LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — One by one, 15 members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team walked past a white No. 20 USA jersey, took their seats and then reminisced about 35 years ago.
Mike Eruzione assumed his role of captain in a press conference with more questions from fans than media, drawing laughs with stories he’s told hundreds of times in appearances and speeches across the country since the Miracle on Ice. The U.S. beat the Soviet Union 4-3 on Feb. 22, 1980, en route to gold.
What was different on Saturday, and more so what will be different on Saturday night, was that Eruzione cracked jokes among all of his living teammates at the site of their Olympic triumph. That hasn’t happened since the Lake Placid Winter Games.
The team began to gather here on a crisp, snowy day to pay tribute to Bob Suter, the first member of that team to pass away. Suter, a Wisconsin defenseman, died of a heart attack at age 57 in September.
“He did a lot for hockey,” Eruzione said. “We all realize at some point we’re going to move on. But nobody thought Bobby, at 57, would not be with us.”
More about reunion during Hockey Day in America, Sunday at noon on NBC and online
Eruzione then lit up the room of about 100 people. The 15 players — four were still on their way, including goalie Jim Craig — were asked if any were visiting Lake Placid for the first time since 1980.
Nobody spoke up. Dead silence. Eruzione cut in.
“Ask the bartenders,” he said. More laughter.
“We are the most immature people that you will ever, ever meet,” Eruzione, whose name means “eruption” in Italian, went on. “You think we’re grown men? Not happening.
“Can you imagine that atmosphere in the locker room when we were playing?”
Several players visited that locker room on Saturday morning. For many, they couldn’t remember where they sat 35 years ago. So small, it’s hard to imagine 20 young men, plus coaches and trainers and all their equipment squeezing in there.
The room shown in the 2004 film “Miracle,” with coach Herb Brooks‘ famous speech, looked luxurious in comparison.
The players were asked what they were thinking before Brooks gave that speech, as they waited to play the Soviets.
“It definitely wasn’t let’s go out and try not to embarrass ourselves,” said Eruzione, who ended up scoring the game winner in the third period, after Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak was infamously pulled by coach Viktor Tikhonov.
“The real story shouldn’t be Tretiak,” Eruzione said. “The real story is why they scored three goals and not six or seven.”
Before the press conference, many team members gathered on a stage at what would normally be center ice at Herb Brooks Arena, formerly the Olympic Fieldhouse where the 1980 Olympic games were played.
“We continue to be amazed that it has carried on and lived on in a lot of respects,” forward Dave Christian said. “It gave people a sense of feeling good. When you think about it, you can’t help but smile.”
It touched the nation, Eruzione said. Sports Illustrated dubbed it the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.
“When the Patriots won the Super Bowl, people in New England are happy,” Eruzione said. “People in Seattle are not. People in California couldn’t care less. When it’s Olympic Games, it’s a nation.”
Neal Broten, who would later score 923 NHL points, most among Miracle players, recalled the pre-Olympic game against the Soviets in Madison Square Garden. The U.S. lost 10-3.
“We were setting them up,” Broten said, eliciting more laughter, before coming down to earth. “If you go on a scale from one to 10, we were two and they were 10.”
Longtime NHL defenseman Slava Fetisov was a young star on that Soviet team. Fetisov recently starred in two documentaries chronicling the Soviet perspective of the Miracle on Ice.
Mike Ramsey, a 19-year-old defenseman on the Miracle on Ice team, remembered Fetisov discussing the Miracle on Ice when they were teammates on the Detroit Red Wings in the mid-1990s.
“You were on drugs,” Ramsey said Fetisov joked, flabbergasted the U.S. looked so different from the 10-3 rout two weeks earlier.
The final laughs Saturday afternoon were about Brooks, who died in 2003, led by Eruzione. The players went back and forth about their favorite “Brooksisms,” the coach’s odd lines that were also used in the “Miracle” film.
“Weave, weave, weave, but don’t weave for the sake of weaving.”
“Eric Strobel‘s playing with a 10-pound fart on his head.”
“Steve Christoff was playing worse and worse every day, and right now you’re playing like next week.”
“[Brooks’] jokes were terrible,” Eruzione said. “He thought they were funny.”
Later Saturday, the players were scheduled for a reunion ceremony called “Relive the Miracle,” which will climax with Suter’s jersey being raised to the rafters in the 1980 arena.
“It’ll be kind of sad when you see his jersey up there,” Eruzione said.
How the Miracle on Ice reunion came together