Forty-two years later, and it still seems like yesterday to Jack O’Callahan.
O’Callahan was a defenseman on the 1980 United States men’s Olympic hockey team that produced the “Miracle On Ice” victory over the powerful Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The team is part of the inaugural class that will be inducted into the New York State Hockey Hall of Fame next Sunday at 4:45 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn in Troy.
O’Callahan, Mark Wells and Craig Patrick, who was the team’s assistant head coach under head coach Herb Brooks, will represent the 1980 team at the ceremony.
Among the others being inducted are several members of the four-time Stanley Cup-champion New York Islanders — Bob Nystrom, Butch Goring and the late Clark Gillies — former Islanders, Rangers and Buffalo Sabres player Pat LaFontaine, who played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team, former Sabres Danny Gare and Clint Malarchuk, and New York Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.
O’Callahan will give the keynote speech at the ceremony.
“I’m looking forward to it,” the 64-year-old O’Callahan said during a recent telephone interview. “I think it’s a really great thing that they’re doing up there. There’s a lot of obviously great hockey stories from the state of New York. It’s a fantastic way to sort of memorialize a lot of it and to build from there. We’re going to be a part of the original cast and crew, and we’re pretty honored about that.”
The legacy of what the U.S. did is amazing to O’Callahan, especially with what the political climate was like in early 1980. The U.S. was a couple of months into the Iran hostage crisis. Right before the start of the Winter Olympics, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
And there probably wasn’t much confidence in a U.S. team made up of college players after the veteran Soviet squad cruised to a 10-3 win at Madison Square Garden in pre-Olympic contest prior to heading to Lake Placid.
The U.S. went 4-0-1 in its first five games in Lake Placid before facing off against the Soviets in the medal round on Friday, Feb. 22. The Soviets took a 3-2 lead into the third period. Mark Johnson tied it for the U.S. at 8:39. Then, 1:21 later, Mike Eruzione scored the goal that is still entrenched in everyone’s mind to give the U.S. the lead. Despite enormous pressure from the Soviets, the U.S. held on for the win, triggering a wild celebration in Olympic Arena (now Herb Brooks Arena) and in Lake Placid.
“You couldn’t have scripted it 42 years ago if you’d said you think we’re going to be talking about this when you’re 60, almost 65 years old,” O’Callahan said. “But it was pretty special. It was in a time where the media really wasn’t like it is now. Somebody makes a 3-point shot in basketball, and they’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“We always did have a special thing about us having defeated the Soviets, having won that gold medal and in the fashion that we did, and then you’re wrapping all the other stuff around it with the political and social and cultural [issues].”
But the U.S. didn’t win the goal medal that night. There was one more game to play against Finland two days later. The U.S. struggled for two periods and trailed 2-1 heading into the third period.
Right before he left the locker room after talking to his team, Brooks told his team, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your [bleeping] graves.”
“He said it because he goes, ‘You guys came in here, everybody thought you’re going to finish fourth or fifth,’” O’Callahan said. ‘“And then here you are, you’re one game away from winning the gold medal. You beat the Russians. Great, but nobody’s going to remember that if you lose to Finland.’ So he’s like, ‘You kind of screwed yourself. Think about it.’ We played seven games or six games where we were the underdog. Now we’re the favorite against a damn good Finnish hockey team.”
The U.S. dominated the third period, scoring three goals and winning 4-2 to give the U.S. its first hockey gold medal since 1960.
O’Callahan credits a 2001 HBO documentary on the teams and the 2004 Disney movie “Miracle” for introducing people to the story of the team. O’Callahan said that “Miracle” director Gavin O’Connor had plenty of material to turn it into a longer movie, but Disney executives wanted it cut in half.
“Now you can probably do it, it’d be like, “The Sopranos,’ the hockey version,” O’Callahan said. “[O’Connor’s] got to boil all of that, all of that USA Hockey history, and our team and everything else, and all the stuff that was going on in the world with the gas lines and the hostages and the Cold War. He’s going to put that into a two-hour movie and try to explain to people the background and everything else.
“It’s quite an accomplishment, but he was able to actually get that message across and actually tell a lot of the stories from our experience and sort of keep it focused on our team and obviously filmed the hockey scenes and on the off-ice stuff. So it got it as right as it possibly could.”
ABC produced a made-for-TV movie in 1981 called “Miracle On Ice.” Karl Malden played Herb Brooks. Peter Horton played O’Callahan.
“He was married to Michelle Pfeiffer,” O’Callahan said, “which was kind of cool because after Michelle got rid of him, she ended up marrying [TV producer] David Kelley, who played hockey at Princeton, and whose dad [Jack Kelley] was the head coach at Boston University when I was a kid growing up in Boston. So the shells [move] around the hockey world. I kind of liked it. I think it’s cool.”
After the Olympics, O’Callahan played professional hockey for nine seasons, including seven in the NHL, five with the Chicago Blackhawks and two with the New Jersey Devils.
O’Callahan’s son Aaron and his wife Molly live in Clifton Park with their 1-year-old daughter.
“This is going to be one of those opportunities where I get to do two fun things,” O’Callahan said, “go to a really fun dinner and see some guys and hang out with my son and my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter.”
Tickets for the event cost $100 and can be purchased by calling Rene LeRoux at 518-877-5170.
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