U.S. hockey team a dream come true for four Minnesotans
On the way from the St. Paul Hotel to Xcel Energy Center, St. Louis Blues youngsters David Backes and Erik Johnson always stop at the entrance of the RiverCentre to absorb every detail of the Herb Brooks statue.
Born and bred in Minnesota, Backes and Johnson got a lifelong education on the 1980 gold medal-winning U.S. men's Olympic hockey team that boasted a dozen Minnesotans.
They weren't even alive back then, but Backes and Johnson have heard so many stories about the "Miracle on Ice," they might as well have been. They've watched the documentaries and can recite lines from the 2003 movie "Miracle," in which Kurt Russell played Brooks, the late St. Paul native who coached a bunch of college kids to the most unexpected of victories.
So Backes, 25, and Johnson, 21, stare at the statue, which depicts Brooks after the Americans' victory over the powerhouse Soviets, and talk about what it must have been like.
"And I always smile," said Backes, who grew up in Blaine, Minn., and played at Spring Lake Park High School and Minnesota State Mankato. "You just see the expression on (Brooks') face and the elation that he accomplished something that was going to mean a lot more than possibly the gold medal for the U.S., that it was going to be really changing for the whole country and not just the hockey world.
"I know he knew obviously what a great feat it was by that team, but I wonder if he knew that it would be something that can inspire a U.S. team 30 years later."
Backes and Bloomington's Johnson are two of four Minnesotans on the 2010 U.S. men's Olympic hockey team. New Jersey Devils teammates Zach Parise, who hails from Prior Lake, and Jamie Langenbrunner, who grew up in Cloquet, will also head to Vancouver next Sunday for the Feb. 16-28 tournament that coincides with the NHL hiatus.
Devils defenseman Paul Martin also made the team, but last week the Elk River native had to withdraw because of a slow-healing broken forearm.
"Growing up in Minnesota, where hockey is the main sport, playing in the Olympics is something I always dreamed of doing," said Johnson, the 2006 No. 1 overall NHL draft pick. "Any time you get to represent your country, it's a big honor, but for somebody that's proud to have grown up in Minnesota, I think it's going to be special for all of us. We want to make the state proud."
'Miracle' more than a movie
For the first time, the majority of the U.S. team was born post-1980. Only five were alive, in fact, when the Americans won gold: Chris Drury was 3, Langenbrunner 4, Tim Thomas 5, Brian Rafalski 6, and former St. Cloud State Husky Ryan Malone was 3 months.
"Every day I look in the mirror, I know it was 30 years ago," said Wild assistant coach Mike Ramsey, the former Gopher who at age 19 was the youngest player on that 1980 team.
To 20-somethings Backes and Johnson, players like Ramsey, Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione and Mark Johnson are living legends, and it has a lot to do with "Miracle," Erik Johnson's favorite movie.
"The movie brought a whole new generation into the loop and gave the '80 team a larger-than-life status," Ramsey said. "We're appreciative of the movie, although I think they used all of Herbie's lines — his 'Brooksisms' — in one locker-room setting.
"We had 12 Minnesotans on that team, and it's nice to know we've been an inspiration to young Minnesotans today. I'd actually think there'd me more (on the 2010 team)."
Besides the four native sons, Malone, Phil Kessel (former Gopher) and Jack Johnson (Shattuck-St. Mary's) have Minnesota ties. But as Ramsey said, arguably there could have been more Minnesotans. There was a lot of debate over dozens of locals, including Dustin Byfuglien and former Gophers Kyle Okposo, Alex Goligoski and Blake Wheeler.
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, the GM of the U.S. team, said some of the hardest decisions were the Minnesotans because there are so many good ones.
State churning out top players
Minnesota hockey is undeniably on an upswing, especially from a high-end standpoint. Since 2006, seven Minnesotans have been drafted in the first round. Twelve of the 55 Americans drafted last June were born in Minnesota.
"In the State of Hockey, as we Minnesotans like to say, I think things are alive and well," Burke, who grew up in Edina, said Wednesday — two days before his 21-year-old son, Brendan, was killed in a car accident in Indiana. "About eight, 10 years ago, people were pulling scouts out of Minnesota saying there were not enough players to justify having full-time scouts there. Now they're moving them back.
"Minnesota steadily, going way back, has produced quality players in volume. These Minnesotans on the Olympic team are absolutely proof of that."
Two Minnesotans generated zero debate. Parise wasn't penciled in. He was written in in ink. On a young, inexperienced Olympic team, he will be a go-to scorer. And Langenbrunner will don the "C'' as he does as captain of the New Jersey Devils.
"He's a model of consistency, of versatility," Burke said. "This is a guy who does just about everything well on an ice surface and lots of things well in the dressing room."
This will be Langenbrunner's second Olympics and first in 12 years. In 1998, he had 45 minutes to decide whether he'd jump on a plane for Japan when Shawn McEachern was injured the first game in Nagano.
Langenbrunner's wife, Elizabeth, was nine months' pregnant but she said, "You can't pass up the Olympics." Langenbrunner arrived home eight hours before his first child was born.
"I've never prided myself on individual accomplishments," Langenbrunner said. "But to be singled out as the captain, it's an honor and something I'm going to take very seriously. We know we're not expected to do anything."
Soaking up the experience
As Burke says, it'll take a "similar upset" to the 1980 team for the Americans to win gold.
Vancouver will be a special time for the four Minnesotans, although Ramsey said it can't compare to a bunch of amateurs soaking everything in.
"Are they getting there for the opening ceremonies?" Ramsey said, noting that the NHL schedule won't allow for that. "And that's a shame. It really is. The opening ceremonies are ... it's so awesome. You don't get that experience, you're missing out.
"In the Olympic village, we were in awe of all the athletes, but these guys will probably be the big men on campus because they're in the NHL. So maybe they won't take it in the way we did.
"But once the games start, they'll feel excitement, they'll feel energy, and they'll feel pressure. Whoever has success in that environment, they'll remember it. And the ones who don't have success, they'll remember it, too."
(c) 2010, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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DAVID BACKES, ERIK JOHNSON