'It's hard to find the words even now': Jack O'Callahan reflects as Miracle on Ice turns 40

  • The U.S. hockey team pounces on goalie Jim Craig after a 4-3 victory against the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, as a flag waves from the partisan Lake Placid, New York, crowd.

    The U.S. hockey team pounces on goalie Jim Craig after a 4-3 victory against the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, as a flag waves from the partisan Lake Placid, New York, crowd. Associated Press/Feb. 22, 1980

 
 
Updated 2/9/2020 2:06 PM

Jack O'Callahan has escaped the misery of Chicago, with its weather, corruption and taxes only a memory now.

But he can't escape his legacy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Having moved to Northeast Florida last year, you would think the 1980 Olympic hockey hero would be a little more difficult to pick out of a crowd in a football-crazed area like Jacksonville.

Yet even in Florida when people hear his name, they know what it means.

Miracle.

Less than two weeks from the 40th anniversary of Team USA's shocking upset of the Soviets in Lake Placid, it is once again on the minds of Americans who will celebrate what is always considered among the greatest sporting events ever.

The Blackhawks will be hosting the former Chicago defenseman on Feb. 19 to mark the anniversary during a game against the Rangers, before Team USA members embark on a weekend in Vegas, where the Golden Knights will honor nearly the entire squad on Feb. 22, the very date in 1980 that they took down the best hockey team in the world.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing the guys," O'Callahan said. "It's going to be a huge weekend, golf and parties, and then the Knights game will be a pretty big deal."

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As far as O'Callahan can remember, the entire 20-man roster has been together only once since they went to the White House to meet President Carter shortly after the Olympics.

"With all the reunions and everything else, the only time I know of that all 20 of us were in the same room was for Herbie," said O'Callahan of coach Herb Brooks' funeral in 2003. "When we lit the torch in Salt Lake City (in 2002), we had 19 because Mike Ramsey couldn't get there.

"He was an assistant coach with Minnesota and he tried to get there. They put him on a private plane, but it wasn't long after Sept. 11 and they had the air space shut down and he couldn't get in."

Defenseman Bob Suter died of a heart attack in 2014, and Mark Pavelich is in a secure treatment facility, found mentally ill and incapable of standing trial on felony assault charges his friends and family believe are linked to CTE.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We've had 19 a few times and 18 a few times," O'Callahan said. "Now, unfortunately, it's 18."

The 62-year-old O'Callahan is still working in asset management and travels frequently, and rarely does a day go by that someone doesn't bring up the game against the Soviets.

"It's something very special to the people who lived through it," O'Callahan said. "It tells you how much it matters to people because that first 20 years or so, it's not like the NHL really embraced it or promoted it.

"So 10 years go by and you get a few phone calls. You get to 20 years and then Salt Lake and ..."

Then in 2004 the movie "Miracle" came out, which gave the generations that followed an opportunity to embrace an enduring and emotional story.

Said O'Callahan, "It's taken on a whole different trajectory."

Still, 40 years later a hockey game means that much to people?

"I don't know the answer," O'Callahan said. "What else do people talk about 40 years later and know where they were and exactly what they were doing?

"Usually, it's some terrible event that happened to them or to the country, like Sept. 11, some painful, life-altering moment seared into your brain.

"But this is a positive thing. It's a great sports story that people don't want to forget."

Even in Jacksonville.

"It's not exactly a hockey community," O'Callahan laughed. "They recognize the name. It's not like I walk around with my gold medal around my neck."

No, that's in a safe-deposit box.

"It's been a lot of fun. For us, it was just a great time in our life," said O'Callahan, who was 22 years old at the Olympics and a recent graduate of Boston University. "We were just blue-collar kids. Our parents and grandparents all lived through wars, served in wars, and we were the children of those generations.

"We knew things were bad. If we woke up and someone told us to get to a bomb shelter, it wouldn't have been a surprise. That was the Cold War. That was the time we lived in.

"It was a rough time in this country, but we didn't find out until later how the games we were winning had taken over the country. It was awesome."

The U.S. victory over the Soviets was the equivalent of Northwestern beating the '85 Bears.

The Soviets had -- at the time -- the best team ever assembled. They were professionals dressed up as amateurs, their only job to practice and play hockey.

Nothing but all-stars and Hall of Famers, a group that played together for years on the national team, winning the previous four gold medals and the next three that followed the 1980 Games.

They were so good, in fact, that after destroying Team USA in an exhibition game in New York the week before the Olympics, the Soviets did not take seriously these college boys when they met again in Lake Placid, perhaps playing a part in the greatest upset in sports history.

It was a cultural touchstone, a much-needed one in America at the time.

The U.S.S.R. had invaded Afghanistan, there was the hostage crisis in Iran, gas lines at home and the Cold War was at its peak.

And now this surprising group of college kids, a team that had zero chance to beat the Soviets, was offering a depressed country a chance to feel good for a night.

"Crazy," O'Callahan says as he searches his mind. "It's hard to find the words even now.

"You try to put yourself back there and remember the feelings, what it was like, what you thought before the game, after the game.

"Just grateful to have been a part of something that's a good thing, a happy thing for people. When someone cries as they're talking about it, you remember it's sacred to them and you treat that moment with dignity.

"Part of what makes it so great is the odds were overwhelmingly against us. No one believed we had a chance except for us.

"The Russians were so good. So were the Fins, the Swedes, the Czechs. Those were some of the best teams in the world. Who were we? A bunch of guys tossed together. Crazy."

Do you believe in miracles? After that game, we all did.

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