What We Can Learn from the Miracle 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team

I have developed a new motivational presentation based on the miracle of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that stunned the Soviets in Lake Placid. Over the next few newsletters here, I am going to share with you an incredible story of leadership and what a group of individuals can do when they become a true team.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to visit the hockey arena in Lake Placid where the miracle happened more than 34 years. I was visibly moved, and since have done extensive research on their story.

hockey1Their story is fascinating, complex and staggering. I am very excited to share with you the compelling lessons on leadership and team unity from their story. At times you will probably strongly disagree with the leadership methods of their coach, Herb Brooks. However, the bottom line is he built one of the greatest teams of any kind, sports or corporate, of all time.

Going into the 1980 Winter Games, the Soviets had won every gold medal in hockey since the 1960 games. They had outscored opponents 175-44 in international play and had crushed the National Hockey League All Stars 6-0 in 1979, with their backup goalie in net. Many feel that Soviet team was the best in the history of hockey.

hockey2U.S.-Soviet tensions were running high in 1980. The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan in a move President Jimmy Carter called “the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War.” The Iran Hostage crisis was going on. We couldn’t stop the Soviets and we couldn’t get the hostages.

The Arab oil embargo led to massive gas lines. Inflation was through the roof. It was a down, down time in the U.S. No one had any idea a bunch of kids, many who couldn’t shave yet, would unite the nation on February 22nd of that year.

Back then the Olympics were for amateur athletes. While technically labeled that, the Soviets trained year round and many had been together for over ten years. They practiced three times a day. Their goalie, Vladislav Tretiak – the best in the world – later said he did not take a day off of training and practice for 13 years, including his wedding day.

They were a red tidal wave.

Then came the U.S. kids. Herb Brooks was their coach. Twenty years before, in 1960, he made the U.S. Olympic hockey team. Days before the Games started, the coach finally convinced a very talented player to join the team. That meant Herb was kicked off the roster. The team picture had been taken. They later photo shopped the face of the new player over Herb’s body in the team picture.

Herb went on to play in the ’64 and 68′ Games and later became the hockey coach at the University of Minnesota. They were a last place team when he took over. He guided them to three National Championships in the next seven years. While you may not agree with his style, this man knew how to mold teams.

Herb
Herb Brooks

With less than a year before the February 1980 Winter Games, Herb brought a bunch of talented young hockey players in with the steely vision of making them into the ultimate team. Almost all were college age and many from the University of Minnesota and Boston University, two programs that absolutely hated each other. Before their 1976 NCAA Tournament semi final meeting, they got in a fight before the start of the game, pushing back the start a solid hour.

Somehow, Herb would have to forge them together if they were to have any shot at a medal, much less the unbeatable Soviets.

As Herb whittled the roster down to 26 and eventually to 20 he did not pick all of the best players. He picked the ones that would mesh the best. Each player filled out a packet with 300 questions. A Psychology major in college, Herb was looking for players that were open minded, willing to learn, and coachable. You see, he was going to force them to learn a new style of play, an untested hybrid of his own devising that combined the Soviets’ constant, fluid, weaving attack with the more physical defensive style of the NHL.

The University of Minnesota and Boston University players almost got in a fight at a local bar filling out the 300 questions. Jim Craig, their goalie, refused to do it. That was fine with Herb. Months later, just before the Games, Herb told Craig he may replace him as goalie because he thought he could do better. Craig became irate. “Is it because I didn’t take your stupid test, Herb!?” yelled Craig. “No,” fired back Herb. “It’s because I want the guy that refused to take the test!”

He wanted total fire within Craig, and he got it.

When practice started, fights broke out between the Boston area and Minnesota players. To counter that, Herb let the team know up front he was going to be their coach and not their friend. Over the next half a year he would put them through perhaps the most physically grinding stretch in sports history. He did that because he knew they would have to be in remarkable shape to hang with the Soviets, and he also wanted to work them so hard and play so many mind games with them that they would unite in their animosity towards him, thus becoming a forged team.

As Wayne Coffey wrote in the book “Boys of Winter,” Herb didn’t just put up a wall between him and the players, he put up a moat with alligators. Players called him, amongst themselves, the Mute because he would go past them in the hall without acknowledgement. One player later said a ride down an elevator with Herb was the most uncomfortable experience of his life. Yet they would come together to accomplish the greatest sporting moment of the entire 20th century.

He never went to charm school and if he had, he would have flunked out.

At no point in the half a year of training and through the Games were players allowed to do interviews. It was all about team to Herb. If certain players would start getting more publicity, that could hurt the team. Frustrated, one media member in a press conference stood up and asked Herb if he was doing this to bring more focus on himself. Herb bore a laser stare through that reporter. He never again showed for a press conference, sending his assistant instead.

During early practices, Herb would ask the players to say who they were and who they played for. He would get responses like this:

“I’m Dave Silk and I play for Boston University.”

“I am Mark Johnson and I play for the University of Wisconsin.”

While incredibly demanding, he was fine with being called Herb. He had no curfew for the players. At times when they were pushed to the brink, he would throw a tennis ball on the ice to break things up.

But, oh, could he be tough.

Herb arranged a whopping 60 exhibition games leading up to the Games. In one against Norway he seethed as the U.S. team underachieved. He dropped a subtle hint that “if you don’t want to skate in the game, we will skate after the game.” Sure enough, after the game the team was headed to the locker room.

“Get back on the ice,” Herb said.

As fans filed out, the team went back out. For a solid hour Herb had them do what the team called “Herbies” where they skated hard up to the blue line and back, the red line and back, the far blue line and back, and all the way down and back. Two or three of those would be tiring. Ten to twelve would be excessive. No one knows how many they did, but it was more than twelve.

“Again!” he would yell as they did this over and over. The custodian of the arena told them he had to look up for the night. “Give me the *#!*@ keys and I will lock up!” said Herb. The custodian promptly turned the lights off. Herb kept them skating in the darkness.

Then two things happened. Normally mild mannered Mark Johnson, who would score two goals vs the Soviets later, smashed his stick over the glass and Mike Eruzione, who would later be named captain stood up and said this:

“My name is Mike Eruzione….and I play for Team USA.”

Herb put away his whistle. Remember before when the players were saying they played for the college. Now, they played for Team USA. For the very first time, they skated off the ice totally in unison. That was a turning point because as they went back to the locker room they knew then that nothing Herb did could break them.

The relationship between Herb and his players continued to be fascinating. During their Christmas party where everyone got a gag gift, the team gave Herb a long whip. He smiled. They then started chanting “Again!” and “Again!” in a humorous reflection of that night he drove them to utter exhaustion after the Norway exhibition.

Player Eric Strobel said Herb said this to a newspaper: “Strobel has a million dollar pair of legs and a ten cent fart of a brain.” That was published.

You are probably wincing at some of the things he said and did, but to this day every player will tell you there is no way they would have defeated the Soviets and won the Gold without his leadership.

Along the way he repeated several of his sayings to them, like…

“Risk something or forever sit with your dreams.”

“What is courage? Let me tell you what I think it is. An indefinable quality that makes a man put out that extra something, when it seems there is nothing else to give. I dare you to be better than you are. I dare you to be a thoroughbred.”

“You’re playing worse everyday and right now you’re playing like it’s next month.”

“Let me start with issuing you a challenge: Be better than you are. Set a goal that seems unattainable, and when you reach that goal, set another one even higher.”

“You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.”

and my favorite…

“You can’t be common. The common man goes nowhere. You have to be uncommon.”

Herb loved to cultivate uncertainty like it was a crop. With player Mark Wells he sent him down to the Minor Leagues before the Olympic Games saying he may not bring him back. Wells started burning up inside. It had been his dream to make the Olympics ever since he had watched Mark Spitz win 7 Golds in Munich. Wells started slowly skating around Herb and told the coach he knew he was playing his mind games and that there was no way he wasn’t making it back up to rejoin the team.

And then he spat on Herb’s skates.

He would make it back up to the team.

Can you imagine doing to your boss? And yet they all would come together to be one of if not the greatest teams in the history of the world, sports, corporate, church, whatever.

The team trainer later said that Herb would confide to him in the training room that he wished he could take the boys out for some beers. He wished he could tell them how much it meant to coach them, but he could not because he had to maintain the wall and had to unite them in their dislike of him and determination to show him what they could do. Herb would later say it was the loneliest year of his life.

They say in life it is about the journey, and what a journey they had…

One time they were playing this lower rung Soviet B squad in a meaningless exhibition game. The Soviets had a shady-looking KGB man on their bench. He was there to make sure the players wouldn’t defect. The Russians thought so little of Team USA that they let the KGB guy play a few shifts. At one point he collided with a U.S. player and they saw a handgun in his pads!

Every step of the way, they became more of a team. After traveling through a massive blizzard to play an exhibition in Warroad, Minnesota their plane clipped a pole on takeoff and the pilot had to land at the end of a runway. The plane couldn’t go backwards so the players got off the plane and in penny loafers pushed it all the way back to the start of the runway.

Less than two weeks before the Olympic Games, Team USA met the mighty Soviets in an exhibition game in Madison Square Garden in New York City. The U.S. players were in awe as they watched them skate in warm ups. These were players they had grown up watching on TV, crush opponents methodically and never changing emotions as they did so.

That night the Soviets beat Team USA 10-3 in an exhibition not as close as the final score. Some felt they could have easily scored 20 goals. The U.S. players felt like they were playing a team from another world. How in the world could they possibly hope to compete with them in the Games? But what happened was the Soviets dominated them so much it was ingrained in their minds that the U.S. was no threat what so ever, and that would come back to get them. There is even speculation Herb helped that by sitting goalie Jim Craig early. It was as if in a way he wanted the Soviets to blast them so that he could surprise them when it really counted in Lake Placid.

When the Games started, the U.S. was seeded 7th out of 12 teams. The New York Times would later do research to show that the odds of them winning the Gold were 1000 to 1.

Yet they did.

Next week in this newsletter, and in my new motivational presentation “Stoke the Fire Within: Powerful Lessons on TEAM from the miracle 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team” I will share how they did it.

In August I will start delivering this in keynote or seminar form. Having built motivational talks for 30 years now, I think this one has the chance to be one of the most impacting. If you would like to learn more about how this program can work at your meeting, retreat or event and how it can help strengthen your team, please feel free to contact my back via email below.

Action Step – If you can rent or get a copy of the 2004 movie “Miracle” which was produced by Disney and stars Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks. It is extremely inspirational and very true to the story.

I have put in the scene from the movie where Herb delivers the stirring pregame talk before they went out and faced the Soviets in the Olympics. After all he had put them through, his pregame words were amazing.

“You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

Photo courtesy of Charlie Adams

Charlie Adams is an Oxford native, graduate of Lafayette High School and a member of the Ole Miss Class of 1985. Adams is the author of 4 books on positive attitude and peak performance, including 2013′s “How to Build a Positive Attitude and KEEP the Darn Thing!!” and “Stoke the Fire Within.” His books and motivational keynotes and seminars are designed to make sure events reach their objectives and to help create winning cultures. Email him at: Charlie@stokethefirewithin.com.

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