1980’s miracle makers come home

Lisa Harris

Editor’s note: The Team USA hockey squad that beat Russia and Finland to win the 1980 Olympic hockey gold medal included former Gophers coach Herb Brooks and former players: Les Auge, Bill Baker, Neal Broten, Steve Christoff, Steve Janaszak, Rob McClanahan, Mike Ramsey, Buzz Schneider, Eric Strobel and Phil Verchota. This story is about their welcome home to Minnesota.

They said goodbye to each other Monday afternoon — the Olympians who’d won hockey’s gold medal — in the White House.
And then they boarded planes. Two went to Detroit, four to Boston, two to Madison and 12 came home to Minnesota to the cheers of a thousand.
Some were plain old fans: “Did you score at all?” one naively asked Rob McClanahan, whose goal won the gold.
But mostly, they were the ones who rightfully claim these Minnesotan medalists their own: Phil Verchota’s sister, the Bantam team from McClanahan’s hometown, Mounds View, Steve Christoff’s ex-coach, girlfriend and parents.
“He always knew,” Christoff’s mother Gerry recalled, smiling. “His teachers, everyone, remembers him saying ‘I’m gonna be there one of these days.'” Christoff’s father Verne said. “Go talk to Mr. Poehling at (Richfield’s) East Junior High School. He always tells them to set goals. He knows this is what Steve set.”
Still, it’s hard to be prepared for such an event.
The Olympic village, Verchota said, sheltered the athletes from public reaction. “We didn’t really have a lot of access to the media,” he said. “So I don’t think we really got the impact of what’s happening to us.”
Traveling aboard the vice-presidential Air Force I jetliner, McClanahan said the Olympians “thought we were incognito” and had no idea of the waiting reception. “But I appreciate this one more than the one at the White House,” Ramsey said.
The memories from the White House haunting McClanahan aren’t of the luncheon, presidential introduction or handshake. “I’ll tell you what sunk in today,” he said.
Saying goodbye?
He nodded. “It hurts. It really, really hurts. It’s too bad we had to leave so soon.
“You know, we never had a chance to be with ourselves once we won the gold medal. The media was in the locker room and from then on, we were never alone again.”
“There were some red eyes,” Bill Baker said. “You could only expect it after six months. We weren’t without our problems with personalities, but we were so amazingly close in the end.”
The end — the quest for the medal that perhaps all began with Baker’s own goal, tying the Swedes in their first game. “An unbelievable thrill,” Baker kept repeating. Words still don’t come easy.
“Who the hell ever would have thought it,” McClanahan asked. There were some. One, Christoff’s girlfriend Tami Curran, said she had no doubt. Christoff has a fake gold medal and after he joked about that one once, she told him she had a feeling he’d bring back the real one.
As she waited to see it — and him — amidst the crowd she said, “I feel like he’s been gone to war for four years.”
Christoff’s high school coach and close friend Larry Hendrickson answered “maybe he has.”
Ah, but the battle was won.