At the height of the Cold War, a group of unknown hockey players may have done more for diplomacy than any politician ever could.
“People tell me it was the start of the end of the Cold War,” former Team USA hockey defenseman Ken Morrow told InsideEdition.com.
Morrow and his teammates – a group of college students and amateur players – battled all odds to triumph over a powerful Soviet Union team and ultimately capture the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid. The game was dubbed the “Miracle on Ice.”
But for the Americans, most of whom were just 22 at the time, more successes lay ahead. Some would go on to have stellar careers in the NHL, even winning the Stanley Cup, while one player would become an oral surgeon and another a pilot.
The Games of Their Lives
Coached by the crass and abrasive Herb Brooks, the United States men’s ice hockey team was assembled in the summer of 1979, beginning with a total of 80 guys from across the country. After a rigorous and physically demanding tryout process, the top 20 headed to Lake Placid in upstate New York to compete in the 1980 Olympics.
The Soviet Union team, in their red uniforms, had won four-straight Olympic gold medals for the sport, beginning in 1964.
After 1960, American interest in hockey declined as the quality of the Olympic teams fell. For the Russians, however, hockey was life.
Just two weeks before the Olympics, Team USA faced off against the Russians in an exhibition game at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden, where the Americans were thrashed 10-3.
Expectations for Team USA were low.
“It was men against boys,” defender Jack O’Callahan, who was 22 during the Olympics, told InsideEdition.com. “You would think it would be demoralizing but it helped us relax. It was weird. By the time we played the Russians again, we had a game plan and confidence.”
As the Olympics began in Lake Placid, the American hockey team just wanted to go as far as they could.
“Nobody really knew much about us. There wasn’t much conversation of us,” defender Bill Baker, who was 23 at the time, told InsideEdition.com. “We snuck up on everybody.”
In their opening game on Feb. 12, 1980, the U.S. tied Sweden 2-2. Two days later, they managed to beat a forceful Czechoslovakia 7-3. Victories against Norway, Romania and West Germany followed.
Suddenly, the team of amateurs was turning heads in Lake Placid. As the press and viewers began to take notice of the squad of unknowns, they became the most talked about athletes at the Olympics.
“We were there with the hope and dream to win the whole thing,” Captain Mike Eruzione, who was 25 during the Olympics, told InsideEdition.com.
Nearly two weeks after they were left mortified in New York City, Team USA faced the Soviet Union in a semi-final match.
The Soviets weren’t just bitter hockey rivals, but enemies to the country as a whole. A month prior to the Lake Placid games, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would boycott the summer Olympics in Moscow and urged America's allies to do the same.
At the time, there was a hostage crisis in Iran. Fifty-two Americans were being held captive in Tehran and tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union were at an all-time high as a result of the latter's entanglement in an Afghanistan conflict.
At home, a gas shortage and high inflation were plaguing the U.S. economy, all in an election year.
With those mounting problems, hockey was the last thing on the minds of Americans, but a group of college students mixed with amateur players were out to prove the impossible — and win — against the best the world had to offer.
The Russians were seemingly unbeatable, winning five straight games previously ahead of the Feb. 22, 1980 clash.
“Back then, we assumed everyone was amateur, but then we saw the Soviets and they were together for 11 months out of the year. They vacationed together, practiced together, trained together,” Baker said. “We were just a bunch of college kids trying to make an Olympic team.”
Over 9 minutes into the match, Russia scored the first goal. Minutes later, Buzz Schneider equalized for the Americans. The goal storm continued as the Soviets went up soon after making the score 2-1. As the period died down, Mark Johnson scored for Team USA in the last second of play leaving the game tied 2-2 before the horn blew.
As the second period began, the Soviets may have been surprised by the Americans' play. The Soviets went up, making the score 3-2.
As the third and final period of play began, the Americans were raring to win.
Just over 8 minutes into the period, Johnson scored again to equalize the game 3-3.
With 10 minutes left to play in the final period, forward Mark Pavelich passed the puck to Eruzione, who put the Americans up in the game.
“My goal was part of many plays,” Eruzione recalled. “Everything had to come together for us to win and I was fortunate enough to put us up and help out.”
Eruzione’s Italian last name translates to “eruption.” That’s exactly what happened inside the arena. The team piled onto the ice.
“It was our youthful enthusiasm,” Morrow, who was sitting on the bench during the goal, recalled. “My first reaction was to jump over the boards and I remember saying to myself, ‘This is going to be the longest 10 minutes of your life.’”
“A lot can happen in 10 minutes,” O’Callahan added. “We were looking at the clock every few seconds.”
With the Soviets trailing for the first time in the game, they started attacking as if their lives depended on it.
“As long as people didn’t do my job and I could do my job, I knew we would be fine,” U.S.A. goaltender Jim Craig, who was 21 at the time, told InsideEdition.com. “We did our job and my job was to prevent people from scoring goals.”
In total, Craig stopped 36 of the Soviets' 39 shots. In contrast, Team USA only took 16 shots on goal with 12 being saved.
As the horn blared to signal the end of the game, jubilation erupted inside the arena.
ABC commentator Al Michaels asked TV viewers, “Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!” It led to the famous moniker, the “Miracle on Ice.”
But Eruzione says the word “miracle” is overused.
“Miracle is a catchy phrase – it wasn’t a miracle. It was an accomplishment of a group of players that came together at the right time,” he said.
Amid the divisive climate, America was unified in its support for its hockey heroes.
“With the Cold War, a presidential election, hostage crisis — there was a lot going on,” Eruzione said. “People are attached and feel part of it and in 1980, people were more attached because of the players.”
“The Russian win was an enormous win,” Craig said. “It was good versus evil; it was democracy versus communism; it was David versus Goliath.”
But despite the celebration, the team was not yet finished. Finland awaited in the gold medal game.
The players recall Coach Brooks putting them through a rigorous practice the next day in front of a room full of press.
“There was his famous line, ‘If you lose this game you are going to take it to your graves,’” Morrow remembered. That speech was etched into everyone’s head before that last game.
“We didn’t panic and had a good game plan and that was to finish the mission and win a gold medal,” Craig said.
In an era that preceded social media and reality TV, the players were unaware of their popularity outside of the Olympic Village.
“We were sheltered in Lake Placid,” Baker recalled. “It was play, practice, play, practice. I had no idea what was going on outside Lake Placid. If we knew the impact it had on the country, who knows what would have happened.”
The U.S. beat Finland 4-2 in the final and took home the gold medal. It was the second and only time Team USA ever won gold for the sport at the Olympics.
“I don’t think people realized how good we were,” Eruzione said. “We went there with the hope and dream of winning a gold medal.”
Life After Gold
Following the success of Lake Placid, the players became national heroes. While many went on to have illustrious careers in the NHL, others took different routes.
But whatever they did next, they were successful. And for the team, it’s not at all surprising.
“We were serious about school,” Baker said. “These guys are winners and they know how to get the job done.”
“Everyone has done extremely well and it is not surprising,” Eruzione added. “These guys weren’t just great players — they are great people.”
“We all came from households with good moral character,” Craig added. “When one career ends another chapter of your life begins. I am not surprised by the success. All of my teammates were motivated people.”
Mike Eruzione, 63, became a hockey commentator for ABC Sports, covering a few subsequent Olympics, as well as a commentator for the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. He is currently the director of program outreach at his Alma mater, Boston University.
“1980 has given me the opportunity to do what I do today,” he said. “The attention I received, I was able to do a lot.”
Ken Morrow, 61, had the most success as a professional player following the Olympics. Right after winning gold, he joined the New York Islanders, where he part in another well-known sports feat — winning the first of the team’s four consecutive Stanley Cups. He remains the first and only player to ever win a gold medal and Stanley Cup in the same year. He currently works as the director of scouting for the Islanders.
Bill Baker, 61, played professional hockey after the Olympics and retired in 1984. After playing pro, he says he “finished what I started and became an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.” He says he always wanted to be an oral surgeon and the Olympics didn’t change his career path but “gave me a tremendous memory.” He retired from his practice two years ago. His jersey from the 1980 Olympics is on display inside the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Jack O’Callahan, 60, also played professionally for several teams including the Chicago Blackhawks and New Jersey Devils. He retired from hockey in 1989 and works in finance.
“In the summers I was working to enhance my abilities in business and preparing to start a life after hockey,” he said of his time in the off-season while in the NHL.
“Every life has a different chapter and I was meant to do the things I was meant to do,” Craig said. “I was fortunate to have this event to be a platform to do things that meant a lot for me.”
Backup Goaltender Steve Janaszak, who never played in the games but was on the roster and present on the bench, works in finance.
Defenseman Mike Ramsey, 57, also played professional hockey and was a four-time NHL all-star. Following his playing career, which ended in 1996, he became an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabers and later the Minnesota Wild. He is currently retired.
Right Wing David Silk, 60, also played professional hockey, retiring in 1991. He later became an assistant coach at Boston University men’s hockey team while enrolling in the school’s graduate program for management. After a brief stint as an assistant coach, he became an investment banker in Boston, where he still works.
Center Neal Broten, 58, played in the NHL for 17 seasons and later became a horse farm operator.
Center Mark Johnson, 60, played professional hockey in the NHL and later in Italy and Austria before retiring in 1992. He captured another Olympic medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver when he coached the U.S. Women’s hockey team to a silver medal. He currently coaches the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team.
Center Steve Christoff, 59, played in the NHL until 1984. He then became a pilot for Endeavor Air, a subsidiary of Delta, where he is now known as “Captain Steve Christoff.”
Center Mark Wells, 60, played minor league hockey until 1982. He was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal disease in 1989. In 1995, he auctioned off his gold medal to a private collector for $40,000. It 2010, it went up for auction again, selling for more than $300,000.
Center Mark Pavelich, 59, would reunite with Team USA coach Herb Brooks with the New York Rangers following the Olympics. He retired from hockey in 1992 and became a land developer in Minnesota. In 2014, he auctioned off his medal for $262,900 to give his daughter some financial security, according to the Star Tribune.
Right Wing Eric Strobel, 59, had a short-lived professional career due to injuries and later became a telephone sales executive in Minnesota. He was also the part owner of a golf club before retiring.
Defender Bob Suter played minor league hockey before retiring from the sport in 1982. He later operated a sporting goods store in Wisconsin. In 2014, he died of a heart attack at age 57.
Defender Dave Christian, 58, played 16 years of professional hockey in the NHL before retiring in 1996. He currently works for a residual glass manufacturer in Minnesota.
Left Wing Rob McClanahan, 59, also joined Brooks with the New York Rangers and ended his pro hockey career in 1984. He is currently the managing director and head of institutional trading at ThinkEquity Partners in Minnesota.
Left Wing Buzz Schneider, 63, played professional hockey in Switzerland before retiring in 1983. He is a real estate broker in Minnesota.
Left Wing Phil Verchota, 61, played professional hockey in Finland after the 1980 Games and retired from the sport in 1984 following the Olympics in Sarjevo. He is the senior vice president of First American Bank in Minnesota.
Right Wing John Harrington, 60, played minor league hockey and was on the 1984 Olympic team with Verchota. He later became a scout for the Colorado Avalanche. Since 2015, he has been the head coach of Women's Hockey for Minnesota State University.
Herb Brooks continued his managerial career with the Rangers, Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins, and coached two more Olympic squads: The French men’s ice hockey team at the 1998 Nagano games, and Team USA again during the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. The following year, Brooks was killed in a car accident at the age of 66. The Lake Placid arena where Team USA triumphed over the Soviets was renamed in his honor.
In 2004, the story of Brooks and the team was immortalized in the Disney film, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell as the caustic coach. Each of the players say the film ushered in a whole new generation of fans to the team.
“The movie froze us in time in a profound statement,” O’Callahan said.
“We got people that know our story because they lived it or through the movie and they keep alive what we did in Lake Placid,” Morrow added.
Craig spoke of his fondness of the film and says that the movie “protects the legacy we built together.”
Thirty-eight years since their achievement, most of the players remain close. They communicate via email and group texts, and see each other at memorabilia events and NHL gatherings.
But all 20 players haven’t been in the same room since 1980, when they traveled to Washington D.C. to meet President Carter, the day after capturing the gold medal.
Over three years ago, a fantasy camp was created in Lake Placid where fans and amateur players from around the world have the unique opportunity to meet members of the 1980. The event takes place inside the Herb Brooks Arena, and on average, 14 players from the team show up each year to the camp. Some, including goaltender Steve Janaszak, actually suit up and play.
“It is a reunion for us,” Eruzione says of the camp. This year’s installment will take place in March.
The Gold Standard
Nearly 40 years since the game against the Soviet Union, the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team still relishes in the accolade.
In 2000, the Associated Press called their victory over their Russian advisories the “Top sports moment of the 20th century.”
Seventeen of the 20 members of the team lit the caldron during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. It is an event that Morrow called “the thrill of a lifetime.”
In 2011, Bleacher Report hailed it as the “Greatest Moment in Sports History,” and in 2014, Sports Illustrated branded it the “Greatest Olympic Hockey Moment. “
“Everyone knows where they were when World Trade Center fell, when Kennedy was shot, or for one generation when Pearl Harbor happened,” O’Callahan said. “They remember the emotional impact and all those things are negative — and what we did was positive.”
For Baker, he said his time in the Olympics was “the most fun I had playing hockey.”
“And winning gold made it more special.”
Even after so many years, most of the guys from the squad are regularly recognized on the street.
“It never gets old for me,” O’Callahan said. “People want to share their experiences when they were young and watched. It is always 100 percent positive.”
Morrow says he still gets fan mail every day and admits it is “very humbling.”
When looking back on the 1980 games, Eruzione says he thinks “about an athletic event that touched the lives of many people. The country wanted something to cheer for and it turned out to be a hockey team.”
Craig says it is “awesome” that he is still able to talk about the team, saying: “It continues to make people feel good and that is a wonderful thing.”
And while many Americans were rooting for the team, others took it a step further and laced up their own skates in a new appreciation of the sport.
“People tell me they started playing after what we did and that was the reason they play,” Morrow said.
“Our legacy was having the opportunity for Americans to bloom [in hockey],” O’Callahan added. “Now, an American hockey player is as good as anyone in the world.”