The Post-Journal

Recalling The ‘Miracle Of Lake Placid’

Wednesday will be the fourth anniversary of the “Miracle of Lake Placid.” On February 22, 1980, the young and feisty United States hockey team defeated the U.S.S.R. 4-4 to set off a wild celebration across the nation. I was fortunate enough to cover the game and the one thing I remember is that another big story almost occurred after the game.

Many may not recall, but the game began at 5p.m. which was perfect for reporters on morning newspapers. I was working for the Daily Olympic Digest which had a midnight deadline and I knew there would be no problem meeting it with a 5 p.m. start. And there would also be plenty of time to send the story back to The Post-Journal.

The game ended around 7:30 p.m., but no one wanted to leave the Olympic Fieldhouse. The fans were staying to savor the moment and they continued to chant “U.S.A, U.S.A”. The ushers finally got the crowd moving because there was an important game to follow between Finland and Sweden.

The fans weren’t sorry to leave because there was a bigger celebration going on outside in the streets of Lake Placid. I can recall fighting my way through the happy crowd and numerous times I saw strangers simply hugging each other in the joy of the moment. I can also recall passing a group of Russian fans who were receiving some good-natured razzing from the American fans. The Russians managed to smile through gritted teeth, much like the fans of a losing visiting team at an American sporting event. But these losing fans weren’t from another city, they were from another country and culture.

The scene outside the Olympic Fieldhouse was like a mini-version of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Main Street was packed with people waving flags and cheering. People in cars honked their horns, not because they wanted the people to move, but in celebration.

It looked enticing to stay and become a part of the scene, but I was in a hurry to get across the street to the Lake Placid High School auditorium where the post-game press conference would be held. I was sure the Russian coach would not show up, but I thought the quotes from U.S. Coach Herb Brooks and the players would be quite interesting.

When I arrived in the auditorium it was already filling up with members of the media and I was surprised to see the Russian coach on the stage answering questions through an interpreter. But there appeared to be no one from the U.S. team present. Then someone in charge announced that U.S. Assistant Coach Craig Patrick had arrived and would answer questions.

Patrick explained that Brooks was on the phone with President Carter and then he made some comments about the game. When asked if any of the players would be appearing to meet with the press, he said “No.” It had been a Brooks’ policy throughout the Olympic Games that the team was considered a unit. He didn’t want to have a few players singled out as “stars” through the media.

I had not covered any U.S. hockey games up to that point of the Olympics and was not aware that the players had not been appearing at press conferences. But the logic of avoiding a “star system” seemed to make sense.

Patrick appeared uncomfortable while answering a few more questions and then he was very uncomfortable when asked how soon Brooks would arrive. Patrick looked rather shaken when he explained that Brooks didn’t plan to meet the press.

This caused quite a stir among the media and finally a reporter stood up and said, if I may paraphrase, “You mean the United States has just won its biggest game since Squaw Valley and possibly the biggest game of all time and the head coach isn’t going to meet the press?”

Patrick was really squirming and “sweating bullets” as he muttered, “That’s right.”

That answer sent the decibel level up a few points among the throng of media members. Quite a few got up and left in disgust. Suddenly I realized I was witnessing a story that might overshadow the U.S. win – while everyone would expect the losing Russian coach not to meet the press, it was the triumphant United States coach who would not comment on winning a game that was the top sports story in the entire world.

I waited a few minutes more and heard other members of the media voice their objections to Patrick who left the stage momentarily. I figured if Brooks was not going to show up, there was no use hanging around because I had a deadline to meet. And now I had two stories. One about the hockey team’s win and one about Brooks snubbing the press.

I gathered my things and headed to one of the exits with hopes I could quickly catch a bus back to my office in Saranac Lake. Just as I reached the auditorium exit, I noticed a commotion at the other exit. I stepped out the door and saw a group of New York State Police heading into the auditorium. Right in the middle of them was Herb Brooks. I quickly did an about-face and raced back inside to grab a seat.

It was then obvious where Patrick had been when he left the stage for a few seconds. He must have asked someone to find Brooks and bring him to the press conference before there was a riot.

Brooks politely answered all the media’s questions. There were still some protests about no players appearing, but Brooks explained his theory of treating the team as a unit and he promised if it defeated Finland for the gold medal on Sunday, he would bring the entire team to the press conference. He eventually went one step further by staging a press conference with the team the following day.

As the questioning began to lull, I decided I’d heard enough and got up to leave again. I recalled my earlier exit and that if it had occurred a minute earlier, I would never have known Brooks was persuaded to meet the press. I would have written a sidebar story about his snubbing the media from all over the world after coaching his team to perhaps one of the greatest sports upsets of all time.

Then I pictured the red face I would have had the next day when I would have learned Brooks did show up for the press conference. I just thanked my lucky stars that for some reason I didn’t leave too soon. And those people who did get up and leave were probably cursing their unlucky stars.

When I got outside there was still bedlam in the streets. Suddenly a bunch of unknown hockey players were heroes. At the moment, their autographs were more valuable than Wayne Gretzky’s. But they still had their toughest chore ahead.

Two days later they had to defeat Finland for the gold medal. After the emotional win over the Russians, it would have been easy to have a letdown. But that group of extraordinary players had no letdown and won. Then with their coach, they appeared before the press while still wearing their uniforms in one of the most memorable post-game press conferences I had ever witnessed. It was the first time the players had appeared after a game and it was worth the wait.

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