Wiffle Ball at the Hollow a perfect success … almost

It’s safe to say our inaugural “Wiffle Ball at the Hollow” was a great success. People had fun in spite of the heat. There was free ice cream and coffee. And we exceeded our announced fundraising goal (more on that in the coming days). Perfect, right? Well, almost. During the lunch part, after our Founder and Executive Director Dayton Moore finished the Q&A, I got back up to thank our sponsors and announce the results of the auction. One of our auction items was a lunch for 12 with 1980 “Miracle on Ice” defenseman and former New York Islanders great, Ken Morrow. After I mentioned Ken’s name, Dayton encouraged me to say some things about Ken.

For some reason, my mind went blank. I flubbed Al Michaels’ line from the end of the game. And I babbled something about the 1980 United States hockey team and about Ken. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of the day for me. Because there’s no excuse for me drawing a blank about Ken Morrow and the 1980 team. Here’s why: to me, the U.S. hockey team beating the unbeatable Soviet Union squad in 1980 is the greatest American sports moment. And, combining my fascination of that team with Ken Morrow being one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, I have picked his brain time and time again about 1980.

Ken Morrow takes a hack at a Dennis Leonard pitch during the inaugural “Wiffle Ball at the Hollow event on July 22, 2017. (Photo by Steve Yates.)

So, although it’s the end of July, I’d like to redeem myself from Saturday by reprinting one of the many stories I’ve written about that moment in February 1980…

 

Intramurals at Dorothy Moody Elementary School gave kids like me a reason for going to school. Well, that and whenever they served beef fritter at lunch.

Hockey was always an after-school favorite. We played in the gymnasium with plastic sticks, and we had a blast. In 1980, thanks to dumb luck or gym teacher Mr. Sears’ uncanny timing, hockey week of Dorothy Moody Elementary School intramurals came during the Olympics.

In the final seconds of our last day of intramural hockey, our yellow team was down by one, and I got the puck in the high slot (directly in front of the goal). Wanting to be just like Mike Eruzione, I quickly dropped my right hand down the stick, raised the stick back and fired a slap shot toward the red team’s goalie.

It missed. Never came close. Although I did nail Chris Garrett in the head with the stick. Luckily he was one of my best friends. Otherwise, he could’ve pounded me. That is, if he didn’t have double-vision from that yellow piece of plastic that I thought would score the game-tying goal. And, no, Eruzione didn’t take a slap shot against the Soviet Union, but I was caught up in the moment.

Chances are, Ken Morrow’s heard that story before. Or at least one just like it. After all, all these years later, it’s almost a daily occurrence.

“I still get mail almost on a daily basis,” Morrow, who was a defenseman on that gold-medal winning team, said from his Kansas City home. “People usually start off the letter by writing thanks and then they write about what they were doing during that game. I also have people come up to me all the time and tell me the same things.

“I feel it’s not only an honor to hear from fans like that, but that it’s my obligation to talk to them or read any piece of mail. You never want to forget where you came from.”

Morrow, who’s lived in the Kansas City area since the early 1990s, when he spent two years as an assistant coach for the Blades of the International Hockey League, remains humbled by the experience and the game that captivated America.

Over time, for most of us, the game has gone from a legendary Olympic moment to an important piece of American history.

“It’s amazing to think,” Morrow says, “that game is remembered in the same vein of when JFK was assassinated or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.”

But that wasn’t an ordinary game. The Soviets had won every Olympic gold medal in hockey since 1964. They annihilated NHL all-star teams. It was like the Harlem Globetrotters embarrassing the Washington Generals. There was no way a team of a bunch of college-aged amateurs could overcome those odds.

So, it wasn’t an ordinary game. It was the United States beating the unbeatable Russians, making it one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Simply put: it was the greatest win in United States Olympic history. Socially, it was good prevailing over evil. Democracy over Communism.

“We all knew what we were facing, so there wasn’t much that needed to be said,” Morrow, who was one of the older players at the ripe age of 23, says of the challenge of playing the dominating Soviets and the social unrest of the Cold War. “But, for me, (coach) Herb Brooks gave the greatest speech I’ve ever heard before a game.

“He told us, ‘You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here at this time. This moment is yours.’”

Indeed. Just a couple hours later, and 10 minutes after Eruzione put the U.S. ahead 4-3, broadcaster Al Michaels’ delivered one of sports’ most memorable calls:

“You’ve got ten seconds…the countdown’s going on right now…Morrow up to (Dave) Silk…five seconds left in the game…do you believe in miracles?…Yes!”

Today, that group of 22-year-olds remains frozen in our minds even though they’re men in their 50s, several with children who are older than they were when they represented the United States.

As if the memories aren’t enough, the team was brought back to light in 2004, a year before the 25th anniversary festivities, when the movie “Miracle” became an instant classic. It gave a whole new generation a perspective on what it meant for that U.S. hockey team to beat the Soviet Union.

“It was not only a sporting moment, but it was cultural. Even people who weren’t hockey fans watched that game,” said Morrow, who’s now the Director of Pro Scouting for the New York Islanders, the organization for which he helped win four Stanley Cups as a player. “The movie helped show that fact, but what’s fun is that the movie brought the moment to light for younger kids.”

Hall of Fame broadcaster Denny Matthews, a devout hockey fan, kisses the miniature replica Stanley Cup that Ken Morrow brought to the “Wiffle Ball at the Hollow” event on July 22, 2017. (Photo by Brian McDonell.)

Morrow says the movie was “fairly accurate.”

“All of the defining moments that led up to what happened were pretty good,” he said. “They also did a nice job of the little things.”

Of course, there were a couple minor details that were tweaked. Such as how Morrow was the only player on the team with a full beard, which went against Herb Brooks’ rule. So, the scene with the line drill, where Brooks made the players stay after a game, and they’re about to lose their lunch right before Eruzione shouted out one of the movie’s most famous lines. That’s gotta be Hollywood. Right?

“That’s one of the first things people ask me about, and yes, that happened,” said Morrow. “We lost to a Norwegian team that we should’ve beaten, so Herb kept us on the ice and skated us for a good hour or so, doing Herbie’s up and down. In the movie they showed Eruzione, but actually, Mark Johnson, one of the quietest guys on the team, slammed his stick over the glass and broke it. I think Herb knew 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.”

The movie depicts Brooks as someone with questionable motivational tactics, such as that post-game skating session. And scheduling a game with the Soviets just days before the Olympics. In the end, though, it offers Brooks, who died before the movie came out, as the key behind the team.

“We wouldn’t have won it without him,” Morrow says matter of factly. “A lot of us didn’t realize that until years later. There were some good coaches out there at the time, but any other coach probably wouldn’t have had the foresight and innovation that Herb Brooks brought. You could argue his methods, but everything he did worked.”

Most importantly, Brooks picked the perfect players to fit into his system and shock the world.

Granted, two days after the high of beating the Soviet Union, the United States had to get past Finland for the gold medal. To many, though, it didn’t matter.

“We were in our trailers in the Olympic Village (after beating Russia), and I was listening to people call radio shows, saying how we could be playing the Montreal Canadiens and we’d still win,” said Morrow.

“We were going up against a very good Finland team. People might not know that there was still a mathematical chance that we could’ve ended up with no medal at all if we had lost to Finland. I’m glad I don’t have to talk about how that happened.”

Instead, Morrow and his teammates can talk about how they won the gold medal. How they did the impossible. And how they showed 10 year olds playing intramural gym hockey across the country that dreams are possible.

 

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