In Lake Placid and across the country, a miracle from 40 years ago still inspires

The U.S. men's hockey team pounces on goalie Jim Craig
In this Feb. 22, 1980, file photo, the U.S. men's hockey team pounces on goalie Jim Craig after a 4-3 victory against the Soviet Union in a medal round game at the the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
AP 1980

The woman had been waiting for her opportunity for more than an hour, which was no big deal because, technically, she had been waiting 40 years. She went to the Lake Placid Center for the Arts on a frigid night earlier this week with a folder containing a stack of perfectly preserved photographs and news clippings.

And finally, she was going to get Buzz Schneider — who scored the first U.S. goal of the hockey game that would become forever known as the Miracle on Ice — to sign them. He obliged, happily signing everything the overjoyed woman needed.

“Personally, I can’t believe it’s resonated this long,” Schneider said.

Oh, but it has.

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Feb. 22, 1980. USA 4, USSR 3. Saturday marks exactly four decades since perhaps the greatest sports result in the history of this country, perhaps the greatest upset in the history of sports anywhere. A bunch of kids beat the best hockey team in the world — at the height of the Cold War, David vs. Goliath, Us vs. Them, a moment when the nation’s collective mood seemed as cold as that sheet of ice that became a canvas for a miracle in Lake Placid, New York.

The U.S. men's hockey team rushes toward goalie Jim Craig
In this Feb. 22, 1980, file photo, the U.S. men's hockey team rushes toward goalie Jim Craig after their 4-3 upset win over the Soviet Union in a medal round match at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Some of the U.S. players shown are Mark Johnson (10); Eric Strobel (19); William Schneider (25); David Christian (23); Mark Wells (15); Steve Cristoff (11); Bob Suter (20) and Philip Verchota (27).
AP 1980

Lake Placid has never forgotten, and in turn, the world hasn’t forgotten Lake Placid, either. The village in the heart of the Adirondacks still bustles, even in the summer months. The arena is still there, the rink where the Americans played that game now named for the late Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach, and a sporting goods shop across the street from the Olympic Center is called “Locker Room 5” — a tribute to the room the team used on that fateful night.

“The stories I hear, 40 years later, depending on their age: ‘I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I remember where I was on 9/11, I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up, and I remember where I was when we won,’” said Mike Eruzione, the team captain who scored what became the game-winning goal with exactly 10 minutes left in the third period. “And I always say, ‘We? I didn’t know you were on the team.’ But people felt a part of it, and it’s nice to know 40 years later ... that people remember and share some great stories about what we did so long ago.”

The anniversary will also be marked on Saturday in downtown St. Paul, with a parade at 1 p.m. from the Herb Brooks statue near Rice Park to CHS Field.

The game details remain largely unforgotten: The U.S. trailed 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, spending more than half the night behind on the scoreboard. Schneider scored to tie the game 1-1, Mark Johnson scored at the very end of the first period to make it 2-2 and Johnson struck again on the power play with 11:21 left to tie the game 3-3.

A mere 81 seconds later, Eruzione happened. The Americans clogged the defensive end of the ice the rest of the way, doing all they could to help goaltender Jim Craig. The Russians never pulled their goalie for an extra attacker, presumably because they were so used to winning that they didn’t know what to do in such a situation.

A miracle. Two days later, the U.S. rallied past Finland for the gold medal on the final day in Lake Placid.

“Lake Placid also had the Olympics in 1932 and, to me, that meant it was the birthplace of the Winter Olympics in the United States,” said Schneider, who appeared alongside Olympic luge legends Erin Hamlin and Gordy Sheer, four-time biathlon Olympian Tim Burke and a pair of rising athletes from the Lake Placid area on a panel Monday night. “It’s a small town, the people here always want to make things work, they’re very humble and they’re hard-working. I’ll tell you, it’s a special little spot.”

U.S. goalie Jim Craig leaps high in the air
U.S. goalie Jim Craig leaps high in the air in the final second of a 4-3 win over the Soviet Union in a medal round game on Feb. 22, 1980, at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
AP 1980

There’s no shortage of other reasons why Lake Placid is busy 52 weeks a year. Hockey players and figure skaters still flock to the Olympic Center and its three sheets of ice. There’s a bobsled, skeleton and luge track that welcomes the world’s best every year. The ski jumps are still there, as is the 400-meter speed skating track in front of the high school. Whiteface Mountain is a few miles down the road. There’s a world-class horse show every summer, an Ironman race, and state officials are pumping tens of millions into construction projects to make sure Lake Placid remains extremely visible on the winter sports map.

There’ve been countless big moments in Lake Placid. It's just that one clearly rises above all others.

“What hockey did, it was so huge,” said Olympic figure skater Tai Babilonia, who watched every hockey game in the 1980 Games because her plans to compete with partner Randy Gardner were dashed at the last minute when he was injured. “It was kind of a force of nature. There was nothing you can do. They didn't plan it. They surely didn't plan it. They were not expecting that, those guys. That's the nature of the beast. Does it take away anything from anyone? Absolutely not. It was just huge. I thought the roof was going to cave in that night.”

The hockey gold — the game against the Soviets, really — has overshadowed everything else from those Olympics. Eric Heiden’s five gold medals in the five speedskating distances that year, from sprints to a marathon, is a feat that remains unmatched. Figure skating won a pair of singles medals. Phil Mahre won a skiing silver. The Americans picked up 12 medals in all, matching what at the time was the best showing for the U.S. at an Olympics — also done in 1932, also in Lake Placid.

“I think I saw all the hockey games. It was incredible,” said Charles Tickner, the Olympic silver medalist for the U.S. in men’s figure skating 40 years ago. “I think back and I'm disappointed that I never saw Eric Heiden. And the hockey team was great, but I think poor Eric Heiden gets overshadowed by all of that.”

True, but with good reason.

Buzz Schneider of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men's hockey team
Buzz Schneider, second from right, of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men's hockey team, speaks during a "Relive the Miracle" reunion at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y. on Feb. 21, 2015. Schneider is joined by former teammates John Harrington, left, Phil Verchota, second from left, and Rob McClanahan, right.
Mike Groll | AP 2015

And if the Miracle on Ice needed any assistance in remaining viable after 40 years, the movie “Miracle” has surely helped.

A few saw Hollywood take literary license, but most elements of the movie were right.

“My son happened to play me in the movie,” Schneider said. “The only thing I’m disappointed with is that he made more on the movie than I did.”

A couple generations later, young athletes — boys or girls, hockey players or skiers or sliders or anything else you can do in winter — are still being told the story of how Lake Placid is a place where miracles can come true.

It’s been proven.

“It played a big part for me growing up,” said Burke, the biathlon star. “As a kid growing up in this community, you learned about the Miracle on Ice as far back as I can remember. Anywhere you walk in town, you see the Olympic brand, you see the speed skating oval or you see the ski jumps. The Olympics are such a big part of this community that when you grow up here, you grow up knowing that nothing is not achievable.”