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Growing up in the state of hockey

When everyone knew a 1980 Olympian. By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
/ Source: msnbc.com

In the previews for "Miracle," the new movie about the 1980 Olympic hockey team, it's clear that Coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) is setting out to make his team realize that they are no longer playing for their college teams, but for their country.

Yes, this team was America's Team in a way the Dallas Cowboys will never be. But that doesn't mean that they didn't hold a special place in the hearts of most residents of my home state.

In Minnesota in 1980, it seemed that everyone had some connection to a member of the gold medal-winning hockey team. Not everyone knew a player personally, but everyone could build a Six Degrees of Separation chart before we even knew that's what it was. For me, it was my niece's friend's brother, Steve Janaszyk, the backup goaltender. I never actually met him, but that didn't seem to matter.

Team member after team member listed Minnesota as their home state. Coach Herb Brooks was St. Paul born and bred, and had coached the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers to three NCAA Division I titles. Admittedly, there were a number of Boston guys on the roster, but no matter. This was our team and hockey was our game.

The frozen chosen
Minnesota's license plates proclaim "10,000 LAKES," but that's just Midwestern modesty: The state has more than 15,000. In summer, they're wonderful spots to boat, swim and fish; in winter, they freeze as solid as a heartache.

I first learned to skate on the lake outside my house, then later honed my skating in classes held at an indoor ice rink.

The two were completely different surfaces. The indoor rink was always perfect, offering silky smooth ice that was frequently touched up by the Zamboni.

Skating on my lake, however, was like skating on a cheese grater. Skate-skate-BUMP, skate-skate-BUMP. Learning to skate there was like learning to practice medicine under fire — once you had it down, performing under more polished conditions was cake. If I had to guess, I'd say a lot of Minnesota hockey players got their start on bumpy, half-shoveled lakes and ponds, giving them an advantage when it came to skating indoors.

Baseball may be the American national pastime, but word of that never seemed to reach my school. Every boy in my class proudly wore the grade-school equivalent of a letter jacket, and marching up their sleeves were an array of patches listing the hockey playoffs and championships in which their teams had participated. The more patches, the more respect.

The kid hockey players of my youth didn't know it, but they were participating in a longtime state tradition.

Minnesota's high-school hockey tournament ranks right up there with Indiana basketball or Texas football in the pantheon of teen sports. The US Hockey Hall of Fame is in Minnesota, up north in Eveleth. Christian Brothers, the famed hockey-stick maker, was started in Warroad back in 1964 by Olympic gold medalists and brothers Bill and Roger Christian.

It all makes sense, of course. It's tough to play football or baseball when your fields are buried under snow six months out of each year, but it's not so tough to play hockey when there's a frozen pond in everyone's yard.

So when the 1980 Olympic hockey team and its heavy Minnesota accent came to Lake Placid, you can bet every TV set in the state was tuned in.

Do you believe in miracles?
1980 was a tough year in a tough era. Americans had been taken hostage in Iran. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. There were long lines at gas pumps. Even we schoolkids were convinced that it was just a matter of time until nuclear war.

It was a perfect Hollywood setup for a team to come out of nowhere and revitalize the nation's spirit. The true miracle was that this team did not come out of Hollywood, but out of Warroad and Eveleth and Boston and White Bear Lake.

If you'll remember, the famous game against the Soviet Union was not in fact the gold-medal game. Winning that game sent the US team to play Finland for the gold medal. But also if you'll remember, the high from beating the USSR was so all-encompassing that there was no doubt who would win the next game. It's tough to stop a steamroller. It's tougher still to stop one on ice. And it's near impossible to stop a miracle.

It was hard to believe in miracles in 1980, when every day's paper brought dreary news. A Minnesota winter only made that tougher — it was dark when you woke up and dark when you went to sleep, and in-between it was cold, cold, cold. And then somehow, out of the cold and the dark and the ice, something made the news not seem so dreary anymore.

Al Michaels' famous "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" has been repeated so many times over the years since it was first uttered. But if you watched that game, you remember how unrehearsed it sounded -- and how right it felt. There was no other way to describe that victory than the way he did. No other way.

It's been nearly 25 years since I first heard those words and the chill that went up my spine back then still returns when I hear the recording. If the United States never wins another medal in another sport, it's OK, because we have this one, we have this memory. Minnesotans, Bostonians, all of us.

Do you believe in miracles? Always.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is the television and books editor for MSNBC.com