Even 34 years later, Olympic history is preserved in Lake Placid

Stop by the Olympic Center and sit down in the seats overlooking Herb Brooks Arena and you can almost hear the roar that carried across the world when the young American hockey team defeated the veteran Soviets en route to a gold medal.
Feb 13, 2014

 

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — The minute you drive into this quaint village nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, you get the sense that the 1980 Winter Olympics hasn’t been forgotten.

Some 34 years after the town of 2,600 residents was on the international stage, hosting the Winter Games, the Olympic spirit still burns brightly here.

Stop by the Olympic Center and sit down in the seats overlooking Herb Brooks Arena and you can almost hear the roar that carried across the world when the young American hockey team defeated the veteran Soviets en route to a gold medal.

Stroll down the block to the outside skating oval and you can picture Eric Heiden, dressed in his gold suit, racing to one of his five gold medals.

Drive outside town, and you can pull up to a ski jump where Olympians once soared about the treelines. Even in September, skiers practiced their aerials on a slope with plastic runners, and landed in a large swimming pool.

Imitation bobsleds decorate downtown streets, a museum offers memorabilia from the 1932 and 1980 Olympics that Lake Placid hosted, and tours allow visitors to take a wild ride down a course in a bobsled manned by a professional driver and brakeman.

No, Lake Placid hasn’t forgotten. It will forever be remembered as “the little town that could” in the annals of Olympics history.

“To me, Lake Placid was like Pleasantville, USA,” said Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 hockey team who scored the winning goal in the 4-3 victory over the Soviets.

“It was just the perfect setting for us. We were a blue-collar team with a great work ethic. And Lake Placid embraced us.

“Everywhere we went, people were waving American flags and shouting, ‘USA, USA.’ They treated us like rock stars.

“It was a great time in a great place.”

The “Miracle on Ice,” as that hockey game has been called, will live in Olympics history.

But the people of Lake Placid talk about another miracle that took place four years earlier that shaped the 1980 Games.

“We made a bid for the 1976 Olympics, but the committee gave it to Innsbruck,” recalled Howard Riley, who was the editor of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise at the time and later became part of the staff for the 1980 Olympics. “But we knew our time would come.

“The committee was impressed with our bid and we knew we had a good shot at the 1980 games.”

Actually, it looked so promising that Lake Placid was the only one that made a bid.

The reaction? Many wondered if a town so small could handle such a giant event. But not the residents of Lake Placid.

“No one else in the world had the Olympic experience we did,” said Riley, who is now 83 and lives in Saranac Lake, N.Y. “With our winter-sports facilities, we had held world-class events every year.

“We knew we could handle it and put on a good show.”

Four years of construction followed. As the Olympics neared, the town’s schools were closed for three weeks to get the venues ready. Snow was plowed from all of the town’s football and soccer fields, then they were flooded and turned into giant parking lots, Riley said.

No public traffic was allowed downtown, and the village became a large pedestrian mall.

Just outside of town, a large prison that was being built was turned into the Olympic Village, where the athletes stayed. It was perfect, because it offered the security and the room that was needed for housing more than 1,000 athletes.

“By the time the Olympics started, we were ready,” Riley said. “This was our moment.”

Jon Lundin, who was 13 at the time, was one of many swept up by Olympic fever.

“Some people wanted to get the heck out of Dodge,” he said. “But my parents wanted to stay and show us history in the making.

“We had watched the arena being built, the ski hill going up, and we were excited. We couldn’t wait until the athletes came into town.”

Lundin remembers going to the opening ceremonies and being overwhelmed. Later, he did everything he could to watch as many events as possible.

“I climbed up on the base of a flag pole to watch Eric Heiden race,” he said. “And I climbed a pine tree to watch the ski jumping.

“I went to four hockey games, but not the ‘Miracle on Ice’ game. That was a tough ticket.”

Still, it remains etched in his mind.

“It’s amazing how many people attended that game,” he said, joking. “That arena held a little more than 8,000 people, but 10 million people said they were there.”

Lundin was there for the celebration. After the game, he and his family walked a mile from their home in Lake Placid and became part of the wild scene.

“Flags were waving, people were hugging complete strangers, people were singing ‘God Bless America,’ there were people on roofs,” Lundin said. “It was just crazy.”

Today, Lundin, 46, is the director of the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority. And he owes his career path to his early experiences with the Olympics.

“We are still very active as an Olympics training center,” he said. “It’s safe to say that if you have any aspirations of being a Winter Olympian representing the United States, you’ve come to Lake Placid.”

 

To understand the enormity of the U.S.’s upset of the Soviet hockey team, you have to understand the times.

The two countries were immersed in the Cold War, and most of the Soviet team was made up of members of the Red Army. The Soviets had dominated Olympic hockey since its start, and there was little to indicate that was about to change.

The American squad was made of amateur and college players, long on hustle but short on experience.

Shortly before the Olympics, the Soviets beat the Americans 10-3 in an exhibition, and “it really wasn’t that close,” Eruzione said.

But the Americans vowed that things would be different in the Olympics.

“We didn’t want to be embarrassed again,” said Dave Christian, a member of the U.S. team.

They weren’t. From the start, Christian said, it was obvious that this was a different game.

“At the start, they were underestimating us,” Christian said last week when he was in Kansas City for several fundraisers. “By the end of the game, they just looked shocked. Like, ‘this can’t be happening.’ ”

Buzz Schneider, another member of the 1980 team, remembers the aftermath of the upset.

“The Russian bus pulled right up to the door, and the players marched right out,” Schneider said. “There was no coming up to us and saying, ‘Good game’ or anything.”

Later, Schneider and several other players turned their Team USA jackets inside out and went to the Holiday Inn, where they sat in the bar and watched the game on tape delay. Going unnoticed, they celebrated with the rest of the Americans.

“It was something I’ll never forget,” Schneider said. “I was just back in Lake Placid recently for a fantasy camp and it brought back some great memories.

“The town hasn’t changed that much. It’s still a wonderful little place.”

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