GLENDALE, Ariz. – Hockey wasn’t really that big of a deal to Americans in the lead-up to the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
After all, why should it be? The Americans didn’t medal in the 1976 games and everyone, and I mean everyone, knew the Soviet Union was going to win. How could they not? They had won 27 of their last 29 Olympic games since 1960 and had outscored their opponents by a total of 175-44.
The Americans, meanwhile, hadn’t medaled since winning gold in ’60 by beating the Canadians. Surely there were more important games for the United States to concentrate on, and a little thing called the Cold War.
Then it happened. Friday, Feb. 22, 1980, a team of young Americans dethroned an iron-strong Soviet team en route to winning a gold medal. All of a sudden, the entire country was a hockey fan. And thus began the growth of American hockey.
And if you ask some of the players on that gold medal team, they know they deserve some credit. After all, everyone knows Miracle Boys now. Few did then.
“There are more people here than after we won in 1980,” captain Mike Eruzione joked at the start of a press conference Friday.
But after that win, the entire nation celebrated some little-known players. After all, they had beaten the best team in the world, the “commie bastards” as one woman called them when writing to the team.
Since that win, hockey has exploded in America. The league is expanding. The fan base is growing. And the country is producing world-class players.
“We go into a tournament now, not as an underdog, but we’re a favorite and if we don’t medal in Sochi, it’ll be a disappointment (to the current American team),” Eruzione said
That sentiment began after Lake Placid.
“Back in 1980, there wasn’t that many Americans in the National Hockey League,” said winger Buzz Schneider. “I think we opened up a lot of doors to a lot of players and opportunities for young kids to play in the National Hockey League, so maybe we did have a little small part in that.”
“I think that, in 1980, the NHL looked at now all of a sudden college players being able to play the game as well as Americans, but when you look at the players today, they’re good. And they’re talented,” said Eruzione.
Way more than a small part.
The current talent pool of American hockey players is up there with the best. Players like Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres garner international attention. They’re stars who walked through the door opened by Eruzione and his boys.
“In 1980, we might have opened the door, but I think today’s players knock the door down,” he said.
But could that team be even better? Eruzione thinks it may be.
“What I don’t like, and I’m still not convinced it’s conducive to the best team, and I say that because they don’t practice, they don’t spend any time together,” he said.
Coming from the captain of a team that still gels well, that’s a statement. Hockey is a team sport, embodied by the medal win when Rizzo was joined by his entire team on the podium.
And the Americans certainly won’t be without their challenges in Sochi.
“It’s an adjustment for North American teams to go over and get used to…a bigger rink,” he said. “I think Europeans have the advantage because they grew up on that ice.”
Advantage? Maybe. But didn’t the Soviets have the advantage when they took to the ice in Lake Placid against a young, inexperienced American team? I’m pretty sure we all know how that one turned out.