There aren’t many sporting events that have stuck with Americans as the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union in 1980, and then subsequent gold medal win over Finland two days later. There are few people I’ve interviewed over the years as much as Kansas Citian Ken Morrow, who was a defenseman on that 1980 team. After all, the 1980 Olympic hockey win was one of my earliest non-KC-related sports memories. The game against the Soviet Union was played on Feb. 22, one day before my 10th birthday, but I can remember being sprawled out on our burnt orange shag carpet, enthralled with the game. That week, our intramurals at Dorothy Moody Elementary School, happened to be hockey in the gymnasium.
Our last day of hockey fell on Monday, Feb. 25, a day after we watched the United States hockey team cap off the greatest sports moment of the 20th Century by beating Finland and capturing the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.
What you’re about to read is a previously published Q&A between Morrow and me, as we talked about the events surrounding the game and how coach Herb Brooks took a bunch of kids, true amateurs, from the United States, and beat the best in the world — the Soviet Union, which had won every Olympic gold since 1960, and embarrassed teams of NHL all-stars.
Although the movie “Miracle” brought Brooks to light more a few years ago (and is a must-watch for me this time of year), he isn’t considered one of the greatest coaches, one of the greatest motivating leaders, of all-time. He should be.
Matt Fulks: Are you ever amazed at how there was this perfect combination of coach in Herb Brooks, and Brooks putting together a team of, let’s face it, many kids not really seen as Olympic prospects?
Ken Morrow: Yes, because he took this group of North American kids, and he wanted to play a European style of hockey, which was almost 180 degrees from what we’d been playing our whole lives. We used those six months that we were together as a team as our training camp, preparing us to eventually beat the Soviets at their own game. That was his plan all along.
MF: Was his entire focus, even going into the tryouts, to beat the Soviets?
KM: We couldn’t put all of our focus there, but certainly they were the team that everybody knew you had to go through to win a gold medal. So, I think in some regards yes, his focus was on finding a way to beat that team.
MF: An odd thing Brooks did, at least odd on the surface, was scheduling an exhibition match with the Soviets a week before the Olympics. The Soviets crushed you guys, 10-3, at Madison Square Garden. That’s like the Royals taking on Johnson County Community College. Was that beating in the back of your minds when you played them in the Olympics?
KM: The loss wasn’t in the back of our minds but it was a very important part of what we were able to do when we faced them at Lake Placid. For many of the players, it was the first time they’d been on the ice with this Soviet team. You have to remember, this Soviet team was considered the best in the world, and many of us had watched them on TV beating NHL All-Star teams and winning Olympic games. To be stepping on the ice with them, a lot of us were in awe. So playing them at Madison Square Garden helped our nervousness out. When we stepped on the ice at Lake Placid, we didn’t have to worry about that. We could just step on the ice and play hockey.
MF: With all that was going on between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time, did Herb Brooks have to say much to you guys to motivate you?
KM: He didn’t have to say much, but he did give what I’d consider the best motivational speech I’ve ever heard. They did a pretty good job of recreating that in the movie. He basically said, “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here at this time. This moment is yours, so go out and take it.” It certainly wasn’t a rah-rah speech, but it was the right words at the right time.
MF: When was it apparent in that Olympic game with the Soviets that you could actually win?
KM: For me, it was coming out of that first period tied, 2-2. For those who don’t remember, we had been down 2-1 in the first period, and with a few seconds to go before the buzzer, our guy dumps it into their goal, it comes out, Mark Johnson rebounds, splits two defensemen and scores at the buzzer. So we went into the locker room with a 2-2 tie. At that point, not that we knew we were going to beat them, but we knew we’d be in the game. We felt good about ourselves, having gone through that first game at Madison Square Garden, to come out of the first period tied 2-2 was huge for us.
MF: I’m guessing you guys were a handful for Herb after you beat the Russians, and were getting set to play for the gold medal two days later. There was still a chance, mathematically, that you could’ve ended without a medal even after beating the Soviets. What was the feeling like the next day?
KM: You’re right; if we’d lost to Finland, we could’ve finished outside the medals. So, Herb Brooks did his greatest coaching job on Saturday morning (after beating the Soviet Union). Here’s this young group of kids who’d pulled off this monumental upset, so we came into practice feeling pretty good about ourselves, and he has to get our attention on the next game. He put the hammer down real quick and real hard. We needed that. We had to get ourselves ready for the next game, which was Sunday morning. Sure enough, as we’d done all Olympics, we were trailing going into the third period against a very good Finland team. We had come from behind all Olympics long, and we put together another one against Finland.
MF: As we talk about Herb Brooks, one of my favorite things about him were all of his quotes, some of which, as you’ve told me before, you guys didn’t really understand.
KM: He had a bunch of them. [Laughs.] He was a great psychologist. He knew exactly which buttons to push on the players. Everything he did worked. We didn’t realize this at the time, but we found out years later. Throughout the year, he was constantly digging at the Soviet team, saying things like “these guys aren’t that good.” Well, their captain was a dead ringer for Stan Laurel (of “Laurel and Hardy” fame). He was one of the all-time best hockey players, but he looked like Stan Laurel. Herb would make comments like, “You guys are playing Stan Laurel out there. You can’t beat Stan Laurel?” There was always a motive behind everything that Herb Brooks did and said, and it all worked.
I do believe that for anyone thinking about going into coaching in any sport, it should be mandatory to study Herb Brooks. This guy was ahead of his time. He was innovative, and, as I said, he’s the sole reason we won a gold medal at Lake Placid.
MF: At that moment, during the entire Olympic experience from tryouts to the end, what were your feelings toward Herb?
KM: I never had a problem with Herb. Again, he knew what made every player tick. We actually did a psychological test, which was unheard of at the time. Now, being a part of the New York Islanders, we do a psychological test with all of the kids we’re considering drafting. I think Herb’s was a 300-question psychological test. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. There’s no doubt in my mind that he took those, looked at them, and figured out how he could get the best out of each one of those players, whether it was riding a guy hard, backing off, when to kick them in the pants and when not to. He did that throughout the year, and it always seemed to work. When you’re talking about 20 players, you’re talking about 20 different ways to motivate. He was a master of that.
MF: You talk about Herb riding you guys hard. There’s a scene in “Miracle,” when you guys…
KM: That actually happened. We had made the trip to Europe in September and tied a Norwegian team that we should’ve beaten. Herb kept us on the ice and skated us for a good hour or so, doing “Herbie’s,” as we called them, up and down the ice. In the movie they show Mike Eruzione ending it (I won’t spoil it here). It was really Mark Mark Johnson, one of the quietest guys on the team, who ended it when he slammed his stick over the glass and broke it. I think Herb felt then that he had made his point. We went out a couple nights later and beat that same team by eight or nine goals. Herb definitely got his point across.
MF: Going back to the game against the Soviet Union, did you guys realize the impact of that win throughout the United States?
KM: No, we had no idea. That was by Herb Brooks’ design. He kept us fairly well sheltered from that, wanting us to keep our minds on the game and the task at hand. Because we were in a small town in the mountains, we didn’t have the access. We didn’t know the country was behind us like that. We were staying in trailers in the Olympic Village, and all we had were AM/FM radios; no televisions. It was a surprise when we got out of Lake Placid. We just thought fans in Lake Placid were excited. Then, we started seeing the accounts on TV and reading the newspapers and hearing people tell us what they were doing when we won.
MF: So when did you realize it?
KM: President Jimmy Carter sent an Air Force One plane for all of the athletes, which was a great experience. We landed at an Air Force base in Washington, and to our amazement, there was a huge crowd of people with signs and that type of thing. Some of the guys have said that’s when it really hit us that the whole country was excited; not just the people in Lake Placid. Buses took us from the Air Force base to the White House, but all along the route, people lined the streets, waving signs and flags. Most of them were for us. (Speed skater) Eric Heiden had maybe the greatest Olympic ever with five gold medals and five world records, but he got overshadowed by a hockey team. We were all wide-eyed to see all of these people.
MF: What an experience!
KM: At the White House, President Carter gave a speech, and I stood a couple feet behind him. Then we had a quick, casual lunch with the Congressmen who had come in from our areas. Then we were off. Everybody had flights going to different places. It went by so fast. It was an abrupt ending for a team that had been together for seven months. We had lived together, played together, did everything together for seven months, went through this incredible weekend, and by Monday afternoon we were split up and on with our lives.
MF: You then went on to a great NHL career with the New York Islanders, including winning the Stanley Cup in 1980, but beating the Soviet Union and then winning the gold medal is one of the few events, historically, that most of us who were alive like to say, “I know where I was then.”
KM: There’s no doubt that all of the negative stuff at the time made this larger than life. It was this shining moment for the American people at a time when they needed it.
MF: As I say to you every time we talk about 1980, it’s been a thrill reliving this with you. Thanks for your time.
KM: Great talking with you and I appreciate you letting me tell my story.