35 years seems like yesterday for U.S. hockey fans

I think I’ve mentioned before how I’ll try my best to update this more regularly. I’m starting that today, but, if you can hang with me, I’m doing so with a “reprint” from about seven years ago. I’ve updated it for clarity sake, showing that it’s been 35 years. Wow..35 years! Hard to believe. But so much fun to remember.

Ken Morrow’s heard the stories. Countless people could tell him today what they were doing 35 years ago this past weekend.

I remember vividly 35 years ago this week, Feb. 25, 1980. Thirty-five days ago is a little sketchy. Shoot, 35 minutes ago is a struggle to remember. But 35 years ago is clear.

That’s likely how it is for most anyone born in the United States before the mid-1970s or so.

Ken Morrow

Personally, I was playing intramural hockey at Dorothy Moody Elementary School in Overland Park. Intramurals gave kids like me a reason for going to school. Well, that and whenever they served beef fritters for lunch.

We played hockey in the gymnasium with yellow and red plastic sticks, and we had a blast. In 1980, thanks to dumb luck or gym teacher Mr. Sears’ uncanny timing, hockey week at Dorothy Moody came during the Olympics.

Our last day of hockey fell on Monday, Feb. 25, a day after we watched the United States hockey team cap off the greatest sports moment of the 20th century by beating Finland and capturing the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Seeded seventh, just reaching the final four was going to be an accomplishment for the young U.S. team. Winning a bronze medal was nearly unthinkable. A gold medal?

“You don’t go into it saying you can’t win (the gold),” says Morrow, a defenseman on that American team. “Really, the assumption going in was that the Russians had the gold and if we made it to the final four, we’d fight with Sweden and Finland for the bronze.”

Of course, that’s not exactly how it played out. Morrow and his teammates spoiled it for those other three countries. First, by knocking off the Soviets on Friday in one of sports’ most unlikely upsets. The Soviets hadn’t lost an Olympic hockey match since 1968.

“We had practice on Saturday morning and we definitely were feeling good about ourselves after beating the Russians,” says Morrow, who’s lived in the Kansas City area since the early 1990s, when he spent two years as an assistant coach for the Blades of the International Hockey League.

“Guys were patting each other on the backs. (Head coach) Herb Brooks came in and put the hammer down right away. But it was needed. He let us know in no uncertain terms that if we didn’t straighten up that we would blow a great chance.”

They didn’t. The United States, which wasn’t guaranteed a medal going into their game on Sunday, came from behind in the final period and beat Finland, cementing their place in American history. The team then had to wait for the Soviet Union-Sweden game to be played before the medal ceremony.

“A lot of us had family and friends up there for the whole two weeks,” Morrow said, “and we brought everyone into the locker room, shut the doors, and basically spent the next two hours kind of in disbelief with them and a couple bottles of champagne.

“That was my greatest moment of the whole Olympics — being able to sit there with a lot of tears, sharing the moment with family and friends.”

The funny thing is, being secluded like that had become normal for Morrow and his teammates. In fact, they had no idea their wins were carrying any magnitude at all around the country.

By Brooks’ design, the players were sheltered from all of that. He kept them away from giving interviews during the Olympics and they lived three men to a trailer which had only radios — no televisions. Their lone focus was hockey.

The players didn’t even realize there was a tremendous American following until they flew to Washington on Monday morning on Air Force One with other U.S. Olympians to meet with President Jimmy Carter.

“To our amazement, there was a huge crowd of people when we landed,” said Morrow. “Then, busses took us from the Air Force base to the White House, and all along the route, people lined the streets, waving signs and flags. Some of the guys have said that’s when it really hit them that the whole country was excited; not just the people in Lake Placid.”

So, is that when it hit Morrow?

“I can’t say that it’s ever hit me,” he said. “I know the magnitude of it, but I don’t know that I ever really sat down and went ‘whew!’”

For Morrow, who was one of the older guys on the team at 23 (and the only one allowed to have a beard), there really wasn’t much time to think about the accomplishment. Later that Monday, abruptly after being together for seven months, members of the team went their separate ways and went on with their lives.

Morrow spent a couple of days with his wife Barb — they got married in August of 1979, right before the team left for Europe to begin exhibition play. But then, three days after being toasted in Washington, he was practicing for the first time with his new NHL team, the New York Islanders. Then, on Saturday, he was playing in his first NHL game. (Incidentally, the Islanders went to the Stanley Cup finals in each of Morrow’s first five years in the league, winning the title four times.)

Following a 10-year NHL career, Morrow coached in the IHL in Michigan and Kansas City, before becoming the Islanders’ Director of Pro Scouting.

Over time, the 1980 U.S. hockey win against the Soviet Union and then ultimately the gold medal has gone from a legendary Olympic moment to an important piece of American history. It’s one of the few feel-good “I remember what I was doing when that happened” historical moments.

In the final seconds of our game at Dorothy Moody on that Monday, our yellow team was down by one, and I got the puck in the high slot (directly in front of the goal). Wanting to be like Mike Eruzione, who scored the game-winning goal three days earlier against the Soviets, I quickly dropped my right hand down the stick, raised the skinny piece of yellow and white plastic back and fired a slap shot toward the red team’s goalie. (And, no, Eruzione didn’t take a slap shot, but I was caught up in the moment.)

It missed. Never came close. Although I think I nailed Chris Garrett in the head with the stick. Luckily he was one of my best friends. Otherwise, he could’ve pounded me. That is, if he didn’t have double-vision from that small stick that I thought would score the game-tying goal.

Morrow hears plenty of stories like that. Or people who were in a bar on the beach in Hawaii. Or a father and his son in a basement in Wichita, Kans.

“The one thing I’ve taken from all of this is how (the moment has) struck people in a certain way. I still get mail everyday, at least one or two pieces,” Morrow said. “The guys will tell you that we’re amazed and shocked that people still talk about it the way they do.”

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Filed under Ken Morrow, Miracle on Ice, Olympics

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