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Quality of Olympic hockey at its peak, but teams like 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ squad a thing of the past

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Thirty-four years later, he still utters the words with the utmost confidence for what his team miraculously accomplished inside a 11,000-seat arena from Feb. 12-24, 1980.

“People always say the Dallas Cowboys were America’s team, but we were America’s team,” said Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 United States men’s hockey team.

They certainly were, and frankly, still are.

Amid political tensions that hovered over the Lake Placid Winter Games, Eruzione and a band of 19 former college hockey players managed to captivate a domestic audience — albeit a delayed one — with a two-week run that will live forever in sports lore.

Blame it on the infusion of professional athletes, the lack of continuity among respective teams or the absence of genuine political friction between hockey super powers, regardless, what that group of 20-somethings representing the stars and stripes achieved will likely remain unmatched in the modern-day version of the Winter Olympics.

The indelible moments from Eruzione and Co.’s 12-day march to glory — whether it be the final seconds ticking down in the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal victory over the heavily-favored Soviet Union or the podium celebration after the 4-2 Gold Medal-clinching triumph over Finland — still remain alive in the collective conscious of Americans both young and old, but they were born as much out of months of strategic planning and preparation as they were out of spontaneity.

It’s the type of preparation that no longer exists across the board under the current international hockey format — which is why members of the 1980 squad don’t expect any new miracles to crop up in Sochi or any games taking place in the foreseeable future.

“The skill [in Sochi] is unbelievable,” Eruzione said before 10 members from the “Miracle on Ice” team were honored by the Phoenix Coyotes in a pre-game ceremony Friday night. “You saw it in Vancouver and in Salt Lake City, they can play. They play at a different level. But I don’t like it, because I’m still not convinced it’s conducive to the best team. I say that because they don’t practice. They don’t spend any time together. We’ve never won a Gold Medal on an Olympic sheet of ice — Canadian or United States — since 1980.

“Canada won in Vancouver, where it was an NHL sheet of ice. Canada won in Salt Lake City, which is kind of an NHL sheet of ice but maybe a little bigger. But Torino [in 2006] and Nagano [in 1998] were won by European countries. So to me, I think it’s an adjustment for the North American teams going over. It’s an adjustment [getting used to] a 15-foot wider arena and a longer, bigger rink. I think the European teams have an advantage, because they grew up on that sheet of ice.”

Before the U.S. men’s hockey team stunned the Soviets and Fins en route to its first Olympic Gold since 1960, it trained for six months under the direction of Herb Brooks and Craig Patrick. During that span, the Americans endured a rigorous 60-plus-game exhibition schedule that included games in the states and overseas.

The purist in Eruzione admittedly would like the Olympics to recapture that sense of camaraderie and level playing field every four years — unrealistic as it may be.

“If they want to see the best team in the world, go back to the World Cup or Canada Cup and let them practice together for a month not one day,” said Eruzione. “Here, they’re probably going to go and they’re going to play. Hence, countries like Switzerland and countries that have been training together for the last year or two years may upset somebody early. Eventually, the top teams come together at the end.

“I would like to see it go back to the old ways, whether it’s amateurs, juniors, whatever you want to do. I still think the best teams in the world should be able to practice together for a few days.”

One of Eruzione’s 1980 teammates, Neil Broten, however, remains torn.

The old-school Broten, an 18-year NHL veteran with the Minnesota North Stars, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings, noted that while he loves the innocence that comes into play with amateurism, he also finds himself mesmerized by the spectacle of watching elite talent go head-to-head.

“When we came up, we were all amateurs,” said Broten, who won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1995. “I like that old, traditional style. But to watch pure hockey when the pros are playing the pros, it’s the best hockey in the world. I like watching that, but I also liked when we were coming up in 1980. You can look at it both ways.

“I liked the amateurs, because they got the thrill of playing college hockey and then had the potential of making an Olympic team and playing in an Olympics. For pure hockey, though, it’s fun to watch when you have the best players in the world playing.”