On the night before the big game 40 years ago, Mike Eruzione was drinking Miller High Life with his parents in a Winnebago they had hired for the Olympics. After knocking back a few beers, he kissed his mom and hugged his dad, and then left them with a prediction.
“I have a feeling,” he said. “This time, we’re going to beat the Russians.”
In his new book, “The Making of a Miracle” (Harper), out now, Eruzione charts that remarkable Cinderella story from his humble beginnings in a working-class town to gold-medal glory and instant fame, rubbing shoulders with presidents and celebrities.
Hailing from Winthrop, Mass., Eruzione lived on the middle floor of a three-story house with his parents and five siblings. Above them were his Uncle Tony and Auntie Annette and their five children and, down below, his Uncle Jerry and Auntie Ann and their three kids.
“We called it ‘three floors, no doors,’ ” Eruzione writes. “If I didn’t like what my mother was cooking, I could go upstairs or downstairs and see what was on the table there.”
Money was always tight. Eruzione’s father, Eugene, worked three jobs and drove a battered taxicab whose steering wheel routinely came off mid-journey. Without the means to buy a pair of skates, Eruzione resorted to borrowing his sister Connie’s (complete with blue pompoms) and then played at a nearby frozen swamp. “When Connie got out of school, she’d come and take her skates back,” he says. “I’d go home with frozen toes.”
But Eruzione’s energy, coupled with his rare talent, helped him win a full scholarship to play hockey at Boston University worth $3,200 (“a lot of money for a kid from Winthrop,” he says).
Voted the Best Defensive Forward in New England on three occasions, Eruzione was soon on the radar of the national team selectors and at the end of the 1974-75 season, he was chosen to play for the United States at the 1975 World Hockey Championship in West Germany. By 1979, with a professional career now in the offing, Eruzione took his chance at the tryouts for the US Olympic team. Selected on an initial roster of 26 players, he awaited the verdict of coach Herb Brooks to see if he had made the final cut.
“The first name he read off was Ken Morrow,” he writes. “I held my breath a second and thought, ‘Gee, I hope this isn’t in alphabetical order …’”
Eventually came the words he was yearning to hear: “Mike Eruzione.”
The 20-strong squad soon became a band of brothers.
“The locker room was a circus,” he writes. “Sometimes on the road, you’d get 3 a.m. wake-up calls. Ice cubes in your shoes. Talcum powder in your gloves. Dave Christian was the worst. If he was bored at a fund-raising banquet, he’d sneak under the table and try to light guys’ shoes on fire.”
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War in 1980, the two teams could not have been more different. On the one hand were the superhumanly fit Russians, who had won the last four Olympic golds and not lost to the US since 1960. On the other was the youngest team in American history, a disparate assembly of amateurs, teenagers and college players who, on the face of it, didn’t have a prayer. The Olympic match against Russia came just 13 days after they had pummeled Eruzione’s US team 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden.
“It was almost like we wanted their autographs,” writes Eruzione.
[Muhammad Ali] saw me and pointed … The Greatest of All Time knew who I was!
– Mike Eruzione
But in the packed Field House International Ice Rink in Lake Placid, with the scores tied at 3-3 and 10 minutes to go, Eruzione picked up the puck and turned toward goal. Shifting it on to his forehand, he lashed the puck, though he didn’t know where it had gone.
“I lost the puck. I couldn’t see it,” he writes. “What I saw was the net. [It] suddenly bulged out, punched back by something … Then I saw the fans behind the goal leaping up out of their seats, hands in the air, and I knew.”
The last 10 minutes seemed like 100 but the US held out.
“I looked at the scoreboard, and one thought ran through my mind,” recalls Eruzione. “I can’t believe it, I said to myself even as I hugged one teammate and the next and the next. I can’t believe we beat the Russians.”
Two days later, the US team secured the gold medal with a win against Finland and their success was forever cemented in American history as The Miracle on Ice.
Overnight, Eruzione’s life changed. He met with President Jimmy Carter at the White House. He threw the first pitch at Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. He was even seated next to Muhammad Ali at a banquet. “He saw me and pointed. ‘Eruzione! I want you! I want you!’ The Greatest of All Time knew who I was!”
After he saved enough money to buy a house back in Winthrop, Eruzione decided to base himself there to help coach the local ice hockey team — and make it his permanent home.
“In ten years, I figured, I’d be living a quiet life in Winthrop, coaching hockey probably,” writes Eruzione, now a 65-year-old broadcaster, who moved back to his hometown despite offers from the New York Rangers to go pro. “That’s where I’ll end up, I thought. Because nothing lasts forever.”