The tape from the Vietnam veteran was the emotional topper, final compelling evidence of how deeply that one flick of his wrists had touched America. Before Lake Placid, he had planned on being a gym teacher or hockey coach, perhaps both, surely in obscurity once again after what figured to be no more than a flicker of Olympic fame. And all of a sudden Mike Eruzione was getting confessionals in the mail.

"The Vietnam vet sent the tape to (goalie) Jimmy Craig and me," Eruzione said. "Told us he didn't want his name to be used, and as he started talking you could hear 'God Bless America' playing in the background. He started crying, telling about how he came back home and wasn't considered a hero.

"He talked about how he had lost faith, about not being sure what would happen to him and his three children, about how we'd restored pride in himself and his family, how he was going to go on."

It's been nearly two years since captain Eruzione and the U.S. hockey team pulled off what comes as close as anything to an athletic miracle, so his mail is down to a manageable dozen or so letters a week. The country clearly needed a patriotic fix in the worst way then, for Eruzione's game-winning goal in the astonishing upset of the Soviets and the team's gold medal victory over Finland started an emotional binge that might never fully subside.

"A coed from the University of Florida wrote me," he said over the phone from Boston, where he was stranded yesterday and unable to participate in a press briefing here for the 1984 Winter Games in Yugoslavia. "She also was down, wasn't sure where her life was going. Her grades were awful; she couldn't find a job, and wasn't sure she could find one if she did graduate.

"She said our victory set her straight, that she was going to bust her butt. Next letter from her said she was doing well."

As is Eruzione. Enthusiastically, that endearing smile that got the country all mushy-eyed during the anthem and medal-presentation ceremonies still spread across his face, he makes decent money working broadcasts of New York Ranger games and talking about The Experience.

"Motivational speeches is what they're called," he said. "I just call 'em telling about what we did, and if somebody gets motivated that's fine."

That aw-shucks attitude is what got us hooked on Eruzione and the rest of America's team, that and the joy they all seemed to be having, the little-boy glow shining as realization of the damndest dream anybody could imagine hit them. Get yourselves up here with me, Eruzione motioned from the top stand of the victory platform, and when Craig and the rest joined him our chills started all over.

"We were a symbol of the working class," he said. "Average kids who had the American dream come true, who were transformed over night from middle-class kids to something different."

That so many drew hope from them pleases Eruzione.

But what was his reaction to the reaction? That's heady, head-turning stuff, after all, to go from being a mediocre player at a level of hockey only appreciated in small pockets of the country to instant, inspirational celebrity, the hope of lost souls.

"I thought about what I'd been taught as a child," he said, "that everybody has to be helped in parts of life, and that I just might be helping people--to a point--through my experience. My father always told me that if you wanted something badly enough and worked at it hard enough it could happen. And if it didn't, at least you learned the value of work."

He sees the goal as soon as anyone mentions it:

"Right in front of me now. My shift was up and (John) Harrington got it to (Mark) Pavelich, who poked it out to me. Destiny, maybe."

He's still a homebody, commuting to Ranger games, speaking engagements and appearances as Olympic salesman from suburban Boston.

"Comes in spurts," he said. "Just got back from a seven-day trip. Thursday, it's the Rangers, Friday in Philadelphia, Saturday home and Sunday in Texas. I like to spread things out, for my own peace of mind."

In his mind, Eruzione is prepared for the moment the fuss over him stops, if indeed it ever does.

"I'm very much aware that this can disappear as quickly as it happened," he said, sounding as though it would be a four-year cycle, that his days in the sporting spotlight might well end with the drop of the first puck in Sarajevo.

"I'd like to see us win 20 medals there," he said, seeming not to mind at all that somebody could eclipse his glory. "If and when this ends for me, I can go into coaching. Which is what I wanted to do in the first place."