As the director of pro scouting for the New York Islanders, Ken Morrow has one eye on the present and the other on the future.
At one moment, he’s sitting in the press box high above the ice at Nassau Coliseum watching the current roster of Islanders players, and the next he’s jetting off to NHL and minor league rinks around North America looking for another piece of that championship puzzle.
But whether he’s at home or on the road, Morrow can never stray too far from his past. Hockey fans will see to that.
Morrow is in rare company as a four-time Stanley Cup champion with the Islanders, but it’s what he did as a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team that fans of all ages want to talk about.
It’s a frosty Saturday morning in February as Morrow stands alongside one of the 24 rinks carved out on Dollar Lake, smiling through the frost forming on his salt-and-pepper mustache at the action that surrounds him.
He arrives in Eagle River after a three-hour drive up from Milwaukee, where he was scouting the AHL game between the Admirals and Charlotte Checkers the night before.
Hours later, the convention hall at the Snowmobile Derby Race Track is packed with adult hockey players in town for the 2012 Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships. A line snakes through the hall, past the beer stands and 50-50 raffle table, as adults decked out in hockey jerseys wait patiently for an opportunity to shake the giant hands of the first player to win an Olympic gold medal and Stanley Cup championship in the same season.
“I guess the thing that amazes me is that we’re still talking about a game that happened almost 30 years ago.”
Morrow proudly and patiently shows off his Olympic gold medal and poses for photos while listening to adult players tell him where they were when that band of college upstarts shocked the mighty Russians in what Sports Illustrated called the “top sports moment of the 20th century.”
“Tonight I probably had 10 or 15 guys come up to me and tell me that that’s what got them started in hockey,” Morrow says as the activities begin to die down.
“They watched the 1980 Olympics, and that was the day they got started in hockey. When you hear those kinds of stories, it just makes it hard to comprehend that you’ve had that kind of an impact on somebody.”
Because USA Hockey did not begin registering individual players until the 1990-91 season, there is no hard-and-fast data on how many young Americans laced up their first pair of skates and grabbed a hockey stick because of the events in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Those children of the Miracle generation are all grown up now, have moved on with their lives and have children of their own. Their recollections of the Brotens, Eruziones and Johnsons may elicit blank stares from younger generations, like telling a teeny-bopper about the Beatles, the Stones or the British Invasion. For them, anything before Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Ryan Miller, the new generation of Olympic heroes, is considered prehistoric.
But for those of an older era, the ones who are still coaching, sitting on hockey boards and escaping on weekend getaways to the frozen lakes of northern Wisconsin, these Miracle men will always hold a special place in their hearts.
For the players themselves, it can be hard to comprehend how some people can get so excited about something that happened 32 years ago, but they realize they are fortunate enough to be a part of it and are more than happy to play along.
“I guess the thing that amazes me is that we’re still talking about a game that happened almost 30 years ago,” said Mark Johnson, who coached the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team to a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“It’s been a story that doesn’t seem to have a last chapter. It keeps going on. For me, it’s just amazing that we’re still talking about something that happened so long ago.”
There will always be anniversaries and future Olympics when memories will be dusted off and brought back to the forefront of America’s sporting consciousness. Lucky for us, this special group of hockey ambassadors are still willing participants in our collective strolls down memory lane.
“Funny things happen in sports once in a while,” said Neal Broten, who raises quarter horses with his wife, Sally, on their farm in River Falls. “And a funny thing happened that night.”
It’s nights like this in Eagle River that prove that the Miracle on Ice will live on in the hearts and minds of hockey players and fans everywhere. As long as the players are willing participants, and they are, hockey fans will have an opportunity to rehash the past, recalling where they were as the clock wound down and the phrase “do you believe in miracles?” became part of the American vernacular.
For Morrow, this brief foray into the past is a welcome break from the rigors of the road with his day job. Tomorrow there will be another game to watch, new players to scout and more reports to file.
“I enjoy meeting the people,” Morrow said before returning his gold medal to its weathered case.
“I don’t go out and give speeches, but to sit and talk to someone one on one, and hear the stories from them, that’s what I enjoy. It never gets old.”