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'Miracle' is expectation 34 years later

Team USA defeated the Soviet Union 4-3 on Feb. 22, 1980. Steve Powell /Getty Images

Some people think there was only one hockey game played in the 1980 Olympics: the U.S. versus the Soviet Union.

Many think that game -- the one that gave rise to "The Miracle" moniker, movies and mythology -- was the gold-medal game.

Most think the 1980 Olympics were like more recent Olympic events with wall-to-wall television coverage, Internet streaming, glitz and glamor.

It doesn't really matter that it wasn’t like that at all, at least not all of it, which tells you something about one of the most enduring moments in all of sport, let alone the game of hockey.

Mike Eruzione, the captain of that seminal U.S. hockey team, figures there might have been 5,000 people at the opening ceremonies in the resort village of Lake Placid that winter.

The games, at least some of them, were tape-delayed.

“It’s so different now than then,” Eruzione said.

“I feel like sometimes [when I'm talking] I’m talking to my father -- 'When I was a kid, I did this and this and this,'" he said in a recent interview.

But if people’s memories are justifiably fuzzy more than three decades later, the emotions evoked by the win over the Russians in the semifinals followed by a win over Finland in the gold-medal game remain powerful. And Eruzione and his teammates remain a powerful touchstone, a talisman of sorts, to a different time not just in terms of hockey, but the world itself.

“We weren’t even thinking about the Russians,” at the start of the tournament, Eruzione said.

“We didn’t even know if we were going to play them. We were just hoping we got a chance to play them.

“People think we only played one game,” he added with a chuckle. “People don’t know the whole scope of it.”

The Winthrop, Mass., native said he is often asked by younger fans who are studying the Cold War about the role of the U.S. hockey team in the great ideological debate between the two ways of life: communism and democracy.

His answer might disappoint those who imagine the boys in red, white and blue were fighting communism as much as they were fighting for goals.

“For us, it wasn’t a political game, it was a hockey game,” Eruzione said.

The captain of that 1980 team whose winning goal sparked broadcaster Al Michaels’ famous line, "Do you believe in miracles?" does 35 or 40 speaking engagements a year, something that jibes nicely with his job as director of special outreach for Boston University.

On Friday, he and a group of teammates will be honored by the Phoenix Coyotes in a special ceremony prior to Phoenix's game against the Chicago Blackhawks before the teams begin the Olympic break. The group will be introduced to the crowd at center ice, and then the 15 Olympians who will head to Sochi (five from Phoenix, 10 from Chicago) will be introduced by country.

It is an event that in some ways speaks to the changes Eruzione has seen the game and the Olympics undergo. The Sochi Games that begin in a few days will be the fifth with NHL players participating. Over the course of that time, only Canada has repeated as a gold-medal winner (2002 and 2010) and the balance of power globally is as evenly spread as it has ever been.

“I think it’s going to be pretty special,” Anthony LeBlanc, one of the Coyotes' principle owners, told ESPN.com.

“We’re going to be able to honor what is arguably the greatest American Olympic experience of all time and certainly the great American Olympic team experience of all time."

The game has been sold out for months, and while LeBlanc, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, will be looking forward to the introduction of fellow T-Bay native Patrick Sharp, LeBlanc is pretty sure which nation is going to get the loudest reception.

“I may be a good Canadian boy, but I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a healthy 'U.S.A., U.S.A.' chant come up in the building,” LeBlanc said.

With Eruzione and his pals, not to mention Chicago’s Patrick Kane on hand, it’s hard to imagine that won’t be the case.

The interesting dynamic is that, as time has passed, it’s less about Eruzione telling his story and more about other people sharing their story with him. It’s as though his accomplishments, so well-known, are no longer the focal point, but rather the emotions the event evokes in people of varying ages all these years later. People rush to tell Eruzione where they were and what they were doing, eager to share a moment etched in time with one of the men who did the stitching.

“Everybody’s got a story to tell: where they were, where they were watching,” Eruzione said.

“They always say, ‘Let me tell you where I was when you won.’ They felt a part of it.

“It was a moment that not only touched my life and my teammates’ lives, but a nation’s life as well. I think it’s nice to be able to share that.”

Sometimes when he and his teammates get together, they’ll joke about what kind of endorsement deals they might have been able to secure if they’d won the gold now instead of 34 years ago.

But it’s clear the bond that unites these men has withstood the passage of time.

Before events like the Coyotes-Blackhawks game, the emails get going about whose golf game is where and who might be trying to fudge their handicap to get a leg up on their teammates at the next charity event or reunion.

Sometimes their wives will roll their eyes and ask if they’re ever going to grow up, Eruzione said with a laugh.

“It’s just fun. We never talk about the Olympics at all,” he said.

Like any group of longtime friends, the discussion focuses on wives and kids and jobs.

“It’s like we never left. We still have that bond and friendship you always have with a close-knit team,” Eruzione said.

The difference, of course, is that this team has done something no other American men’s hockey team has done since: win an Olympic gold medal.

One of the most recognizable of The Miracle team, Eruzione has been to a number of Olympics in various capacities. He was in Vancouver early in the tournament with a U.S. delegation but was home during the gold-medal game.

He speaks to young players and admits he sometimes gets a little nervous, as the level of hockey is so different than when he and his teammates were trying to juggle working or going to school with playing for the national team. Most of the guys took leaves of absence from jobs to take part in the national program back in 1980, he said.

Now, Eruzione sees an American hockey program that doesn’t go into a tournament like the Sochi Olympics as an underdog.

“I think that’s a very proud feeling for me. The players are good. They’re going there to win. I think that’s a very proud feeling for me,” Eruzione said.

“That shows you how far we’ve come. We don’t take a back seat. We belong. It’s a great message of where we’ve come in hockey.”