Name on the Front of the Jersey
BY BILL RUBIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Memories fade, but calendars do not lie. It’s been 40-years since the U.S. men’s hockey team defeated the Russian team to claim the gold medals during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The victory is forever known as the Miracle on Ice.
Correction. The U.S. team did beat the Soviets, but didn’t claim gold until a victory over Finland two days later. That’s the faded memory part. A lesser known fact is this – a loss to the Finns meant the U.S. would not earn any medals – gold, silver, or bronze. And worse, the Russians would claim the gold.
The chief architect and strategist of the U.S. team was its coach, Herb Brooks. He was the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. team, which won the gold that year. Then along came a run from the Russians, winning gold in 1964, ‘68, ‘72, and ‘76. They were heavy favorites in ’80. It was Brooks’ job to stop the run. Or at least put up a good showing. Case in point – the Russians trounced the U.S. team in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden 10-3 just before the Lake Placid games.
The young men playing for Brooks in 1980 were a collection of college all stars from across the U.S. They came from places like Rochester, Minnesota (Eric Strobel), Davison, Michigan (Ken Morrow), Easton, Massachusetts (Jim Craig), and Madison, Wisconsin (Mark Johnson). How do you get All Americans and team captains hailing from several time zones to play as a team? Coach Brooks had some ideas.
Brooks worked his players hard in the months leading up to Lake Placid. After one uninspired exhibition game, Brooks reportedly saw enough lackluster play. The players thought they were headed to the locker room, but Brooks kept them on the ice and were lined up at the goal line. It was time for wind sprints on ice, meaning a coach reverts to extra conditioning to make a point. At the whistle, the players skated to the first blue line, stopped with ice showers, and returned to the goal line. Then they skated to the red line at center ice, stopped, and retreated to the goal line. Next up was the far blue line, and back to the starting point. And finally, they skated from one goal line to the other and back to complete the drill. Brooks had his assistant coach blow a whistle to mark the start of another wind sprint on ice. And another. And another. And another.
Sometime later, Hollywood lore shows a darkened arena, but the sprints continued. Brooks may have said something along the lines, “If you want to make this team you’re going to have to start playing at a level that will force me to keep you. This cannot be a team of common men because common men don’t know work. You have to be uncommon men. When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates, and the name on the front is a lot more important than the one on the back (expletives deleted throughout).”
At the start of yet another sprint, Mike Eruzione, the eventual team caption, blurted out his name and hometown of Winthrop, Massachusetts. Brooks asked, “Who do you play for?” Eruzione replied, “I play for the United States of America.” And Brooks announced, “That’s all gentlemen.” The wind sprints were done.
Perhaps a turning point for the ’80 team? Brooks’ message about the front of the jersey was clear. It’s a good reminder in everyday life, whether it’s business, industry, public or private.
It never gets old watching the seconds count down from 40-years ago. Play as a team and big things can happen. Watch the last minute of the game here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gfD134ED54. You’ll see Coach Brooks exiting the bench for the bowels of the arena to reflect on this mega-accomplishment in private. Do you still believe in miracles? YES!