It’s been 36 years since a scrappy bunch of college kids knocked out the mighty Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid and hockey is much different now. Thanks to the players on that squad, American hockey has evolved in dramatic ways.
I’ve been to the arena in Lake Placid where it all went down. You can feel the vibe, see where the ghosts might hang out on weekdays. But to modern eyes, it’s incredible how small everything appears. Peer out the window and you can see where the opening ceremonies were held – it had to be closer to a high school graduation than the Beijing overdose at the 2008 Summer Games – and the concessions are spartan, as if that really ever matters.
But that’s why the Miracle on Ice was special, wasn’t it? The Americans were the little guys, taking on the Big, Red, Soviet Machine. The Yankees weren’t supposed to hang with Viktor Tikhonov’s army, but they did. And 36 years ago today, the final score was 4-3 for the locals.
How far has hockey in America come since that victory? Light years.
That 1980 Olympic squad featured 20 players that came from a grand total of four states: Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Heck, the universities they played for only covered five territories (sub out Michigan and add Ohio and North Dakota).
Now contrast that with Team USA’s newest gold-medal squad, the kids that just yesterday beat Canada 5-2 at the Youth Olympic Games in Norway. That team, made up of players born in the year 2000 (I’ll wait until you stop shrieking) had 17 kids on the roster and more of them came from Arizona than Minnesota.
All told, nine states were repped on that YOG team. On top of the two Arizona kids, you had products from North Carolina, New Jersey and Illinois. It’s actually stunning no Missouri kids were on the squad, based on the way that state has churned out talent, but what does it say about the health of the game in the U.S. that I’m even wondering about the Show-Me State?
This is the Miracle on Ice’s big legacy. Though none of the players on that Lake Placid team have found their way into the Hall of Fame (coach Herb Brooks is there), they inspired a generation of NHLers who would go on to beat Canada at the 1996 World Cup. And those players have kept the flame burning.
Pat LaFontaine coached recent Buffalo Sabres call-up Justin Bailey with the Long Island Royals midget team. Tony Amonte’s son, Ty, will follow his footsteps from Thayer Academy to Boston University, where Ty recently committed. Phil Housley coached the 2013 world junior team to gold, a squad that included Texas native Seth Jones, Florida’s Shayne Gostisbehere and California’s Rocco Grimaldi, among others. And Keith Tkachuk’s son Matthew will be one of the top players selected in the 2016 NHL draft. Matthew, like his younger brother Brady, was raised in St. Louis. Same goes for Logan Brown (whose dad Jeff also played for the Blues) and Clayton Keller, two other 2016 first-round hopefuls.
Nowadays, top NHL talent doesn’t just come from the “Three Ms” of Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan (not sure how Wisconsin got shafted there), it comes from everywhere. Auston Matthews will be the top pick in the 2016 draft and he was born and raised in Arizona. NHL Coyotes games opened the door for his interest, but having high-level coaching such as ex-Quebec Leaguer Ron Filion kept Matthews on an elite track.
And Matthews had options. As his parents told me at the world juniors in Helsinki this year, Auston was actually better at baseball than hockey growing up, but he loved the puck game better because of the constant action. In five years, let’s remember that he once had a baseball coach try to convince him that he should stick to the diamond because he’d make more money there.
Matthews is playing pro hockey in Switzerland this season as he awaits the NHL, but a big part of his development came with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Michigan. I’d be reckless if I didn’t mention how important the NTDP has been to the growth of the game, because it really has opened up so much for the hockey world.
An idea spawned just after that 1996 World Cup win, the NTDP instead focused on why the country’s juniors had been struggling internationally and hot-housing the best under-17s and under-18s under one roof was the solution. The results have been stellar, with multiple world junior golds and a near-monopoly on the world under-18s. But it’s also the infrastructure that has made a difference, where players from every corner of the nation are scouted, from Matthews in Arizona to Randy Hernandez in Miami.
This week, the NTDP’s under-18s will play a set of games against Arizona State. The Sun Devils are in their first year of Division 1 hockey, following the path that Penn State took just a few years prior. One of the games will take place at Gila River Arena, home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
Think about how weird that sentence would sound to Jim Craig or Mike Eruzione back in 1980. And think about how far hockey has come in the United States thanks to those two and the rest of their teammates from Lake Placid.