It’s been 34 years now since Jim Craig was the winning goaltender in what’s unanimously considered the greatest hockey game ever played, but the memories of his role in the Miracle on Ice will always be fresh in the North Easton, Mass., native’s mind.
The Boston University product, who stymied the superpower that was the Soviet Union before helping the U.S. defeat Finland in the gold-medal game in 1980, remains the last American goaltender to backstop Team USA to Olympic glory, as the United States finished in fourth place in Sochi last month.
New England Hockey Journal caught up with Craig, who’s the founder and president of Gold Medal Strategies, to discuss his memories of Lake Placid, his assessment of Team USA starter Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.), whether the NHL should send its players to the Olympics in 2018 and more.
NEHJ: The Miracle on Ice is considered the ultimate underdog story, and oftentimes people equate that with having nothing to lose, but what was that pressure like going into the game against the Soviets, and when you took the lead in the third period?
Jim Craig: I think any time you represent your country and a gold medal is at stake, it’s your pride, playing well and competing. It’s pretty incredible. I’ve played for NCAA championships and Beanpots, but nothing compares to the pressure of playing for your country.
How vividly do you remember those moments right after the final horn sounded?
Craig: Those moments are etched into your memory forever. It’s something that’s really neat. When you see clips of them, it brings back memories of exactly what was happening.
How many times have you seen “Miracle”?
Craig: Start to finish, probably three times. It’s nice. One of them was the screening of it, so that was cool with all the teammates and sitting with my family, which was fun. It’s a nice sense of accomplishment, something we did for our country that was special, and something we’re real proud of.
How did Gold Medal Strategies come to be?
Craig: After I had to retire from an injury, I went into sales. I was well-trained and decided to open up my own company. Gold Medal Strategies does motivational speaking, life coaching, sales training, and our big topic is teaching people how to win collectively versus individually. It’s been a lot of fun, the company’s doing extremely well and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.
What was it like to watch Jonathan Quick stand on his head against Canada and have it be all for not?
Craig: I’ve watched Jonathan play and I know he used to play for (former UMass coach) Toot Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.), who was one of my coaches at BU. He just has no weaknesses. He’s a great competitor and he’s already won a Stanley Cup. He really kept the USA in every game for a really long period of time. I admire the way he competes and I like his style. He uses the new with the old. He’s done a lot of things that he should be really proud of. I wish the (bronze-medal) game didn’t happen so quickly and they had a chance to rest a little bit, and get over that loss. It was such a demoralizing loss to Canada. The way the NHL is looking, they might never have a chance to play in the Olympics again. To be that close to having a medal, whether it be gold, silver or bronze, is very important. To put that much time and effort in and go home empty-handed, I feel bad.
As a former goalie, were you imagining what it’d be like to be in Quick’s shoes during that eight-round shootout against the Russians?
Craig: The game’s changed. I think he really likes that type of pressure. You can see the way he plays. He wants them to score to have to be the difference. That’s the position. That’s how you want to feel and how you have to feel.
After years and years of Massachusetts-born players playing key roles on the U.S. roster, there was only one this time around in John Carlson. What do you make of that shift that’s occurred over the last two Winter Games?
Craig: I think what happens is, when I was growing up, there wasn’t so many teams so splintered where every guy’s dad was a coach of a team. You had a few really good teams, and you were forced to either make those teams or not be on them. I just think now, we have a lot of watered-down competition, so people aren’t playing against really good competition. In places like Atlanta, Florida and California, they don’t have as many players, so when they do get them together, they’re all really good and play together for a long period of time. When you look at the Amontes, the McEacherns, Roenick, these kids played together or against each other all their lives. One of the suggestions I’ve always made to USA Hockey is to create a team with two out of Boston, two out of Minnesota, and keep them together, and have them go compete and go around the country so the very best in the New England area would constantly be playing against the very best.
As of now, the NHL’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics appears up in the air. Where do you stand on the pros-versus-amateurs debate?
Craig: I think now that the Cold War is over and the best players in the world are playing in the NHL or the KHL, that if you can get the best players to play against each other, it’s fascinating to watch. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal for the NHL, every four years, to promote the sport. I think when the NHL is there, they gain a lot more fans than they had. I don’t think they lose any because they’re not playing. People get more excited to watch it, I think the fan base grows and I think it has a better chance of becoming a world league versus just a national league. I would hope that they continue going. I know the players like to go and it’s really special. They need to make a commitment one way or the other.
If you could make any changes to improve the tournament, what are some ideas that come to mind?
Craig: I think the tournament is great. I think the idea that the NHL is doing the Olympics a favor or USA Hockey by letting the players play in it is kind of crazy. You watch how important it is to the countries. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal for two weeks to (have the tournament). I don’t know the finances and everything else. I can’t speak to that. I’m just talking from an overall growing of the sport and respect for your country. What I would do is I’d like to have them not talk about this every four years.
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of New England Hockey Journal.