More lessons we can learn from the Miracle 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team
The Soviet hockey team, far and away the best in the world, crushed the young U.S. Olympic hockey team 10-3 in an exhibition game in New York City less than two weeks from the start of the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, New York.
As I shared last week here, U.S. coach Herb Brooks had been brutally hard on the team in developing them. He handed out compliments as often as Haley’s Come came around. So, after a loss like that you might think he would let them have it afterwards. Instead, he told them to remember how well they had played the Soviets over a 30 minute stretch after they had fallen behind 7-0.
That gave the players an instant burst of confidence and they left New York City for Lake Placid hoping to see the Soviets again.
Over the seven month stretch that Herb took them from college kids to future gold medal winners, they went from not liking each other at all (most were from Minnesota or Boston, known for their bitter hockey rivalry) to slowly loving each other and weeping openly when they had to go their separate ways after the Games. In hockey, when a player scores, usually his teammates on the ice hug him. With this team, all of the players on the bench would spill over the boards onto the ice to join in on the hug. They were the only team to do that…
Their first game would be against Sweden. While literally everyone in America would know about the U.S. team after the Olympics, the hockey arena was barely half full for this game. No one thought they could do anything, and if they did get to play the Soviets they would get destroyed. In the World Championships the year before, the Soviets had beat Czechoslovakia 11-1 and Canada 9-2.
Against Sweden, It was imperative the U.S. get a win or tie, or the chances of reaching the medal round were slim. They came out with stage shock, the reality of being in the Olympics hitting them. The Swedes scored early and were up after a period.
As a leader, Herb knew he had do something to jolt them. .Before going into speak to the team, he asked the team doctor about the thigh injury that Rob McLanahan suffered in the first period. The Doc suggested he not play. Herb asked if he did play would it further injure him. Doc said no, but it would be incredibly painful. It was a deep thigh bruise.
Herb nodded, and burst into the locker room.
“This is unbelievable,” he seethed. “We’re playing like this is some throwaway exhibition game in Rochester!”
He looked at a player.
“Who are we playing,” he asked him.
“Sweden,” came the reply.
“Your damn right,” Herb yelled. “Sweden!!” In the Olympics!!
With that he took a training table and threw it into the lockers. Stuff went everywhere.
He moved around the room slowly, locking in on McLanahan, who had a big ice pack on his thigh.
“What’s the matter with you,” Brooks asked.
“I said WHAT’S the MATTER with you?”
“Put your gear back on,” Herb told McLanahan before he could answer the question.
“But Doc told me not to play anymore,” said McLanahan.
“Yeah,” said Herb. “I know, a thigh bruise. Well, the thigh is a long way from the heart. I tell you what, put your street clothes on because I got no time for quitters, you pretty boy candy ass.”
McLanahan rose up. “What did you call me?” He asked Herb.
“You heard me,” was shot back.
McLanahan fired off the bench, slinging his ice pack across the room and painfully limping towards Herb while screaming!
“YOU WANT ME TO PLAY?! HUH?”
Herb spun around and they were on a collision course. Two players jumped up and held them apart.
“I want a hockey player!” said Herb.
“I AM A HOCKEY PLAYER,” yelled McLanahan. “You want me to play on one leg the rest of the way? Huh? Huh?”
Herb fired out of the room back towards the arena. There were now four teammates holding back McLanahan as his screams could be heard in the Sweden locker room, which was next door. They had to be thinking that the Americans were imploding.
McLanahan played the rest of the game in severe pain, so bad that he could not sit when he came out. He would stand as far away from Herb as he could the rest of the way. The team came out for the second period playing with a roaring fire because every one of them wanted to show Herb. They cut it to 2-1 in the final period but had to score to get a tie or reaching the medal round would be a pipe dream.
With less than a minute to go, Herb pulled goalie Jim Craig so that the U.S. would have another player on offense. That would mean the U.S. net would be wide open. With 27 seconds to go, Bill Baker, who is now an oral surgeon, fired in a goal for the U.S! The game ended in a 2-2 tie and medal hopes were alive and well!
You never, ever give up in anything in life. That team constantly showed that, as they trailed in almost every Olympic game in 1980.
Years later, now in his mid 50’s, McLanahan said this about Herb:
“I look back on it, all the mind games and how he kicked our tails in practices, but every single guy who played for him would say they would play for him tomorrow if given that chance. He was a master at motivating. He wasn’t our friend, he was our coach, and there was that separation. And there was always a method to his madness—like when we moved on from college to the Olympics he refined some of his methods and training tactics. We might have worked ridiculously hard, but there was always recovery time, and we were by far in the best shape of any team in that Olympic tournament. Herbie knew what buttons to push, and when it mattered the most he got his players playing at the highest level.” – Rob McLanahan, 30 years after the confrontation.
McLanahan would go on to score 5 goals in the following games and scored the Gold Medal-winning goal. He would later say that no one ever got people to reach their peak level like Herb. Today, he coaches Herb’s granddaughters in youth hockey and jokes that he benches them “for payback!”
Here is how that scene was duplicated in the 2004 movie Miracle starring Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks.
That game vs Sweden featured more than the drama of Herb’s inferno in the locker room. With a minute to go, the U.S. trailed 2-1. They HAD to tie or there would be no hope to reach the medal round. Herb showed then that you have to do anything and to never give up. He pulled goalie Jim Craig out of the net so they could have another player.
Leaving their empty net, the miracle team ties Sweden with :27 left
With 27 ticks left, Bill Baker fired in a shot that reached the back of the net and it ended up a 2-2 tie!
That miraculous comeback was actually the day before the Opening Ceremonies. The Games at Lake Placid would be the last pure Olympics. Think of the Opening Ceremonies today and what productions they have become. In 1980 the Opening Ceremonies were at the Lake Placid Horse Grounds with portable bleachers surrounding it. The media center was at the local high school.
While everyone knows of that team as the miracle team, they were much more. They were good. In their next game they whipped Czechoslovakia 7-3. The Czech’s were considered to be the 2nd best team behind the Soviets.
Over the next few weeks here an in my brand new keynote or seminar on them, I will reveal how they became the ultimate team in life and led a nation to believe in itself again. This was a team that showed if you work incredibly hard, and truly buy into TEAM you can do ANYTHING!
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.