Miracle on Ice still resonates 34 years later

The United States' hockey team's stunning 4-3 upset of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. is still considered one of the greatest moments in Olympic and sports history.

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Nearly everyone old enough to recognize its significance remembers where they were the day the United States Olympic men’s hockey team stunned the Soviet Union 4-3 on its way to the gold medal on Feb. 22 at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. It’s one of those seminal moments in American history, so charged with emotion and imagery that it serves as a permanent bookmark in our past.

But what about the 20 players, the coaches and the staff who actually were there? How does the moment resonate for them 34 years later?

"As you go along in your career, in hockey or elsewhere, you really appreciate the team aspect of how we played, how unselfish players were on that team," said team member Neal Broten, who also had a successful, 1,099-game NHL career with the Minnesota North Stars, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings. "When you get to the NHL, some players can get a bit selfish. They like to score goals and make more money. On that team, there were no selfish players. We played a team game. That was a blast."

As the 2014 Winter Games open in Sochi, Russia, 10 members of the Miracle on Ice team will attend an Olympic send-off event and ceremonial puck drop prior to the Phoenix Coyotes’ game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday at 7 p.m. at Jobing.com Arena. Coyotes co-owner Anthony LeBlanc came up with the idea shortly after closing on the purchase of the team in August.

"We wanted to send our Olympians off in style but, frankly, also wanted to create an event that would be momentous for our fans," LeBlanc said. "Although I’m a Canadian, I have always been fascinated by the Miracle on Ice team, and this was amplified due to the movie ‘Miracle,’ which is probably my favorite film.

"We think it will be a very special night for everyone in attendance and will get everyone ready for an exciting 2014 Olympics."

Most everyone has seen Mike Eruzione’s game-winning goal against the Soviets. But some of the other details of that tournament are fuzzy. Not many remember that if the U.S. hadn’t beaten Finland in the next and final game of the Olympics, they wouldn’€™t have earned a medal, let alone the gold.

Most don’t remember that Rob McClanahan scored the game-winning goal against the Finns in yet another game in which the U.S. trailed early. And most don’t remember that McClanahan had a very public blow-up with now-deceased coach Herb Brooks. 

During the opening game of the 1980 Olympic tournament against Sweden, McClanahan sustained an upper-thigh bruise that left the U.S. short another player because defenseman Jack O’Callahan had been injured during an exhibition game against the Soviet Union three days prior to the Olympics. McClanahan finished the game, but the details of that decision weren’t all included in the movie "Miracle." 

"I got hurt the first shift of the game trying to avoid a check. I jumped up and my thigh hit the top of the boards. It was a serious contusion," said McClanahan, who will be in Glendale along with Eruzione and Broten. "I had an ice pack on it, and I was flat on my back with my leg bent as much as it could be bent. All the guys came in and checked on me, but Herb came in and questioned me. 

"I don’t know if ‘candy ass’ is the word he used, but he questioned my toughness, and I kind of snapped. I was shocked and I went after him.

"What they didn’t depict in the movie was that I was a second away from throwing a punch at him when he walked out into the hallway. I followed him and we were screaming there as well. Sweden’s locker room was right next to us, and I’m yelling at him, telling him, ‘You’re not going to tell me if I’m healthy enough to play!’

Miracle memories

The Swedes must have been thinking, ‘After one period of the first game, these guys are already losing their marbles.’" 

McClanahan finished that game, although he admits he was "worthless." He missed the opening ceremonies because he was in a whirlpool trying to heal the bruise, which he said never reached 100 percent. Despite the injury, he had five goals in seven tournament games, including two game-winning goals (against West Germany and Finland).

The complexion of the Olympics has changed considerably since that iconic event. In place of amateurs, the U.S., Canada and other nations now send their professional athletes to compete in the games.

"It’s a tough call because it’s about seeing the best athletes in their respective sports, and this year is hands-down the best hockey you’ll see with the skill and the speed," McClanahan said. "But it’s hard to field a team when you put it together for two weeks and call it a team. The Olympics are about training together an entire season."

Broten echoed the latter thoughts.

"I’m a traditionalist. I kind of wish it was back the way it was when we played," Broten said. "Pros deserve the chance to play and represent their country, and some didn’t get a chance before because they had signed with a team. But for guys who weren’t already making money, it was the thrill of a lifetime, and you can’t build the kind of friendships and camaraderie and bond we had when you’re only together for a few weeks."

Broten still stays in touch with most of his Team USA teammates, and he insists the friendships haven’t wavered. But he doesn’t see them nearly as often as he’d like. 

"I wish I could go back and relive it one more time — be 20 years old again and stand in that locker room one more time with those guys, or play Space Invaders with Dave Christian," he said. "I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time. I didn’t realize how big it was. We were just a bunch of kids who loved to play hockey."

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