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U.S. hockey victory over Russia an upset maybe — but no ‘Miracle’

Updated: March 15, 2014 6:33AM

Mike Eruzione insists he and his teammates were just playing hockey when the U.S. Olympic team faced the mighty Soviet Union in the 1980 Games at Lake Placid. But it was impossible to ignore that the game was much more than that.

‘‘We got a telegram from a lady in Texas — I remember this like it was yesterday,’’ Eruzione said. ‘‘All the telegram said was, ‘Beat those commie bastards.’ And it had nothing to do with a hockey game.’’

The United States will face Russia in the Sochi Olympics on Saturday in a matchup sure to invoke memories of the ‘‘Miracle on Ice’’ — the Americans’ 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Games that is considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of competitive sports.

But compared to that, this will be just a game. In 1980, the ‘‘Olympic spirit’’ meant something entirely different when the U.S. team faced the Soviet Union. The Cold War was still going strong. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan six weeks earlier. Beating the Soviet Union in anything was a victory for our way of life. This wasn’t a movie.

‘‘It meant something to the country,’’ Eruzione said. ‘‘We didn’t know it at the time. But after the Olympics, we realized [it]. And 34 years later, I still talk to people, and everybody has a story to tell: ‘I remember where I was when we won.’

‘‘And I go, ‘We? I didn’t know you were on the team.’ But that’s what it was like. And that’s what makes the Olympic Games special because it’s a nation that feels a part of it. And clearly in 1980, a nation felt a part of us.’’

The politics of the day provided the backdrop for an upset that Sports Illustrated named the top sports moment of the 20th century. The U.S. team was made up of college players. The Soviet Union had the dominant hockey program in the world, with full-time, state-supported hockey players.

Before facing the United States, the Soviet Union was 40-3-2 in Olympic competition, outscoring opponents 341-91. A year earlier, it beat an NHL all-star team in a best-of-three series 2-1 at Madison Square Garden — winning the final game 6-0. Twelve days before the Olympic matchup, the Soviet Union beat the U.S. team 10-3 at the Garden.

‘‘When we went to the Olympic Games, we weren’t even thinking about the Russians,’’ Eruzione said. ‘‘They were in another bracket. We had to worry about Sweden, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Romania and Norway to get to the medal round. Once we got to the medal round, then we started thinking about the next team to play, and that was the Soviets.’’

The miracle game wasn’t without some anticipation. ABC tried to have the game moved from its 4  p.m. (Chicago time) start to prime time. When the Soviet Union declined, the network chose to broadcast the game on tape delay. It was shown live only in Canada.

The game was a story unto itself. Mark Johnson scored to tie it 2-2 with one second left in the first period and 3-3 with 11:21 left. Eruzione scored the tiebreaking goal with 10:00 to go, and the gritty, gutty Americans made it stand for a victory that was as everlasting as it was exhilarating. Even for those who went on to the NHL, it was the experience of a lifetime.

‘‘The ’80 experience is by far the greatest pleasure I’ve ever had playing hockey,’’ said Neal Broten, who played 17 years in the NHL and won the Stanley Cup in 1995 with the New Jersey Devils. ‘‘I’ve played on a lot of teams. Our team was the most unselfish. Guys didn’t care, and you sacrificed for one another. We were a true team. That’s why we had success in ’80.’’

The United States again will be looking for the upset — but not a miracle — when they face the Russians. These aren’t the ‘‘commie bastards’’ that haunted American sports fans in the ’70s and ’80s. Sixteen members of the Russian team play in the NHL. Many U.S. and Russian players are NHL teammates — such as Jimmy Howard and Pavel Datsyuk or John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin. This will be better hockey. It might be a better game. But it won’t be any more than that. There was only one Miracle on Ice.


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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