By Jim Litke
SALT LAKE CITY – Twenty-two years after they produced the “Miracle on Ice,” members of the 1980 U.S. gold medal-winning hockey team proved they can handle a flame, too.
The team of college kids who came together to break the Soviet Union’s monopoly on Olympic hockey were reunited Friday night, this time as family men instead of world-class athletes, to be the final torchbearers for the Winter Games.
Captain Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal against the Soviets, accepted the torch from skier Picabo Street and current U.S women’s hockey captain Cammi Granato at the base of the cauldron. And then, just as he did on the medal stand at the Lake Placid Games, Eruzione motioned to his teammates to join him.
Together and all wearing USA hockey jerseys, they touched the torch to the base of the 117-foot-tall cauldron.
“I think this is probably the final journey. It’s hard to imagine yourself being an Olympic athlete and winning a gold medal, then 22 years go by and you carry the torch and light the Olympic flame,” Eruzione said.
“It was the hardest secret I’ve ever had to keep.”
The identity of the final torchbearer is always the best-kept secret of the Olympic Games. In the past, the role has been performed by royalty and children, Muhammad Ali and an anonymous archer.
Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, made the call on the final torchbearer. He said he first decided in August, but that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused him to waver several times.
The final leg of the torch relay was a star-studded cast of skaters and skiers.
It began with figure skaters Dick Button and Dorothy Hamill, who came into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium as a pair. They handed the torch to fellow figure skating medal-winners Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming, who took a lap on the ice rink set up on the stadium floor, then gave way to skiers Bill Johnson of Portland, Ore., and Phil Mahre of White Pass, Wash.
Taking the torch from the downhill duo were speedskaters Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair, America’s most decorated women’s Winter Olympian. In a bow to tradition, the flame then was handed to Jim Shea Sr., a former skier, and his son, current skeleton racer Jim Jr. The family was the first to boast three generations of Olympic competitors before patriarch Jack Shea, a double gold medal-winner from the 1932 Lake Placid Games, was killed in a car crash late last month.
The Sheas then made a short walk across the stage to where Street and Granato took the flame, and climbed the stairs to where Eruzione awaited.
Noticeably absent from the torch relay was Eric Heiden, who swept all five gold medals in speedskating at the 1980 Games and set a world record in each. Heiden became an orthopedic surgeon and is the doctor for this year’s speedskating team.
He created a controversy Thursday by saying he was offered a chance to be one of the final torchbearers, but told Salt Lake City organizers he was interested only in being the last one.
“I thought, gosh, I’d hate to diminish what I did, and I thought it’d be cool to light the cauldron,” he said. “And since I wasn’t going to do it, I figured there was other stuff I needed to do to take care of the skaters.”
Even so, the relay didn’t lack for emotional power.
The crowd roared as the torch went from pair to pair and finally to Eruzione.
The cheering must have been almost as loud at his home in Winthrop, Mass., where Eruzione’s family gathered to watch him light the torch.
“I’ve been growing up and that’s all I can remember is people telling me all about my father, and I’ve never seen it,” said Eruzione’s daughter, Leighan. “And now I can see it and it’s something I can really understand.”
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