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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 impact was the thing. One morning they were 19 fuzzy-cheeked college kids and a tall guy with a beard, and the next.... We beat the Russians! In Babbitt, Minn., hometown of forward Buzz Schneider, guys went into their backyards and began firing shotguns toward the heavens. Kaboom! Kaboom! We beat the Russians! In Santa Monica, Calif., a photographer heard the outcome of the game and went into his local grocery store, a mom-and-pop operation run by an elderly immigrant couple. "Guess what," he said. "Our boys beat the Russians." The old grocer looked at him. "No kidding?" Then he started to cry. "No kidding?"

In Winthrop, Mass., 70 people gathered outside the home of Mike Eruzione, who had scored the winning goal, and croaked out the national anthem. Not God Bless America, which is what the players were singing in Lake Placid. The Star-Spangled Banner.

One man was listening to the game in his car, driving through a thunderstorm, with the U.S. clinging to a 4-3 lead. He kept pounding his hands on the steering wheel in excitement. Finally he pulled off the highway and listened as the countdown started...5...4...3...2...1.... We beat the Russians! He started to honk his horn. He yelled inside his car. It felt absolutely wonderful. He got out and started to scream in the rain. There were 10 other drivers yelling their fool heads off in the rain. They made a huddle, and then they hollered together—We beat the Russians! Perfect strangers dancing beside the highway with 18-wheelers zooming by and spraying them with grime.

We. The U.S. Olympic hockey team wasn't a bunch of weird, freaky commando types. They were our boys. Clean-cut kids from small towns, well-groomed and good-looking, who loved their folks and liked to drink a little beer. Our boys. Young men molded by a coach who wasn't afraid to preach the values of the good old Protestant work ethic, while ever prepared to stuff a hockey stick down an offending opponent's throat. And don't think that didn't matter, given the political climate at the time—the hostages, Afghanistan, the pending Olympic boycott of the Moscow Games.

But there was more to the story than the moment of victory.

The members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team weren't named Sportsmen of the Year because of the 60 minutes they played one Friday afternoon in February. The game with the Soviet Union meant nothing to the players politically. Even its impact was largely lost on them until much later, confined as they were to the Olympic Village in Lake Placid, listening to one dinky local radio station and reading no newspapers. "If people want to think that performance was for our country, that's fine," says Mark Pavelich, the small, quiet forward who set up Eruzione's winning goal. "But the truth of the matter is, it was just a hockey game. There was enough to worry about without worrying about Afghanistan or winning it for the pride and glory of the United States. We wanted to win it for ourselves."

Not ourselves as in I, me, mine. Ourselves the team. Individually, they were fine, dedicated sportsmen. Some will have excellent pro hockey careers. Others will bust. But collectively they were a transcendent lot. For seven months they pushed each other on and pulled each other along, from rung to rung, until for two weeks in February they—a bunch of unheralded amateurs—became the best hockey team in the world. The best team. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts by a mile. And they were not just a team, they were a perfect reflection of how Americans wanted to perceive themselves. By gum, it's still in us! It was certainly still in them. So for reminding us of some things, and for briefly brightening the days of 220 million people, we doff our caps to them, in toto, Sportsmen of the Year.

Leadership, of course, was the key. These guys didn't descend on their skates from a mountaintop preaching teamwork and brotherhood. Are you kidding? They were all stars, la crème de la crème. Many had egos yea big and heads the size of pumpkins. Fifteen of the 20 had been drafted by NHL clubs and considered the Games a stepping-stone to the big time. They could showcase their individual talents, prove they could handle a grueling schedule, and, thank-you-bub, where do I sign? Herb Brooks, the coach, made it the most painful stepping-stone of their lives.

"He treated us all the same," says every last member of the team. "Rotten."

Karl Maiden, the actor who plays Brooks in the forthcoming ABC-TV movie on the team, Miracle on Ice, has never met Brooks, but he has studied him on videotape, especially his eyes. "I'd hate to meet him in a dark alley," Maiden says. "I think he's a little on the neurotic side. Maybe more than a little. Any moment you think he's going to jump out of his skin."

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