25 years ago, they changed history

Updated: December 8, 2005, 4:05 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | Special to ESPN.com

Twenty-five years ago, Mike Ramsey was a 19-year-old American-born defenseman who had just walked out of the Olympic Ice Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y., with a gold medal around his neck, a hockey bag full of equipment and a long hike up a hill to get back to his living quarters.

Ramsey tells a story of being stopped by a New York state trooper as he began his hike. The trooper was somewhat concerned that such a young kid was hauling off equipment from the arena where one of the most emotional hockey games ever played had just taken place. In the chaos that surrounded America's stunning victory against the Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympic hockey semifinals, and later the Finns for the gold, it wouldn't be beyond someone to engage in a little light-fingered larceny in an effort to grab a keepsake or two.

"I remember the guy was asking me where I got the stuff and where I was going and all that and I could tell he didn't believe me when I said I was a member of the team and it was mine," Ramsey said. "Finally, I opened my jacket and pulled out the gold medal that was still hanging around my neck. I showed it to him and he kind of had to let me go after that."

Obviously the media scene was a lot different back then and being a hero to a nation apparently didn't carry the same kind of name and face recognition it does today.

"I think Mike was 18 back then, and he looked about 13," teammate Jack O'Callahan said.

USA Hockey
U.S. players rejoice after their 4-3 victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

"It was a different world in a lot of ways back then," said Rob McClanahan, a teammate of Ramsey's on that squad and, later, for a short time with the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League. "Back then there were only three networks and only one of them had the games. There wasn't nearly as much media, there were no cell phones and things like that … even the guys on the team weren't totally aware. We knew he had done something big, but it wasn't until we left Lake Placid that we had a sense of what kind of impact it had across the nation. It was huge."

Huge and apparently never ending.

That win over the Russians in the semifinals (and the subsequent gold medal win) turned out to be unforgettable. Even today, most Americans who were alive in 1980 can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened.

When Team USA captain Mike Eruzione took the shot that resulted in a 4-3 USA lead with 10 minutes to play, seemingly all of America held its collective breath for what O'Callahan described as the longest 10 minutes in the history of time. When the USA ground down the clock and the Big Red Machine, America was beside itself with glee. It was one of those rare moments in sport when you didn't even have to be there, you just needed to know it happened to feel good about being an American.

Herb Brooks
ReutersHerb Brooks, who died last August, also coached Team USA to a silver medal in 2002.

It was something Americans were not feeling. A recession took its toll domestically, while Iran revealed a vulnerability abroad by taking U.S. citizens hostage.

"It wasn't a particularly good time in America," said Jim Craig, the goaltender on the squad. "We had trouble at home, trouble in the world, the Russians had invaded Afghanistan and there was some talk that it could lead to a broader war. There were threats that the Russians wouldn't be coming and even that the Games themselves might be canceled. A feeling of helplessness prevailed throughout America, and the great American can-do spirit had been severely shaken. That the Russians were communist also still hung heavy in our minds."

A bunch of kids, handpicked by a virtually unknown coach, Herb Brooks, and Craig Patrick, now a general manager with Pittsburgh in the NHL, went to Lake Placid without a snowball's chance of winning. The Russians were the premier power. Even Brooks told his players that if they did everything perfectly and got most of the breaks they were likely only to win a bronze medal and that if they did everything perfectly and got all the breaks they could well win silver but that the gold, well, that belonged to the Russians, the best team in the world.

"He did say that," McClanahan said. "He said it right before we opened against the Swedes, but then when he saw them he saw that they were flat and maybe complacent, and he realized that they were beatable and that there was an opportunity. That was the thing about Herbie, he had the ability to get the players to play at their very highest level at the most opportune times."

With that in mind, Brooks drove his team, drove it exceptionally hard. The results paid off with what has been called a miracle.

"In some ways, what we accomplished wasn't really a miracle; it was the result of a coach with unbelievable passion who picked the right team and we executed his vision flawlessly," Craig said. "…When we got to the point that we had the lead, we knew exactly what to do because we had the better coach. I don't think they were prepared for that situation, but we were."

"Herb was the most prepared man I ever met," McClanahan said. "Not only was he prepared for anything, but he knew what it took [to win] and he knew us. He knew our hot buttons both individually and collectively. We were so well prepared it was unbelievable. … He was that good a coach."

Much of the praise for Brooks, who passed away in August 2003 in a one-car accident in his native Minnesota, comes in hindsight. Brooks was a tough taskmaster, and there were moments when the team was clearly divided about his approach. Today, most of the players acknowledge that it was Brooks who brought them together as a team and that they achieved greatness because of his leadership and their efforts.

Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks
ReutersKurt Russell played Herb Brooks in "Miracle," the story of how the coach molded his team.

"That stuff in the movie about Herbie breaking us down, it was true," McClanahan said. "The New England guys didn't like the Minnesota guys and the Minnesota guys didn't like the New England guys and he got us all past that by getting us to like each other and maybe not him. When we played for him, he was our coach, not our friend, and I think I speak for all the Minnesota players when I say it took a long time to break down the barriers and for him to become our friend. I know, as I got older, I was looking forward to more friendship in the relationship, and that he's not here now, well, that's very, very sad."

After Brooks' efforts, the only push the team needed was to play the Russians in small-town America. The support of the crowd and the emotion of playing on home soil fueled them.

"Lake Placid is very much what the Olympics are all about," Eruzione said. "The intimacy there was like the entire town was the Olympic village. It was such a great little place, and it embraced, in my mind at least, what the Olympic spirit was all about. I don't know if it would work there again, the Olympics being so big now, but back then it worked for us. The whole town was an Olympic village, and that's the way you like to think it's supposed to be."

The performance those irrepressible kids delivered recently was immortalized in Disney's "Miracle."

"The thing that still amazes me is that 25 years later people remember what we did there and how it seemed to change things," Craig said, "and the most amazing thing of all is now that the movie has come out, there's a whole new generation of kids who are kind of seeing it the same way."

A reluctant hero in 1980, Craig had a few rough spots in his life immediately afterward, which included a brief stint in Atlanta with the NHL. He often was quoted as saying it's difficult to handle the jump from obscurity to national hero in the space of two weeks. Over the years, Craig has come to embrace that moment in his life. Recently, he returned to Lake Placid and took his daughter Taylor back with him.

"It was really quite a thrill to relive it through the eyes of my daughter," he said. "So much was exactly the way I remembered it -- the building, the Olympic oval and all those things. It was like that moment will be enshrined there forever."

As well it should be.

There are few things in life that tend to unite all Americans, and fewer and fewer of those are sporting events. There is no one universal moment that transcends all Super Bowls. There is no frozen-in-time memory that defines and enshrines the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball or even the National Hockey League in our collective hearts and minds.

APThe 20 members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team at a recent reunion.

There is, however, The Game. It holds a place in our hearts and minds much like when Americans first walked on the moon. The accomplishment is as real and as meaningful now as it was in that tiny ice arena in upstate New York.

Twenty-five years have passed and, seemingly, so has the moment, but McClanahan for one thinks it could happen again.

"If I've learned anything from that experience and all the years that followed, it's never to say never," he said. " History has a tendency to repeat itself, and often when you least expect it, something happens. It could be a sporting event or something else that jars the world and America and re-energizes our life.

"For those who call it a miracle, well, it won't be the last one that takes place. I truly believe it could happen again although maybe in a different form.

"Herbie used to say that you plan the work and then you work the plan. He knew that when the opportunity came you had to be ready and take advantage and don't miss it. We learned that from him, and over the years we've been able to pass it on to younger people.

"Maybe they, too, will seize the opportunity to live their dreams."

Maybe they'll even get to open their jackets and show off a medal to a police officer who just couldn't believe such a dream could be real.

Jim Kelley is a longtime hockey writer based in Western New York and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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