If American hostages had not been in Iran and the Soviets in Afghanistan, if the country hadn't been depressed by watching the economy slide, Mike Eruzione thinks it might have been just another Olympic gold medal.
"It was more than hockey. We beat the Russians," says Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 U.S. hockey team that started flags waving from sea to shining sea with its upset at Lake Placid, N.Y. "We typified the working-class, underdog-type person. And we won."
Eruzione is back on the ice this week at the National Sports Festival, with three other members of that fairy-tale team. They are here as assistant coaches and magic charms for the new crop of Olympic hopefuls, who have already received more attention this week than Eruzione and teammates did during the six months they played together before the Olympics.
"We're here helping these guys prepare for the festival atmosphere," says Bill Baker, a defenseman on the '80 team who now plays for the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League. "We didn't know what was going on around us while we were playing. It all happened afterward."
Hockey is a sexy sport at this festival. The memory of the 1980 victory still tingles, and it is made fresher by the presence of four players from that team. People still approach them, asking the old questions about winning glory and some new ones about coping with it. They want to know about goalie Jim Craig and his recent car accident, and whether any of them still talk to Herb Brooks, their former coach, who had a reputation for sternness that made Vince Lombardi seem like a softy.
"I guess I talk to him most often," says Eruzione, 27. "But there is still fear when I sit down in a room with him. I would never start a conversation, and never speak before he finishes talking."
Brooks, who now coaches the New York Rangers, took 20 players with average hockey skills and molded them into a world-beating team. Players complained he didn't need to use such a rough brush to get them that smooth. They now concede they wouldn't have gotten their gold without him.
The contrast between Brooks and the new Olympic hockey coach is marked. Lou Vairo, 37, is a former air-conditioning installer from Brooklyn who is dark, handsome and as gregarious as Brooks was aloof. Vairo has not played more than a dozen ice hockey games in his life.
"When I was growing up in Brooklyn, there weren't many ice rinks," says Vairo. Roller hockey was the game played in his asphalt borough, and Vairo played it until some in the neighborhood complained he was too old. He switched to ice and started coaching at hockey's equivalent of the Little League. While his teams were winning championships, Vairo kept installing air conditioners and paying close attention to the international game.
In 1971, after watching a Soviet team rout a U.S. team in Madison Square Garden, Vairo took $1,200 out of the bank and three weeks off work, and flew to Moscow to find the key to the Soviets' success. When he returned, he had an idea for a hybrid style of hockey that combined the aggressive, body-checking game that Americans excelled at with European team concepts.
Vairo and Brooks, different as they are in personal styles, share the same philosophy of play and the belief that team skills are sometimes more important than playing skills. In 1980 and now, players must pass psychological tests before being considered for the team. "Some of the guys had their friends do them," says Baker, a blond, blue-eyed athlete who looks perfect for the part of sport hero. Eruzione, who is dark and looks more like the neighborhood butcher, took the test himself, but admits now that he cheated.
"When they ask you a question like, 'Would you kill your mother in order to win?', obviously the coach wants to hear yes," says Eruzione. "So that's what I told him. Don't tell Herbie that," says Eruzione, two years later and still a member of the team.