Miracle...On Ice. Ironmans, Olympics, Stoli, & a Night with Sonja Henie in the Olympic Hockey Rink.
Updated: Feb 22, 2020
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the greatest sporting event in U.S. history, here is my son Peter's interpretation of Kurt Russell's interpretation of coach Herb Brooks's inspiring pre-game speech to the 1980 U.S. Men's Olympic Hockey Team. Peter delivered this before his dad's 2018 Ironman Lake Placid race. It didn't help.
The great Kurt Russell in the movie, Miracle:
Tomorrow, Saturday. Feb. 22, is the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, an epic upset that Sports Illustrated named the best sports moment of the 20th century.
This event that reverberated across the globe happened in a sleepy little village tucked in the Adirondacks in Upstate NY called Lake Placid. One of the reasons I love going to Lake Placid to do the Ironman is to soak in the legacy of the Olympics that is woven into every aspect of this cozy town that hosted two of them – in 1932 and 1980.
During Ironman week, between racking my bike for the race and carbo-loading at Main Street Pizza, I like to visit the Olympic Museum with my Ironman buddy, Jim Kane. The museum is situated right in the center of town, up the hill from Ironman Village, and is a treasure trove of Olympic memorabilia.
I read inspiring quotes from Olympians while Jim mocks me. "Jim, check this out," I say as I point to a quote on the wall below a photo of Olympic speedskating gold medalist Apolo Ohno:
“Maybe we’re not the stupid ones," I say. "Next time Karoline gives me grief about going for a long training ride I’m going to say, ‘Honey, what if you had married an Olympian? They train for four to eight years for a race that lasts 40 seconds, where if they’re an eye blink slower than the next guy, they get squadoosh! I train for four to eight months and get to savor my race for up to 17 hours! That’s great value!’”
“No, I think it’s safe to say that we’re the stupid ones,” Jim says.
My visits to Lake Placid have yielded two interesting stories connected to that special team and that game against the Soviet machine 40 years ago. The first relates to my choice of lodging.
I usually stay at the Wilderness Inn, a rustic set of cabins in the neighboring town of Wilmington, ten miles outside of Lake Placid village. The Inn’s catch phrase is “Roughing it in Style” and its cabins have pastoral names like Balsam, Norway, Cedar, Hemlock, and Aspen. If you like knotty pine walls, old stone fireplaces, “a serene, wooded alpine setting” and a “quaint, cozy atmosphere,” the Wilderness Inn is for you.
I learned from a server one night and confirmed with long-time bartender June that the Soviet press stayed there during the 1980 Winter Olympics. After the KGB vetted the place, the Soviet's crammed into the cabins for two weeks. Twelve men alone stuffed themselves into the snug Balsam, a one-room deal with two double beds -- which happened to be my current cabin. They passed the time drinking enough Stoli vodka from the restaurant to fuel a jetliner, bragging about how dominant the Soviet men’s hockey team was.
The night the U.S. men’s hockey team won the Miracle on Ice, the Russians graciously bought every round. The owner of the Inn told them they could drink only American drinks. The Soviet press abided by this rule and got obliterated on Jack Daniels. They could drink vodka as if they had a wooden leg, downing glass after glass and looking as sober as a cyclist during the white-knuckle Keene descent. But they did not handle their whiskey nearly as well.
The second story involves a different, unplanned sleeping arrangement.
During the 2015 Ironman Lake Placid, after watching the last runners stagger across the finish line before the midnight cutoff, Jim, our friend Mark, and I found ourselves in the Hunan Oshaka, a Chinese-Japanese casual dining restaurant that was still open and still serving food. We sat at the bar and ordered beers. All they had left was Dos Equis. We renamed the restaurant Chimex.
At 1:30 in the morning, as Pancho Hu closed down our Chimex bar, and after multiple bottles of Dos Equis and at least 140 shots of sake, I, the most interesting man on my barstool, came up with an idea. “Hey, instead of getting up in a couple hours and waiting in line and sweating whether we’ll get a spot in next year’s race, why don’t we just go over right now and sleep in line?”
And thus it was that, at 1:45 am, Jim, Mark, and I found ourselves with our sleeping bags and pillows lying on the cold concrete floor in a hallway outside of the famous hockey arena – which seemed so small and parochial to me for having hosted such an iconic, global event – looking up at photos and glass-enclosed old trophies from the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics.
There was only one person in front of us, and I wasn’t certain he was registering for the race or just a homeless person who found a good opportunity to sleep indoors. He never stirred the entire night.
I settled in underneath a life-sized photo of figure skating legend Sonja Henie, gold medalist and star of the 1932 games. My sleeping bag was itchy and I couldn’t get comfortable.
“Hey Russ, are you getting aroused by Sonja or something? Are you rubbing one out or is there a squirrel running around in your sleeping bag?” Jim said. “What the hell is going on over there?”
“This sleeping bag is making me itch…and I’m trying to stay upwind of the toxic gases coming from the direction of your ass. She is nice though,” I said, as Sonje, queen of the ice for a decade, loomed over me. “Hey, did a bear eat Mark and get in his sleeping bag or is that him snoring? How is he asleep already?”
On it went. We brave morons endured a night of loud snoring, Jim’s Dos Equis-crab rangoon-infused farts, an itchy sleeping bag, and little sleep so we could be first in line to register for an event in which we would torture ourselves for 13-plus hours, swimming, running, biking until our nipples bled and our toenails fell off.
Four months later, the race had not sold out. “Jim, I just checked and it’s still open.”
“You’re telling me we slept all night on the floor of a hockey rink to be first in line and four months later you can still register?”
“I’m afraid so.” Stay stupid, my friends.