By John Gilbert
The accolades have been constant and unanimous, rejuvenated in 2020 by the recognition of the 40th anniversary of the feat: Team USA's upset victory over the Soviet Union and its subsequent Gold Medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid stands as the greatest sports achievement of the 20th Century. And maybe all centuries before and after.
It was voted that by Sports Illustrated, among others, at the turn of the century, and no one has disagreed. Part of the magic of that team was that University of Minnesota coach Herb Brooks personally selected a team of all no-name college hockey players, mostly from the WCHA, and they played David to upset the Soviet Union's Goliath in that Miracle on Ice.
No less than 14 WCHA players were selected by Brooks for the seemingly impossible task, and the fact that they pulled it off has been the subject of assorted movies, books and other chronicles. Another reason for such reverence is that, since the National Hockey League strong-armed its way into participation and took over the Olympic hockey tournament in 1998, the Olympics have ceased to be the pinnacle for U.S. college hockey players. And with the genie out of the bottle, there is no hope it could ever happen again.
While Mark Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark Pavelich of Minnesota Duluth, David Christian of North Dakota, and Bill Baker and Mike Ramsey of Minnesota, plus Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione of Boston University, led the U.S. to Gold in Lake Placid, the only previous U.S. Gold Medal was attained in 1960 at Squaw Valley, California, and it, too, was led by collegians, mainly Johnny Mayasich and goaltender Jack McCartan of Minnesota, and Bill Cleary of Harvard.
The dream of Olympic Gold had always been a great lure for U.S. college players, particularly before 1980, when the NHL virtually ignored them in their Canadian-junior-bred world. So they coveted every opportunity to play on annual U.S. National teams, with and the Olympic plum awaiting every four years. Maybe the best measurement of how important the Olympics were to top college players can be extracted from those who missed the opportunity.
Gary Gambucci, a quick, smart All-American at Minnesota who later played part of a decade in pro hockey, played on four U.S. National teams, and was all set to play with the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, on a strong U.S. team that would go on to win the Silver Medal and has gained considerable publicity for being a forgotten U.S. Olympic team.
"I was going to be captain of the 1972 team," recalled Gambucci, who had been a state high school star at Hibbing before fulfilling a boyhood dream to play at Minnesota. "We had a great team. I would have played wing with Huffer Christiansen and he and I had some real magic together. We also had Henry Boucha, Tim Sheehy, Wally Olds, Craig Sarner, Frank Sanders, Bruce McIntosh, and Lefty Curran in goal.
"My biggest regret is that I turned pro at the last second. My family didn't have much money, and Montreal made me a tremendous offer, so instead of going to the Olympics, I signed. At the time, it was a decision I had to make, but it's still my biggest regret in hockey, when I look back at my career."
Amateur hockey, especially on Minnesota's Iron Range in those days, was intricately woven. "Connie Pleban, who coached at UMD and coached Olympic and National teams, was my godfather," Gambucci said. "He and my dad were partners who owned the Toggery clothing store in Eveleth, and Connie coached the Eveleth Rangers in a semi-pro league just getting started up there. A player from Winnipeg came down and played for the Rangers, and it was Murray Williamson. Connie called John Mariucci and told him he'd better bring in Williamson because he was an outstanding player."
Williamson was an All-America at Minnesota, as was Lou Nanne, and both became naturalized U.S. citizens to bolster U.S. National hockey teams. Mariucci, an All-American defenseman at Minnesota himself before a legendary NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks, used to joke that he occasionally violated his all-Minnesota recruiting concept, "just to show I don't discriminate." Both Williamson and Nanne stayed involved in hockey in Minnesota, and Williamson was named coach of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team.
While Gambucci was trying to work his way up from minor league pro hockey for a chance finally realized to play in the NHL, the U.S. headed for Sapporo with WCHA standouts Christiansen from UMD, Curran from North Dakota, and McIntosh, Olds, Sarner, and Sanders from Minnesota. Christiansen, named captain, was the leader on and off the ice, and challenged Williamson to add Curran, his former teammate at International Falls High School and future teammate again with the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the World Hockey Association. Williamson gave in, needing a goaltender.
Fortunately for the U.S., Curran was outstanding as the U.S. defeated Poland 6-1, Finland 4-1, and after absorbing a 7-2 beating from the Soviet Union, bounced back to beat Czechoslovakia 5-1 before a final 5-1 loss to Sweden. Sweden also tied the Soviet Union, which finished 4-0-1 to win the Gold, while the U.S. and Czechs tied for second at 3-2, and the U.S. got the Silver Medal because of its victory over the Czechs.
Canada, which had always sent senior men's teams such as the winner of the Allan Cup to the "amateur" Olympics, found itself involved in some international irony after so many years of sending 21-year-old freshmen to U.S. colleges, by protesting that the Soviet Union and some other European Olympic players were technically professionals. Canada chose not to participate in Olympic hockey in 1972 at Sapporo and in 1976 at Innsbruck, Austria. The U.S. may have benefitted by Canada's absence in 1972, although they dropped to fifth in the '76 games, behind the USSR, Czechoslovakia, West Germany and Finland.
The connection between U.S. colleges and the Olympics dates back to the early days of both college and Olympic hockey. Al Van of Minnesota and Roy Ikola of Colorado College played on the 1948 U.S. team in the third Olympics, at St. Moritz, Switzerland, when Canada went 7-0-1 to win Gold, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland won Silver and Bronze, respectively, with the U.S. fourth. In 1952, at Oslo, Norway, the U.S. went 6-1-1 to take Silver behind Canada, after battling the Canadians to a 3-3 opening tie. Rube Bjorkman, Ken Yackel, Jim Sedin and Al Van represented Minnesota on that U.S. team, along with John Noah of North Dakota, Andy Gambucci and Bob Rompre of Colorado College. Denver's Bruce Dickson played for Canada.
The 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy, saw the U.S. win Silver at 4-1 behind the 5-0 USSR and ahead of Canada, which the U.S. defeated 4-1, dropping Canada to a 3-2 record for Bronze. Minnesota's John Mariucci was coach, and he reassembled his Gophers line of John Mayasich, Dick Dougherty and Gene Campbell, with teammates Wendell Anderson — who later became Minnesota governor — Dick Meredith and Jack Petroske. Minnesotans John Matchefts and goaltender Willard Ikola, both playing for Michigan, and North Dakota's Dan McKinnon and Ken Purpur, and Weldon Olson of Michigan State, also were on the U.S. team.
The Gold Medal magic first hit the U.S. in 1960, with the colorful story of Minnesota's future Olympic coach Herb Brooks being cut as the team was leaving Colorado for Squaw Valley, California. In a political power play, future Harvard coach Bill Cleary, an outstanding player, refused to go with the team unless his brother, Bob Cleary, was added. The U.S. management caved in, and Brooks was sent back home to St. Paul, where one of his favorite stories was of his dad's tough love. The two of them watched on television as the U.S. beat the Soviet Union 3-2 in the second game, and beat Canada 2-1 in its next game, winning the Gold at 5-0, while Canada won silver at 4-1, and the Soviet Union took Bronze at 2-2-1. Herb's dad turned to his son and said, "Well, it looks like they cut the right guy."
In 1964, at Innsbruck, Austria, the U.S. was 2-5 and placed fifth, behind the Soviet Union, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Canada. Six Gophers were on the U.S. team, including brothers Herb and Dave Brooks, Wayne Meredith, Gary Schmalzbauer, Tom McCoy and Jim Westby, joined by Bill Reichart and Tom Yurkovich of North Dakota and Paul Coppo of Michigan Tech, while Denver's Marshall Johnson and Tech's Henry Akervill and Gary Begg made Canada's team.
Dave Brooks made a point for principle when he challenged the U.S. team's attempt to hustle Lou Nanne's citizenship papers through so he could be eligible to play for the U.S. The younger Brooks' stance was that such a move would bump a U.S. candidate out of the chance to play, and could ultimately turn the U.S. team into Canada's B squad. The powers that be fought off the challenge and at the next Olympics, in 1968, sure enough Nanne and Murray Williamson played for the U.S., joined by home state Gophers Herb Brooks, Jack Dale, Craig Falkman, Len Lilyholm, and Larry Stordahl, while Don Ross from North Dakota, Bruce Riutta from Michigan Tech and Doug Volmar of Michigan State also were on the team. After starting 2-0-1, though, the U.S. lost to Canada 3-2, the Soviet Union 10-2, Sweden 4-3, and Czechoslovakia 5-1 and placed sixth. The USSR won Gold at 6-1, the Czechs (5-1-1) Silver, and Canada (5-2) the Bronze. Marshall Johnston from Denver was again on the Canadian A team.
The 1972 U.S. team — the one Gambucci missed — had that nucleus of Minnesota players plus Denver's Ron Naslund and Steve Landis, claimed Silver at Sapporo, Japan, with a 3-2 record, behind the Soviet Union's 4-0-1 record, with the Czechs also 3-2 taking Bronze.
Before the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, the U.S. went to Katowice, Poland, for the 1976 World Championships. John Mariucci was asked to coach at the last moment, and the team was thrown together without so much as a practice. Mariucci called Gambucci, who had just retired from playing for the North Stars in the NHL, and talked him into playing. Because Mariucci didn't know many of the other players, as they met in New York catching a flight to Europe, so he did a logical thing.
"John handed a legal pad back to the players and asked us all to put our names down and what position we would most like to play, so he could make up some lines," Gambucci said. "Mike Eruzione had fallen asleep as we took off, and they passed the pad back for everybody else to sign. When we started playing, we did pretty well the first three games, and Eruzione never hit the ice. We had one extra forward, and we were running out of gas, so I finally went to John and suggested he play Eruzione. John didn't want to because he hadn't even filled out the list, but he finally let him play. Eruzione was really a great team guy, cheering everybody on and always supportive."
In the 1976 Olympics, Bob Johnson coached the U.S. team at Innsbruck, with Steve Alley, John Taft, and Bob Lundeen from his Badgers, plus Colorado College's Dan Griffin and Steve Sertich, Tech's Steve Jensen and Paul Jensen, and goaltender Jim Warden, plus Gophers Rob Harris and Buzz Schneider. They beat Finland and Poland, but lost to West Germany, the Czechs, and the USSR, which won Gold at 5-0. The U.S. wound up fifth in the Innsbruck tournament.
By finishing fifth, and then dropping a couple notches with a poor performance in the 1979 World Championships, the U.S. came into 1980 at Lake Placid seeded seventh and given little chance to get close to the medal round. But Brooks had an exhaustive plan to select the players he would invite to Colorado Springs for the tryouts at the National Sports Festival. He called family members, teammates, even neighbors of prospects, with the idea that if he invited all players of strong personal character, any mistake in selecting on-ice talent would be justified by at least having good team character.
Gambucci re-entered the picture there, having stayed close to Brooks through the years, and Brooks met him for lunch and showed him the candidates he was inviting to try out. Gambucci noticed Eruzione wasn't on the list. "I knew he was playing in Toledo," Gambucci recalled. "and because I had gotten to know him, I said to Herbie, 'I don't know if this guy is good enough to make your team, but if he is, he will be your captain.' Herbie added his name to the invited list and he made it." As Gambucci suggested, Eruzione became the captain in 1980, but even Gambucci couldn't have projected he would score the winning goal against the Russians.
Funny how things work out. If Gambucci hadn't gone to bat for Eruzione in Poland, and again in conversation with Brooks, Eruzione never would have gotten on the ice in the World Championships or a chance to try out for the 1980 Team USA.
Of course, the stories are legendary of Brooks pushing the 1980 team through a long training and exhibition grind in 1979, but he established some rigid guidelines. His plan was to trust the innate instincts and abilities of all his players, then drill them into top condition, while making them confident enough to improvise in the hybrid system he called "sophisticated pond hockey."
As seventh seed, the U.S. was in the Blue Division at Lake Placid, where their first two games were against the top two seeds, Czechoslovakia and Sweden, while the overall top seed Soviets and Canada were in the Red Division, with only the two teams from each division advancing to the medal round. The U.S. tied Sweden 2-2 in the last 27 seconds on a goal by Bill Baker from the blue line in their first game. Then they hammered the Czechs 7-3 — surprising the international hockey world. The U.S. added victories over Norway 5-1, Romania 7-2, and West Germany 4-2 to stand tied with Sweden at 4-0-1, but Sweden got the No. 1 seed in the Blue group on goal differential. The medal round was not semifinals and final, as most fans — and even some players — recall it, but a continuation of the round-robin plan with the two No. 1 seeds playing the No. 2 seeds from the other pool in the next-to-last round, and the two No. 2 seeds presumably playing for the Bronze with the No. 1 seeds slated to meet in the final game, presumably for Gold. That meant the No. 2 U.S. would face the Red Division No. 1, the Soviet Union, in the next-to-last round.
Brooks sent his team onto the ice with the greatest pregame speech ever delivered: "You were born to be a player, you were meant to be here, this moment is yours!"
Every U.S. player played up to a peak, and the U.S. got a huge break when Mark Johnson dashed in with one second to go in the first period and scored on the rebound of David Christian's shot from center ice as the clock went to 0:00, but the red light locked out the green "time out" light, and the U.S. was awarded the goal. Then they battled the powerful Soviets — who had beaten the NHL All-Stars 6-0 in 1979 in an international all-star game at Madison Square Garden. The U.S. gained a 3-3 tie, and it was broken when Eruzione come off the bench on a line change and skated into the USSR zone just in time to catch a pass from Mark Pavelich, and rip a shot past USSR goaltender Vladimir Myshkin. The U.S. held to its disciplined style and won the game 4-3 the jubilation that engulfed the entire country has left the game commonly referred to as the "Miracle on Ice."
They still, however, had to come back on the final day, in the next to last game, and rally for three third-period goals to beat Finland 4-2 for the Gold Medal.
The victory over the Soviet Union remains the signature Olympic team of U.S. hockey, and it is the game that all other sports spectacles are measured against. Covering the Olympic hockey tournament at Lake Placid was a highlight of my sports-writing career, particularly because when Brooks had a disagreement with some media reports he refused to attend or send players to post-game press conferences and met me privately after every game. I also knew all the players and awaited them outside the arena exit after each game for exclusive interviews. Most of those notes remained unpublished.
Brooks had selected Gophers forwards Steve Christoff, Rob McClanahan, Eric Strobel, Neal Broten, Phil Verchota, defensemen Bill Baker and Mike Ramsey, and goaltender Steve Janaszak from his 1979 NCAA champions, and added Buzz Schneider as a ninth ex-Gopher. Brooks added David Christian from North Dakota, a center he immediately converted to defense for an outstanding season as a prime puck-mover, plus Mark Johnson and Bob Suter from Wisconsin, Mark Pavelich and John Harrington from UMD, Mark Wells and Ken Morrow from Bowling Green, and Boston University teammates Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Dave Silk and Jack O'Callahan.
Other WCHA standouts played for Canada, including Denver's Glenn Anderson and Ken Berry, while Rick Bragnalo and Dave Tomassoni played for Italy. Tim Watters of Michigan Tech and Kevin Maxwell from North Dakota also played for Canada.
Brooks went on to coach in Davos, Switzerland, then with the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars, before going to France to try to organize France's national team to a competitive level. After a year, he took France to the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where they stunned the U.S. with a 4-4 tie. Later, he went to St. Cloud State to coach the Huskies through the transition to full Division I status. He returned to coach the 2002 U.S. team at the Salt Lake City Olympics, with NHL stars allowed, and after going undefeated all the way to the final game in the new bracket arrangement, the U.S. lost to Canada and had to settle for Silver.
The 1984 U.S. team loaded with WCHA stars wound up relegated to the consolation round after finishing seventh, with a 2-2-2 record. Harrington and Verchota returned to play on that team, along with Gophers Scott Bjugstad, Steve Griffith, Tom Hirsch, and Dave Jensen, plus goalie Bob Mason from UMD, Chris Chelios and Marc Behrend and Tim Thomas from Wisconsin, and Steve Jensen from Michigan Tech. Canada had Pat Flatley and Bruce Driver from Wisconsin, and their UW teammate, Ed Lebler, played for Austria. CC's Doug Lidster and Denver's Kevin Dineen and Craig Redmond also played for Canada's fourth-place finisher.
In 1988, the Olympics were in Calgary, and Russia won Gold at 4-1, Finland took Silver at 3-1-1 and Sweden took Bronze at 2-1-2. The U.S. was seventh at 3-3, with a roster full of WCHA players. Minnesota's John Blue, Tom Chorske, Corey Miller, Todd Okerlund and Dave Snuggerud, were joined by Wisconsin's Tony Granato and Jim Johannson. Ed Lebler of Wisconsin again played for Austria, while North Dakota's Bob Joyce and Gord Sherven played for Canada, with Tech's Tony Stiles and Tim Watters. Colorado College's Vern Mott played for Norway.
The 1992 Olympics were in Albertville, France, and the U.S. dropped games to Czechoslovakia and the Unified Team from the broken up Soviet Union, then reeled off a 5-0-1 run that earned them fourth, behind the Unified Team, Canada and Czechoslovakia. The U.S. had Sean Hill and Jim Johannson from Wisconsin, Bret Hedican from St. Cloud State, and Guy Gosselin from UMD. Bulldogs Curt Giles and Chris Lindberg played for Canada, as did North Dakota's Dave Tippett. UMD defenseman Mike DeAngelis qualified to play for Italy.
The 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, saw continued disappointment for the U.S., but representing their country remained a strong attraction. The U.S. lost 4-3 to Germany, 5-3 to the Czech Republic, and 6-1 to Finland, before beating Italy 7-1, and tying Canada 3-3, Slovakia 3-3, and France 4-4. With the preliminary round robins only used for seeding the top eight, the U.S. was thumped 6-1 by Finland in quarterfinals to finish eighth, while Canada beat the Czech Republic 3-2, Sweden beat Germany 3-0 and Russia beat Slovakia 3-2 in other quarterfinals. Canada beat Finland 5-3 and Sweden surprised Russia 4-3 in the semifinals, then Finland beat Russia 4-0 for the Bronze, and Sweden beat Canada 3-2 in an unprecedented Gold Medal shootout.
The 1998 games were the first where NHL players were not only allowed to play on Olympic teams, but the NHL took over to install rules that superceded Olympic traditions. Final standings in Nagano, Japan, showed the Czech Republic with the Gold, having beaten the U.S. 4-1, and Russia 2-1 in a semifinal shootout. Russia beat Finland 7-4 to set up a rematch for the Gold, when the Czech Republic beat Russia 1-0, after Finland beat Canada 3-2 for Bronze.
The NHL influence may have captured the greater attention of hockey followers, but it added a thick layer between the hopes of college players and the Olympics. It became required that college stars make it to a certain level of NHL prominence before hoping the NHL would select them, although former WCHA stars Chris Chelios, Mike Richter and Gary Suter, all from Wisconsin, played for the U.S. and Curtis Joseph played for Canada in Nagano.
When the Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City, Utah, for 2002, Brooks was rehired to direct the NHL-based team, and he had an impressive group that included WCHA alumni Brett Hull, formerly of UMD, plus Wisconsin's Richter, Chelios, Suter and Brian Rafalski. Team Canada had goaltenders Ed Belfour of North Dakota and Curtis Joseph of Wisconsin, but the once-coveted Olympic goal for WCHA and other American college players had become a distant concept.
As college hockey's greatest league, the WCHA, was broken up by departures that branched off into the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and a new plan to restore the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the recollection of past glories for WCHA players in the Olympics are growing faint. The genie is out of the bottle, and the days of John Mayasich zooming around at Squaw Valley, or Mark Johnson scoring goals and Mark Pavelich setting them up at Lake Placid, have already become historical nuggets of a colorful history — for the players, and the WCHA.
John Gilbert began his work as a sportswriter with the Duluth News Tribune, before transitioning to a 30-year tenure at the Minneapolis Tribune (later Star Tribune) to cover hockey. He continues to write sports columns and new-car reviews for website Newcarpicks.com, Minnesota Hockey, and The Reader–Duluth, and has been a radio talk show host. He is the author of Herb Brooks: The Inside Story of a Hockey Mastermind and Miracle at Lake Placid.