Mike Eruzione had just finished working out Monday evening when he heard the news. The NHL will not allow its players to participate in the Winter Olympics next year, and maybe not in 2022 either.
“Maybe I can be on the team. What do you think?” the Miracle on Ice hero said with a laugh on the other end of the phone.
Eruzione captained the 1980 Gold Medal team that knocked off the powerful Russians in the most important sporting event in American history. Team USA was made up of college kids back then and took on professionals from Europe to win it all. The American kids were heavy underdogs in that memorable semifinal match against Russian pros behind Eruzione’s game winner.
“We beat the evil empire,” Eruzione said, “It’s like if we had a game against ISIS today. That would be the analogy. We as a country were looking for something and it happened to be a group of amateur players. It was bigger than a hockey game.”
Now the world will turn to amateurs to pump life into a tournament that was supposed to showcase and market the very best players on the planet. USA Hockey, for example, will make a team of American college and minor league players hoping to one day make it to the NHL to compete in South Korea in 2018.
“They’re missing an opportunity to showcase their players and their marquee players,” Eruzione said. “Not only from the U.S. and Canada, but Sweden, Finland, Russia, all the other countries. You’re not going to get to see the star quality players that you watch day in and day out during the NHL season.”
The news was met with extreme disappointment from some NHL players who have proudly represented their countries in the Olympics before. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has always felt a special sense of pride playing for his native Sweden. Former Rangers grinder Brandon Prust tweeted: “Way to ruin the sport of hockey even more Gary,” a reference to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Many NHL team owners have been opposed to the idea of pausing the season to allow their players to go overseas to play in the Olympics. In addition to having to shut down the NHL for more than two weeks, there was also the fear of those players getting hurt at the Games. In 2014, Islanders captain John Tavares ripped up his knee and missed the remainder of the NHL season when he got hurt playing for Team Canada.
So there were logical reasons for not allowing NHL players to participate in the middle of the season.
“I was curious how competitive the NHL players would be,” Eruzione said. “I was always curious if Sidney Crosby’s going down the right wing, is Brooks Orpik, when he was playing for the Penguins, was he going to hit Sidney? But they competed against each other like you wouldn’t believe so it didn’t matter what jersey they had on. They were the enemy.
“I have great respect for the NHL players taking that mindset. I thought they were just going to cruise around, but the hockey was off the charts. The skill level was incredible.”
In 1980, a group of amateur hockey players captured the nation’s hearts and minds and did the impossible. Perhaps a new group of college kids can compete and represent their country with pride again next year, too.
For it was Herb Brooks, the coach of that legendary Miracle on Ice team that is known to have uttered the famous quote “When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates. And the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back!”
All these years later, Eruzione still agrees.
“I support whoever goes,” he said.