Vintage Athletes Of The Month: Mike Eruzione & Jim Craig (VIDEO)
Team USA is making a run at gold medal glory in the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi. When you talk about U.S. Olympic hockey—especially when it’s being played in Russia—it inevitably leads us back to one of the great Olympic moments of all time, when Team USA won the 1980 gold medal with a massive upset of the then-Soviet Union as the lynchpin victory.
The state of Massachusetts did not lack for participants on the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Mike Eruzione was the team captain and Jim Craig was the goalie. Both were born and bred in the Bay State, and went on to play college hockey at Boston University. That’s why they’re fitting choices for a salute as BST&N’s Vintage Athletes Of The Month.
Mike Eruzione grew up in a blue-collar Italian-American family, the son of a bartender, where a large portion of the extended family lived under the same roof. In that environment, you learn to be a competitor and Eruzione was certainly that.
The legendary BU head coach Jack Parker, just recently retired after a forty-year head coaching career, called Eruzione “Pete Rose on skates.” Note that Parker said this in the mid-1970s when the listener would presume it meant Eruzione was an intense hardworking player, rather than one who had action on the game.
Eruzione averaged 20 goals a year in four seasons as a Terrier, but this blue-collar player would continue to have to fight for everything he had—no NHL opportunity was forthcoming, in spite of Eruzione playing on Team USA at the Ice Hockey World Championships in 1975-76, so he settled for starting his career in the International Hockey League. Eruzione promptly won Rookie of the Year in 1978 and helped his team win the Turner Cup, before duty beckoned him back to Team USA.
Jim Craig was a little younger than Eruzione, not finishing school at BU until the spring of 1979. Craig also had more of a pedigree. The goaltender was the key to a national championship run for Parker in ’78 and then made All-American a year later. Craig was a natural choice to be in net for Team USA when the Olympics began in Lake Placid, NY.
The Soviet Union was the dominant force in international hockey at this time, and by a lot. Simply playing the Russians respectably was often seen as a moral victory. But there was more the U.S. had to overcome than just the Soviets. The Scandinavian countries all played good hockey, and of course you could never overlook Canada. To even predict a medal for Team USA—much less the gold—would have required a high degree optimism.
Olympic hockey was split into two divisions of six teams apiece. There would be round-robin play within your division, and after those five games were complete, the top two teams in each division would advance into medal round competition. The first game of the Olympics sent a message that Team USA could compete. They played Sweden, one of the best teams in the world, to a 2-2 draw.
It was February 14 that Eruzione gave a Valentine’s Day gift to U.S. hockey fans. The team had given up the first goal to Czechoslovakia. When you’ve already played one game to a tie, there’s not much in the way of margin for error—and the way the round-robin played out, it turned out this game would settle a spot in the medal round. Eruzione scored the tying goal, the momentum shifted and Team USA coasted to a 7-3 win.
Eruzione did it again in a game with Norway, tying up a game at 1-1 and setting in motion an easy win for Team USA. After a pair of victories over Romania and West German, the Americans were 4-0-1, the same as Sweden. Both teams would advance to the medal round, along with the Soviet Union and Finland from the opposite division.
One important note about the medal round is that it was not set up in a tournament format. The four teams were treated as a separate round-robin onto themselves, with the game played against your division team already counting. Consequently, the Soviets, thanks to a win over Finland, already led with two points. Team USA and Sweden had a point apiece after their tie.
It was Friday, February 22, that the U.S. would play the Soviets. The USSR was barreling through the competition, with a goals differential of 51-11 in five games. If you were looking for some optimism, you could note that the game with Finland had been tied going into the third period and ended a respectable 4-2. The imposing goals differential was coming through games like a 16-0 blasting of lowly Japan, running up the score on weak opponents. How might the Soviets react if they really got pushed?
Craig had played a good Olympic tournament to this point, but also hadn’t really been tested since the Sweden game. His offense had consistently given him comfortable margins to work with. When the Soviets grabbed a 2-1 lead in the first period, it would have been fair to wonder if Craig was in over his head. But from that point forward, the goalie essentially put Team USA on his back.
If you could discount the goalies, the Soviets outplayed the Americans on that legendary Friday night in Lake Placid. The USSR had a shot advantage of 39-16. But Craig got locked in and kept turning back shot after shot and Team USA pulled to a 3-3 tie with about 12 minutes to go. Now it was Eruzione’s time again.
At about the ten-minute mark, the captain got open in the high slot and fired. The puck found the back of the net and Team USA had the lead. As to the question of what the Soviets would do if their back was to the wall, we got the answer—they hit the panic button, launching shots they later conceded were wild, desperate efforts. Craig turned them all back. It set the stage for the final countdown.
Al Michaels was calling the game for ABC and in the course of his career has called his share of great games, including his current role on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. But Michaels has never made a more legendary call then the closing seconds of the upset of the USSR—“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The disparity in talent at that time led ABC studio host Jim McKay to fairly analogize this result to Canadian college football players beating the Pittsburgh Steelers (then the two-time defending Super Bowl champions).But there was still one more game to play.
Sweden and Finland had played to a tie, so the U.S. was in first place in the medal round with three points, while the Soviets and Swedes had two apiece. If Team USA lost its Sunday game to Finland, the USSR-Sweden game would be for the gold medal. Team USA could slip as low as the bronze. I’ve read historical accounts that say the U.S. could have been shut out of the medal awards entirely, but I can’t figure out how, nor is that my recollection coming into the game.
The U.S.-Finland game lives in on sports lore whenever a team has to come back after an epic triumph and do it one more time. Most memorably for Boston fans, Theo Epstein referenced the Finland game as an analogy for what the Red Sox had to do after the 2004 American League Championship Series when they met the St. Louis Cardinals.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Team USA was a little flat, trailing 2-1 after two periods. In the second intermission, Eruzione would recall head coach Herb Brooks saying “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your (bleeping) graves.” There wasn’t a whole lot of “we’re just happy to be here” sentiment going through the U.S. locker room.
Craig took over the third period yet again and shut down the Finns, and Team USA began coming back. They ripped off three third-period goals, the last one shorthanded and with a 4-2 triumph won the gold medal. Just as the game itself is often forgotten at the expense of Friday’s stunner, so too is Michael’s call—every bit as epic as the one two days earlier. “This impossible dream…comes true!”
The legend of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team has never dimmed. If I’m having a conversation with friends and throw out a question about the greatest sports moment of our lifetimes, it’s always followed by “I mean besides the 1980 hockey team.” That moment is so far and above the rest it’s not even worth discussing. And that’s why the team’s captain and its goalie, Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig, are fitting choices as BST&N’s Vintage Athlete of the Month.