Most of the Boys of Winter are well into their 60s now, with Lake Placid, the Russians, and Olympic glory a footnote to cherish in perpetuity with grandchildren and buddies at the golf course.
Next month will mark the 40th anniversary — say it quickly, the old hockey injuries will hurt less — of Team USA’s stunning win over the CCCP and its subsequent gold medal triumph over Finland at the 1980 Winter Games.
To celebrate it all once again, the sons of Herb Brooks will convene in the simmering hockey hotbed of Las Vegas on Feb. 21-22, kicking off their “Relive the Miracle 2020” weekend with a meet-and-greet among some 3,000 Golden Knights season ticket-holders, and then appearing in a full staged presentation before as many as 12,000 flag-waving Yanks inside the Thomas & Mack Center.
The final touch: an appearance at T-Mobile Arena during a game between the Golden Knights and the Florida Panthers. It was a 21-team NHL in 1980 and those two clubs weren’t even a glimmer in league president John Ziegler’s eye when Mike Eruzione & Co. sent Vladislav Tretiak et al. limping back to Red Square.
“Vegas is welcoming it with open arms,” said Jeff Holbrook, managing partner of Potentia Athletic Partners, the event’s organizer. “They are a hockey town, so to speak, but they don’t have a history, and this is a chance to embrace some history in the biggest way.”
The 3,000 tickets for opening night sold out in 16 minutes, according to Holbrook, who long ago was a member of the Buffalo Sabres PR staff. Tickets for the main show at Thomas & Mack, ranging from $40-$500, remain available at relivethemiracle2020.com.
All the US players, save for the late Bob Suter and Mark Pavelich, recently committed to a secure treatment facilily, have committed to attend. Brooks was killed in a car accident in 2003 at the age of 66, but his assistant coach and team assistant GM, Craig Patrick (later the GM of the Rangers and Penguins), will be on hand.
“Any time that you can relive a moment that was so special . . . ,” said Jim Craig, reached late this past week at his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., “. . . not only to yourself, but to your teammates, family, and a nation . . . that’s pretty awesome.”
Craig, the goalie on that squad and briefly a Bruin, was part of the team’s four-man Bay State contingent from Boston University that also included Eruzione (captain), Dave Silk, and Jack O’Callahan. Craig, 62, today owns and operates a consulting company, Gold Medal Strategies, and has a new book, “We Win”, about to be published, relating to his company’s executive level training.
“There are building blocks to success — how to win collectively as opposed to individually,” said Craig, espousing the message he tries to get across with his partners, including US Olympian Meghan Duggan and Navy SEAL Tom Chaby. “One of the biggest things we work on is, ‘Are you preparing to compete or are you preparing to win?’ ”
According to Craig, he and Patriots coach Bill Belichick have been longtime pals and the two often share and develop thoughts on leadership and success. “When you think of the New England Patriots,” added Craig, “they never prepare just to compete. They only prepare for one goal, and that’s to win the Super Bowl. If that doesn’t happen, it’s failure.”
Clearly, not a guy who sounds ready to unplug from the working world. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire,” he said. “To me, being relevant and valuable is an important part. I think trying to figure out what you are going to do with your day . . . I don’t look forward to that.”
Craig, while only an occasional visitor to NHL games in nearby Tampa, likes a lot of today’s game, particularly its emphasis on entertainment. “I only wish we had this goalie equipment!” he said, a common lament of goalies of his era who were all but immobilized in their mummifying gear.
The NHL of Craig’s time, which only had just merged with the WHA, was still a league stocked primarily with Canadian-born players, a smattering of Yanks, and the occasional Swede. It would not be until the end of the ’80s that Russia began to send some of its great older players, including a few from the 1980 Olympics, to the capitalistic shores of North American hockey.
“The best players in the world didn’t even participate in the National Hockey League, really,” he said. “They couldn’t. You had the best Canadians and a few Americans. There was that barrier. A much different time. To play the best teams in the world, you went to the world championship, because that’s where they were. But now, the sport is incredible. It’s entertaining.”
Mark Johnson, one of Craig’s US teammates, was one of the Americans to make a successful transition to the NHL game. Craig, who played in only 30 NHL games, remembered it was a time when coaches frowned upon players so much as talking to pals on other clubs during pregame warm-ups.
“You couldn’t even say hi,” noted Craig. “You just don’t do that. It was a totally different place. Again, it was 40 years ago. You see these guys before a game now and they’re doing commercials together. Back then, it would have been, ‘Why did you talk to that guy on the other team?’ Well, he was my friend. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t compete against him.”
Craig, who still summers in Mattapoisett, in part to be closer to his granddaughter, remains in contact with former teammates Ken Morrow, Bill Baker, Phil Verchota, and O’Callahan.
“It has transcended time,” said Craig. “When you talk with them, it’s like time never passed, so you don’t have to talk to them every day.”
They’ll be chatting again next month, this time in the Vegas desert, 2,568 miles to the southwest of that quaint town in the Adirondacks.
Five years ago, Holbrook helped organize the team’s 35th reunion, which brought a crowd of 10,000 to Lake Placid. In an event like next month’s, it’s the small stories that make the biggest impression.
“Bill Baker was telling me this a month ago,” said Holbrook, recalling the oft-told story that had Brooks repeatedly yelling, “Again! Again!” as he skated his team into the ice to prepare for the Russians. “Someone asked Baker, ‘Was that true . . . did he turn out the lights and keep skating ‘em?’ And Baker said, ‘You know what, yeah, it was true . . . but for those of us who played for Herb at Minnesota, hey, that happened every Monday. The only ones to complain about it were the Boston guys.’ ”
LESS THAN THEIR BEST
Chippy play cost US against Finns
Forty years later, the Finns had a better outcome with Team USA, dismissing the Yanks in the quarterfinals of the World Junior Championship on Thursday in the Czech Republic, in a 1-0 squeaker that got nasty in places.
Early in the action, Bruins first-rounder John Beecher (6 feet 3 inches, 210 pounds) put a menacing lick on Eemil Erholtz, powering into the 5-10 forward along the wall.
The numbers on the back of Erholtz’s sweaters were fully exposed to Beecher in the moment before he sent the downsized forward smashing hard into the boards. So much for: see the numbers, back off. A two-minute minor that looked worthy of much more.
In the final two seconds of the game, former Boston College winger Oliver Wahlstrom, an Islanders first-round pick, drilled Ville Petman with an intentional elbow to the head, again along the wall. Dirty hit.
The Finns almost always play a tough, deliberate game, and they had their share of transgressions. Overall, though, the Yanks were undisciplined, if not distracted, paying more attention to delivering episodic cheap shots than generating a sustained forecheck that might have won them a date in Saturday’s semifinals.
Among the few bright lights for Team USA: the play of BC Eagle Spencer Knight (a Florida first-rounder) in the net and the production of Boston University Terrier Trevor Zegras, a freshman center (and Anaheim first-rounder) who topped the US scoring chart with a line of 0-9—9.
The loss ended a run of four straight medals at the worlds for the US. Next year’s tournament will be split between Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta. Here in our part of the hockey universe, the WJC is a far bigger deal to Canadians, many of whom eagerly run to their TVs in the wee hours to catch games when the tournament is held overseas. They’ll likely pack the rinks to the max next year in Alberta, leading the Hockey News’s Ken Campbell this past week to speculate ticket revenue alone could top $30 million (Canadian dollars). Not a penny of that, as Campbell pointed out, will end up in the players’ pockets.
Kovalchuk brings act to Montreal
OK, so someone inevitably had to raise a hand and it ended up the desperate Canadiens, who on Friday offered aging star Ilya Kovalchuk a work permit only a couple of weeks after the Kings booted him with a buyout. Drifting toward a third straight playoff DNQ, the Habs signed Kovalchuk to a two-way contract for a league-minimum $700,000 (discounted by 90 percent if he is shoveled to the AHL).
The rink of last resort for Kovalchuk? Likely. Should be. Unless the Habs get fed up, too, and the onetime 24-square-foot bounty hunter lands with another atrophying franchise somewhere else in the Original 31.
Montreal on Friday stood 7 points out of a wild-card spot in the East. The Habs also this past week lost the services of gritty, productive forward Brendan Gallagher, whose game is the polar opposite of the freelancing, goal-centric Kovalchuk, who is now 36 and, hold it, eight years removed from his last productive NHL season (83 points with the 2011-12 Devils).
Kovalchuk is a tad or two too slow for today’s NHL. But his bigger issue is sticking to a structured attack, a deficiency that no doubt will force the Habs to keep a deep surplus of gaskets on their bench for coach Claude Julien, who prefers things, shall we say, a certain way. Much like the Bruins, the Habs have been slow to acquire or curate secondary scoring. The Bruins get away with it because of consistent, outsized production of their No. 1 line. The Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak trio on Friday already had 155 points.
The top three forwards for Montreal: 98 points. From Tomas Tatar, Max Domi, and Gallagher.
LA hooked Kovalchuk as a free agent in July 2018 with a three-year deal worth $18.25 million. He delivered a paltry 19 goals and 43 points in his season-plus there before the Kings finally resolved he was worth more to them to pay him to go away.
Now it’s the Habs’ turn to see if they can get his attention. Julien soon could be longing for the days when Phil Kessel was his biggest challenge.
Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas went above and beyond, remaining in Newark for three days while young Russian forward Ilya Mikheyev was hospitalized following a gruesome injury that left him with a severed artery and tendons in his right wrist. Dubas spent most of the days in Mikheyev’s room, though did zip out to buy him clothes and toiletries. Nope, not your granddad’s NHL. Mikheyev will need at least 90 days for the tendons to mend before he can begin to find out if he can think about joining the Leafs for a playoff run . . . Jim Craig said he has been in contact with Mark Pavelich, who had a signed contract to attend the Vegas event next month. Those plans collapsed a month ago when a Minnesota judge declared the ex-Ranger “mentally ill and dangerous,” relating to an assault charge that alleged Pavelich beat a friend with a metal pole. He likely will remain in a secure treatment facility outside Duluth, Minn., while his pals are in Vegas. “Yes, unfortunately,” said a somber-sounding Craig. “He’s a great guy. Everyone has different chapters in their life, so . . . you support him.” . . . Ex-Bruin Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, will be at the “Venue” theater in Lexington on Sunday for a 4 p.m. presentation of “Willie”, the award-winning documentary about his life. For ticket information, go to eventbrite.com. Your faithful puck chronicler will be there, too, to help moderate a brief Q&A session with O’Ree, 84, immediately following the screening . . . Bruins prospect Jakub Lauko, who wrenched a knee in his first shift playing for the Czech Republic in the World Junior Championship, remained with his team until the Czechs were finished (they did not make the semis, which had Canada vs. Finland and Sweden vs. Russia). Per GM Don Sweeney, results of the MRI on Lauko’s knee did not merit rushing him back stateside for immediate extra care. “Gets to be with his team and spend time with friends and family over there,” said Sweeney . . . Former Thayer star Jay O’Brien, headed to BU in September, carried a team-high 47 points into weekend play with his BCHL Penticton Vees. A first-round pick of the Flyers (No. 19, 2018), O’Brien last season got banged up with the Providence Friars and didn’t like the fit. Now he’ll join the Terriers, where his old Thayer coach, Tony Amonte, starred in the early ’90s prior to turning pro with the Rangers . . . Good to see Rick Bowness thriving behind the Dallas bench, leading the Stars in the wake of Jim Montgomery’s abrupt dismissal last month. Bowness got the bum’s rush in Boston in the spring of 1992, following a one-year stand as Bruins coach that saw them get eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals in four straight by the Penguins. Then-GM Harry Sinden, preferring the higher-caffeinated approach of Brian Sutter, sent Bowness packing, one of Sinden’s many hasty coaching changes. On New Year’s Day, the Stars trimmed Nashville, 4-2, in front of 85,000 at the Cotton Bowl, lifting Bowness to a 6-3-1 mark. This is the fourth time in his 38-year coaching career that Bowness has taken over as interim (following stints with the Jets, Islanders, and Coyotes). None of those relief stints resulted in a playoff berth. Looks like that string will end in April . . . He showed a little more of a pulse in New Jersey’s win over the Bruins on Tuesday, but overall P.K. Subban was a first-half bust on the Devils’ backline. Meanwhile, brother Malcolm Subban, once a Bruins first-round pick, stood 6-6-3 in the Golden Knights’ net and clearly was this season’s best Subban available in the NHL. Younger brother Jordan Subban is playing with Dornbin in far western Austria. Their cousin, Marselis Subban, is suiting up for Division 2 Valenciennes Rouge in France.
The Devils, by the way, are on the hook to pay Kovalchuk $250,000 a year through 2024-25, their legacy cost for getting rid of him. The NHL is Kovalchuck’s ATM.