On the evening he was inducted into the US Hockey Hall Of Fame, Doug Weight stood on stage in his hometown of Detroit, MI, and recounted his first memory of USA Hockey. A nine-year-old Weight watched the 1980 Miracle On Ice game, when a bunch of college kids shocked the world.
“I’ll never forget sitting in our living room as a family, watching Mike Eruzione score that goal from the slot against Russia,” Weight said. “Then a few days later, seeing the team come back to beat Finland for the gold and Mike calling his teammates up to the podium to celebrate. From that moment on, all I wanted to do was put on that USA jersey.”
I had the privilege to hear Weight share his stories about USA Hockey while at the Motor City Hotel and Casino, Monday night. As a kid born in the mid-80s, I’d heard about those college guys that beat the mighty Soviet Union squad, but there was never a connection to that team or tournament. When Eruzione snapped that shot from the slot and went running up the boards, I wasn’t even born yet (sorry for making you feel old Dougy).
During the ‘80s and years prior, there were players that changed the game for the better. Names like Bobby Orr…Guy Lafleur…Gordie Howe…Wayne Gretzky…Mario Lemieux…were all guys that left their impact on the game and had young Canadians yearning to be the next.
My list of players that I hoped to become was on a smaller scale. It included guys from one team that brought to the forefront just what it means to represent your country. Team USA from the 1996 World Cup of Hockey had names like Tony Amonte…Adam Deadmarsh…Bryan Smolinski…coupled with Keith Tkachuk…Bill Guerin…Doug Weight and the list goes on. They weren’t the most household names like Gretzky or Lemieux, but guys that carried with them big hearts and pride in their country. This was a group of American players that experts said made a solid team, but was not ready to compete with the powerhouse from north of the border that boasted some of the top talent in the world.
Team USA rolled through the opening rounds of the tournament, earning a bye into the semifinal round against Russia. The Americans beat Russia 5-2 and were poised to meet Canada in a best of three series for the championship. Game 1 was in Philadelphia, where Team USA had beaten Canada earlier in the tournament and had received an overwhelming amount of support from the American crowd. The opening game would go to overtime and Steve Yzerman scored the winner for Team Canada, sending the series to Montreal, the Canadian hockey hotbed, for Games 2 and 3.
It would have been easy for Team USA to let this tournament that started out so well slip through their heavy leather gloves and into the hands of Team Canada. Everyone expected it, and with Canada dressing all world players like Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Joe Sakic… winning two straight looked impossible for the boys from the states.
“It would be some of the greatest hockey I’ve ever seen or played in,” Weight said. “Coach Ron Wilson put me on a line with the great Brett Hull and also made us roommates. He was passionate in telling me that we should and WILL win this tournament. We are better than them (Canada). Brett truly believed this and it grabbed my focus. That was the attitude and belief that developed within our team throughout camp.”
And that belief was unleashed in Game 2, as Team USA evened the series at 1-1 with a 5-2 victory, forcing a deciding third game.
For Game 3, I remember sitting in my uncle’s den in Westchester, NY. I had the game on and he came down the stairs and said, “What are you watching? Isn’t there anything else on?” I grabbed the remote and hid it. He wasn’t changing the channel.
Team Canada was up 2-1 in the third until a point shot deflected by Weight's "roomy" found its way into the net. Less than a minute later, I had my "Eruzione moment.”
Curtis Joseph, Canada's goalie, made the initial save on the next shot he faced but Amonte was there to snap the rebound under the crossbar. That image of him running up the boards with his line mates doing their best to chase him down was burned into my memory.
Team USA would go on to score two empty net goals and lift the World Cup of Hockey championship trophy. I remember not wanting the broadcast to end. You could hear every word out of the American players mouths' (some my parents weren't pleased to hear), because every Canadian fan in the building had either filed out or was sitting silently in complete shock. I was celebrating just as hard as my idols. That moment a group of American buddies, a number of whom congregated last night after the ceremony, is what made me fall in love with the sport of hockey.
Weight concluded the portion of his speech about the 1996 team by revealing a conversation he had this past summer with the original “goal runner” from Team USA hockey lore.
“Eruzione said, ‘what we achieved in '96 meant as much for the young American players playing now as their 1980 gold medal meant to all of us!,’” Weight said. “Now I know Mike was being nice, and I know nothing could ever compare to the Miracle in 1980, but the mere fact that he said that to me made me even more proud of our accomplishment.”
Dougy…he’s right. My generation of hockey fans doesn’t have the miracle memory, but what we do have is the unforgettable feat that you and your group accomplished in 1996.
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