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40 years later: Golden Knights to honor Miracle on Ice team

Updated February 18, 2020 - 10:40 am

George McPhee remembers the score being announced, the feeling of disbelief.

When he realized it was true — that the U.S. men’s hockey team had indeed shocked the seemingly unconquerable Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York — he thought first about two weeks earlier.

“The Americans had played an exhibition against the Soviets and lost 10-3,” said McPhee, president of hockey operations for the Golden Knights. “I remember thinking, ‘How good must the Soviets be?’

“I had played with and against the Americans. They were good. Really good. So it was like, ‘God, if the Soviets are beating those guys like that, what hope do the rest of us have?’”

Turns out, lots.

All it took was a miracle.

Are you sitting down?

It has been 40 years.

The Knights this week will honor that “Miracle on Ice” team that won a gold medal at those Olympics, four decades removed from its stunning win against the Soviets and then beating Finland in the final.

Members of the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team pose for photos after a "Relive the Miracle" ...
Members of the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team pose for photos after a "Relive the Miracle" reunion at Herb Brooks Arena on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Lake Placid, N.Y. Thirty-five years after the team's stunning gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, the once-fuzzy-faced heroes are being feted for their signature accomplishment. Moderator Todd Walsh is standing center. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The game against the Soviets was named by Sports Illustrated in 1999 as the top sports moment of the 20th century.

A sold-out event for season-ticket holders will be held at Brooklyn Bowl on Friday night from 7-9 p.m.

Then, on Saturday night, the team will be honored at the Golden Knights-Florida Panthers game at T-Mobile Arena.

“Someone should recognize them, so why not us?” McPhee said. “There are a lot of places they could have gone for this, but I’m sure they’re looking forward to Vegas.”

The weekend is expected to include 18 of the 20 players from the roster. Those missing will be defenseman Bob Suter, who died in 2014, and forward Mark Pavelich, jailed on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.

It was this simple: The Knights, considering the growth of hockey in Las Vegas, thought it would be a perfect opportunity to host the event.

In 2015, the Miracle team gathered for a similar celebration in Lake Placid, and yet those who organized it had no idea how the event might be received. It sold out at 10,000 strong.

“An enormous success,” said Jeff Holbrook, managing partner of Potentia Athletic Partners, which organizes events for the 1980 team. “We realized that this was a great sports moment for people all over the country, so when we decided to do another one for the (40th anniversary), we shopped it to bigger markets.

“That’s when the Golden Knights really stepped up and wanted it. The real magic of this is not individual players but the team itself. And each of them are extremely excited a city known for its entertainment like Las Vegas and a team like the Golden Knights and the success they have had wants to honor them.”

McPhee was a talented sophomore at Bowling Green in 1980, his team playing a game at Northern Michigan on the same Friday night the miraculous 4-3 final was announced.

He and the Falcons returned home Sunday and immediately popped in a VCR tape — yes, it really has been 40 years — to see it with their own eyes.

It was, McPhee recalls, one of those seminal moments in life when you know something extraordinary has happened.

It changed everything.

Politics and opportunity

It was a tumultuous time off the ice in 1980, the Cold War and geopolitical tensions between the United States and Soviet Union acting as a backdrop to the astonishing result of American college players taking down the four-time defending Olympic gold medalists.

A deep recession had begun to take hold on the U.S. economy. Long lines to fuel cars still formed because of an oil shortage. It was in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis.

President Jimmy Carter had floated the idea of a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow (he eventually followed through) in protest of a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But what the youngest team in those Winter Olympics did for countless other players amid such controversy is a story not often told.

It gave them more than hope.

It gave them a future.

“That team changed how the NHL viewed all college players,” McPhee said. “After that, every NHL team was going hard after them, whether as free agents or drafting them and developing them.

“I got a chance to be in the NHL as a result of that team. I wasn’t big, I wasn’t fast, but I was a college player and Herb Brooks was a college coach who gave me a chance.”

In this Feb. 22, 1980 file photo, U.S. Goalie James Craig leaps high in the air at the final se ...
In this Feb. 22, 1980 file photo, U.S. Goalie James Craig leaps high in the air at the final second of game as the US Olympic hockey team won over the Soviet team 4-3 in Lake Placid. (AP Photo, File)

Brooks was the architect and coach of the Miracle team, as ornery as he was brilliant.

He died in a single-car accident in 2003 at age 66, less than a year before Disney released a film about the 1980 Olympic team called “Miracle” and starring Kurt Russell as Brooks.

McPhee played seven NHL seasons with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils and was coached for most of three years in New York by Brooks.

“I think the (Miracle on Ice) was a very big deal to Americans and Canadians and lots of other countries because of all that was going on in the world at the time,” said McPhee, born in Guelph, Canada, a city in southwestern Ontario. “It united a lot of people. They were a bunch of very talented kids that took on a team of extraordinary talent.

“It also inspired a whole generation of American kids to play.”

I think to anyone growing up, it was the definition of defying odds. All about team. That’s the perfect example where you might not have the best players but if everyone has bought in for the same reason and playing for the front of the sweater, front of the jersey, great things happen.

-Golden Knights center Paul Stastny

Some of those kids

Jon Merrill heard about it all the time from his father. Nate Schmidt actually learned some hockey from a Miracle player. Paul Stastny saw the perseverance in it.

American players from the Golden Knights weren’t alive when the Soviets were dethroned, but such a historic result spans generations.

“I did some things with (Miracle player) John Harrington,” Schmidt said. “He ran a 4-on 4 league in the summer in Minnesota that I was in all the time. Just soaked up as much as I could about the (1980 Olympic team).

“You don’t realize how cool an event it was until you see the movie and what they went through. I think (Knights teammate) Nick Holden’s wife watches the movie and pretends it’s Canada. What a bummer for them, eh?”

In this Feb. 24, 1980 file photo, members of the U.S. Olympic ice hockey team whoop it up on ic ...
In this Feb. 24, 1980 file photo, members of the U.S. Olympic ice hockey team whoop it up on ice at the arena after winning the gold medal in Lake Placid N.Y. (AP Photo, File)

It was always about more than a game. Miracles are tough to come by. So while beating the Russians certainly made for the biggest and brightest of headlines, all that transpired from it painted a larger and more significant portrait.

Winning that game engulfed the spirits of all Americans when the nation needed it most.

It wasn’t just kids from northern states checking one another on backyard sheets of ice anymore.

In the 1990s, an estimated 200,000 youths participated in hockey across the country.

Almost 15 years later, the number was near 500,000, kids learning from their parents about 1980.

“I think to anyone growing up, it was the definition of defying odds,” said Stastny, who was born in Canada but has dual citizenship and has chosen to play for Team USA in international events. “All about team. That’s the perfect example where you might not have the best players, but if everyone has bought in for the same reason and playing for the front of the sweater, front of the jersey, great things happen.

“No matter how many times you get beat by the Russians or teams that are supposed to be better than you, all it takes is one game.”

This week, the Golden Knights honor those who created such a moment.

Are you sitting down?

It has been 40 years.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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