When Jim Craig was a little boy he loved his Mom so much he would leave her a note in the kitchen before going off to school. It would read something like “Mom, I hope you have a real good day! Love, Jim.”
Jim would help America get back on its feet on the night of February 22nd of 1980 when he was in the net as goalie for the miracle U.S. Olympic hockey team against the invincible Soviet team. With the Iran hostages, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, gas shortages, sky rocketing interest rates, polls had shown for the first time in U.S. history people felt the country would be worse off in five years. Then came the Miracle of Ice hockey team.
Jim’s mother Margaret was more than a hockey mom when he was growing up. She was a hockey fanatic, often sharpening his skates and driving him all over so he could get good at the sport. Margaret and Don raised eight boys and girls and a dog named Huey in their Irish-Catholic home near Boston.
Don was the Food Director at nearby Dean College making just $13,000 a year working seven days a week. Though things were tight, it was a home full of love and unfortunately one full of ash trays as both parents smoked heavily.
When Jim first started hockey as a little kid, he didn’t know the rules. He ended up as goalie because he figured out quickly that the main thing there was to stop the puck. He could understand that and he went after it with a passion, asking his brothers to fire pucks at him by the side of their house and asking for teammates to take 200 extra shots at him after practice.
In high school Jim’s record as goalie was 53-3-1. It was during his first year as a goalie at Boston University that the cigarettes caught up with his Mom and she was diagnosed with cancer. After practice Jim would take the train to be with her, often dabbing her dry lips with Q tips. She told him it had always been her dream for him to be in the Olympics.
She battled to the end, down to when she was just 47 pounds and fighting Shingles as well. During his junior season at Boston University, Margaret was in her final days of hospice at a relative’s home in Cape Cod. Jim left the home to go for a swim in a nearby pond. It was when he got down deep where the water takes a noticeable shift in temperature, when a voice told him she had died that very instant. He knew her suffering was over.
When he got to the bank, family members were coming down to tell him. He told them he knew.
Jim finished his Boston University days with a 55-6-3 record as goalie. Though he could have signed for big money with the National Hockey League, he didn’t so that he could keep his amateur status for the 1980 games in Lake Placid, New York and make the team for his Mom. Impressed with how he had played in the 1979 World Championships, U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks wanted him in net for his Olympic team. One official had six other college goalies rated above him, but Herb knew Jim had the fire within.
Herb and Jim would go round and round on a lot of things during the seven months of team building going into the Games. Herb, who had a Psychology degree from the University of Minnesota, had every player do a 300 page test. Jim refused.
Constantly playing mind games, Herb told Jim just before the Olympics he was thinking about replacing him in net, saying ‘his curve ball was hanging.’ Jim went ballistic. Herb was simply trying to get another Jim to reach another level. If Herb Brooks had a gift, and all of the players said this was true, he could motivate a person to produce their absolute best. He always said you don’t put greatness in a person. You find a way to pull it out. Herb never replaced him. Jim would play every second of every Olympic game.
During much of their training, Team USA was based in the St. Paul, Minnesota area. While other players stayed in apartments, Jim stayed in the basement of Doc Nagobads’ house, the team doctor. By staying there for free he was able to take the rent money players got and send that home to his family. He became especially close with his wife Velma, talking with her for hours as he missed his Mom terribly.
When the Olympics started in February of 1980, Team USA was seeded 7th. Historians have said not one of their players would have made the 20 man roster of the Soviets, who had not lost in the Olympics since 1960 and had outscored opponents 175-44. The Soviets had crushed Team USA 10-3 in an exhibition game just thirteen days prior, firing shots by Jim like he wasn’t there.
The night before Team USA would face the Soviets in the semi finals of the Medal Round, Jim found himself face to face with Soviet winger Sergei Makarov in the Olympic Village. They went at it right then and there for over an hour…playing the video game Centipede! Though neither could understand each other, they nodded, and competed fiercely, and smiled. When Makarov left, Jim said, “Tomorrow is when it counts.”
When Team USA left the locker room to face the Soviets, they passed hundreds of telegrams that had been pasted on the hallways from people from coast to coast. One woman from Texas sent one that simply read, “Beat those Commie bastards!” Every inch of space in the arena was packed. Jim settled in net and braced for the Soviet onslaught. They had crushed their first two opponents in the Games by scores of 16-0 and 17-4.
The Soviets scored first, but Buzz Schneider tied it, giving the U.S. a huge boost of confidence. The Soviets came at Jim hard, hoping to demoralize him early, but he kept making great save after save.
Not long after the U.S. had tied it, Makarov – who had played Centipede against Jim just the night before – scored to put the Soviets ahead 2-1. But, in a wonderful example of why you always go hard in life and give full effort, the final seconds of the 1st Period were ticking down when Mark Johnson came flying by captain Mike Eruzione.
“I wondered where the hell is he going?” Eruzione said, years later.
The U.S. had taken a shot on the immortal Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak. He stopped it but instead of deflecting it to the corner he sort of pushed it back out in front. The Soviet defenders, seeing the clock at three seconds left, raised their bodies out of alertness to head to the locker room.
There were then two seconds left.
Johnson got to the puck and fired in a shot that a startled Tretiak could not stop. It hit the net with less than a second to go. 2-2!
Jim Craig was fired on relentlessly during the night. The Soviets out shot the U.S. 12-2 in the second period and went ahead 3-2. During intense action at the net, a Soviet player crashed into Jim, hitting him hard in the head with his helmet. He was knocked unconscious.
Action stopped. The back up goalie got ready. In today’s world Jim would have been taken out, but on that night he was determined to stay in, and he did.
In the 3rd and final period, Team USA tied it at 3 on a goal by Johnson, the kid that hadn’t quit at the end of the 2nd period. Then with ten minutes left, Mike Eruzione scored to put the U.S. up 4-3. Observers say the crowd noise was so loud it could have been the loudest any U.S. sports crowd has ever been.
Ten minutes to go. Jim knew what they had done would be like someone hitting a hornets nest with a baseball bat. Better get ready for the swarm. He braced for a sea of red. The Soviets came full force, zinging shots off the pipes. His teammates literally threw their bodies in front of flying pucks, leading to bruises they would have for weeks.
With the strength his Mom promised him surging through every part of him, Jim stopped every shot that period. He would stop 36 of their 39 for the night. When the final seconds ticked down and Al Michaels asked us if we believed in miracles, Jim Craig threw his arms up in the air as his teammates spilled onto him!
Someone threw a huge American flag around him. After hugging his teammates he looked for his Dad in his normal seat. He wasn’t there! He had been there every game. He briefly but seriously wondered if he had a heart attack. What had happened was that ABC had moved him to a different seat so they could get better shots of him during the broadcast.
In a scene remember by millions of America, Jim slowly skated around the arena, asking, “Where’s my Father?” Don Craig had basically fallen apart since Margaret had died and was a shell of himself trying to raise all those kids. He had lost his job. All Jim wanted to do was find his Dad so he could hug him, thank him, pay respect to him, and tell him how much he wished his Mom could have been there.
He found his Dad finally and it was a powerful scene.
While many think the win over the Soviets was for the gold, the U.S. had to beat Finland two days later. They did, coming from behind in the final period. In five Olympic games, Jim had allowed an astonishingly low 15 goals, just over 2 a game. Historians say his game against the Soviets was the best he ever played, before or since. With a nation in terrible shape and facing a national crisis in confidence, Jim Craig stepped up.
Within five days he signed with the Atlanta Flames, a struggling professional franchise in the NHL. They immediately put him in net and he won his first game before a sell out crowd in Atlanta. They sent him out all over for P.R. purposes, hoping to use him to save their franchise as hockey was not popular in the South. Eventually the crowds went back down and the franchise moved to Calgary. They traded Jim to Boston. He did alright, but not at the level to stay as their main goalie. Perhaps it was the distractions. An American hero, he would sometimes wake up in his hotel room from he pre-game nap to find maids who had let themselves in so they could stare at him.
Women would come up to him in public and say they had driven hundreds of miles to find him because they felt God wanted them to be married.
His teammate on Team USA, Mike Eruzione, said that what made Jim successful in Lake Placid was his ability to focus, and that all the distractions took that away when he was in the NHL. By age 26, Jim Craig was done with hockey.
He was okay with that because to him life was about family and he got good jobs and started raising one himself. The middle name of his first son is Donald, after his Dad. Don died eight years after the Miracle on Ice from abdominal aortic aneurysm. Today, Jim makes saves of a different kind as he speaks often on how a quick and painless ultrasound can detect a triple-A.
He also runs Gold Medal Strategies where he helps organizations become better teams.
Jim Craig knows he will never top what happened that magical winter night in the Adirondack Mountains. He knows how it helped America get back on its’ feet. He knows that what that group of 20 young men, whose average age was 21, did will forever resonate at what a group of individuals comes together as a team.
Below is a powerful short video with Tom Brokaw and Sam Donaldson talking about the impact of the team and how Jim Craig rose to the challenge…
I am extremely excited to launch my brand new motivational presentation ‘Do You Believe in Miracles!’ This keynote or seminar is packed with stirring examples team, embracing change, peak performance and leadership.
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.