MANKATO, MINN. — Bill Baker isn't sure what exactly constitutes a miracle.
"I'm not sure any of us really know," the 1980 Olympic hockey player said. "But something pretty neat happened in Lake Placid in February of 1980. ... That's what they've been calling it for 40 years, and we're sticking with it."
Baker was one of six members of the "Miracle on Ice" team who, during an event at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center Thursday, reminisced about the greatest upset in sports history.
The event was a fundraiser for the Minnesota State women's hockey team, which is coached by 1980 Olympian John Harrington. Harrington's Mavericks host No. 1 Wisconsin, and the Badgers are coached by 'Miracle' member Mark Johnson. They were joined at Thursday's event by Dave Christian, Mike Ramsey and Buzz Schneider.
A little more than two weeks before the 40th anniversary of the stunning victory over the Soviet Union team, the group talked about the experience and answered questions from attendees while watching clips of the 2004 movie "Miracle," which chronicled the formation of the team of mostly young college players, its training under taskmaster coach Herb Brooks and its unlikely run to defeating the mighty Russians and winning the gold medal.
As inspiring as the actual events were to those who witnessed and remember them, the movie, Harrington said, has made "a whole other generation of people" interested in their story. And they've been talking about their story for four decades.
"People want to relate their stories to us," Christian said, "where they were, how it impacted their lives, how it made them feel, the pride they felt. ... People, right as it happened, weren't saying, 'they' or 'the United States hockey team.' It was 'we.' ... 'We beat the Russians.' We felt that support. Everybody was a part of it."
Sharing stories and having a few laughs (some at each others' expense), the group explained what was fact and what was embellished for Hollywood in the movie — from the practice fight between Minnesota's Rob McClanahan and Boston University's Jack O'Callahan ("I can't recall a fight on the ice," Schneider said) to Brooks' tyrannical coaching methods ("Kurt Russell did a great job, but that was tame compared to how Herb really was," Baker said) to the 10-3 thumping put on them by the Soviets in New York's Madison Square Garden a week before the Olympics ("We were in awe," Ramsey said, "but we were looking at Lake Placid. We were looking ahead.").
The scene the players get asked about the most is the long, grueling skating session Brooks put the players through immediately after a lackluster tie during a game in Norway. The skate, Johnson said, lasted 45-50 minutes — half of that with the lights out after arena workers went home.
Schneider and Ramsey laughed about missing out on the skate because they had been kicked out of the game. For Baker and Schneider, who played for Brooks at Minnesota, the skate felt like a typical Monday practice.
"He was really tough that way," Baker said. "I remember saying to someone on the bench, 'Wait until the guys from out east get a load of this.' And he didn't disappoint."
Said Johnson: "The message that was sent to us was: It doesn't matter who you're playing or where you're playing at, if you not giving the effort you're going to get beat."
Team USA built momentum through the Olympics, tying Sweden (after a first-intermission locker-room explosion by Brooks) and defeating Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania and West Germany. That set up the Feb. 22 game against the Soviet Union, which had won the previous four Olympic gold medals.
Prior to that game, Brooks gave an inspiring speech: "You were born to be hockey players. ... You were meant to be here. ... This is your time."
That's pretty much how the players remembered it 40 years later.
"When we left the locker room, it was like our skates were off the floor," Harrington said.
They won 4-3 and after a "firm" practice the next day, they won gold on Feb. 24 with a 4-2 victory over Finland.
"It's pretty hard to put into words," Schneider said. "We played the best team in the world and flat-out beat them, fair and square."
Shane Frederick is a reporter for The Free Press of Mankato, Minnesota.