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The Miracle on Ice at 40: Memories with Rob McClanahan

Four Decades On, the Former Ranger Reflects on His Gold-Winning Goal, His Time on Broadway Under Herbie, & How Sports' Greatest Upset Came to Pass

by Michael Obernauer

Rob McClanahan remembers vividly the exact moment he became convinced the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team couldn't possibly win the gold medal, and the exact moment he became certain they couldn't possibly lose it. It took 15 days to get from here to there.

The first epiphany occurred at Madison Square Garden. Rarely, if ever, has a contest seemed like such an inconsequential mismatch in its moment, then become such a celebrated aspect of a different contest in retrospect -- even David and Goliath only tussled once. But such became the fate of the exhibition match on Broadway, a tune-up for the Lake Placid Olympic Games, between the Americans and the mighty Red Army team from the Soviet Union.

Saturday is the 40th Anniversary of the Miracle on Ice. On a recent afternoon, McClanahan graciously sat down with NYRangers.com in a rinkside office at the Blake School, outside the Twin Cities -- where the former Ranger is in his first season as the Head Coach of the boys hockey team at his daughter's alma mater -- to reminisce about all that led up to it, all the magic of the Miracle itself, and all that came after. "I can't believe we're still talking about it," he said right off the bat, as he settled into his chair, adding after a beat: "Then again, yes I can."

McClanahan was a 21-year-old out of St. Paul, playing hockey for a guy named Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota, when he achieved his dream in the summer of '79: He made the cut for the USA team that Brooks would be bringing to the 1980 Olympics in six months' time. He was like any one of his U.S. teammates in the run-up to those Games: He had read the clips, seen the bits of video, heard the folklore about the red-clad juggernaut that he and his college-age buddies were destined to be devoured by.

But when that tune-up match arrived on a Saturday afternoon on Broadway, four days before the Opening Ceremonies upstate, McClanahan was one of the five Americans sent out for the opening draw of the game -- in a rink that he would later call home during his three seasons as a Ranger -- and when it finally came time to go toe-to-toe with the Red Army, all the expectations McClanahan had built up about them suddenly meant shockingly little.

"Because they were more than that, so much more," McClanahan said. "I remember getting lined up on the opening faceoff, we're out there in Madison Square Garden, and you have Petrov and Mikhailov and Kharlamov on one line. I looked at Mark Johnson and I said, 'Mark, what the hell are we doing here?'

"And from there, they just toyed with us. Candidly, it was spectacular."

It was a 10-3 thumping, and it reinforced, to the Americans and to anybody else, exactly who topped the food chain of international hockey. At the same time, it was a scene that would breezily have been buried in the dustbin of history, never given a second thought if not for what the American kids somehow pulled off in the rematch, 13 days later in Lake Placid, Feb. 22, 1980 -- widely considered the greatest upset in the modern history of sports even as the upset celebrates its 40th birthday.

This Miracle, McClanahan made sure more than once to point out, was not the product simply of one day's work or a moment's divine intervention, but the culmination of many months of toil, preparation, and no small serving of luck. A major component of that package was that Garden exhibition game, a blowout after which Brooks, the late and legendary Head Coach, gathered his young American charges and told them to head into the Olympics aiming high, but not that high.

"So we had a meeting right after," McClanahan said, "the next day in Lake Placid after we lost, February 10, and Herbie said to us: 'If we can play at the top of our game and get some breaks we can win a bronze; if we play at the top of our game and get all the breaks we can win a silver; forget the gold, the Soviets have the gold.' That's exactly what he said to us.

"But then the Games started, and he saw that the Soviets were flat - they were winning, but they had to come from behind against Finland, they had to come from behind against Canada. Meanwhile here we were, we tied the Swedes, and we crushed the Czechs (7-3 in their second game). I mean, the Czechs were the second-ranked team in the world, and we crushed them.

"He started to see an opening that wasn't there before."

***

When the paths of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. crossed in the first game of the Olympic medal round, the MSG exhibition game wasn't a factor in the sense that the Americans had met the Soviets and realized they were human and fallible; it was that the Soviets had met the Americans and concluded they were babyfaced and harmless.

"It had a far bigger impact on the Soviets, because it was 10-3 and it truly wasn't that close," McClanahan said of the Garden match. "So by the time we get to the Olympics and as soon as you see them having to really work to win games, now all of a sudden Herbie starts playing on our minds, that they were flat and they were joking around and they took us completely for granted. I'm sure they did -- as rightfully they should."

The minutes of the Miracle are well known: Johnson's buzzer-beating goal at the end of the first period not only tying the game, but leading Russian Coach Viktor Tikhanov to remove the godlike goaltender Vladislav Tretiak from the game to start the second. ("We were absolutely, completely shocked," McClanahan said.) A Russia-dominated second period, followed by Johnson's second goal to knot the score again. Then the captain, Mike Eruzione, at the exact midpoint of the third -- 4 to 3, United States.

"When we were up 4-3 with 10 minutes to go, that was the longest 10 minutes of my life, and everybody on the team would tell you the same thing," McClanahan said. "By far the longest 10 minutes of our lives, because the Soviets could score at will. And I still don't know how they didn't."

***

Of all the moments and all the goals, Eruzione's, and for good reason, stands as the signature score not just of those Olympics but of the sport in this country -- but if we're making a list, what about the one McClanahan scored only two days later? Over the years everybody has reminded one another that, don't forget, the Americans had to win that one more game, against Finland, before they locked down the gold.

What is far more frequently forgotten is that when the team woke up on the morning of their final game, Feb. 24, a loss to the Finns very well could have knocked them off the medal podium altogether, with gold going to the Soviet Union. (The Olympic hockey tournament up until 1980 was a round-robin, total-points format; it is because of the possibility of the Miracle Americans leaving emptyhanded that the format was changed.)

"The 36 hours between the end of the Soviet game and the beginning of the Finn game was the longest day and a half of our lives. It couldn't come fast enough," McClanahan said. "I remember Herbie's speech before the Finland game" -- ("Lose this game and you'll take it to your ----- graves") -- "and I do remember the practice on Saturday between the Soviet game and the Finnish game. It wasn't a long practice, but it was a hard practice, probably one of the hardest ones we had all year, because he knew. He knew, and he didn't want us to screw it up.

"And of course, we fall behind."

The Finns held leads of 1-0 after one period, and 2-1 after two. Brooks did not enter the dressing room between the second and third periods -- he sent his assistant coach, Craig Patrick, to give it a try. "But we told him 'Paddy, get the hell out," McClanahan said. "'We got this.'"

The players in that room knew one thing by then, that their taskmaster Head Coach had brought them to Lake Placid in such formidable physical condition that they owned third periods there -- to the tune of a 16-3 score, including 2-0 against the Soviets (notorious for their own militaristic conditioning), and 3-0 against the Finns.

It took just 2:25 of the third for Phil Verchota to tie the final game; less than four minutes after that, McClanahan was skating toward the backboards in support of Johnson, who had two defenders going to him, when suddenly Johnson managed to slip a pass onto McClanahan's stick in front of Jorma Valtonen, Finland's goalkeeper.

"When Mark gave me the puck out front, I saw Eric (Stroebel) on the other side and I was thinking I'm going to pass across the crease," McClanahan recalled. "But (Valtonen) kind of made a move and kicked out his leg. So when he did that, I just fired it through his legs."

It was McClanahan's fifth goal of the 1980 Olympics, but the goal of his life. "When it went in, I looked up at Mark, and we knew -- as soon as I scored that goal I knew. It was over; we knew we'd won."

***

Three days later, the 1980 Olympic gold medalists in Ice Hockey boarded Air Force One bound for Washington to visit with President Carter at the White House. Up until then, the Cold War geopolitics of the time -- the hostages in Iran, the Soviets in Afghanistan -- had remained at arm's length throughout the Games, and the team hadn't fully grasped the euphoria their victory had inspired around the country. They had seen it all around the streets of Lake Placid, of course, but their only indication that it extended beyond that little Adirondack town were the telegrams they had posted to the walls of their dressing room, including one from a Texas woman who wrote, bluntly enough: "Beat those commie bastards."

But once they arrived in the capital, "The whole way up to the White House the streets were lined -- I mean, people eight, 10 deep," McClanahan said. "An unbelievable sight."

But while to the outside world this was a culmination, the pinnacle for this team, each individual player was trying to make this only an early steppingstone in their hockey careers -- they all hoped to move past the Olympics and on to the NHL, at the time an overwhelmingly Canadian league. "This is not a woe-is-me thing, but it was a different era, and Americans weren't accepted, weren't totally welcomed into the NHL," McClanahan said. "You really had to prove yourself."

McClanahan joined the Buffalo Sabres for the remainder of the 1979-80 season, a decision he second-guesses in retrospect. "I was completely fried, physically and mentally. Done," he said. "That's me personally and I can't speak for anybody else, but I had nothing left and I should have recognized that."

After two seasons in Buffalo, he started 1981-82 in Hartford, but played only 17 games as a Whaler before an old friend came calling from New York. Craig Patrick, the assistant GM and assistant coach of the American gold medalists, was in his first season as the Rangers' General Manager; in February of 1982 he sent a late-round pick to Hartford to get McClanahan, and handed over his new acquisition to his first-year Head Coach on Broadway, a guy named Herb Brooks.

"My best time as a pro was obviously with the Rangers," McClanahan said. "And when I got to New York, it was an opportunity -- I knew how to play for Herbie. He allowed me to play and I wasn't worried about making mistakes."

McClanahan's first full season on Broadway, 1982-83, was his best in the NHL: He scored 22 goals that season -- his Smurfs linemate and 1980 teammate Mark Pavelich led the Rangers that year with 37 -- "and I never saw one power play," McClanahan said. He followed that with seven points in nine games in the 1983 playoffs, during which he said he firmly believed those Blueshirts had the group that could capture the Stanley Cup.

"Rangers were good; we were good," McClanahan said. "We were a hard team to defend because we had guys that could scoot. With Herbie, we didn't play exactly like we played on the Olympic team, but we wheeled, we moved around, and teams weren't used to that. Especially the Flyers -- the Flyers couldn't keep up with us."

***

Nowadays, McClanahan devotes his afternoons and weekends to the gauntlet that the high school competition in the State of Hockey, a place he ended up after more than a little arm-twisting. He contributed in assistant roles with the hockey program while his daughter, Sara McClanahan, was a student and hockey player at the Blake School. Sara is now a sophomore at Dartmouth, and once she left home, "My wife said, 'You've got to do something, you can't just come home after work.'" When the boys head coach, Greg May, left in September for the Gophers, the school asked McClanahan to step in. It was not an immediate yes, but an eventual one.

As his Bears began hitting the ice for an evening practice outside his office at Blake Ice Arena, McClanahan was asked how much Herbie there is in Rob McClanahan the hockey coach, and he lingered a moment on the question. Maybe his mind was bridging the 40 years back to his part in American hockey's finest hour; more likely, it was going over the grueling, painstaking, invaluable months, courtesy of Herbie, that made the moment possible -- that made anything possible.

"The thing that Herbie taught me is that we were capable of far more than we thought. And we accomplished things that were beyond imagining," McClanahan said. "People ask me, am I having fun? I'm not doing this for fun. I preach to these kids what Herb preached: Unselfishness, conditioning, trust, you've got to believe, you've got to prepare. 'Plan the work, work the plan.'

"If I can reach these kids, and get them to realize that there's more in the tank than they think, and they have to reach down to get there, and they get there? Then that's the best thing that I can pass along."

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