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A Reminder of What We Can Be
E.M. Swift
February 21, 1994
The stirring upset victory by the 1980 U.S. hockey team, recounted in this SI Classic, made those Olympians our Sportsmen of the Year
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February 21, 1994

A Reminder Of What We Can Be

The stirring upset victory by the 1980 U.S. hockey team, recounted in this SI Classic, made those Olympians our Sportsmen of the Year

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"The Russians were ready to cut their own throats," says Brooks. "But we had to get to the point to be ready to pick up the knife and hand it to them. So the morning of the game I called the team together and told them, 'It's meant to be. This is your moment, and it's going to happen.' It's kind of corny, and I could see them thinking, Here goes Herb again.... But I believed it."

The idea was to stay close. "It was in the backs of our minds that we might win," recalls Schneider, "but nobody would say it. They'd think you were off your rocker." Craig made some big saves early, but the Russians scored first. Five minutes later Schneider tied it on a 50-foot shot from the left boards. The Soviets took the lead again, but with one second left in the first period Johnson scored to make it 2-2. That was a big goal. When the Russians came out for the second period, Vladislav Tretiak no longer was in goal; he'd been yanked. Vladimir Myshkin was in the nets, the same Myshkin who had shut out the NHL All-Stars in the '79 Challenge Cup. The Soviets got the only goal of the second period and outshot the Americans 12-2.

Brooks told his players to divide the third period into four five-minute segments. They didn't have to tie the game in the first segment, or even the second. There was lots of time. Stay with them. Make them skate. The first five minutes of the third period were scoreless. Then at 8:39 Mark Johnson tied the game 3-3 on a power play. Bedlam. Go, clock, go! "I remember thinking we might actually have a chance to tie," says Pavelich. But the U.S. team had barely had a chance to think of that improbability when Eruzione scored what Harrington calls "one of the great slop goals of all time." The puck was behind the Soviet net and Harrington and a Soviet defenseman were battling for it. Somehow the puck squirted along the boards to Pavelich, who hammered at it and was promptly smashed face-first into the glass. He never saw the end result. The puck caromed off the boards and slid into the slot, directly to Eruzione, whom Pavelich had not seen. Eruzione snapped a wrist shot past Myshkin. There were exactly 10 minutes to go. U.S. 4, U.S.S.R. 3.

That's how it ended. No one remembers much about those final 10 minutes except that they took forever. No one breathed. The shifts were insanely short because, by the players' admission, no one wanted to be on the ice when the Great Red Bear awoke and there was hell to pay. Craig, who had been tying up the puck at every opportunity during the tournament, slowing down the play, now wouldn't touch it. I don't want it, man, you take it! He was afraid, and rightly so, that if his teammates lined up for a face-off in their own zone and had time to think about the absurdity of leading the Russians, had time to peer up at the clock and brood about the time remaining, their knees would turn to goo.

But they never panicked. Shoot, this was a ball compared with doing Herbies in the dark. Indeed, if anyone panicked it was the Russians, who misfired shots, who started to throw in the puck and chase it—NHL hockey, by gosh—and who, at the end, never pulled their goalie, never gave it that last desperate try that the U.S. had made work against Sweden.

And then it was over. The horn sounded, and there was that unforgettable scene of triumph, the rolling and hugging and flinging of sticks. The flags. My god, what a sight. There was the shaking of hands, the staggered, reluctant exit from the ice. But it wasn't until the U.S. players were back in the locker room that the enormity of what they had done hit them. "It was absolutely quiet," recalls Janaszak. "Some guys were crying a little. You got the idea that the game wasn't over yet, because no one is ever up a goal on the Russians when a game is over. No one really believed it."

It was then that somebody started a chorus of God Bless America, 20 sweaty guys in hockey uniforms chanting, "...from the mountains, to the valleys, no-na-na-na-na, na-na-na...!" Nobody knew the words. And where was Brooks? Holed up in the men's room, afraid to come out and ruin their celebration. "I almost started to cry," he says. "It was the most emotional moment I'd ever seen. Finally I snuck out into the hall, and the state troopers were all standing there crying. Now where do you go?"

Of course, the tournament wasn't over yet. If the U.S. had lost to the Finns on Sunday, it would have finished in fourth place. No medal. Brooks came into the locker room on Saturday, took one look at guys signing sticks and pictures, and began throwing things around and telling them, "You aren't good enough for all this attention! You're too damn young! You don't have the talent!" So the eyes rolled and the lips buttoned—but they listened because what he was saying was obvious to all of them by now. They had come too far to blow it. And on Sunday they won the gold medal by beating an excellent Finnish team 4-2, but they needed three goals in the third period to do it. Really, they weren't even worried. They knew they would do it, because if you can out-score the Russians in the third period, two goals to none, you can sure as heck outscore the Finns. They believed absolutely in themselves. And Verchota, McClanahan and Johnson went out and scored—bing, bing, bing.

They counted down the seconds, slapping their sticks on the boards, screaming to each other, to the refs, to the crowd. Again pandemonium, slightly less frenzied than two days before, the handshakes and the gradual retreat from the scene of their triumph. And then a bit of irony. The cameras captured the goalie, Craig, searching the crowd for his father. It brought tears; it made him a hero in the eyes of the country. But, in truth, he was searching for someone to share this moment with. Like Brooks, he was separate, apart from this team. He had no close friendships, and now he needed one.

The final, uplifting moment they gave us was at the gold medal ceremony, when Eruzione called his teammates up on the platform with him. After that they marched around the rink as if they owned the place, singing and carrying on. They were definitely not cooling it; they were happy young men. And they did own the place. They owned the whole country for a while. It just made you want to pick up your television set and take it to bed with you. It really made you feel good.

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