What happened in Lake Placid, N.Y. made them famous for life -- even if they didn’t know the full impact while they were still in the town during the Olympics.
“Once we left Lake Placid, we started to get a sense of what was going on,” Johnson said. “On Monday morning we got on Air Force One and we were flying down to Washington, D.C., to have lunch with the President -- you know, something that normally happens in our day. We get off the plane in Washington, D.C., and get on a couple of buses. We’re making our way down to the White House, and all these people are lined up on the streets with flags waving and they’ve climbed up telephone poles.
“I don’t know who it was but about halfway there someone finally said, ‘What are these people doing outside? What are they here for?’ Somebody said, ‘They are here to celebrate what you did up in Lake Placid.’ I think really for a lot of us it really hit home like, ‘Wow, this thing really much be pretty special.’ ”
For the 20 players on that team, they will always be remembered first and foremost for what happened in Lake Placid. That is true now, but of course it was during the rest of their playing days.
Many of them went on to have success in the NHL, but there was a challenge or two that came with being part of the “Miracle on Ice” team.
“The hardest part for me and I’m sure it was that way for the other guys is when you first went into your NHL locker room,” Johnson said. “A week after Lake Placid I was in the Penguins locker room, and here’s Orest Kindrachuk and Ross Lonsberry and a couple of other guys who are Stanley Cup winners and NHL veterans for a long time and the game would end and here come the reporters and who would they go up to? They would filter over to myself. I would feel uncomfortable because you were in the NHL and you were getting paid to play, but you hadn’t earned any stripes yet. That was probably the biggest challenge most of us had.
“Kenny Morrow was fortunate enough to walk into the Islanders locker room and end up winning four straight Stanley Cups. We all knew if we were going to stay up there we were going to have to play well.”
Johnson and his teammates remain heroes in the sport 31 years later, and they don’t go very many days without someone asking them about that day when they defeated Russia.
“We still get quite a bit of that, especially when you’re speaking at a banquet or somebody who is my age or a little bit younger who was at the game or was watching the game,” Johnson said. “The one story we always tell is I think the rink maybe held 9,500 people and I think 50,000 people have told me they were there at that game. I’m not sure what is accurate. We get it quite a bit, because people are excited and they want to tell you what they were doing or what was happening in their life. It is something that never gets old, and it makes you feel humbled and privileged to be one of the 20 players part of that even if it was more than 30 years ago.”
The groundwork in L.A. came in the years before Gretzky’s arrival, as the expansion Kings grew into a strong NHL team and a fan base was cultivated in the process.
“I really enjoyed my time there,” said Bob Pulford, who played two seasons and coached for five with the Kings. “It was certainly not a hockey culture or atmosphere when we were there, but you had to train yourself and train your team that inside the arena it doesn’t matter if you’re in Toronto or Montreal or Los Angeles. It is exactly the same.”
Pulford’s Kings did not make the playoffs in 1971 or 1972 when he played or in his first season as a coach in 1973, but his final four years in Los Angeles before moving onto Chicago were filled with postseason contests.
The Kings finished with 42 wins and 105 points in 1975 but were upset by Pulford’s old team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the best-of-three preliminary round of the playoffs. The next two seasons Los Angeles were knocked out in second round by the Boston Bruins.
“In my five years of coaching there we had great teams,” Pulford said. “We were never able to get by Boston in the playoffs, but they had Bobby Orr and that’s when they had the great team. We played them hard and they respected us.
“I found in coaching that if I could convince the team that inside the rink it was the exactly same in Los Angeles as it was in Toronto that they would have the right attitude in playing. We were successful in doing that, and during our period there we had some great teams. We actually outdrew the Lakers for four of those five years that I coached there. It wasn’t exactly the same as when Gretzky got there and his contribution to hockey in Los Angeles, but I felt we did a lot to make hockey acceptable or popular in Los Angeles.”
Where it went from there has surprised him and continues to do so, and it has brought him to RiverCentre to be recognized for all of his work.
“It was different for me, because I didn’t come from a background of playing for a number of years,” Rossi said. “It was always just kind of in my nature to put things together. You start with an ice rink in your neighborhood and things like that and got that done.
“I think the biggest thing is I never dreamed I’d still be doing it so many years later and enjoying it more now than I probably did then. Now it is a different level, with a lot of going overseas and things like that.”
Rossi has been instrumental in helping to organize and fund hockey programs in Illinois, and from the youth level he has progressed to working with USA Hockey at the national and international level.
“After I graduated from law school, the first home we bought we had four young kids and we moved next to a family that had two young boys that were each exactly one year older than my two boys that were like 3 and 5 at the time and they were playing hockey,” Rossi said. “That’s how we really got into it. We didn’t have an ice rink within an hour of house, so we got involved with the Park District and building that.
“I was fortunate enough to have the ability to get different challenges. First it was with the state of Illinois, then it was with USA Hockey and then it was internationally with the IIHF. It was different. I’m not sure I could still organize eight-year olds into teams, but the challenge got to be different and we got to meet other people.”
The other guys who are being honored at the 2011 Lester Patrick Awards are all more famous with hockey fans than Rossi. Mark Johnson helped create a Miracle on Ice. Bob Pulford won the Stanley Cup four times with Toronto before a long career as an NHL coach and executive. Jeff Sauer won 655 games as a coach at the college level.
Rossi might not have played or coached, but his impact has been felt far and wide both in Illinois and around this country in the sport of hockey.
“The important thing there is volunteer, because you need people like that,” Sauer said. “I’ve known Tony for 25 years and he’s been one of those guys who has always just been there. He’s there to take charge of things for USA Hockey. He certainly deserves this award, but he also deserves the position he has with USA Hockey. Being on his board, I’ve seen how committed he is to developing hockey in the United States and that has been great. He’s had grandsons along the way, and he’s been a parent too. He’s come through the ranks in all different areas.”
Count them among the many people in the area who are ecstatic about the current state of the Blackhawks.
“I go to a lot of games,” Pulford, a longtime executive with the club, said. “Certainly Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough and Stan Bowman have done an outstanding job with hockey in Chicago. It is as popular or more popular as it has ever been.”
Added Rossi: “Right now their marketing is so good, you see kids in the stores wearing Blackhawks shirts instead of Bears shirts. It has really changed.”
Rossi was in the stands during Pulford’s tenure with the organization, but his devotion to the team goes back much further.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the game,” Rossi said. “I used to go down to the Blackhawks games with friends from high school and we’d go up to the third balcony and buy standing-room only at the time. This was in the 50s, so times have significantly changed since then.”
Pulford joined the Blackhawks from Los Angeles in 1977 and helped guide the franchise to a pair of appearances in the conference finals in the 1980s.
“Hockey goes in cycles. There’s ups and downs, peaks and valleys,” Pulford said. “When I first went there in ’77, they were in a valley. It was after the Mikita-Hull Era and hockey was down and not drawing very well at all. We were fortunate to have some great drafts, and by the early ‘80s we were a very good hockey team and selling out every night. Hockey was popular again and very good.
"Eventually those players got older and moved on in their lives as hockey players, but now it is back. It has gone through another cycle and it is as strong in Chicago as it has ever been -- maybe better."
Rossi has done so much work with youth hockey in the state of Illinois, and it is big part of why he’s being recognized this evening. Participation has grown tremendously in the state, as has the number of talented players who go on to college and professional careers.
He thinks the Blackhawks have had a lot to do with that.
“Frankly, the financial support from the Blackhawks in the last 20 years has been terrific with Illinois hockey,” Rossi said. “They just never got it out in the public. They got a lot of shots about “Dollar” Bill Wirtz and everything, but all that time people were criticizing them, nobody helped Illinois hockey financially as much as Bill Wirtz and the Blackhawks foundations. We are fortunate and blessed with what the Blackhawks have done from a marketing point of view in the past few years,” Rossi said. “They are really selling the hell out of the sport. Registrations are up, and there are just a ton of little kids who are telling mom and dad they want to play. They’ve gotten the sport out of the United Center. It is still there obviously, but they’ve got players going to youth arenas, they’ve got signs in all the arenas. They’re terrific with that.
"I’ve probably had season tickets for 30 years, and I’ve been there when the stadium was empty and the United Center was empty. It is just a whole new ballgame now."
The Winter Classic has been a huge success for the NHL. The game this January will be the fifth installment, and speculation where it might be next or in the future is always a popular topic for hockey fans.
So what about the Twin Cities as a future host?
"There's no shortage of demand, but clearly, ultimately, this is one of the places we will probably get to if for no other reason the climate and the interest," Bettman said.
There a couple of enticing venues in the area, namely a brand-new baseball stadium in Target Field and a brand-new college football stadium in TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. There could also be a new facility for the Vikings at some point in the future.
Finding people to come to an event like that in this region certainly wouldn’t be a problem. It was also a logical place to host this event tonight, given the order on the docket is to celebrate people’s contributions to hockey in this country.
“I love to come to St. Paul. The level of interest in our game here is phenomenal,” Bettman said. “This has been a terrific franchise for us. I love the arena, the Xcel Energy Center. To be able to bring an important event that recognizes the accomplishments that have been devoted to our game -- there is no better place to do that than here.”
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Yeah, I guess so. That empty-netter was pretty lucky, but I'll take it.