January 14, 2014

From NEHJ: The legacy of Lake Placid

By Brion O’Connor

The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team's "Miracle on Ice" win over the Soviet Union not only sent the popularity of hockey skyrocketing in America, it also made the tiny town of Lake Placid the epicenter of sports. (Getty Images)

Imagine, for a moment, that the Soviet Union hockey team pummeled the United States on the afternoon of Feb. 22, 1980. Imagine there was no “Miracle on Ice.” Imagine if there was no last-minute goal in the opening-round game to preserve a tie against Sweden, and the Yanks never made it to medal contention. Would Lake Placid look any different today?

Chances are, it wouldn’t. The souvenir shops that line Main Street might need a wider array of knick-knacks, having tied their inventory to merchandise celebrating the 1980 “Miracle.” Companies that host hockey tournaments and camps might not see the same brisk business. But there remains an unmistakable sense that if the Soviets had spanked the Americans, as they were expected to do, Lake Placid would, by and large, still look much the same as it does today

“Lake Placid is a place that’s somewhat frozen in time, which is one of the reasons I feel that connection to it,” said Jack O’Callahan, the Boston University graduate who was one of the inspirational leaders of Team USA. “It’s the same as it was in 1980, and probably the same as it was in 1932, when they first had the Games.

“It’s a very unique place,” he said. “I’m really excited that it hasn’t turned into Disneyland.”

O’Callahan’s 1980 teammate Mark Johnson, who scored two critical goals against the Soviets, agreed. “It’s fun to just walk around town with a cup of coffee early in the morning and just reflect,” said Johnson, who now coaches the Wisconsin women’s hockey team. “There are a lot of similarities between the town now and the town back when we were there. And certainly the rink hasn’t changed much.”

“When you go back there, and see all the shops, it’s like you’ve stepped back in time,” said Winthrop, Mass., hero Mike Eruzione, captain of the American miracle makers. “It’s such a great little place. But when you go there, you think, ‘How the heck did they hold an Olympics here?’ It just rings of history. It was such a different era for the Olympic Games than it is today.”

Lake Placid, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, first hosted the Winter Games in 1932, when American Jack Shea won two speed skating gold medals and 16-year-old figure skater Sonja Henie of Norway not only captured Olympic gold but also the eye of Hollywood. The United States hockey team settled for silver,  edged out for gold by the team from Canada (in two games against the Canadians, the Americans managed a 2-2 tie but also lost, 2-1, in overtime).

“It is Hockey Town USA,” said Bill Curtis of Massachusetts, whose family has owned a house in nearby Keene Valley for decades. “I was at our camp over Christmas, 1979, just before the Olympics and had a ball in all the excitement that was about to happen.”

What happened, of course, was arguably the single greatest sporting event in the annals of competition, a lightning strike of epic proportions. Here, a group of fresh-faced American college kids stood the hockey universe on its axis, knocking off the mighty Soviets, 4-3, on their march to a gold medal.

Theater of dreams

Here’s a snapshot to put the “Miracle on Ice” in perspective: Eruzione, the Boston University graduate, is now 59. He just became a grandfather, for the second time.

“1980 was a long time ago,” said Eruzione recently, with a laugh.

When the Winter Olympics returned to the Empire State 48 years after the 1932 Games, there were notable changes. A new 7,700-seat arena was built in front of the venerable Jack Shea Rink, part of the Olympic Center that looms above Lake Placid like a present-day Acropolis. The complex overlooks the high school and the speed skating oval where American Eric Heiden raced to a record five gold medals. But the American hockey team’s Quixotic quest and dramatic victory would overshadow every other event.

“Lake Placid has always brought goose bumps to all of us who are aware of the U.S. Olympic movement,” said Bruce Delventhal, Plattsburgh State’s athletic director who was a teacher and hockey coach at the Northwoods School in Lake Placid in 1980, and a staff volunteer at the Games. “Because of all the different things that were going on (such as the protracted Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States), and then you have the ‘Miracle on Ice.’

“It brought so much cachet to our country, but also to those of us who have lived our whole lives involved in hockey, in U.S. hockey, born-and-bred U.S. hockey,” he said. “It gave us instant credibility.”

The members of Team USA also created a legacy that will likely last as long as we, as a society, follow sports. Eruzione will always remain young, caught on celluloid and video, scoring the game-winner against the Soviets, and encouraging his teammates to join him on the medal stand after they downed Finland in the gold medal-deciding game, 4-2, with three third-period goals.

“If you talk to people today, we only played one game, against the Russians,” said Eruzione. “There were no opening ceremonies, there were no other athletes competing, there was nothing else going on except us against the Russians. But there was so much more to it than that.

“I can remember when Eric Heiden was skating,” he said. “Just walking across the street (from the rink) and climbing the fence and watching him skate. The pageantry was amazing. It wasn’t 60,000 or 70,000 people at the opening ceremonies like today. It might have been 5,000, or 8,000. The (Herb Brooks Arena) building only holds 9,000 people, yet you’d think there was 40,000 in the building.”

People also tend to forget the Americans’ first game of the Olympics, when the United States needed a last-minute goal by Bill Baker to salvage a 2-2 tie against Sweden, the eventual bronze medalists.

“To see the momentum build, with that first game, and the goal in the last 30 seconds to tie the game, which might have been the most important goal” of the Olympics for Team USA, said Delventhal. “Because without that goal, we don’t go any place. To see the arena, which wasn’t even half full for that first game, to the building of the momentum and the energy in town as the team kept winning games. To see the wall downstairs next to the locker rooms with all these telegrams and letters from all over the world, wishing these college guys all the luck in the world.

“Those of us who were aware of college hockey knew all of them, and it mattered a lot,” he said. “You just had to root for them. It was your typical American underdog, come-from-behind story. Just to see how they electrified the town, and the country, and to some degree — not to be too ethnocentric — maybe the world.”

In the 34 years that have past since that glorious fortnight, the accomplishments of the 1980 United States team have become the stuff of lore, enhanced by Walt Disney (“Miracle”) and various documentaries.

“I don’t think it ever gets old,” said Johnson, who played 11 seasons in the NHL (and, like Eruzione, is a grandfather). “I’m 56 now, and when you reflect back on either your playing days or your coaching days, usually those special moments stand out. For me, when I get back there, sometimes I have to pinch myself and ask, ‘Did this really happen?’ Because we had no right beating the Russians.”

There’s no question that the “Miracle on Ice” cemented Lake Placid’s reputation as hallowed ground, a very special place in American sports history. But there is also a subtle sense of sadness that pervades this tiny village (year-round population, roughly 2,500), stemming from the idea that this is what the Olympics should be, but will likely never be again.

Though dwarfed by the Summer Games, the Winter Olympics are nonetheless multi-billion dollar affairs beholden to corporate clients. When you go to Vancouver or Salt Lake City (sites of the 2010 and 2002 Winter Games, respectively), it’s not readily apparent that these cities hosted the Olympics.

“If I travel to recruit in Vancouver, I’m not thinking about the Olympics,” said Johnson, who led the women’s Team USA to silver in 2010. “But if you go to Lake Placid, they pride themselves on hosting not one but two Olympic Games. The building itself, the structure hasn’t changed much, so you can get a real feeling of what it might have been like, as a spectator and an athlete, to come in and go through that two-week period of the Olympic Games.”

“The other day, somebody told me 1980 was the last ‘Mom & Pop’ Olympic Games,” Eruzione said. “There was no cable TV, no Twitter, no Facebook. No ESPN. There was no technology like we have today. It’s an old place, but it has such incredible memories.

“When you walk in the rink, you can almost hear the ‘USA! USA!’ chants in the building,” he said. “It’s just the whole aura of the place. And even walking downtown, it’s like I’m home. It’s like home to us. A special part of our lives spent in such a little place, but it was such a big part of our lives.”

The American victory was a frozen tidal wave that sent ripples through the hockey world. The 1980 Games were a vindication not only of the Russian style of play, but also that the rest of the world, with conviction and concerted effort, could adapt to this admittedly superior brand of hockey.

“The Russians were so respected. This was the epitome of ice hockey, the way they played the game,” said Delventhal. “When you read (Russian coaching legend Anatoli) Tarasov’s book, ‘The Road to Olympus,’ he talks about the building of the Russian hockey program. He wasn’t coaching that (1980) team, but that program is what they inherited, the KLM line (Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergey Makarov) and all of that, were just revered.

“The only way they might have gotten more attention was if they had gotten their names on the Stanley Cup,” he said. “They actually didn’t need that. They were revered that much. So for our college kids to go in there, and win that game, was just unbelievable.”

Theater of broken dreams

Of course, whenever your arena is defined by competition, there are winners and losers. While the winners can cherish dreams fulfilled, the losers must accept their lot, and the fact that they fell short of their dreams.

How many people think about the Soviet hockey players, and the aftermath of their crushing loss to the young Americans? The 1980 Olympics was supposed to be nothing short of a coronation for the Soviet juggernaut. No one expected everything to come off the rails for Viktor Tikhonov’s squad. With the great goaltender Vladislav Tretiak benched, the Soviets took a 3-2 lead into the third period, assuming they would win. Just two weeks prior, they routed the Americans, 10-3, in New York.

“We were already celebrating,” defenseman Valery Vasiliev told filmmaker Wayne Coffey. “Nobody can skate with us in the third period.”

The Americans had other ideas, scoring twice while locking down the vaunted Soviet attack for the stunning 4-3 victory.

“I felt badly for the Soviets, because they weren’t allowed to enjoy any part of the Olympics,” said Delventhal. “The Swedish team? They loved Lake Placid. They had a great time in Lake Placid. But the Soviets were watched every place, and it was kind of sad.”

The USSR team was confined to a building that would be later converted into a state prison. To the Soviet players, silver medals meant failure. “I don’t have mine,” Makarov told Coffey. “I think it is in garbage in Lake Placid jail.”

For others, Lake Placid represents the emotional disappointment of being denied a chance to chase their dreams. In 1997, Nan Gorton was a former collegiate star (at Bowdoin College and Brown University, respectively) in the mix for the United States women’s national team that would participate in the Olympics’ first women’s ice hockey competition in Japan.

“I remember arriving at the rink and seeing my USA jersey for the first time and touching the letters of my last name proudly sewn on the back,” recalled Gorton. “I remember taking the ice for the first session of the festival, as an Olympic finalist/hopeful and stepping on the ice. The only words in my head were those from my father: ‘Always pull for your teammates.’ That was his advice. Here I was trying to make my own spot, one spot, and the advice was to think of others. How American. It was at that moment I realized how special this place was.

“I remember feeling a great sense of pride and how I was sure everyone else who had skated here before me had felt similarly,” she said. “I remember the lights buzzing in the Olympic center gymnasium, as we waited to see if we would be a member of the first women’s U.S. Olympic ice hockey team. My name was not spoken.”

Sixteen years later, the disappointment is still vivid for Gorton, as are the lessons learned.

“I now realize what a gift Lake Placid had been for me,” said Gorton, who today is director of fitness at the Manchester Athletic Club in Massachusetts. “To realize you learn and grow far more from those things that don’t go your way. They are the moments that define you. Lake Placid has defined how I coach my athletes, how I inspire them, root for them and support them.

“Lake Placid was not a happy time, but my memories are all positive now,” she said. “It’s magical for all that are lucky enough to step on that ice.”

Lake Placid has long been a key venue for women’s hockey, too. Here, former U.S. women’s national team coach Ben Smith (Gloucester, Mass.) runs a drill. (Getty Images)

Dreams without boundaries

It is the opportunity to step on the ice of the 1980 rink that calls out to hockey players and hockey fans young and old, regardless of gender. Massachusetts’ Meghan Duggan, the current captain of the United States national team, was a freshman on Johnson’s Wisconsin team that defeated Minnesota Duluth, 4-1, in Lake Placid for the 2007 NCAA crown.

“It was a special weekend,” said Johnson. “Going back there, with people knowing what I had done in ’80, and then getting a chance to take a team back there. I was certainly nervous, knowing that if we won, it would provide those players and that team with something that I had back in 1980.”

In addition to being a national training center, the village has become a mecca for anyone hoping to connect with the hockey gods. Even the Boston Bruins, down 2-1 in their 2011 opening-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, paid a visit to recharge their batteries. During that trip, Boston’s Tim Thomas mentioned how Olympic goalie Jim Craig had inspired his career. Seven weeks later, he was hoisting the Stanley Cup.

In addition to inspiring a new generation of players, the “Miracle” also spurred a cottage industry of youth and adult tournaments and camps in Lake Placid, led by companies such as Can/Am Hockey and Canadian Hockey Enterprises (CHE).

“You just don’t find a small town like that, that has that venue,” said Eric Chapman, director for Can/Am, which started running tournaments at Lake Placid in 1981. “We’ve run youth tournaments in other places, but it’s just not the same thing. You’re a small tournament in a big city. Here, the town is the tournament.”

“Kids go and play there, and write me letters after, and they’re always talking about how they couldn’t believe they played in the 1980 rink,” said Eruzione. “So the history of the building is far bigger than the building.”

Chapman estimates that Can/Am brings roughly 20,000 hockey enthusiasts to Lake Placid. Even “weekend warriors” can dream big on the 1980 sheet, or on Mirror Lake, where Can/Am hosts a pond hockey tournament (set for Jan. 27-29 this year).

“I’ve been going to Lake Placid for over 10 years and each time is as exciting as the first,” said Laura Bittman Ward of New Jersey, who has attended both CHE camps and tournaments. “It’s such a thrill, seeing the flags waving over the oval, and walking in the entrance that says ‘Athletes’ above the door at the Olympic complex, and knowing that so many world-class skaters and hockey players walked through those doors before me.”

“One of my favorite Lake Placid memories is seeing someone else’s memories in the making,” said David Wallace, a 51-year-old CHE camper from Toronto. “Being there when a true hockey fan walks up and discovers the arena for the first time. They have finally made it to sacred ground, with the sound of Al Michaels’ voice in their heads.”

Delventhal has seen the same thing firsthand. “If you’re there today, and people go see the Brooks Arena, they pause,” he said. “There’s a reverence and a respect that was all brought about because of that hockey team.”

Roland Briere, a 64-year-old goaltender and retired firefighter from western Massachusetts, found the draw of Lake Placid overruled his plans to hang up the skates.

“One year we were dressing for the afternoon skate, in locker room Number 7, and some tourist walks in with his kid and says, ‘This is it! This is where they dressed,’ ”said Briere. “We weren’t aware of it, but I guess Number 7 was the room the U.S. dressed in for the Russian game. So he asked if it was OK, and he brought his whole family in to see it, and took pictures. For this guy, finally getting to Lake Placid and getting to tour the place was like Christmas for a 6-year-old.

“I attended my last camp this year, and I have to admit the arena has always been a special place for me, but I do remember how awesome I felt the first time I went,” he said. “In 1980, I was on duty at the fire department that night. Of course the game was tape delay on ABC. We heard the score from Walter Cronkite on CBS, and all looked at each other in shock. Then we watched it. I have the game on VHS, and would always watch it the night before I left for Lake Placid.”

For others, like Tony Davenport of New Jersey, a longtime New York Islanders fan, the camps and tournaments offer an opportunity to reconnect with the hockey fraternity on a broad scale.

“Lake Placid to me is more about the friends I’ve made up there than the actual hockey,” said Davenport, a regular CHE customer. “Yes, it’s still a rush stepping out on the 1980 rink, and I still like reading that sign at the players entrance. But I couldn’t tell you much detail about any game I’ve played there. The memories I will always carry are the laughs and great times I’ve shared with my fellow hockey players there.”

The Can/Am Hockey Group started running youth and adult tournaments at Lake Placid in 1981, both indoors and outdoors. Organizers use the 1980 Olympic torch for the opening ceremony. (Can/AM Hockey Group)

Future dreams

Lake Placid will undoubtedly continue to generate dreams for players of all abilities. The NCAA recently announced that the village, along with Plattsburgh State and New York’s Olympic Regional Development Authority, will host the Division 3 men’s hockey championships in 2016 and 2018.

“It’s a wonderful hockey town,” Delventhal said. “When the tournaments come in there, the old ECAC, or the ECAC tournaments coming in now, or even the NCAAs — I remember watching Lake Superior against St. Lawrence in the Frozen Four (in 1988) — and the town is a hockey town. Everyone is hockey, hockey, hockey. It’s a great spirit.”

Clearly, Lake Placid would still be special even had the Americans been clobbered by the Soviets in 1980. The village and the Olympic venues stand on their own merit. But set against the backdrop of arguably the greatest team sports moment ever, this little hamlet has truly taken on a “larger than life” aura.

“There’s a store now in front (of the Olympic Center), but that was the Arena Grill, which was the local watering hole,” said Delventhal, recalling the festivities following the American upset of the USSR squad. “I came out of the arena, and people were on the roof, dancing. And the streets, forget about cars, it was just one big Mardi Gras-type atmosphere. But watching people dance on top of the Arena Grill, man, that’ll be with me forever.”

Best of all, Lake Placid provides memories that can be revisited, time and time again, such as 2007, when Johnson’s Wisconsin team won its second consecutive NCAA title.

“After we won the championship, we had a couple of buses that were taking us back to Plattsburgh for our flight back home, and the Olympic torch is still out there,” said Johnson. “It was snowing as we got on the bus to leave the rink, and I told the bus driver that we needed to make one stop.

“So we went out to the field, got out of the bus, took our NCAA trophy, got below the torch,” he said. “And the big guy upstairs must have been watching, because all of a sudden the sun came out, and we took this picture under the torch with the NCAA championship trophy. So the players on that team have got this picture and that memory that they can share for the rest of their lives. That’s what made me happy about that weekend.”

The anecdote reinforces the reality that, while there may have only been one “Miracle on Ice,” there are thousands of special moments that have taken place, and will take place, at Lake Placid.

“I was a young kid, just 18 years old, and just won a national championship, and our coach is Mark Johnson and we just played in Lake Placid,” said Duggan. “He took us, with our national championship trophy, out to the old Olympic torch. It was very meaningful, and it’s a memory I’ll never forget.”

Just like the legion of hockey players and hockey fans who have made the pilgrimage to this very special place in upstate New York.

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