As the time ticked off the clock, the tension in the building became unbearable. The flickering green lights on the scoreboard counted down the seconds ever-so slowly.
9:59 ... 9:58 ... 9:57.
Mike Eruzione had just scored a goal for the Americans on a 30-foot shot, putting them ahead of the Soviet Union 4-3 in the semifinals of the Olympic hockey tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Feb. 22, 1980.
The young U.S. team skated with urgency in every stride, furiously protecting the unlikely lead against the world's best hockey team.
Every second seemed like a minute. Every minute seemed like an hour.
"It was the longest 10 minutes of my life," said Eruzione, the team captain. "Five minutes after I scored, I looked up at the clock and it said 9:59."
Teammate Neal Broten remembered how peewee and squirt hockey organizers often use every second of scarce ice time, cramming games in by playing running time, with no clock stoppages.
"You never wanted to play running time before," Broten said. "Now, you did."
The team was a collection of hockey nomads, culled mostly from Minnesota and Massachusetts and dispatched to represent their country.
This was before NHL players were welcomed by the Olympics, when America still embraced the quaint tradition of amateurism in the games, even though other countries had discarded it long before.
7:59 ... 7:58 ... 7:57.
The Soviets were not going away quietly. This was a proud team of stars, led by goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who would wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and a fistful of future NHL players like Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Krutov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Starikov, Helmut Balderis and Sergei Makarov.
The Americans had scored twice against Tretiak in the first period, tying the game on a goal by Mark Johnson one second before the period ended. When they came back on the ice, Vladimir Mishkin had replaced Tretiak in goal.
"I think their coach was trying to wake up his team," said Broten, who would go on to play 16 years in the NHL and score 289 goals. "I didn't see any intensity in the Russians. I think they underestimated us. We had a smart team with a lot of hockey sense with players who had experienced some success. And we were on a bit of a roll."
"In his book, Tretiak said it severed the head of the team when he went out of the game," Eruzione said. "We got four goals. If he stayed in, we might have scored six."
That would have been nice. Six would have given the Americans some breathing room. As it was, they had a one-goal lead, and what seemed a lifetime in which to protect it.
5:59 ... 5:58 ... 5:57.
This was not just another Olympics. The 1980 Games were held in tumultuous times. Americans were being held hostage in Iran and Soviet troops were marching through Afghanistan.
President Carter had already announced a U.S. boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The U.S. economy was in disarray with interest rates and inflation soaring.
There was also the perception that the Americans were in over their heads against the Soviets. A week before the Olympics, the Soviets beat the U.S. team 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"It was like a high school team playing a peewee team," Broten said. "We were overwhelmed. They must have had the puck for 58 minutes."
Eruzione said his team was "in awe" during the exhibition game.
"We stood around and watched them," he said. "It had been a long season and the Olympics were just around the corner. Guys were worrying about tickets and accommodations, even making the team. There were a lot of distractions."
Still, if this was a preview, the Americans faced a daunting task. The Soviets had a proud hockey history, dominating world championships and winners of five of the previous six Olympics.
They would not let the gold get away without a fight.
3:59 ... 3:58 ... 3:57.
American flags were all over the rink, waved frantically by fans chanting "USA, USA, USA." The encouragement was working.
"We were playing better," Eruzione said. "We were in our own building, in an Olympic atmosphere. And we thought we were pretty good."
Game by game, their confidence grew. In the tournament opener against Sweden, defenseman Bill Baker rescued the Americans, scoring the tying goal with 27 seconds left. That was followed by blowout wins: 7-3 over Czechoslovakia, 5-1 over Norway, 7-2 over Romania, and a come-from-behind 4-2 victory over West Germany.
That put the Americans in the medal round, up against the Soviets.
All season long, coach Herb Brooks had come up with homilies, designed to encourage his team. As they prepared to take the ice against the Soviets, he offered one more.
"You were born to be a player," he said. "You were meant to be here."
1:59 ... 1:58 ... 1:57.
Goalie Jim Craig was accustomed to pressure. He had led Boston University to the NCAA championship in 1978. He brought a goaltender's tough mentality to his task, regardless of whether the other team's shirts said "Northeastern" or "CCCP."
"As a goalie, then or now, the biggest thing is to give your team a chance to win," he said. "I remember being afraid, representing your country through a sporting event against such a powerful team. I tried to play each period as if it was a game."
The Soviets took 39 shots but just nine in the final 20 minutes.
"Guys were making plays," Eruzione said. "Phil Verchota would block a shot. Dave Silk would block a shot."
The goalie noticed.
"No Russian ever shot a puck just to shoot it," Craig said. "They were very calculated. Everybody had to work hard not to give them space.
"The guys played so well as a unit. The biggest thing against a team like that is you don't want to stop the play. Keep it going. Make sure the clock kept moving. That way, they couldn't prepare themselves. You don't want to wake them up."
With a minimum of faceoffs in which to collect their thoughts, the Soviet skaters played desperate hockey.
"Time ran out on them," Craig said.
0:03 ... 0:02 ... 0:01.
High above the ice, ABC broadcaster Al Michaels wrestled with the call, trying to decide how to describe one of the most dramatic moments in Olympic history.
"This is a business of spontaneity," he said. "You have to trust yourself and your instincts. As it developed with the U.S. protecting the lead, the arena was so loud, the emotion so great. Everybody was going crazy. I remember thinking, `Stay with it. Don't get swept up.' I was concerned with the fundamentals of play-by-play. The hotter it gets, the cooler you have to get.
"When it got to the very end, the puck skittered out to center ice. I remember thinking of one word in my mind -- miraculous."
That became a simple and eloquent call.
"Do you believe in miracles?"
As the final buzzer sounded, the Americans bounded over the boards and tackled one another gleefully, like a bunch of kids playing shinny on some country pond.
Brooks thrust an arm in the air in a brief, uncharacteristic expression of emotion, and then withdrew, leaving the celebration to the players.
Two days later, the Americans came from behind with three goals in the third period against Finland to win the gold medal. The celebration spilled into the streets of the small town, with perfect strangers pounding each other on the back, broad smiles on their faces.
At the medal ceremonies, Eruzione waved the entire team up to the podium, 20 young players sharing a red, white and blue miracle.
"The thing that strikes me is that it touched a lot of people in the United States, more than we ever thought," he said. "So many people felt a part of it. Fifty years from now, it'll still be special for a lot of people."
Certainly for the 20 players who accomplished it.
"It was something to always look back on," Broten said. "That experience, the closeness of that team. I wish I could go back and play it all over again."
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