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Eruzione: Flame Can Be Rekindled : Hero of 1980 Olympics Believes '88 Team Can Regain the Magic

November 27, 1987|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

Every time he makes a speech, Mike Eruzione shows a film of the U.S. Olympic hockey team playing the Soviets.

"We keep winning, and I keep scoring the winning goal," Eruzione said, laughing over breakfast in a Hollywood coffee shop. "Doesn't matter to me. The score's still 4-3, every time."

There are three special moments, Eruzione believes, that Americans remember where they were at the time: The day Kennedy was assassinated, man's first walk on the moon and 1980's Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets en route to a gold medal.

But that was nearly eight years ago. There has been a Winter Olympics in the interim--1984, in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. And what do people remember about that U.S. hockey team?

"Nothing," said Eruzione, who was in Sarajevo as a TV commentator for ABC and was in Los Angeles in advance of Saturday afternoon's exhibition game between the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams. "People go from '88 to '80."

No U.S. hockey team ever encountered the kind of hype the '84 team did before going to Sarajevo. Corporate sponsors fell over each other in their eagerness to market what they believed would be a miracle redux. There were TV and magazine commercials galore and a blizzard of media coverage to match.

The '80 team, by contrast, could have called a press conference and no one would have come, Eruzione said.

"Who the heck knew who we were?" he said. "ABC did an up-close-and-personal with Jimmy Craig, but they didn't know who to do it on? Someone at ABC said, they're not supposed to be very good and the goalie's going to see a lot of shots, so why don't we do it on him?"

In '84, they were hockey players turned instant celebrities, but when they finally arrived in Sarajevo, disaster checked in, too, right behind. An opening-game loss to Canada. A sound beating by the Czechs. A shocking tie to lightweight Norway.

There would be no gold--no medals at all, in fact. Only tears.

So, Mike Eruzione was asked, what happened? Were the expectations too great?

"I have mixed feelings about that," he said. "Obviously, they were a good team, evidenced by how many of them are still playing in the National Hockey League, and by how many are doing well in the National Hockey League (Pat LaFontaine, Eddie Olczyk, Chris Chelios, Bob Mason)."

They probably had more talent than the '80 team, Eruzione said.

"No question," he said. "But they didn't have the team character we did. I think that was because they were so young.

"If you're a young team and things go well, you're going to play like a veteran. If you're a young team and fall behind, then you really start playing like a young team. You start panicking."

If Tom Hirsch's shot hadn't hit the post in a one-goal loss to Canada in the opener, Eruzione said, it might have had the same galvanizing effect on the '84 team that Bill Baker's goal in the closing seconds of an opening-game tie with Sweden had on the '80 team.

But it didn't, and the U.S. team never recovered. Four times, the '80 team had entered the third period trailing by at least a goal, and didn't lose. The '84 team never exhibited that kind of resiliency.

And Lou Vairo, the '84 coach, wasn't able to give it to his players, either. Herb Brooks, he wasn't, Eruzione said, comparing Vairo to the man who won in Lake Placid.

"I think Lou, when the team fell behind, I think he panicked a little, too," Eruzione said. "He was expecting big things from them.

"If Herb Brooks had coached the '84 team, I think they would have won a bronze medal. I think Herb would have turned that adversity into a positive. I think Lou wasn't sure how to handle it.

"It's not to say Lou wouldn't have handled it differently in '88, but Herb had been behind the bench before in national championship games, big games. Lou didn't have that experience, and I think it hurt him a little.

"He might not like hearing me say that, but that's what I think."

Eruzione didn't like hearing Vairo blame the team's failure on the success of the '80 team, and the expectations that fostered.

"They let the team get away in terms of media blitzes, commercials, all those things," Eruzione said. "They could have controlled a little of that.

"They hyped the team as much as they could, tried to make as much money as they could. If you're going to do that, you've got to back it up a little."

Under Coach Dave Peterson, a long-time Minnesota high school coach who was an assistant to Vairo in '84, the pendulum has swung back some for the '88 team.

"Dave's kind of like Herb in the way he handles the team," Eruzione said. "He keeps it low-key, he's tried to keep them away from the hoopla. And he's very serious about their conditioning.

"He doesn't talk to the players that much. He kind of leaves them alone, lets them go on their own. But he's very strict in terms of curfews."

Brooks, of course, was known as a martinet. Eruzione likens him to Bob Knight, the Indiana basketball coach.

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