Before too long, we caught on. But did they? Sometime during the first week of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., the Chicago Tribune sports editor called with revised instructions: “Forget everything else, no more Luge necessary, stick with hockey; we’ll take a column every day, whatever you can give us.” The message was clear. Our nation had fallen in love with America’s Team.
But what about those heretofore anonymous college kids, most of them from Massachusetts and Minnesota? Did they comprehend what was happening throughout these tense United States? Iran held American hostages. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Our mood was dour, except when we saw those precocious youngsters in red, white and blue winning games against supposedly superior foes.
Roll back the calendar. ESPN was in its infancy. There were no cellphones, e-mails or texting, and tweeting was for the birds. Did those guys realize what they were doing to their country’s psyche? Just the other day, I posed the question to Jack O’Callahan, a spiritual leader on America’s Team and a future defenseman for the Blackhawks. Upon the 30th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice"—U.S. 4, Soviet Union 3, February 22, 1980—here is the answer.
“Not really,” said O’Callahan, now a successful businessman with Beanpot Financial Services in the Chicago suburbs. “At least, not right away. We might have gotten a copy of the New York Post, two days late. But there weren’t a lot of TV sets around. Our village was in a minimum security prison. Some of the athletes were actually living in cells, others of us were in trailers. You could watch TV in certain places, but a lot of it was local stuff. You know, Good Morning, Saranac Lake.”
Back then, a lot of other Olympic athletes thought hockey players were a little on the edge... They thought we were animals. - Jack O'Callahan
Herb Brooks, who did a stupendous job coaching the underdog Americans, was content to keep them sequestered. You did not allow your ego to interfere with the task at hand under Herbie. But even he could not legislate against well-wishers who flooded the area with telegrams.
“That’s what it was in those days, Western Union,” O’Callahan recalled. “Maybe about the third or fourth game, our trainers started showing us the boxes. Hundreds, thousands of telegrams. Eventually, they took a bunch of them and stuck them up outside our locker room, like wallpaper. [They covered] all the walls, and still there were boxes in the equipment room. Maybe that’s when we first got an idea what was going on outside our little hockey bubble. Obviously, we had real phones, but my parents were there. I didn’t call anybody. Herbie kept us busy.”
The game that shall not be forgotten occurred late on a Friday afternoon but was shown on tape delay by ABC for a prime-time window. The network assumed that scores and highlights would not be readily available. Imagine such a scenario now. After Captain Mike Eruzione tallied the winning goal, after Al Michaels uttered his legendary, “Do You Believe In Miracles?”, Lake Placid went up for grabs. But not Herbie and his boys.
“We still had to beat Finland for the gold medal,” O’Callahan said. “That was Sunday morning. We won, and of course, we all went nuts. But the ceremony still wasn’t until later. In the meantime, I got drug tested. For the second time. I don’t know why me. Maybe they saw me jumping around on the ice like a nut. You know what they do to produce results? They gave me a couple beers—Kirin, the official Olympic beer. I was a little mellow when we got our medals, then I got back to our trailer that night. Shared it with Mark Johnson, Eric Strobel and Rob McClanahan. That’s when it really hit. They told me to be ready for a 7 am. bus to the airport. We’re going to the White House.
“President Carter had invited the entire U.S. Olympic team to Washington for lunch. Sure enough, the next morning, there are two huge planes waiting for us. Bobby Suter and I jumped right on and sat up front. We’re loving it. Maybe this is where the President sits on Air Force One. Two skiers come aboard. Christen Cooper and Vicki Fleckenstein. They ask if they can sit with us. Now I know we really made it. Back then, a lot of other Olympic athletes thought hockey players were a little on the edge. They didn’t know how to take us. They thought we were animals. If they saw us walking down the block, they’d cross the street.”
Busses bringing the Olympians to the White House were forced to a crawl. Thousands of cars and pedestrians lined the streets. That afternoon, O’Callahan, Dave Silk and Eruzione hopped a plane for home.
“Jim Craig, our goalie, another Boston guy, was off to Atlanta,” O’Callahan said. “He was drafted by the Flames, and they couldn’t get him there fast enough. Our flight was nuts too, and so was Logan Airport when we landed. People everywhere. Mayor (Kevin) White, who I had worked for a little during the summer, sent a limo. Silk and I jump in and we head for my house. I’m a city guy, Charleston, not far from the airport. I’m looking for people to show off my gold medal. But the streets are empty. We’re still dressed in our Olympic gear. Cowboy hats, sheepskin coats, and our gold medals. Where is everybody? Finally, I turn into Concord Street, where my parents lived. A thousand people around the house. That’s where everybody was. We invited them in and had a little party.”
A couple days later, O’Callahan flew to Chicago. General manager Bob Pulford of the Blackhawks picked him up at O’Hare and they discussed the future. O’Callahan had a gimpy knee, so it was suggested he rest it and report to training camp in September. Eventually, O’Callahan became one of 13 American Olympians from that storied team to play in the NHL. Meanwhile, he began drawing paychecks for turning pro.
“I was making $55,000 a year, which seemed like all the money in the world,” O’Callahan said. “Pully ran a pretty tight ship, you know. I got a Blackhawks jacket and hat to drop the puck at the Stadium before a game. After I was done, Lou Varga, the trainer, asked me for the jacket back. I said, ‘take the hat too…I don’t want to break the budget.' I love Chicago, though. I’m still here, right? And 30 years later, we’re still talking about Lake Placid.
“America then was very anti-Soviet. Don’t forget, we boycotted the Summer Olympics later that year in Moscow, then they boycotted the 1984 games in Los Angeles. It’s different now, and I agree with what they’re doing. If everybody else is sending their best players—like the Soviets were doing with their ‘amateurs’ in 1980—why shouldn’t we? Now, hockey players from the NHL are treated like what they are, good guys, professionals. I don’t think people cross the street in Vancouver when they see a hockey player coming the other way.”