on Ice that took place exactly 35 years ago today.
“It has been an incredible 35 years from my standpoint,” said the captain of Team USA, Mike Eruzione. “I think where hockey has come now, I’ve said many times – in ’80 we might have opened the door and today’s players have knocked the door down. It’s great to see the success of our programs going into tournaments as one of the favorites, not just a country that has a chance. We’re a country that can compete at the level of all the world powers, men and women, so it’s great to see.”
On Sunday, Feb. 22, 1980, the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team – which consisted of a bunch of college kids handpicked by legendary USA Hockey head coach Herb Brooks – shocked the world by beating the Soviet Union, 4-3, at the tournament in Lake Placid.
It’s one of the greatest upsets in all of sports history, as the Americans had been given virtually no chance against the mighty Russians, a veteran team – a machine – who had dominated international hockey for years and had beaten Team USA, 10-3, in an exhibition game the week before.
It was a moment that meant so much to a country who was looking for something to feel good about, as they were in the midst of a lengthy hostage crisis in Iran and an oil shortage that forced the government to ration gas.
“All across the United States, someone comes up to me and has a story to tell,” Eruzione said. “It’s usually, ‘I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up, I remember where I was on 9-11 and then I remember where I was when we won.’
“That’s what the moment meant to so many people in this country. There aren’t many sporting events that touch the lives of a country like ours did and especially the sport of ice hockey. It was not a popular game in the 70s and 80s. To think that a moment can capture the spirit of a nation, is something that I think my teammates and I have great pride in knowing that we were a part of.”
Three of the most instrumental members of that group – Brooks, his assistant Craig Patrick and star player Mark Johnson – are all connected to the Penguins.
Patrick – who was the Penguins general manager from 1989-2006 and whose tenure included building the organization’s first two Stanley Cup teams and drafting Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – may have been the unsung hero of the team’s win. Even with all the time that’s passed, Johnson still laughs when recalling the dynamic between him and Brooks.
“Without Craig, I’m not sure if we would have made it through the six months we traveled around to play hockey for 60 exhibition games (before the Olympics),” Johnson joked on a conference call earlier this week, which elicited chuckles from Eruzione.
Brooks, one of the sharpest and most innovative minds the game has ever seen, was a master motivator who pushed the team hard – really hard – and knew how to get the most out of each player. He kept his distance from them, and because of that, Patrick became the liaison between the head coach and his team.
“He was sort of the go-to guy because obviously Herbie took a tough stance from Day 1 in regards to what he wanted to do and the way he was going to go about doing it,” Johnson said. “So for a lot of our players, Craig was not only a coach to us, he became someone you could talk to and he could provide answers – most of the time anyways (laughs). Sometimes Herb was a little challenging to read.
“As we came to the rink, some days you didn’t know what was going to happen. And certainly a lot of players would go over to Craig and say ‘hey, what’s going on?’ And he would provide an answer, most of the time, that would I think relax us and get us to the point that we could actually go put our skates on and go practice. So he was instrumental.”
Brooks was incredibly hard on them, putting them through months of rigorous training both on and off the ice going into the tournament in Lake Placid that continued once they got there.
Following a lackluster effort against Norway one evening, Brooks was so livid he sent the team onto the ice after the game was over and ordered them through “Herbies,” an intense conditioning drill. He kept skating them even after the arena manager had turned off the lights.
It wasn’t until the final 20 minutes of the Russian game that it became apparent there was a method to the madness. With the Americans trailing 3-2 about halfway through the third period, Johnson and Eruzione both tallied within a short span to give Team USA the lead. From there, they had to somehow, someway hold onto it for 10 excruciatingly long minutes. That’s when they realized they had the conditioning to do so.
“I’ve always said, we had a maniac for a coach but he knew what he was doing,” Johnson said. “And at some point, we all had to trust what he was going to do as far as the preparation. I don’t think a lot of us might have realized it, but when we got to the third period of the Russian game and all of a sudden we’re ahead and we’re able to skate with them, everything started to click in as in oh, that’s why we did all those Herbies.
“That’s why he skated us so much, because we were in such good shape that at that point in our season and in that crucial moment, we had an opportunity to close the deal and certainly history shows it was certainly a special event.”
As the final seconds ticked away, broadcaster Al Michaels uttered his famous call. “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
The Americans believed in themselves the entire time.
“I thought we played maybe even a little better than they did the last 10 minutes and that was because of our speed and our conditioning.,” Eruzione said. “I think that’s a tribute to Herb and the kind of practices that we went through. Our team never got rattled, we never got frustrated and we never got nervous. I think we were pretty confident. I think we had a great deal of trust in what Herb was doing, and we had a great deal of trust in each other.”
After Patrick became general manager of the Penguins, he hired Johnson’s father, “Badger” Bob Johnson, as head coach of the team – who led them to their first Stanley Cup in the spring of 1991 before he died of brain cancer that fall.
It worked out that Badger was able to travel across the country to Lake Placid to witness his son’s incredible two-goal performance against the Soviets in person.
“My dad was coaching at Wisconsin at the time and had his team out at Colorado College playing against the Tigers,” said Mark, who was actually drafted by the Penguins three years before leading Team USA in scoring at the 1980 Olympics as they took him in the fourth round (66th overall) back in 1977.
“CC’s team was coached by Jeff Sauer, who would later coach 20-plus years at Wisconsin and was good friends with my dad. And after we beat Russia on Friday and their game completed Friday night in Colorado Springs, Jeff and a bunch of other people convinced my dad that he didn’t have to hang around on Saturday and coach his Badger team. They figured out how to get him in Lake Placid. So he arrived I think early Sunday morning into Lake Placid and having coached the ’76 Olympic Team, he got a chance to watch our gold medal game. Certainly thankful that that happened and I know it was a special moment for him as well. Lot of smiles when we think of 1980.”
Patrick later brought Brooks back years later as a front office executive and interim coach. When Brooks died in a car accident on Aug. 18, 2003, he was the Penguins’ director of player personnel.
“I think his relationship with Herb was obviously very good,” Johnson said. “Eventually when he became GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he brought Herbie in. So I think that friendship that developed in 1980 was strong and I think as Herb got to understand Craig and realize the talent that Craig had, not only from a coaching perspective, but from a visual of how to pick talent down to players and the chemistry amongst players, obviously he was very good at it so we were blessed to have Craig.”
To this day, the Miracle on Ice still elicits so much emotion not just from the people who watched it happen live, but the generations after.
“There’s not one particular story I can bring up because there have been so many,” Eruzione said. “People will come up and talk to me and sometimes break down crying because it might have been the last moment they spent with their mom and dad or aunt and uncle, grandfather or grandmother where they sat in front of a television and watched that game.
“So it really has been an incredible 35 years. I can’t wait for 40, 50 and 60.”