Timeless Miracle

Thirty-five years after their win in Lake Placid made them legends, the 1980 US men's Olympic hockey team returned to a hero's welcome

AP Photo

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — A boy from the Cranford Hockey Club leans on his toes to peek through the head-sized window of an unlocked maroon door to Locker Room 5 at Herb Brooks Arena.

His eyes make out the back of a red, white and blue jersey hanging against a white brick wall, just above a light-brown-carpeted, stained bench with strands hanging toward the floor.

RAMSEY, it reads in block white letters on a royal blue name bar. No. 5, in blue with red bordering.

Inside, Mike Ramsey and a few of his teammates survey this space. It feels adequate by pee-wee standards. Impossibly tiny for a 20-man Olympic team, though.

“Robbie was right there, remember,” one player says. “Herb was yelling at him.”

More men in their mid-to-late 50s stream in, holding souvenir gift bags or coffee cups. Some take pictures. One charges an iPhone in a wall outlet. Others turn their heads. They go back to 1980.

“Fetisov comes in, and he remembers where he sat,” says Ken Morrow, referring to an ESPN documentary on the Soviets that premiered 13 days earlier. “I’d like to know myself.”

They mull moving jerseys around, out of their numerical order, to refresh their memories.

“By the end of this we’ll have it figured out,” Phil Verchota says, “or we’ll have a fight going.”

* * *

All living members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team gathered Saturday in this Winter Games host village for the first time in 35 years.

On Feb. 22, 1980, they defeated the four-time reigning Olympic champion Soviet Union, 4-3, in the Miracle on Ice.

On Feb. 21, 2015, they took part in “Relive the Miracle” in a fishbowl at the same rink, swapping wisecracks and watching footage of their undefeated run to gold. A few thousand people filled Herb Brooks Arena for $19.80 general admission tickets.

The players walked through the building formerly known as the Olympic Fieldhouse several hours before the 7:30 evening ceremony.

“I don’t want it to be anybody’s show,” Jeff Holbrook, the man credited most with organizing this event, tells the group. “It’s a team show.”

Players joke that captain Mike Eruzione will be paraded out in a pod, separate from his teammates.

“A Katy Perry thing,” somebody adds.

The paying customers will come to listen not to a play-by-play or slideshow, but of “the stupid shit,” as one official put it. They’re good at that. “We’re immature,” Eruzione says.

They must fill 90 minutes, not including a 15-minute intermission. It’s outlined in this afternoon briefing at the rink on a red carpet rather than the made-for-TV blue ice from 1980.

“I will get you to the promised land,” says Todd Walsh, the Arizona Coyotes broadcaster charged with moderating.

Walsh is referring to the planned climax of the night.

Bob Suter’s No. 20 jersey is to be raised at 9:15. The penalty-piling Wisconsin defenseman died following a heart attack Sept. 9. He was 57 and the first player from the team to pass away. Coach Brooks died in a single-car accident in 2003.

From now on, any full team player reunions must carry the “all living members” clause.

* * *

(Associated Press)

Suter broke an ankle two or three months before the Olympics.

“Nobody gave him a chance,” said Mark Johnson, who played with Suter at the University of Wisconsin and read a eulogy at the Madison funeral in September. “But they didn’t know Bobby Suter. For him to be in Lake Placid was a miracle.”

It’s been reported, and at least some players will confirm that they don’t remember Suter playing against the Soviets.

“Suter spent the game at the end of the bench, in a snit, but kept it to himself for the good of the team,” Wayne Coffey reported in his 2005 book, “The Boys of Winter,” a paperback displayed prominently in a Main Street bookstore during the reunion weekend.

It hurt him not to play, Mark Wells said.

“But the scars healed,” Johnson said.

U.S. backup goalie Steve Janaszak was the only player of 240 total among 12 teams in the Olympic hockey tournament not to see a minute of game action throughout the tournament, according to “The Boys of Winter.”

On Saturday, Janaszak remembered being next to Suter during a media session after the Miracle on Ice. Eruzione, starting goalie Jim Craig and defenseman Jack O’Callahan were running the show.

Suter poked Janaszak in the shoulder, and this is how Janaszak recalled it:

“Jany, you know what we are?”
“No, Sutes, what are we?”
“We’re the peas in beef stew.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re just here to make them look good.”

“That’s what he was,” Janaszak says now. “Humble. Hard-working. Really valuable teammate.”

* * *

Among the most valuable U.S. skaters in Lake Placid was center Mark Pavelich.

The shortest member of the team, the 5-foot-7 hockey genius (as one teammate described him) assisted on the game-tying goal against Sweden, scored and assisted on separate go-ahead goals against Czechoslovakia and assisted on a pair against the Soviet Union, including Eruzione’s winner.

“He’s like an artist, painting a picture going down the ice,” Buzz Schneider, a fellow member of the “Iron Rangers” or “Coneheads” line with Pavelich and John Harrington, said while waving his hand with a whoosh. “He could see different things, dish that puck off and go across the grain.”

During the “Relive the Miracle” ceremony, a camera focused on Pavelich while the moderator read off the Minnesotan’s accomplishments. Pavelich showed no signs of acknowledgement of either the camera or that somebody was praising him. The camera stayed on Pavelich for several seconds, but for him it must have felt much longer.

“Pav is not the type of guy to toot his own horn or be front and center,” said Harrington, who also played with Pavelich at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “He is kind of a background guy.”

Craig said that three decades ago, the goalie and other teammates would stand in front of Pavelich and take interviews for him.

So it wasn’t shocking that Pavelich wasn’t present for past, prominent team gatherings. They lit the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic cauldron without him. Pavelich showed for Brooks’ wake on a Friday in 2003 but didn’t stay through the weekend. Accounts labeled him reclusive.

“He doesn’t like these things,” Craig told The New York Times at Brooks’ funeral.

To get Pavelich for this reunion, Holbrook reached out to his line mates.

Schneider found that Pavelich changed his email but finally got his phone number from a brother-in-law by way of another family member. Conversations began about three months ago, after Suter’s death.

Pavelich was among the last of the 19 living team members to commit to the reunion, in the last few weeks.

“When I heard Pav was coming,” Johnson said, “I was like, if he can make it, everybody can make it.”

Pavelich was driving from Oregon to Minnesota with his two dogs when he told Schneider, “I think I’m coming.”

“You never know with Pav,” Eruzione said. “He’ll sign up and not show.”

He almost didn’t. Pavelich was to drive from Lutsen, Minn., (population sub-200, near the Canadian border) to Lake Placid with a childhood friend, a Delta pilot, on Thursday. He thought better of it and left Wednesday to be safe.

They white-knuckled through snow storms in Indiana and Ohio, delayed several hours behind cars stuck in ditches and black ice. They arrived Friday afternoon.

“Pav doesn’t like to fly,” Eruzione said.

Pavelich’s voice is so soft that it’d be inaudible in a face-to-face interview outdoors with steady wind. He spoke in short sentences indoors on Saturday afternoon, while snow blew across the windows at Herb Brooks Arena.

He said this was his first time in Lake Placid in 35 years.

Pavelich, known to be an avid hunter and ice fisher, lost his wife in 2012 to an accidental fall from a second-story balcony. He sold his gold medal for more than $250,000 last year to provide for his daughter.

“I wanted to come back and see the area,” said Pavelich, who walked outside from one end of the arena complex to the other for a press conference, while the rest of his teammates packed into shuttle vans. “We didn’t have much time to explore and see everything [in 1980]. … It’s always nice to see the guys.”

Pavelich remarked to Schneider that Lake Placid has indeed changed.

“A little bit, Pav,” said Schneider, the oldest member of the team. “You haven’t been back here in a long time.”

* * *

(Associated Press)

Highlights of the Miracle on Ice loop on TVs outside the doors to the rink concourse and in storefront windows on Main Street’s half-mile stretch of shops, including an out-of-place Starbucks.

“We’re still living it here,” said Denny Allen, manager of the Olympic Center, the building that houses Herb Brooks Arena and the smaller 1932 Olympic rink.

Allen was born and raised in Lake Placid. In 1980, he managed the outdoor speed skating oval just down a hill from the Olympic Center. Eric Heiden won five gold medals there, perhaps the greatest feat in Winter Olympic history.

Allen was at work when the puck dropped on Feb. 22, 1980.

“You could hear from the oval that something was going on in there,” Allen said. “You could hear the chatter on the radios, the walkie-talkies.”

He eventually passed through a tunnel and watched the final period roaming the mezzanine.

“The building literally shook,” Allen said. “Everybody was holding their breath. Every time the puck bounced one way or the other, there was a gasp or a cheer.”

When the Lake Placid cauldron was extinguished, the Olympic Center lights stayed on, beginning with a junior college hockey tournament one week after the U.S. rallied past Finland to secure gold.

When there isn’t skating, there are proposals — meticulously planned and impromptu — and even weddings on the hallowed ice.

“It’s a weekend getaway,” said Steve Yianoukos, a 1980 Olympic Zamboni driver, and now the athletic director at Clarkson University, 70 miles northwest of Lake Placid in Potsdam.

The area, including Whiteface Mountain (skiing) and Mount Van Hoevenberg (sliding sports), still hosts competitions. Even World Championships. Olympians and Olympic hopefuls live and train at a U.S. Olympic Committee training center. Resort hotels have opened since the Winter Games.

“If you’re active, love the outdoors, love sports, it’s a wonderful place to live,” Allen said.

Recent local reports raised the question of whether Lake Placid could bid for another Winter Games. Certainly not on its own — “Salt Lake City has a hotel with 3,000 rooms. We don’t have 3,000 rooms in Lake Placid,” Allen said — but perhaps with Montreal now that the International Olympic Committee is more open to multi-nation bids.

That would certainly bring about more change to a village Eruzione compares to Pleasantville.

The captain has often come back to Lake Placid, for corporate events and speeches. He likes to unwind at The Cottage, a restaurant that’s an extra five-minute walk north of the foot-trafficked stretch of Main Street where people climbed flagpoles after the U.S. stunned the Soviets.

At the quiet Cottage, Eruzione can enjoy a beverage and look out at Mirror Lake, away from tourists.

“I don’t want anybody buying me things,” he said. “I’ve had a good enough life already.”

* * *

By 7 p.m. on Saturday, 19 jerseys hung in the “Hall of Fame Room,” the players’ ready room for the “Relive the Miracle” 35-year reunion ceremony. It resembled a church banquet area, with mingling among finger foods, family members and old framed concert posters, including Cher.

The players took the white shirts off hangers at 7:26 and wore them over dressy clothes for the 7:30 show.

They put down the Bud Lights, Stella Artois and Dasanis and filed out of the room, after Eruzione quipped about cold feet.

They lined up to be introduced, in numerical order, and stride a red carpet out to center stage (center ice without the ice).

They could see the stage before the crowd could see them. The last 20 seconds of the Miracle on Ice played on screens as a build-up, with Al Michaels’ famous line filling the rink and leading cheers.

“I wish I had my phone,” Eruzione told Ramsey in the tunnel.

Craig, No. 30, was the last to go out.

He’s returned here several times since 1980 and was the last of the 19 team members to arrive Saturday, from his daughter’s final college hockey game.

The goalie stayed in town Sunday, with his wife, to take pictures and relive memories. He usually doesn’t have that sort of free time in Lake Placid.

“It’s been able to keep its innocence,” Craig said.