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US Hockey Hall of Fame

'Miracle on Ice' inspired Craig Janney's career

Dreams born from watching Olympic win propelled him into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Craig Janney was 12 years old when the United States played the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. He lived four hours south in Enfield, Connecticut, but felt so far away watching on television in the kitchen of a little house on Overhill Road.

Until those American college kids threw a wrench into the Red Machine.

"Do you believe in miracles?" Al Michaels asked as the final seconds ticked off the clock. "Yes!"

The United States won 4-3. Janney and his dad ran outside to celebrate, banging pots and pans in a cacophony of joy.

"I don't think anyone else in the neighborhood really knew, but we didn't [care]," Janney said, laughing. "We were so excited."

Video: Craig Janney joins NHL Tonight to talk HOF induction

Until that moment, hockey was a hobby, not an aspiration, especially in Connecticut. Though Connecticut had Gordie Howe and the Hartford Whalers, it did not have a rich hockey history. It did not have a lot of kids who grew up to play at a high level, let alone in the NHL.

But after witnessing the 'Miracle on Ice' and watching the United States go on to win gold, Janney envisioned himself playing college hockey and representing his country.

"It just gave us a goal: Wouldn't it be a super dream to play on the Olympic team?" Janney said.

Janney realized his dream, and more, and he will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Philadelphia on November 30, with longtime Rhode Island high school coach Bill Belisle and the U.S. team that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

Janney played at Boston College, where he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in 1987, and represented the United States at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

But he also represented the United States five other times, helping his country win its first medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship, a bronze in 1986, and make the final of the Canada Cup in 1991.

And he spent 12 seasons in the NHL as an elite playmaker.

In 760 regular-season games for the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, he had 563 assists and 751 points. He ranks first in assists per game (0.741) and fourth in points per game (0.988) among American-born players.

Wayne Gretzky was the top passer in just about every category, but Janney and Adam Oates were right behind Gretzky in small areas in the offensive zone, Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch said.

Janney could read defenders -- how their feet were angled, how their sticks were positioned -- and thread 6- to 12-foot passes through traffic tape to tape. He could look off defenders, make them think they had their men covered and sneak passes past them in just the right spots for teammates to shoot.

"Those small passes," Leetch said, "somehow he had the vision like all great players do."

If you were a goal-scorer, you wanted him as your center.

"Some guys just like setting other players up," Hall of Fame forward Cam Neely said, "and he was one of them."

Leetch played against and with Janney starting at age 9, when he played for Cheshire and Janney played for Enfield in Connecticut. He remembered Janney as "unstoppable" as a kid, so much so that when they were 11 or 12, his coach put a shadow on Janney.

"That was the first time I had ever heard of a shadow," Leetch said. "All of us players kind of looked at each other like, 'You're going to do what?' He had one of the forwards follow him around. Craig kind of laughed and still got his points and still beat us at the end with good plays."

They played on Connecticut all-star teams together. They played in two world juniors together and got picked in the first round of the 1986 NHL Draft together, Leetch No. 9 by the New York Rangers, Janney No. 13 by the Bruins.

They played a season at Boston College together in 1986-87, when Janney had 83 points in 37 games as a sophomore. Janney was a year ahead of Leetch in school, and Leetch remembered arriving on campus and hearing stories of Janney's impact as a freshman.

"He certainly didn't look the part fitness-wise or muscle-wise," Leetch said. "He was a scrawny kid from Connecticut that came in and started setting these guys up on plays they never saw coming, and all their point totals increased. He had them shaking their heads."

They played for the U.S. national team together in 1987-88, roommates while traveling the world for months. Finally, they played together in Calgary. The United States failed to defeat the Soviet Union and failed to win a medal, while the Soviet Union won gold. But it was the Olympics. It was the dream.

"Everything else was gravy," Janney said.

Janney went from Calgary to Boston, where he joined the Bruins for the 1987-88 stretch run and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was 20 with no professional experience, still hanging out with his college buddies nearby, but soon found himself centering for Cam Neely, in his fifth season and a star.

"With players like Craig, you didn't necessarily have to communicate too much," Neely said. "You kind of fed off each other and knew where each other was going to be, and he certainly knew where I liked to receive the puck in order to get a shot off."

Janney had 16 points in 15 regular-season games, then 16 points in 23 Stanley Cup Playoff games as the Bruins made the Final. 

"The Bruins were having their best year in ages, so … I was ruining their whole mojo," Janney said. "But I got off hot and scored a few goals, made some plays, and we kept winning. I lucked out."

Janney produced 493 points in 425 regular-season games over the next six seasons with the Bruins and Blues - plus 78 points in 67 playoff games, helping the Bruins make the Final again in 1990 -- before he started bouncing around and his career was cut short by injuries.

He got to play with Dave Christian, a member of the 'Miracle on Ice' team, in Boston and St. Louis. He called Christian "Ide-sy" because Christian was his idol. He put up 106 points with the Blues in 1992-93, playing with the likes of Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan.

"I was fortunate to play with a lot of great players, but I wouldn't have kept playing with them if they weren't producing and I wasn't producing with them," Janney said. "I do feel proud about that, that I played with a lot of great goal-scorers and really connected with them. …

"My whole thing about my career was, I wanted to be a good teammate, not let my teammates down, and be there for them when they needed me and, for me, the way I played, try to make them look good and succeed."

For that, he looked good. He succeeded. Like his heroes on the 'Miracle on Ice' team before him, Janney will be forever in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. 

Break out the pots and pans.

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