DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

DU alum helped coach 1980 Olympic hockey team

On Feb. 22, 1980, the United States Olympic hockey team — which consisted of amateur players from the college hockey ranks — upset what was considered the world’s greatest hockey power, the Soviet Union, in Winter Olympic competition in Lake Placid, N.Y. The victory, now known as the “Miracle on Ice,” resonates across the sports landscape to this day because of its worldwide political ramifications and a David-beats-Goliath quality.

The University of Denver didn’t have a player on the team, but alum Craig Patrick (BA economics ’69) was behind the bench for the Miracle on Ice. Patrick played four years of hockey at DU and then played professional hockey for a decade. As his playing days wound down, the head coach for the 1980 team, Herb Brooks, asked him to serve as the assistant coach. Patrick would go on to work as DU’s athletic director from 1987–89 and as a general manager with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, and Patrick talked with DU Today about the legendary victory, his part in the story and its meaning after three decades.

Were you aware of the magnitude of the Miracle on Ice during the games in 1980?
We had no idea what it meant. We were trying to win a hockey tournament. We were trying to win a medal — maybe we had an inkling. Back then, there was Western Union — there was no texting or cell phones or anything like that. And we had all these yellow Western Union things arriving from around the country. It was my job to hang them outside the locker room with tape. We had thousands of them. We were also staying in the Olympic Village, so we really had no idea what was being presented in the media at the time.

Has the accomplishment’s meaning changed over the years?
I think the people that witnessed it have passed it on to their children. And with the movie, kids today have a good feel for what happened. It hasn’t diminished at all in my mind or in the public’s mind. People who have watched the movie have the same feeling as we did back then. I still get requests every day to sign autographs in the mail. And I was just an assistant coach. [The 2004 film, Miracle, starred Kurt Russell; Actor Noah Emmerich portrayed Patrick.)

What did you think about the movie, Miracle?
I think it was great. It was really well done. Obviously, Hollywood had to change things. The directors said, ‘We have to show in two hours what you did in 7 months.’ They had to move quick. But the storyline is perfect, and it was really, really well done. It should have been, ‘The Herb Brooks Story.’ He did an unbelievable job preparing that team. He knew a year in advance what he was going to do and how he was going to do it.

What was special about the coaching for that team?
I’ve never seen a team prepared anywhere as well as Herbie prepared that team. He was one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen. I worked with him on pro teams. I hired him to coach the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He took a different approach with pro players than with amateur players. I don’t think he was as effective with professionals, but he did do an effective job with the 2002 Olympic team, which was made up of professional players. We competed well, and won the silver medal. He adjusted where he needed to adjust, but he was at his very, very best with those young people.

What was your role as an assistant coach?
My first day on the job Herbie said, ‘Craig, here’s your most important duty: We have an eastern faction of players and a western faction of players who hate each other. I think I’m going to have to be a tough jerk and you’re going to have be the good shepherd to bring them all together.’ That’s exactly the way it played out. He was a brilliant man. His major in college was psychology. [U.S. player] Robbie McClanahan said he was a master psychologist, which he was, and Robbie became the whipping boy.

What were your contributions to the team?
I had a lot, but it was all Herbie’s scheme. I was lucky he gave me my major job to be the shepherd and bring it all together. The one thing I do want to emphasize is we had young players. I was in the pros for 10 years. When we went to tryouts in Colorado Springs, I was amazed at the talent that had emerged in college in the 10 years I was in the pros. Also, Herbie knew exactly who he wanted on that team. That came from his coaching in college, and he had a whole year to look around. It was a talented team; they were just young kids nobody ever heard of.

How did you get involved with the team?
The reason I got invited to the job was [Brooks] coached the World Cup team in Moscow in 1979. I played on that team and he made me captain. He told me that he had offered the assistant coach’s job to someone else. So he asked me if I’d be interested if the other guy turned it down. I knew my playing days were over, so I said yes.

What were your day-to-day responsibilities?
I was asked to be the assistant general manager. I took care of the travel and getting the kids in there, and taking care of the parents. So I became the player’s best friend. I was on the ice every day. I was like any other assistant coach, and as the assistant general manager I was taking care of the off-ice issues. I was fortunate to be able to do both, but it also helped Herb and what his goal was for me.

The victory over the Soviet Union was special. But how did you prepare the team to play for the gold medal?
Herb made sure everyone was in bed and getting rest. It was great to beat the USSR, but it wasn’t over. We had to play Finland. We were down 2–1 after the first period in the gold medal game, and Herbie was furious. He said he didn’t even want to talk to them, so he told me go in and talk to them. I went in and made my pitch and they said, ‘Craig, don’t worry. We’re going to win this game.’ And they did 4–2.

After 30 years, what has come into focus about the experience for you?
It comes down to two things — No. 1 is the brilliance and preparation of Herb, and No. 2 is those kids went through so much in 7 months. We were hardly ever home. We were based in St. Paul [Minn.], and we played 10 games in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and 50 games away from there. We were raising money for USA Hockey. I’ve never seen a group work that hard and be that well-prepared anywhere in the sport. And to me they deserved their just rewards.

You’ve had a long career in hockey. Where does the Miracle on Ice rank in your list of accomplishments?
People ask me what my greatest accomplishment is. It’s hard to answer. I come from a sports family — all my forefathers were in professional sports. It’s hard to rate Stanley Cups vs. gold medals. It’s just a great feeling when you can be successful in something you love.

Were you given a gold medal?
Coaches in Olympic sports don’t get medals, but Herb and I did. We got the same medal players did. I don’t know how it happened, but I’ll guess the United States Olympic Committee or USA Hockey or somebody stood up and said, ‘Give those guys a medal.’ My children and grandchildren are enjoying it now, so that’s great.”

In your day, it wasn’t common for hockey players to play in college en route to the NHL. How did you choose to play college hockey, and how did you chose DU?
I’d have to give my uncle credit for that. We visited my uncle one summer when I was 17 or 18 and he said, ‘What? You’re going to play pro hockey? That’s a two-year stint in the military, so you’re going to college.’ My uncle happened to be heavyweight boxing champion in Canada and New York state when he was 19 years old, and so we tended to listen to him. My parent’s attitude was, ‘It’s your life, you figure out.’ I appreciated that, but my uncle called up [former DU head coach] Murray Armstrong, who he knew, and said, ‘I have a kid here who’s pretty good and wants to go to college.’ So I did, and it turned out to be the best years of my life. Being in Denver and going to that school was the greatest experience I ever had.

Will you be watching Olympic hockey this year?
Absolutely. It’s going to be great.

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