Nobody Knew: When “The Miracle” Touched Greater Western New York

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Everyone knows what happened. Forty years ago this past weekend, when Al Michaels asked the world “Do you believe in Miracles?” a new generation discovered the power of belief. It may surprise you, then, what many people didn’t know…

Yale_Hockey_1980_US_Olympics_300In the months leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, Team USA hockey coach Herb Brooks scheduled a rigorous sixty-one game exhibition program for his ragtag group. One of those games was played right here in Greater Western New York. The event was held at Buffalo’s Nichols Arena against the Yale hockey team.

Just a couple months earlier, Yale hockey coach Tim Taylor used that game to lure me away from my intention to join the crew team. “Chris, we’ll fly you to Buffalo so you can visit your family,” he said. I took the bait and agreed to serve as manager of the team, (hockey being my second favorite sport and all).

Little did I know that decision fated me to meet history head on.

After all, it was just hockey – at the time an unassuming game played by generally unorganized bands of boys on various frozen ponds. Growing up, I learned the game painfully, playing goalie without any real pads (the newspapers kept slipping down my pant legs). Still, it was just hockey, then best known for Paul Newman’s irreverent movie Slapshot.

In other words, hockey was a dubious diversion not to be taken seriously.

I carried that attitude as the Yale team landed at the Greater Buffalo International Airport. Unlike the rest of the team (“Buffalo?” they wondered, “Why Buffalo?”), I was joyfully greeted by an extended family. I also had the luxury of sleeping at home during the trip. What a deal, I mused, a free trip home all for some silly game.

Of course, I did have a job to perform. The local Yale club hosted a big dinner for both teams before the game. The reception was like a gala party. All the hockey players (from both teams) were joyously reacquainting themselves. (They were roughly the same age and many had played together previously.) I felt like an outsider. I found a wall and placed myself there, comfortably resting my back against it.

Moments later an older man came by me and did the same thing. He was obviously an outsider, too. I felt for him. We made small talk. I didn’t get the impression I made him feel any better. He did, however, make sure I knew he appreciated my effort.

Only later would I find out that man was Herb Brooks.

My duties included making sure all the players met their publicity obligations and received their complimentary gifts. During the dinner, host and Buffalo Sabres owner Seymour Knox III presented all the players with Buffalo ties (I still have mine). Not only did they receive the ties, but also souvenir hockey pucks emblazoned with “1980 US Olympic Hockey Team” in imitation gold lettering.

For some reason, these keepsake pucks proved pretty popular. But, I figured, a hockey puck is a hockey puck is a hockey puck. Before the game, I gave away all the extras to what ever kid came up to me and asked for one (including my Uncle, who, though a bare three years older than me, still qualified as a kid in my book). Keeping the last one for myself, I slipped it into my jacket pocket and went off to the arena.

During the actual game on the evening of December 8th, 1979, I had the responsibility to make sure all the players’ guests received their complimentary tickets. I have no doubt I had the largest family contingent present (my grandparents had never before seen a hockey game). A few of the players had no guests and gave me their tickets to distribute as I wanted. Word got out and soon I became the “go-to” guy for anyone wanting some game-related items.

Once the (real) puck dropped, the skaters slashed with slippery excitement. It proved more thrilling than expected. Yale stayed close until well into the third period. At the final buzzer, the ref skated over to our bench and handed me the game puck. Amazingly, it remained in almost new condition, despite getting slapped around the ice the last few minutes of the game. Still, it had the chips and scratches signifying it was a used puck.

Since the equipment manager had already removed all the gear, I mindlessly tucked the trashed puck into my other jacket pocket. The team left quite satisfied with their performance against these college all-stars. They realized not much separated them from the Olympians. Neither age, nor skill. Moreover, Yale’s 6-1 loss was slightly better than the 5-0 shutout the Olympic team had served Harvard in Boston a few weeks before.

On my way out of the rink, I bumped into a lawyer I had met at the Yale Club dinner. He asked me if he could get a puck for his 14-year-old. I smiled pleasantly (although, inside, I rolled my eyes and sighed, “Fans…”) Rather than go inside and get an actual puck used in the game, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the souvenir puck – my last one – and gave it to him. I honestly thought he’d appreciate it more than I would.

Outside the arena, I “oh by the way” told my parents what I did. My mother, recognizing the personal importance of any memento, stopped in her tracks and ordered me to go back and get another one. I told her they were all gone.

Then I remembered I had the actual game puck. I took it out and showed it to her. Examining it, she said it just looked like any other used puck. Thinking quickly, I justified to her it had greater value because it was actually used in the game. Deep inside, I knew it was just another puck – there’d be plenty more – and I threw it deep into my desk drawer when I got home.

A few weeks and hundreds of miles later, I watched The Miracle on Ice. These young skaters had just toppled the Soviet behemoth. It said something about the power of belief, about accomplishing the impossible, and, more importantly, about my very own generation (the tail end of the baby boomers that, before then, had always merely followed in the footsteps of our older brothers and sisters – whether we wanted to or not).

All of the sudden, that puck became more important to me. Still, life went on and for decades the artifact remained buried in my desk drawer.

Then, a few years ago, I was Cubmaster to my son’s Pack. The movie Miracle had just been released and a new generation had a chance – at least for a moment – to discover what my generation felt. At an otherwise dull Pack meeting, a group of boys had gathered to talk about their favorite superheroes of the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Being prepared (it was a Boy Scout meeting, after all), I nudged my way in and surprised them with the dented puck.

The rest, as they say, was a jaw-dropping lesson in history. And I was there.

Too bad I didn’t know it.

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