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Tough lesson for ‘America’s Team’

The surviving members of the United States hockey team that won the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid appear on stage in the Herb Brooks Arena on Feb. 21, 2015, during the Relive the Miracle reunion in Lake Placid. Todd Walsh, center, was the master of ceremonies. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Forty years ago right here in Lake Placid, a group of United States Olympians achieved a feat that probably the entire world at the time would have deemed impossible.

That, of course, was the “Miracle On Ice” hockey victory at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Some say the Americans’ 4-3 win over the mighty Soviet Union skaters was the sports event of the century. In my eyes it will always be the greatest triumph of all time by an underdog.

Whenever I see highlights of that game, I still shiver with goosebumps. It never gets old, and I love it. As a sports writer in the area for nearly 25 years now, I have cherished the opportunity to meet many of the players from that heroic team during their visits to Lake Placid. I’ve been able to interview the guys over the years, attended many events that have been held here in their honor, or just crossed their paths on the street and said hello when I haven’t been working.

Two very memorable reunions of the team in Lake Placid that I was fortunate enough to be a part of were the debut of the movie “Miracle” at the Palace Theatre in the winter of 2004, and the gathering of the players here five years ago to commemorate the 35th anniversary of their victory over the Soviet Union and winning the ice hockey gold medal.

The entire village celebrated the return of the players. It was so impressive seeing 19 members of the team standing on a stage in front of a packed house of thousands in the same arena where they made history, the rink named after their head coach Herb Brooks. The guys looked great in their red, white and blue USA hockey jerseys. It was awe inspiring seeing those gold medalists standing in front of a huge American flag that was the backdrop for the stage.

Obviously, that amazing victory 40 years ago belongs to the players, Coach Brooks, their families and all the people who had a role in putting that team on the ice. But I believe every citizen in our nation can claim a part ownership in the Miracle on Ice, even if it’s just a small sliver. The win, the gold medal, they belong to us, too. That was our team out on the ice. They triumphed for themselves, and they triumphed for we the people.

Fast-forward 40 years: Most of the players from that 1980 men’s squad gathered in Las Vegas, Nevada, last week to celebrate yet another reunion. But on Friday, 14 members of that team — the real America’s Team — decided to take the stage with President Donald Trump at one of his campaign rallies.

I’ve never had issues with American sports heroes gathering with a president of this country. But this time it’s very different. The Miracle on Ice victory was a win for all Americans. Race, religion, political viewpoints didn’t matter. Citizens of the United States came together as a whole to celebrate the amazing feat their hockey team pulled off.

There’s little doubt that our country today is divided. To see 14 players who are American heroes on stage at a political rally for a president running for reelection in a divided nation was extremely disappointing. If they were paying an official visit to the White House to greet the president, I’d be perfectly fine with that, regardless of their political leanings. Instead, the 14 American heroes were on a stage in front of Trump supporters waving campaign signs and chanting “USA, USA.” And while they were on stage, Trump mocked his “fake media.” He denounced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for presenting the Oscar for the best movie to “Parasite,” the first foreign language film to ever win “Best Picture.” Trump even said “12 more years.” What did he mean by that?

The most disturbing part of their appearance is that 11 of the 14 members of the group were wearing red and white “Keep America Great” hats, which are arguably the most well-known symbol of Trump’s presidency. Mike Eruzione, the team captain who scored the game-winning goal in the Miracle on Ice, should have been particularly embarrassed. He was the first player who Trump brought up to the stage at the rally. Trump asked him, “Am I a good athlete? Am I a good golfer?” It appeared to me that he was put in a tight spot. Eruzione’s response was “Yes. Whatever you say.”

Trump, who called Eruzione his friend, then went on to ask the the team captain how many saves (“rebuffs”) he made during the Miracle game. Eruzione then quietly reminded Trump that the goalie for the most famous sports team in American history was Jim Craig.

Players on a team that should be cherished by all Americans should know better. Individually, I’m all for it if they want to back any politician or any viewpoints they believe in. They can campaign as much as they want. It’s their right. It’s the right of all Americans.

I’ll still get those goosebumps. I’ll still well up with emotion every time I see highlights of our 1980 hockey team in action in Lake Placid 40 years ago. I will always be proud of those young men.

But at the same time, the sight of 14 members of a team that united America in 1980 appearing on a stage 40 years later at a campaign rally for a divisive president will never leave my mind. They were props for the president. It was disappointing. As a team, “America’s Team,” they should be more in touch with our country as a whole.