'Eruzione is your leader. You need a leader'
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Chapter Eight: Leading Men from "The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team," by Wayne Coffey. Copyright © 2005 by Wayne Coffey. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.
Three to three.
[Sergei] Starikov slammed his stick on the ice. [Goaltender Vladimir] Myshkin stayed frozen for a moment, his legs still split. On the bench, [Soviet coach Viktor] Tikhonov leaned forward and spoke sharply to the players in front of him. The arena shook from the noise. You could feel the tremor at the Woodshed, a restaurant across the street. [Team USA coach Herb] Brooks thrust both arms overhead, fists clenched. [Mark] Johnson's first goal had come from nowhere, in the final tick of the first-period clock. This was even more from nowhere, born not of a harmonious and artistic buildup but of a bounce, a blade, and a Badger, who more than anyone else on the team knew exactly what to do in such a circumstance. Upstairs in the standing-room-only press box, officials from Tass, the Soviet news agency, closed the door to their office and locked it. They were tired of the Scandinavian press coming over to taunt them about how the Americans might win. The din in the building would not let up for the rest of the game.
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Forty seconds were up, and the United States needed a line change. Christian passed to [Buzz] Schneider on the left side, who carried it out of the U.S. zone. Just across the red line, Schneider launched a slap shot on goal and turned for the bench as the puck traced toward the boards. [Mike] Eruzione hopped on. If overachievement were an Olympic sport, Eruzione would've won the gold. His name is the Italian word for "eruption," and that was how he played, with a spirit and energy as hot as lava. He knew when to erupt. His breakaway goal helped launch the rout of the Czechs in the second game of the Olympics, and two days later he knocked in an unassisted goal to awaken the team from its lethargic start against Norway. Six years earlier, in his senior year at Winthrop High School, he was in the middle of a three-goals-in-a-minute rally to carry the team to the Massachusetts state title. Eruzione was about five feet six inches and 145 pounds at the time, but his teammates will tell you a disproportionate amount of the weight was heart.
"He never shied away from anything," said Eddie Rossi, who was a year ahead of Eruzione at Winthrop, before going on to play at Harvard. "You could always count on him in the clutch."
Said Jack Parker, Eruzione's coach at BU, "If you woke him up at three in the morning and told him you were going to have a little pickup game at the Boston Skating Club in Brighton, he'd be out there backchecking and forechecking like crazy."
Close to forty years ago, Rossi and Eruzione were pintsized hockey pioneers in Winthrop, an old seaside town on a jutting piece of land a little east of Boston, bounded on the east by Massachusetts Bay and on the west by Logan Airport and the harbor, a compact place where 20,000 people live in just over one square mile, rows of clapboard and shingled homes wedged together like Monopoly houses, on lots not much bigger than a penalty box. The Boston skyline rises across the harbor but feels much farther away. You can walk along the well-worn cement seawall and see the surf hit red rocks at sunrise, then look at the Boston cityscape against an orange-pink sky at sunset. Gentrification has nibbled at some of its soul, but mostly Winthrop still feels like Winthrop.
The winter sport of choice in town during Mike Eruzione's childhood was basketball. The town had no more hockey tradition than Albuquerque. There were no youth hockey programs and few rinks, and not even a high school hockey team to root for. Rossi and Eruzione had to head to Revere, the next town up the coast, to have the privilege of playing in a game. When nothing official was happening, they'd play on lakes or flooded tennis courts, inspired by Mike's cousin, Anthony Fusillo, a teacher and football coach at Winthrop High School and the only person they knew who actually owned a pair of skates.
Fusillo lived in the same three-decker building as Eruzione, a family compound partitioned into apartments, the doors always open, aunts and uncles and cousins forever coming and going, the air thick with the smell of pasta and sauce. They spoke Italian and stuck together, the way many immigrant families stick together. Eruzione is a second-generation American, the son of Eugene Eruzione, whom everyone knows as Jeep and who worked as a maintenance man in a sewage treatment plant and as a waiter in Santarpio's pizzeria in East Boston, right by the Sumner Tunnel. Mike Eruzione spent his summers painting houses and watching planes come and go, and if his collar color has changed from blue to white, not much else has. He could live in much leafier Boston suburbs but has stayed put on a sloping street not more than 100 yards from Winthrop Golf Club and not even a mile from Winthrop High School, walking distance from the houses he and his wife, Donna, grew up in. He still goes to his aunt's for dinner on Christmas Eve and still plays hockey at Larsen Rink, an aging brick building with a gabled metal roof, across from Scott's Auto Repair. The rink has blue cinder-block walls, except at the ends, where the colors are a blue-and-gold checkerboard, in honor of the Winthrop High Vikings. On the far wall, there is a big American flag by the refrigeration coils, and a collection of championship banners and another banner honoring Eruzione, the 1980 Olympic captain. Just up Pauline Street is the main town square and a stately nineteenth-century town hall, a building with weathered brown bricks and arched windows, and monuments honoring the veterans of every war the nation has ever fought, along with a row of miniature flags. There are flags all over town, including the one outside Mike and Donna Eruzione's gray colonial. Winthrop is a very patriotic place. Eruzione is an officer of the Winthrop Youth Hockey Association. His boys, Michael and Paul, came through the program, and his sister, Nettie, is the secretary. Eruzione's roots are as deep as the Atlantic, though they were shaken early in 2004, when Winthrop voters turned down a budget increase that effectively shut down the entire sports program at Winthrop High.
"I'm not moving," he told the Boston Globe once. "I live here nice and easy. When I cross the bridge, it's like a gate closes behind me and says, 'I'm home.' "
Twenty-five years old in Lake Placid, Eruzione came to the Olympics from Toledo and the International Hockey League with a wide face that made him look older than his years and a skill level that did not compare to that of most of his teammates'. Eruzione was a football and baseball star growing up, but he wasn't the most fluid skater and dazzled nobody with his puck-handling. He didn't even have a Division I hockey scholarship until the summer after he finished high school. The University of New Hampshire was his first choice, but the school's interest in him was as a football player, not a hockey player. Parker, who had just taken over at BU, was scrambling for players. He had seen Eruzione play before and hadn't been overly impressed, but while refereeing a summer league game he saw Eruzione -- four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier -- and was starting to become intrigued.
"Where are you going to school?" Parker asked him.
"I think I'm going to Merrimack," Eruzione replied, referring to a Division II school.
"Why not a D-I school?"
"Because no D-I school has talked to me."
|Brooks didn't know if Eruzione's intangibles were enough to cover up his tangibles. His skating had never been his selling point, and now he was in a terrible scoring slump as well. “Now I'm going to have to cut my captain ...”|
"Now I'm going to have to cut my captain, and it's all because of you," Brooks told Nagobads. Right before Christmas, Brooks reached out to University of Vermont star Craig Homola, Pavelich's friend and former teammate from Eveleth, asking if he'd like to join the team. Homola was given a USA jersey with his name on the back right above No. 21, the number Mike Eruzione wore. The implication was clear: you impress us, and the number, and the spot on the team, are yours. Homola, however, wasn't eager to bail out on his Vermont team midway through the season or to forfeit the semester he'd almost completed. He also didn't want to be a pawn in one of Brooks's motivational gambits. Homola wound up declining. Brooks kept searching, and when Eruzione hit his drought, he found a willing pair of freshman forwards: Tim Harrer and Aaron Broten from the U. Brooks had recruited both of them, and both were players with speed and skill and explosive scoring ability. Brooks's plan was to tell the press that Eruzione had injured his back, then make his erstwhile captain an assistant coach; that way he could still be in Lake Placid and contribute to the team. When the coach laid out this scenario to Eruzione, the captain was aghast. Making the Olympic team meant everything to him. In the fall, he had fractured his wrist one day in a collision with Eric Strobel, then fainted in the van as trainer Gary Smith drove him to the hospital for X-rays, not so much from the pain of the fracture as from the prospect of it costing him his roster spot. Now he was on the brink again, and for once this was no Brooksian mind game. In a hotel lobby in St. Paul, before a team dinner in late January, Brooks had a private conversation with Gus Hendrickson, his friend and the coach of Minnesota-Duluth.
"I'm going to cut Eruzione. He's just not very good," Brooks said. "I think I'm going to go with Tim Harrer."
"But Eruzione's your leader. You need a leader," Hendrickson said. "Herbie, don't start screwing things up now." It was exactly the sentiment of the team. They'd been through Brooks's boot-camp grind for six months. Eruzione had become a widely admired captain, an emotional linchpin.
"If he cuts Eruzione, we're not going to go," John Harrington told Hendrickson, his former coach.
The players on the team were furious when Harrer and Broten arrived -- even the Gopher guys who knew and liked them. "Great to see you, Tim," [Steve] Janaszak said to Harrer. "When's your flight back?" Not even three weeks before Opening Ceremonies, the team confronted Brooks about his revolving door and had a four-letter suggestion for him: stop. It wasn't fair to bring in guys so late, to send guys packing who had been making sacrifices for months. Of course the imports might stand out during their audition; they hadn't spent months getting beaten up by Central Hockey League thugs looking to make a name for themselves by working over an Olympic kid. Led by Eruzione and O'Callahan, the players told Brooks that they were a family and that the team needed to come from the guys in the room right there. Brooks for once backed off. The final cuts were Jack Hughes, a defenseman from Harvard, and Ralph Cox, a forward from the University of New Hampshire. Cox had broken an ankle in the summer and struggled to catch up ever since. He was another guy whose skating wasn't what Brooks wanted, but he had a goal-scoring gift that was the equal of anyone on the team. Hughes was a smart, strong player who set a school record for points for a blueliner and had the sturdy disposition to make everyone on the ice better. They were brutal cuts for Brooks; it was impossible not to go back to the way he had felt twenty years before, when he heard the same news from his Olympic coach Jack Riley. A bunch of the players were together in an apartment in Minnesota when Brooks called and spoke to Hughes and Cox.
"I can't even imagine what that must've been like," Dave Silk said.
Eruzione ultimately survived because of his heart and leadership and his ability to get along with almost everybody. But he sweated it out to the end. He talked to Rossi after the 10-3 game in the Garden, and his angst was deep. "He thought he was gone," Rossi said.
|What Eruzione may have lacked in polish and slickness he more than made up for with his wise-cracking sincerity and regular-guy demeanor. At the team's induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in the fall of 2003, Eruzione was asked about the honor and said, “I thought we were already in, to be honest with you.”|
Said Rossi, "He made people comfortable because he was very comfortable with himself."
Years went by, and Eruzione kept expecting his bookings to drop off and the miracle's legs to give out. They never did. The calls kept coming, and so did the checks. His father used to ask him, "When are you going to get a real job?" The answer is probably never. When the 1980 team was selected to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, the first time the Winter Games had been back in the United States since Lake Placid, Eruzione did the honors. He took the usual grief from his teammates.
"There are four billion people watching. Don't drop it," Mark Johnson told him.
Eruzione knows better than anyone how improbable it is that a former Toledo Goaldigger has morphed into America's Guest, one of the more sought-after sports celebrity speakers around. He has made a handsome living out of his captaincy, providing inspiration for hire, showing a rare ability to improvise and personalize and not just make his boilerplate speech, eat his chicken, and be on his way. "Michael's just a natural leader, and it's what got him to the Olympics and got him to where he is today," Mark Wells said. Wells once was at a memorabilia signing with Eruzione in New York. Eruzione had gotten hit in the face with a puck in one of his adult hockey games at Larsen Rink and had two black eyes, but what really wowed Wells was how Eruzione cranked out his signature as if he were a one-man assembly line. "I've never seen a guy sign autographs so fast in my life," Wells said. "He must've written his name thirty-five hundred times in six hours."
Fifty years old, a quarter-century beyond Lake Placid, Mike Eruzione, the captain who was almost cut, travels all over the country talking about his team, his dream, about what happened after he hopped over the boards of the Olympic Field House midway through the third period against the Russians.
"If that's how people want to remember me, that's fine," Eruzione said once. "I have no problem being remembered for one thing. Some people never even have that."
With just over ten minutes left in the game, Harrington dug along the boards for the puck Buzz Schneider had shot in as he ended his shift. It squirted to Pavelich a few feet up, toward the blue line. Falling down, back to center, Pavelich did a half-pivot and flicked the puck in the middle. Eruzione, who had just come on, skated after it and caught up to it. His linemates, Neal Broten and Steve Christoff, hadn't even made it on the ice yet. Eruzione moved right. He pulled up. He had room. He let fly with a twenty-five-foot wrist shot off the wrong foot. Vasily Pervukhin, No. 5 in red, went down to block it. He didn't get it. Myshkin hunched low in goal. The puck was coming. He didn't get a good look because Pervukhin was screening him. The puck was getting closer. Myshkin tried desperately to pick up its flight. Then the puck was on him, flying between his right arm and his body, into the left side of the net.
United States of America 4, Soviet Union 3.
Eruzione threw up his arms and ran along the boards, a joyous, leg-pumping jig, and the crowd erupted right along with him, even louder. Behind the ABC microphone, Al Michaels said, "Now we have bedlam!" For the entire Olympics, the whole U.S. team had been racing on the ice when the Americans scored. They were not going to start holding back now. Brooks half-coiled his body and again thrust both arms overhead, this time even more emphatically. A tight-lipped smile began to form until he suppressed it. The coach hitched up his plaid pants. He exhaled. The United States had its first lead of the night, its first lead against the Russians in an Olympic game in twenty years. There were exactly ten minutes to play. The building throbbed. Ken Morrow, a defensive stalwart the whole night, readied for the face-off and the onslaught he knew was coming. These are going to be the longest ten minutes of my life, he thought.
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