The 1980 U.S. Olympic Miracle On Ice hockey team's 35th reunion in the Lake Placid was made poignant by the death of defenseman Bob Suter.
The gathering on Saturday night ended somewhat like the one 35 years before, the last time the players were here together, with everybody standing and the national anthem playing. But this time they weren’t watching a flag ascending to the rafters. Instead, the 19 living members of the gold-medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team watched as the jersey of late defenseman Bob Suter ascended to the rafters of what is now the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y. “Even though Bobby isn’t here it’s like he is here,” said defenseman Jack O’Callahan after the ceremony. “He’s sitting there next to me, he’s sitting next to all of us and he’s never going to be gone from me. And the fact that they raised his jersey to the rafters … it’s home for us and it’s where Bobby’s jersey belongs.”
Last weekend was the first time since the U.S.’s improbable Olympic triumph that O’Callahan and his Miracle on Ice teammates had all returned to Lake Placid at the same time. Getting all of the players together has often been difficult. Center Mark Johnson, who scored two goals in the American’s 4–3 medal-round upset of the Soviet Union on Feb, 22, 1980, is now the coach of the Wisconsin women’s hockey team. Former defenseman Ken Morrow, who won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders, is now New York’s director of pro scouting, and forward Mark Pavelich prefers to stay close to his home in Oregon. Indeed, Pavelich was initially reluctant to attend the gathering. But in the weeks before the reunion his Olympic teammates had called him to insist that he attend, telling him that the weekend wouldn’t be complete without him. So Pavelich got in his car and drove the nearly 3,000 miles to Lake Placid.
The reunion was so important to members of the U.S. team because they were coming back to pay tribute to Suter, the father of Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who died in September after suffering a heart attack. The players had experienced loss before—Brooks died in a car accident in 2003—but this was different. Bob Suter was one of their own. Everyone gathered in Lake Placid was there to celebrate the Miracle on Ice, but Suter, the first member of the team to die, was on everyone’s mind.
“I’m emotional about it,” said O’Callahan, 57, who was Suter’s regular defense partner in Lake Placid. “I really miss Bob. We were good friends. We shared something special, but we were also good friends after the Olympics.”
Not everyone had been able to travel to Madison, Wis., for Suter’s funeral. “This is kind of cathartic for us as far as everyone getting together and remembering the good times,” said Morrow, 58, who was also occasionally paired with Suter (see photo above). “It was a just a day or two after he had passed that someone here in Lake Placid ... took a picture with his jersey up in the rafters and sent the picture around to all the players. It’s really heartwarming to see that and it’s fitting for Bob. He’s remembered for being on this team, but he’s touched the lives of thousands of kids playing hockey. His son is playing professionally, but [Bob] coached and taught kids back in Wisconsin for the last 35 years.”
“[Bob Suter] meant a lot to our team,” said Johnson, who is 57. “I was happy for his family, certainly his wife and his kids. It’s another way to celebrate his life. So now when people come back and come into the 1980 rink and look up and see Bobby Suter, they’ll reflect on who he was and what kind of person he was. He was obviously a very good hockey player, but more importantly he was a good person.”
There’s still a connection between the U.S. players and Lake Placid. “The one thing that they’ve done here in Lake Placid, they’ve really embraced our team,” said team captain Mike Eruzione, who scored the game winner against the Soviets. “The [people here are] like a family to us in many ways. The moment started here and happened here and they’ve kept it here.”
Lake Placid is a village of around 2,500 people; Main Street, which is still just two lanes, is nearly 25 miles west of the nearest interstate. The town hosted the Winter Olympics in both 1932 and ’80, but today, there would never be a Winter Games in a town so small and so remote. “My favorite thing about Lake Placid is the people,” O’Callahan said. “Always has been. It’s a love affair, and I want to come back here until the day I die.”
Besides honoring Suter and Brooks, players had plenty of time to reminisce about the winter of 1980, and to celebrate with fans on the rink where, as the seconds ticked down in the third period against the Soviet Union, broadcaster Al Michaels asked the most famous question in sports history. “Do you believe in Miracles?”
The U.S. players also reflected on how their gold medal—which they secured with a 4–2 defeat of Finland on Feb. 24, 1980—and their victory over the Soviets, affected the country, which was in the midst of the Cold War and struggling through a recession. “In sports and in general everyone roots for the underdog, which we certainly were,” said forward Dave Christian, who is 55. “We were put against one of the greatest teams ever, so in that respect it was just a game. I continue to be amazed that it has carried on and lived on in a lot of respects. It gave people a sense of feeling good, and you when you think about it you can’t help but smile. It gives everyone a good feeling.”
“I’m a Patriots fan, and when the Patriots win the Super Bowl people in New England are happy,” said Eruzione, 60. “People in Seattle aren’t. People in California couldn’t care less. But when it’s an Olympic game the nation, it feels a part of you, and I think that’s what makes the Olympics so special. Everybody was on board.”
The weekend was filled with laugher and memories—and one confession from forward Dave Silk. Silk, 57, admitted that he didn’t deserve the assist on Johnson’s game-tying goal in the first period against the Soviet Union. He claimed the assist belonged to Christian, and to Christian alone. The assist on Johnson’s second goal? That one still belongs to Silk.
Fans in the arena were treated to highlights of the 1980 U.S. team, and to clips from the movie, Miracle, including the now famous speech Brooks gave the team before the game against the Russians. Players laughed as forward Rob McClanahan gave the PG version of Brooks’ short but memorable speech before—or during, no one can exactly remember—the gold medal victory over Finland. “Herbie never swore,” said McClanahan, 57. “But he walked into the locker room, paced back and forth, turned to us and said, ‘If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your effing grave.’ Walked to the door, turned and said, ‘Your effing grave.’ And that’s all he said.”
Last weekend saw 19 men in their mid- and late-fifties relive a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But to most Americans, those men are still college kids. Bob Suter was 57 when he died, but he will always be one of our boys.