NHL Network is doing a lot this month to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” (the U.S. men’s hockey team beating the Soviet Union and then Finland to claim Olympic gold in Lake Placid, New York), and one of the highlights of their coverage will be a special edition of NHL Now Friday (4 p.m. Eastern) from the Team USA reunion celebration in Las Vegas, featuring Tony Luftman and Brian Lawton interviewing members of the team about that experience 40 years ago. Luftman recently spoke to AA about this month’s coverage and said covering the 1980 celebrations is a once-in a-lifetime opportunity given his long-running passion for this team. He said speaking to 1980 team captain Mike Eruzione earlier this month for an interview (seen above) that’s been running on NHL Network was particularly special. That interview can be found here:
The highlight of my career in sportscasting. Mike Eruzione was so nice, humble, friendly and engaging. https://t.co/GCAtc80Dml
— Tony Luftman (@TonyLuftman) February 6, 2020
Luftman said it was amazing getting to finally meet Eruzione after reading so much about him over the years.
“The first time I got to meet him was when I interviewed him. I had never met any member of that team, but I had read every book, watched every documentary, even the Soviet ones. And the day I met Eruzione was a couple of weeks back when we taped the interview. I had read his book—his new book is phenomenal. I think that’s one of the things that [Lawton] and I were talking about, all of these things that we want to capture when we go to Vegas and are sitting with those guys. It goes far beyond just celebrating the win over the Soviets and the gold medal. It’s the lasting impact, it’s the legacy of what they did.”
Luftman compared his feelings on talking with Eruzione for the first time to Chris Farley’s famous superfan interview with Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live. A clip of that can be seen below (the whole thing is available here):
Luftman said that summarized his feelings on getting to talk to Eruzione.
“That’s basically in my mind what I felt like the whole time. There’s moments where he’s talking, before the interview, during the interview, where I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this. I just can’t believe it. It’s so exciting.’ It reminded me of Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner says ‘I am pitching to Shoeless Joe Jackson.’ In my mind, I was going ‘I am talking to Mike Eruzione.’ This was truly the highlight of my career.”
Of course, it’s no surprise to Luftman’s colleagues that he’s so fired up about covering the 1980 team. Lawton said this has always been one of Luftman’s favorite things to discuss.
“Tony Luftman loves his family dearly and then he loves two other things in life, which are NASA and USA Hockey. I will find out this week why Tony has an infatuation with NASA, but USA Hockey is an easy one for me to understand. I find it uplifting to be around Tony because his personality is infectious and it is hard not to admire his appreciation for the “Miracle on Ice” team. I may have to hold him back on Friday, but that is okay because the team is going to be blown away with his level of preparation, passion and admiration he has for their great accomplishments. This is a dream professional assignment for Tony.”
And NHL Network senior coordinating producer Josh Bernstein said Luftman’s passion here makes him perfect for this NHL Now special and for that interview of Eruzione.
“Tony is one of a kind. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so passionate about anything in their life as Tony is about USA Hockey. If you searched the world, you wouldn’t find anyone more qualified to do these interviews than him. You can bet he’ll be wearing his red, white and blue socks.”
So, why the passion for the 1980 team? Luftman said it has to do with his upbringing, and also with his time at UCLA, where he got to know legendary coach John Wooden, who 1980 USA Hockey head coach Herb Brooks cited as an inspiration. And Wooden himself loved the 1980 hockey story. But Luftman said part of what he learned from Wooden is that labels, like “The Wizard of Westwood” or “The Miracle on Ice,” don’t always tell the whole story.
“Part of it is I grew up in a super patriotic family. A lot of my family members served in the military. And I had the privilege of being a USA Basketball team manager. And the other part of it is related to Coach Wooden. Herb Brooks’ favorite coach was Coach Wooden, and I got to be very close with Coach Wooden when I was at UCLA and for the last 15 years of his life. And we would talk about everything, and among the things we would talk about, because it was my favorite sporting moment ever, was what people call The Miracle on Ice.”
“And I said to him ‘You know, I don’t like that, the same way you don’t like being called the Wizard of Westwood’—very few people knew he didn’t like that nickname, but if you were one of his friends and someone called him that when you were around, he would correct that person, he would say ‘I’m no wizard,’ and he didn’t like it because it took credit away from his players. He taught me true humility isn’t thinking less of oneself, it’s thinking of oneself less.”
“So the more I learned about this team, the 1980 U.S. hockey team, it transcends the sport. Obviously there were all the implications of that time in history, I was a history major at UCLA, but even beyond the sport of hockey, the way that the guys were on that team, the way that they are.”
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) February 19, 2020
Luftman said his interview with Eruzione illustrated how special these players are.
“Even meeting Mike Eruzione four decades later, I came away a bigger fan of him; he was so nice. And it wasn’t just that I got to meet him and talk to him and interview him. He’s so nice, and he’s so engaging, and with everybody. I think you and I both know when you interview somebody and there are other people around, sometimes they just do the bare minimum, they just do the interview. He was so friendly to everybody, and we were pulling him in all these different directions, and he gets it. He’s still the captain.”
Luftman said even as a long-time fan of this team, he’s learned a lot in recent weeks from further study and talking to Eruzione.
“And I thought I knew everything, and in reading Eruzione’s book and studying for this trip, I’ve learned a ton of cool stuff, and we’re going to share that on the show from Vegas. Bottom line, anyone who’s a fan of USA Hockey will love hearing from these guys and hearing the bits and pieces that even their most passionate fans, and I put myself in that group, didn’t know, about their run to the gold, and their personalities, and their lives. There are so many neat things.”
He said one thing he learned from Eruzione’s book was the idea that Eruzione may have only been selected as captain because of head coach Herb Brooks.
“Among the amazing things I found in his book was that although they had a team vote and he was named captain, if you do the math, he probably didn’t get the most votes to be captain. It was a move, like everything else from Herb Brooks, that was so calculated.”
Luftman said Eruzione also doesn’t love that “Miracle” description.
“He said miracles to him are what firefighters and police officers and doctors do. They won a hockey championship. And they’re very proud of it, and he understands that it’s a phrase people identify with. I like…first of all, Al Michaels is one of the all-time greats, and I get why the call stuck, and in the moment, I totally get why he said it. But I liked even better when they beat Finland [to clinch the gold medal] and Michaels said ‘This impossible dream comes true.'”
Luftman said one good reason not to overemphasize the “Miracle” part is that it took a whole lot of preparation and hard work.
“I go back to the Wooden thing, he didn’t like being called a wizard because it took credit away from his players. I don’t like it being called a miracle because those guys, they absolutely dedicated themselves to it for six months, and they were the better team. They beat the Soviets.”
“And when you read Eruzione’s book, he talks about how Herb wanted them to break it down into five-minute segments. If you watch the last five, ten minutes, they’re dramatically better. Eruzione scores with 10 minutes left and the Soviets barely get shots on goal, they’re two deep, perimeter shots, they’re dumping and chasing, Viktor Tikhonov was outcoached by Herb Brooks. It was just a marvelous performance by the hockey team, and I just feel like if you call it a miracle, that takes away from what they accomplished.”
It’s notable that while the medal-round upset of the Soviet Union is what’s usually called “The Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. team didn’t actually seal gold until they beat Finland two days later. And Luftman said Eruzione told him Brooks made sure the team was set to finish the job.
“This comes again from chatting with Eruzione, the day after, the morning after they beat the Soviets, Herb comes in for their practice and they’re skating, laughing, and joking around. They beat the Russians, who wouldn’t be ecstatic? He said Herb skated them as hard as the infamous night when they tied the Norway national team (in a pre-Olympic exhibition in September, where Brooks had them do the windsprints skating drills they called “Herbies” afterwards), it’s in Miracle. But what isn’t in the movie is that the next day they beat Norway 9-0, so the message came through loud and clear.”
Luftman said that sort of tough approach was necessary from Brooks given the challenges of facing world-class competition with a team where the average age was only 21, making them the youngest team in the 1980 Games and the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey team ever.
“Herb knew what he was doing. It was a very calculated approach to every decision he made. He called it his loneliest year in hockey. And the guys who were on the Minnesota team were asked by the other guys on the team ‘Does he treat you like this at the U?’, and they said ‘No, we don’t know why he’s doing all this stuff.’ But the bottom line was everyone appreciated it in the end.”
“Herb knew when success goes to your head, you face failure. That’s the Wooden thing, and I think that was his motivation. So he skated them hard on that Saturday, and then on Sunday, even when they were down after two periods, that team had such a strong identity. They trailed in every [Olympic] game but one, against Romania, and they came back, especially in third. They outscored their opponents in third periods in Lake Placid 16-3. So all the Herbies (a windsprints skating drill) paid off; they were the best-conditioned team there, and that hard work paid off. This was no miracle, this was hard work by a dedicated team, and a really, really brilliant coach with a great staff.”
Luftman said he’s excited for the NHL Now special from the reunion, both as an opportunity to pay honor to these players and what they accomplished and as a way to show off who they are to a national audience.
“I want to pay tribute to these guys because of the impact and the legacy that they have left. It truly was a turning point in the history of our sport in our country. Mike Ramsey, on that team, was the first [U.S. college] player to be drafted in the first round (in 1979). Brian Lawton told me last night the reason he ended up playing in the NHL was he was inspired by them. They were so impactful in that regard, so we want to celebrate them, and we will. And the second thing is we want to celebrate their individual stories. Over the course of four decades, so much time has passed; what was it like to get to that mountaintop, and what have the following four decades been like?”
“And the individual nuggets that I’ve learned about these guys; one that comes to mind is that Jim Craig thinks that what Eric Heiden did in Lake Placid (winning an unprecedented five individual gold medals in both short- and long-track speed skating) is more impressive than what the hockey team did. The genuine humility of that; everyone says it’s the biggest moment in the history of sport, in the history of our planet, and yet the goalie at the center of it thinks that what Eric Heiden did was more impressive. Mike Eruzione scored the biggest goal in history, but he doesn’t think it was the biggest goal, it was Bill Baker’s goal that tied Sweden.”
Lawton said he’s thrilled to be a part of this as well, especially as he played with a lot of these players during his NHL career.
“I am looking forward to the opportunity to spend time with my former teammates, including Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian, Neal Broten, John Harrington, Phil Verchota, Mark Johnson and Jim Craig. As I look back at my hockey career, the single biggest reason I played in the NHL was because of the accomplishments of the entire 1980 Olympic team. As a 14-year old boy growing up in Rhode Island, I watched in awe as the 1980 team shocked the world with their stunning victory over the Soviet Union in route to winning a gold medal. It gave me the courage to dream big, work harder, and believe in myself. It is one of those events that transcended sports and the feeling I had then are just as powerful today for me.”
And Bernstein said there should be plenty of great stories to be told.
“I am most looking forward to the stories. This team shared in something incredibly unique in American and sports history, and I’m sure they’ll each bring their own personal story and perspective to Las Vegas this weekend..The Miracle on Ice team is one of the greatest sports stories of all-time. We see this weekend as an incredible opportunity to gather the heroes behind it together and have our viewers be part of the 40th anniversary celebration.”
Luftman said this 1980 team was special, and he’s looking forward to giving their anniversary celebration the coverage he thinks it deserves.
“I mean, these guys, all 20 of them, including Bob Suter, may he rest in peace (Suter died from a heart attack in 2014), they’re all amazing individuals, and we’re going to celebrate all of them and the coaching staff too. They’re really worthy of this attention. And I can’t say enough how much I admire our bosses, Josh Bernstein and Dave Patterson, for having the vision to send us out there and celebrate this the way it should be celebrated. These guys deserve that.”
The NHL Now special from the reunion airs Friday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. Eastern on NHL Network. NHL Network is also broadcasting the 2004 film “Miracle” two more times this month, with a special #NHLMovieNight (featuring Twitter discussions from the NHL, its teams, USA Hockey and more) Saturday, Feb. 22 at 4 p.m. Eastern and then another airing Monday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. Eastern.