By Jennifer Kotila
The Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato Dragons boys and girls hockey teams were privileged to have an inspiring message presented to them before the end-of-season playoffs begin.
Olympic gold medal-winner and former professional National Hockey League player Rob McClanahan, a member of the 1980 USA men’s “Miracle on Ice” hockey team, spoke to the Dragons Jan. 28.
“Sports teach you life lessons,” McClanahan told the Dragons. “What you experience will help you face whatever challenges you face later in life, I use what I learned to this day.”
McClanahan grew up in Mounds View, which had an excellent hockey program, and he was lucky enough to be a part of some good teams, he said.
Although his coaches did not always know the “x’s and o’s” of hockey, they taught McClanahan “how to be a teammate a good teammate,” he said.
Throughout his youth hockey career, McClanahan’s teams went to state and nationals as Bantams, and made an appearance in the Minnesota state tournament in high school.
One of the things stressed by McClanahan throughout his presentation was the importance of teamwork.
“It’s amazing what you all can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit,” he told the Dragons. “It’s so much better when we do it together.”
Playing sports and being a part of a team is about more than scoring the most goals or getting the shutout “it’s about friendship,” McClanahan said.
For teams, success means sharing goals with ones teammates, creating goals with ones teammates, and finding success with ones teammates, he added.
Another point McClanahan emphasized is being prepared; if he had not been prepared to take advantage of the opportunities in front of him, he would not have become part of an Olympic gold medal team.
“If you are prepared, if you are ready when an opportunity presents itself, you will be able to take advantage of it,” McClanahan added. “And that’s not just for sports forget sports.”
He noted that is one of the things he learned from his college and Olympic coach Herb Brooks. “Plan the work, and work the plan keep focused, on-task,” McClanahan said.
He also learned there is a reason people have two ears and one mouth from Brooks. “Many of you will be going into sales,” McClanahan said. “Listening is key; ask or say a sentence, and allow the other person to give you a whole chapter back.”
McClanahan also told the Dragons to enjoy the time they spent playing sports, telling them he was so focused on the end game and the end result of the 1980 Olympic season, he forgot to step back and enjoy that time.
“Take advantage of the opportunities in front of you, and enjoy it, whether you like it or not,” McClanahan told the Dragons, noting hard practices are not always enjoyable.
“Be eager; always have the desire to improve, always have a purpose,” he added. “You need to find something you are passionate about. If you are not passionate about it, others who are will run you right by.”
Playing a variety of sports as a youth is also important because it develops different skills and muscles, which will help in whatever sport an athlete finally decides to commit, McClanahan said. He also played soccer and tennis through high school.
Being part of the ‘Miracle on Ice’
In 1979, McClanahan played for the University of Minnesota Gopher men’s hockey team, coached by Brooks, that took home the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title.
He also played for the USA team that year, which traveled to Moscow McClanahan’s first international experience.
On the flight back home, McClanahan decided he would do whatever it took to become a member of the 1980 USA Olympic men’s hockey team, he said.
McClanahan trained six days a week in preparation for tryouts, lifting weights, running, and working on his hockey skills.
There were 84 men trying out for 26 spots on the USA team’s roster; the team would be coached by Brooks.
After a grueling tryout process, Brooks was finally prepared to list the roster. All the men were called into a room, and Brooks went through the list.
“There was no rhyme or reason” in the way he had organized the list it was not in alphabetical order, by position, or any other order, McClanahan noted.
He can remember looking at another Gopher teammate about two-thirds of the way through the list, with both of them wondering “what the heck” was going on their names had not yet been called.
Both names were eventually called back-to-back, McClanahan said. “I am very proud of winning an Olympic gold medal, but I am every bit as proud of that moment,” he said about making it on the team roster.
After Brooks had his team together, he looked at his group of men and said, “You guys will improve in the next six months more than you’ve ever improved in your entire life.”
As a coach of the Olympic team, Brooks coached differently than he did for the Gophers, allowing the team to be more creative offensively. “That was a big, big deal,” McClanahan said.
To prepare for the Olympics, the team played 18 games versus teams in the minor Central Hockey League, only losing two, McClanahan noted.
Before the Olympics, the USA team played the Russians at Madison Square Garden in New York, which was intimidating for the young college-age men on the USA team.
“What the hell are we doing here?” McClanahan said he remembers saying to one of his teammates. “It was men playing boys.”
The Russians took no mercy on the USA, easily winning the exhibition game.
At the time, Brooks told the USA team about the Olympics, “Forget the gold the Soviets have the gold.”
However, Brooks had a background in psychology, and used this to rally the USA team at the Olympics after he saw the Russians were playing flat, having to come from behind to beat Finland and Canada, according to McClanahan.
After the USA team tied Sweden and beat Czechoslovakia, there was a momentum building within the Olympic village, but no one on the team realized what its winning was doing for the morale of the entire nation, McClanahan said.
He noted that the country had been in the middle of a “really bad day” for a long time, and seeing their hockey team being successful was bringing the country together again.
When the USA finally faced Russia, the first period ended in a 2-2 tie. Russia took the lead in the second period, which ended 3-2.
In the fourth period, the USA would come back to score two goals, gaining a 4-2 lead with 10 minutes left to play in the game.
“If you ask 20 of the USA players what the longest time of their life was, they’ll say the 10 minutes after Mike Eruzione scored that last goal,” McClanahan said.
The USA held Russia off the rest of the game because it was the better conditioned team, McClanahan added. “The next time your coach skates you hard, just suck it up and do it,” he told the Dragons.
Although the USA beat the Soviets, it still had to face Finland to win the gold medal. Brooks told the team, “If you lose this game, you will take it to your grave,” McClanahan said.
It was not until the team met with US President Jimmy Carter after defeating Finland that they realized what their win had accomplished for the country.
“The country was just uplifted; [it] felt good about itself again,” McClanahan said.