A Great Miracle Happened There, Or How I Became a Youth Hockey Coach
“Blessed is the Lord, who created miracles for our ancestors, in their time, at this season.” — Blessing for the festival of Hanukah, recited on each of its eight nights
September 1979 to February 1980
Entering my office, the most visual impact is made by a framed 1980 USA Olympic hockey jersey, signed by the team. In its environs are a Dave Silk hockey card, a 1980 Time-Life book about the Olympics, a history of Lake Placid, a ticket stub from the Miracle On Ice weekend. It’s not hard to use eBay to build a shrine to a particular moment in time, a summation of joy to be visited in the dark of winter. Lake Placid is a miraculous place; the site of two Olympic games, host to nearly year-long hockey tournaments for kids and adults, and a town that I am convinced not only doesn’t age but reverses aging in its visitors as you reconnect with those small miraculous moments.
Children learn about miracles first. We build on a series of small miracles from the crispness of a mid-week snow day to discovering that Santa Claus brought you the gift you wanted more than anything and finding out that the girl you dreamed about kind of liked you too. As teenage cynicism sets in, we begin to actively seek things out, and it seems the miracles stop coming to us. But only until the miracle that turns us into parents ourselves, and the cycle begins again, one generation younger.
Jewish children most definitely learn about the miracles first.
Our miracles are bookends for the cold weather, one announcing the true depths of winter and then the other heralding the arrival of spring, both celebrated with lights and prayers and holiday foods with the right combination of grease and heft. The spring festival of Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, the miracle that released the Jewish people from slavery. With the dinner time service and special (inedible) foods, it is a holiday with an acquired taste and best appreciated after years of celebration, more so when you share the story with your own children. Passover is built around the seder, the ordered procession of prayers, stories, and foods that detail the release from slavery and the opportunities of spring time. Uncle Ziemel, famous in our family circles for seders that regularly ran into double overtime, always wrote his own hagaddah, the prayerbook outlining the seder. As a kid, the centerpiece of the hagaddah is the tradition of hiding the afikomen. A sheet of matzah — the flat, unleavened bread that reminds us of the Jews’ rapid flight from Egypt — is broken in two, and one half is hidden so that the kids can hunt for it after the meal, returning it for a reward.
Ziemel captured the spirit of this hide and seek game in a sentence: What is broken off from our people is never lost as long as the children remember the search. It was a long two hours to sit in a stiff chair hoping to outrace the other children to find crackers under a sofa cushion, without disturbing any of the other objects that adorned Ziemel’s house. Even the reward of a silver dollar and a souvenir from one of Ziemel’s trips to Israel as a consolation prize for being the smallest of the dozen cousins didn’t do much to assuage my legs, rear end and the rest of my mildly hyperactive body. Forty years later, though, I remember the searches because I’d frequently run into one of Ziemel’s more famous or powerful acquaintances and have no idea that I’d bumped a state assemblyman until I was scolded by an aunt or uncle. It wasn’t the first time I’d run headlong, literally, into local definitions of greatness and be blindsided by them.
For any Jewish kid, it’s the miracle of Hanukah — the Festival of Lights that brightens the winter — leaving the stronger impression. In its shortest form, the story of Hanukah is the first recorded fight for religious freedom. The Hellenic Assyrians had taken control of Jerusalem, almost two hundred years before the time of Jesus, and the practice of Judaism outlawed. The transformation of the Jewish holy temple in Jerusalem into an altar to the Greek gods sparked a revolt. Led by a group of guerrilla fighters — the Maccabees — the Jews fought to reclaim the world city of Jerusalem and their religious freedom. Hanukah is frequently cited as the first documented battle over the practice of religion.
Once the temple had been secured and cleansed, it was time to rekindle the eternal light, the flame that burned continuously in the inner sanctuary of the temple. Ritually purified oil was the only religiously legal fuel for the fire, but the war time desecration of the temple left oil sufficient for only one day’s light. A trip north to procure, purify and return additional oil would span eight days. The oil from the single remaining pure supply lasted the full eight nights and eight days, the flame was never extinguished, and the miracle of Hanukah has been celebrated over an eight-day period since that time.
We’re taught that the prisoners of war attempted to continue their study of the Torah — the Old Testament — but that their captors forbade the practice. Relying on creativity and probably a little fear that their Jewish mothers would discover they’d been lazy while imprisoned by the Assyrians, the Jewish soldiers inscribed words from the Torah portions onto clay tops. Spinning the tops provided a starting point for a scholarly discussion, disguised as a game of chance. Other explanations are that the top-spinning was a ruse to cover up scrolls that had been opened for study. Celebrating Hanukah today, we spin a symbolic top — a dreidel — marked with the Hebrew letters for the sounds N, G, H and Sh, an acronym across the dreidel’s faces for Nes Gadol Haya Sham: A Great Miracle Happened There.
There is a fine line between the carefully applied science that creates a miracle in nature, and the creative storytelling that turns it into faith. Reduce the supply of oxygen around a flame and it diminishes in size, burning over a longer period of time if you carefully or accidentally regulate the flame. Others will argue that tidal forces parted the Red Sea, or perhaps the Sea of Reeds, depending upon your Biblical translation. Our lives are most enjoyable — and memorable — where science and religion play out together. There is significant science in hitting, pitching, and fielding a baseball; belief and hard work created the Miracle Mets of 1969. For the Mets, it wasn’t a miracle to win the World Series in 1969, it was the worst-to-first transition that made simply being there miraculous. It was a miracle — as told by sportswriters — that introduced me to professional sports. It was years of celebrating Hanukah that very indirectly, circuitously, yet decidedly led me to become a hockey fan, a hockey player, a hockey dad, and now a youth hockey coach, because of a silly belief that an ability to stand up on ice skates would somehow offset any lack of knowledge or ability.
My family spent the Christmas school breaks of my pre-teen years at Host Farms in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a winter resort that met the safety requirements of a wide variety of Jewish parents. The ski slope had the incline of a suburban driveway, and I might have found the hill equipped with handrails had I actually been allowed to venture to the top on the chair lifts that were outfitted with multiple levels of safety restraints. An indoor pool provided the thrill of swimming while all other outdoor water was frozen, however, the requirement that we wait two hours after eating (in a resort where there was always something to eat) somewhat limited our splashing around. Host Farms had both indoor and outdoor ice rinks, on which my sister Amy and I learned to figure skate.
Having spent almost a decade in the Boston area, I can safely say that there is a line, somewhere through the navel of Connecticut, that demarcates where children learn to skate on ponds and where they’re forced onto man-made ice. There’s simply too much mild weather south of this crystalline Mason Dixon line to allow deep ponds to freeze. Boston is closer to Canada than to New York when it comes to conveying ice skating skills to its youth. Growing up in Freehold, New Jersey, you got to ice skate on a natural pond or lake only once every few years, when the ice had run early and deep. As my former team- and roommate Tom put his native Angeleno spin on natural, outdoor ice: It was a place you drove to, not the result of a local weather.
Uncoordinated as I was, these mid-winter trips fulminated my sporting life. I possessed a talent — purchased and drilled into my body by past-their-prime Scandanavian ice skaters at Host Farms — that few of my friends did. I could ice skate.
This is how I came to stand on the shore of Lake Topanemus on a bitterly cold day when the weather had cooperated long enough to freeze Freehold’s main body of water. “Topanemus” supposedly is Native American in origin, a word borrowed from the New Jersey Lenne Lenape tribe and later translated by me as “place of spastic futility.” On that December day in 1975, I was a young man, a full two months past my Bar Mitzvah. In a movie of my life, I believe this has to be the opening scene, because it captures the essence of my athletic accomplishments so perfectly. I tied my skates sitting on a snow-covered hill just a few paces from the ice. Proudly clutching my plaid skate bag, I rose up on wobbly feet, an image you will never, ever see on SportsCenter. I then promptly tumbled down the remainder of the hill, black figure skates over glasses-and-braces head, landing on my left wrist hard enough to fracture it. As proud as I was that I could skate, just getting on the ice proved me somewhat less imposing as an athlete. I skated for an hour on a patch where I wouldn’t be run over by the hockey players who covered every other acre of the ice, then spent a good part of the next day in the emergency room being outfitted with a cast on my dominant arm. My first sports related injury didn’t impair my love of ice skating, because I was still in the minority of kids who owned skates. Equipment outran common sense, and not for the first time, but with the 1976 Winter Olympics around the corner, I could find athletes to idolize and emulate. But Dorothy Hammill made more of an impression than the US ice hockey team that season, and so ice skating again retreated to the corner reserved for adventures just beyond my abilities.
My high school athletic pursuits were limited to surviving gym class, doing computerized scouting reports for the football team, and captaining our high school’s math team. Yes, we competed in a math league, held monthly at different high schools, and once we were on our way to a few years of strength, we printed up “jerseys” with numbers on them: the natural logarithm base e, pi, the square root of 2, the imaginary number i, and infinity. We stopped short of stadium style introductions such as, “Thinking first for Freehold Township High School, wearing the number e and playing trigonometry, Hal Stern!” I got my first and only taste of a championship of any kind with that team, when we won the Shore Math League and our team recorded the first-ever perfect score in a monthly competition. There’s something particularly nerdy about being on an adrenaline rush and knowing the chemical structure responsible for the feeling.
As I discovered band, computers, math, science and girls, they supplanted thoughts of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Willie Stargell, and being an ice skater of any stripe on the US Olympic team. But in that summer of 1979, as I readied myself for the mythical senior year of high school, the Pirates made another run at a title. Willie Stargell returned with a joyous comeback as a leader and a hitter. The Pirates clubhouse was filled with the sounds of “We Are Family,” an anthem that united the team across color, nationality and seniority lines, five years before anyone had even thought of “We Are The World,” Diversity without divisiveness, led by number 8, Willie “Pops” Stargell. October 1979 brought another World Series title to the Pirates, and both the League Championship and World Series Most Valuable Player awards to my favorite former left fielder, brought in to play first base by chronic knee problems. Willie Stargell helped his boys of summer bring home a storybook ending, a neat reflection of my sports passion as a pre-teen. I smiled every time I saw the homemade bases in the garage, thinking about backyard baseball games, again wishing to be number 8 in the yellow and black uniform.
Other events conspired to dispel those thoughts. Once the baseball fall classic was done, I didn’t think much about Willie Stargell or the number 8 for a long time, the way you forget a favorite toy or childhood routine until you rediscover it while shopping for your own children, and the happy feelings overwhelm whatever other thoughts propelled you to that moment. Two months post-Series, my senior year of high school became much easier, at least mentally, when I was accepted to Princeton University. Willie Stargell retired during the next few years, while I was a Tiger, learning about physics and computer science. Number 8 faded into that left-center field gap between childhood and adulthood.
I have funny, slightly fuzzy memories of what I actually learned during the winter and spring marking periods of my last year of high school. Having a college acceptance in hand opened doors I hadn’t tried before. I went to a high school basketball game. Layout work on the yearbook generated some interest, and I filled in on the forensics and debate team in an emergency. It was a time to try new things, mentally and physically. The most lasting impression was that our social studies teacher always let us spell “Czechoslovakia” for extra credit on quizzes. In addition to being a mouthful of consonants, it was the home of the much-loved but entirely fictional Festrunk brothers, the “wild and crazy guys” portrayed by Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd on Saturday Night Live. Such was my knowledge of a central European country: late night TV humor, vocabulary words, and a respectable national ice hockey team if you followed the Winter Games.
My athletic dreams took a dramatic turn during those 1980 Winter Olympics, when the confluence of more time to watch television, an interest in ice skating, and a miracle ignited a fire in my belly. I had been a casual follower of ice hockey at best, up to that point, watching the New York Rangers with perfunctory interest if that was the only respectable sports programming available on a winter evening. Before cable TV, NHL expansion, 24-hours sports programming and the Internet, you had to digest what came in from the broadcast antenna, and if WOR and WPIX had Rangers games, I’d feign attention rather than let my sister Amy watch something that might interest her. One Hanukah, I received a table top rod hockey game, complete with a replica Stanley Cup to be awarded to the best rod twirler in our circle of family and friends. Having never seen the Stanley Cup, I once presented it upside-down to a cousin who had just thrash-twirled me, silver cup on the bottom and the rings of names, inverted, on the top. I thought it should look like other cups I’d seen, wide part at the top with a narrow base, rather than a silver bowl held up by multiple generations of names that had earned that reward. Hockey knowledge ran shallow in our family, and I wasn’t corrected. I still feel guilty about it, as well as having touched the real Stanley Cup. At that time casual follower meant complete ignorance of tradition, and it would not be the first time I’d be blindsided by a tradition much larger than my ability to appreciate it.
All of that changed one week in February. The buzz had been building for more than a week, as a group of college ice hockey players coached by Herb Brooks found itself deep in the running for a spot in the medal round. On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1980, the US men’s ice hockey team caused puck heads to sit up and take notice, as they hammered Czechoslovakia 7–2, beating the second-ranked team in the world behind the Soviet Union. It was non-sporting revenge, a delight to me and my fellow students who had been spelling our opponent’s country’s name for what seemed like forever. Giddiness would give way to glumness on February 22nd when the US entered the medal round pitted against top-seeded Russia.
Olympic ice hockey doesn’t follow the format of a typical professional sports title series, in which the divisional winners play in a tiered bracket, semi-finalists meeting in a single winner-take-all championship game or series. The preliminary round seeds the teams from each “pool”, with teams earning two points for a win and one for tie. In 1980, the top two teams from the two pools advanced to the medal round and would play a “cross over”, each team playing the other two teams from the opposite pool. Any points earned against the other team in your own pool carried forward to the medal round, therefore the medal round had the appearance of each of the four teams playing all three of its medal-round opponents. No single-elimination, but also no clear path to the medal stand until all games were played and points awarded. The United States entered the medal round with one point earned in its opening tie versus Sweden, a game in which the Americans had trailed and risked a possible medal round placement until they scored a late, game-tying goal. That point secured them the second seed in their pool, tied with Sweden carrying one point into the medal round. The Russians had defeated Finland, the second second in their preliminary group, and brought two points forward. The value of that late American goal, the single point earned versus Sweden, would prove enormous in the final medal rankings. Sometimes you don’t appreciate the value of a non-event, a sporting contest without a winner, until much later.
The game itself was played in the late afternoon, as ABC was unable to convince the Olympic schedulers to put the home team on in prime time. Most of the host nation assumed it would be highlights-only material anyway, ambivalent that the game would be shown on tape delay, rebroadcast from the rink in Lake Placid, New York hours after it had been played. I took up what had become my favorite television-watching spot, sitting on the floor in front of the couch for our college boys to play out a symbolic Cold War battle. It was social studies, politics and physical education rolled into one Friday night class. Eight days and eight nights after Lake Placid and Czechoslovakia took notice of the US ice hockey team, a great miracle happened there.
For anyone who has missed the movies, books, motivational speaking engagements or references to one of the greatest sporting moments of all time, the United States defeated Russia, 4–3, on a third period goal by team captain Mike Eruzione. As the clock wound down, sportscaster Al Michaels asked every American, “Do you believe in miracles?” and we all nodded “yes” to our televisions, while I and millions others sat on the floor and sniffled. Tears cement your status as a fan, and on that day I became a hockey fan, as did every other kid who had ice skated at any time. With the win over the Soviet Union, the United States ranked first after the first medal round game with three points, to two each for Russian and Finland, and one for Sweden. The Miracle On Ice did not seal the gold for the Americans, but put them in control of their own destiny: with a win over Finland in the second game, they would be mathematically assured of the highest podium at the medal ceremony. Another come from behind victory followed, and captain Mike Eruzione called all of his teammates onto the podium that was wheeled onto the ice to receive medals, a shining continuation of what goalie Jim Craig much later described as a “moment meant to be shared.”
Share, we did, as a nation.
“This is a sport I can play,” I thought, and despite the fact that I was too old, too slow, too clumsy, and too fundamentally wimpy about getting hit to actually start playing hockey, I harbored a dream that was amplified by late-blooming teenage rebellion. As soon as I was at Princeton, where my father (dentist) and my mother (classic Jewish) would not be able to recount the reasons why ice hockey was bad for your teeth, your grades, your skeletal integrity or your intelligence, I was going to trade in the plaid skate bag for something more red, white and blue.
An future beer league hockey player was born, with real equipment, a basic knowledge of the game and any semblance of stopping ability still almost twenty years in the future.
A generation later, and nearly four decades beyond that snowy night in Lake Placid, I have an economic epiphany: Sitting on the floor watching the Miracle on Ice was one of the single most expensive evenings of my life, when you combine the cost of lessons, equipment, skates, travel team tuitions, tournament travel, adult leagues, emergency room trips, doctor visits and souvenir t-shirts.
I wouldn’t change it at all, given the opportunity, because I think we all feel that way about the night we fell in love, as a great miracle happened there.