Commentary

Lesson learned

O'Callahan believes 'Miracle on Ice' speech sunk in with current Team USA

Updated: February 23, 2010, 3:37 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

It was just the guys that night this past summer at LuxBar in Chicago. No coaches. No team officials. No hangers-on. Just the players who eventually would don the red, white and blue jerseys in Vancouver. And two men who helped make U.S. Olympic hockey the entity that it is.

[+] EnlargeJack O'Callahan
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesJack O'Callahan and Mike Eruzione addressed members of Team USA this past summer and stressed the importance of teamwork.

They bonded that night, although their experiences never overlapped. The men's defining moment came years before most of the players were born. The players were about to embark upon a journey in which the men would be mere spectators.

But the players listened closely that night when Jack O'Callahan and Mike Eruzione got up to speak. They had been invited to Chicago by Brian Burke, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic team, and Ron Wilson, the U.S. coach, who were in town for the team's training camp and are former college and pro teammates of O'Callahan and Eruzione. These were young men with whom O'Callahan and Eruzione had dinner and drinks and finally got up to address. But they weren't kids. Not the wide-eyed college boys O'Callahan, Eruzione and their teammates were back in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, but rather ultrasuccessful professionals, multimillionaires, NHL rivals.

"But they were also an excitable group," remembers O'Callahan, who was a 22-year-old defenseman on the team that changed us all 30 years ago. "And the message I gave them was that they may be great players, but players don't win championships, teams win championships. When we won in Lake Placid, the main reason was that we were a cohesive team. Everybody checked their egos at the door.

"I wanted these guys to get the message that they were not going to win the gold medal because they were really good players but because they were a really good team. They had to dial into team-first."

When O'Callahan finished, they gave him a standing ovation.

And when he and his wife watched "screaming and hollering" as the USA team upset Canada on Sunday night in Vancouver to declare itself a serious medal contender, O'Callahan knew they had listened.

"They got it," he said, "and watching them play last night, the way they were jumping on each other, all happy and smiling, the way they competed in a tough game … I was just so tremendously proud of them."

There rarely has been a day these past 30 years when the aptly named "Miracle on Ice" has not crossed O'Callahan's consciousness, recollections all but demanded of the team that stunned the mighty Russians in the Olympic medal-round game before capturing the gold medal against Finland two days later.

Interviews, e-mails, letters. "From kindergartners, to kids wanting to interview me for a history project, to people doing their Ph.D. dissertations on the Cold War who want to talk about us," said O'Callahan, 52. "And it's all good."

The terrific movie version -- "Miracle" -- took a few dramatic liberties, among them that O'Callahan missed five games with a knee injury sustained in a 10-3 loss to the Russians in a pre-Olympic exhibition game. In reality, he missed only two.

"But my role was limited when I came back, and it was difficult not to play as much as I used to," said O'Callahan, who had plenty of ice time in the 55 games Team USA played against AHL and NHL clubs leading up to the Olympics. "I had to figure out other ways to contribute in the locker room and on the bench, being supportive of my teammates, being a leader that way.

"That's what I was talking about when I told them about checking their egos at the door. Now all of a sudden with my role reduced, I could have been a dissenting force on the team, but it was team-first."

Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz remembered his father Bill's influence on USA Hockey along with former NHL president John Ziegler, which resulted in the U.S. team playing exhibition games against the pros.

"He never talked about it, but it was Dad's idea," Wirtz said. "He was very instrumental and did what he could for U.S. Hockey, loaning them [former Blackhawks coach, GM and team executive] Tommy Ivan. He believed you couldn't just bring these guys together and expect them to perform at a top level."

As former rivals in the college ranks, the members of the 1980 Olympic hockey team bonded as one under the firm direction of coach Herb Brooks. O'Callahan urged this year's team to do the same, but he was never under the impression, he said, that they viewed the Olympics as secondary to the NHL.

"They were so excited to be chosen, but what we told them [last summer] is, 'Listen, make time for each other. When you cross paths during the season, take notice. Try to get to know each other a little better, grab a beer. Start building that over the first few months of the NHL season so when you get to Vancouver, you've already started getting the camaraderie going.'"

As a former Blackhawks player (1982 to '87), O'Callahan kept a close eye on Patrick Kane on the U.S. team and on Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on Team Canada. And he echoed Wirtz's words that "Jonathan Toews was the best player on the ice and a superstar in the making."

Wirtz also took note of Kane, "not trying to be too flashy, just doing what he could do, back checking and everything else," as well as Kane and Toews touching visors at the end.

Wirtz was 27 in 1980, watching at home with his family as O'Callahan and his buddies shocked the Soviet Union. After they won the gold-medal game Sunday morning, Wirtz remembers going to the Blackhawks' game that afternoon at the Stadium.

"That was the first time people started cheering during the national anthem," he recalled. "That's when it started, everyone brought flags and were chanting ["USA, USA"]. It was really something to see. And it still sends chills up my spine."

[+] EnlargePatrick Kane
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonPatrick Kane is hoping to be part of the first U.S. team to win gold since 1980.

Scotty Bowman was at the U.S.-Soviet Union game in 1980 and attended Sunday night's U.S. Canada game in Vancouver.

"They will always be talking about Lake Placid," said Bowman, then the GM and coach of the Buffalo Sabres and now a senior adviser to the Blackhawks. "I remember it like it was yesterday. That was the big breakthrough for college players; it opened the eyes of a lot of people."

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, Scotty's son who was born in Canada but has spent all but six years of his life in the U.S., remembers as a 6-year-old sitting in his grandmother's lap watching the U.S. defeat the Russians.

He watched Sunday night's U.S. victory over Canada at home with his wife, Suzanne, and their sons, Will, 7 and Cam, 4.

"It's great for the fans and for the sport of hockey," the Blackhawks GM said. "It's tough for the business side and hard for us because the schedule is compressed with a lot of games in a short amount of time before and after the Olympics. It puts a lot of stress on the players and our fans to go weeks without games. But the end result is pretty special.

"To see our guys in such a big event and come through under pressure, it should help them get a lot of confidence and help the Blackhawks [in the long run]."

For O'Callahan, there is simply nothing like it. Not then. And not now.

"In a seven-game NHL series, the emotion builds, and every game is a story," he said. "But the thing about the Olympics is that every game is a one-game shot, and anything can happen. There's so much emotion in wearing your country's jersey, playing with the kids you grew up with.

"This is the greatest hockey you're ever going to see. And I told them, 'This is the most fun you guys will ever have.'"

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.