"I was really nervous. I grew up like everyone else watching Hockey Night in Canada. I never expected to make a career of it."
-- Neal Broten on his NHL debut
Though he is less than 12 years removed from playing in the NHL, Neal Broten
is light years away from hockey. So much so that when reached by phone recently, Broten answered the phone, "Yo dude, what's up?" hardly expecting to have NHL.com on the other end of the phone.
Since his playing career ended in 1997 -- after playing for the Devils, Kings, and Stars all in one season -- the native son of Minnesota hasn't stayed very close to the game. He doesn't often grant interview requests and he doesn't always have much to say.
Burnout can hit players who spent 19 grueling seasons at the top levels of the game. But it's not that Broten doesn't love the game anymore. It just doesn't play the same day-to-day roles. Broten has since retired to River Falls, Wis., where he helps his wife breed quarter horses on a farm that they run together.
"I just got done cleaning out six horse stalls," Broten said. "Things are pretty different. But it is peaceful. It is something that I can hang my hat on."
It is ironic that living in River Falls, just over the Wisconsin border from St. Paul, Minn., that Broten would be so mentally far away from the game. Considered by many to be the best Minnesota born hockey player, Broten spent the bulk of his career playing just 30 miles from where he currently makes his home.
He racked up 796 points in 12 seasons with the North Stars before moving with the franchise to Dallas.
Now, he occasionally catches a game on television. Since Minnesota received the Wild franchise, Broten might make it to a game or two a year. At least there is a team in the vicinity to go see.
For Minnesotans and fans across the League, Broten was a treat to watch on a nightly basis. Hailing from Roseau, it was a foregone conclusion that Broten -- and his two brothers, Aaron and Paul -- would go to the University of Minnesota to play for the Golden Gophers and coach Herb Brooks.
That decision, however simple, changed Broten's life.
In his freshman season, Broten scored the NCAA championship-winning goal for the Gophers in Alexander Ovechkin-esque style. Diving for the puck, Broten swiped the puck over the charging North Dakota netminder to give the Gophers their third NCAA title. It was a goal that is still played on highlight reels in the "State of Hockey."
"I had lost in three straight high school state tournaments prior to that," Broten said, "so it was nice to get that NCAA championship. We surprised both New Hampshire and North Dakota."
Brooks was so impressed that he invited Broten to the United States Olympic team trials for the following season, 1979-80. Just 20, Broten made the hodgepodge team that Brooks assembled and netted 58 points in the 62 preparation games.
We all know how that story turned out.
Thanks to the "Miracle on Ice" victory, Broten is the only player in hockey history to have won an NCAA championship, Olympic gold medal, and Stanley Cup.
"Every once in a while I think about it. Talking about it throws me back. I still can't believe we beat the Russians." -- Neal Broten
"That was probably the best year experience of my life," Broten recalled. "I was originally just proud that I went to the trials. In Minnesota, we breed some great hockey teams, but we had a lot of guys from the east.
"The togetherness of that team, it was fantastic. Herb was tough to play for, but he loved his players. We were just a bunch of college kids. The Russians were the best team in the world. Herb believed in us."
Through to the magic of Disney, Broten was thrilled to see himself portrayed -- if only for a few minutes -- in the 2004 film "Miracle." He said that the film was around "70-75 percent accurate" and that Kurt Russell did an "awesome job" as Brooks.
A year after winning the gold at Lake Placid, Broten won the inaugural Hobey Baker Award and immediately joined the North Stars.
"I was really nervous," Broten remembered of his of his debut. "I grew up like everyone else watching Hockey Night in Canada. I never expected to make a career of it.
"It was a huge jump. I was really just looking for a jersey."
All these years later, Broten quietly spends his days feeding and walking horses instead of thinking about his conquests on the ice. He is far from the rink, the television cameras, and the microphones. Sometimes, he just can't help going back there.
"Every once in a while I think about it," he said. "Talking about it throws me back.
"I still can't believe we beat the Russians."