A light dusting of snow painted the Adirondacks as we made our way from Wilmington to Lake Placid in New York. My Swedish-born son-in-law drove my daughter, their two young children, my wife, and me along the winding mountain road called “The Notch.”
Lake Placid is a special place for us. We are hockey people from Minnesota. We know what happened in Lake Placid in 1980. We know the David-and-Goliath story. We know about a bunch of college kids who defeated the Soviets, the greatest hockey team in the world. We tear up when we watch the movie, “Miracle.”
And that’s just what we did. After hitting the souvenir shops and stopping by the historic ice arena one more time, we headed back to Whiteface Pine Lodge to cuddle up by the fire with blankets and a big bowl of popcorn, all set to leverage up our nostalgic buzz by watching, yet again, “Miracle.”
Throughout the movie, my daughter reminded our grandchildren that a lot of the guys played on our hometown college team, that others had Minnesota ties, and that Coach Herb Brooks was a familiar face on our community streets.
As we re-lived this team’s steep climb to immortality, I wondered if our grandchildren could comprehend the challenges of this journey. I wondered what they understood about the concept of “team.”
More importantly, I began to wonder whether we as a nation may have lost our way in this regard. “Self” is inherently at the center of much of what we do. But has greed inoculated us against caring about the greater good? Has it made us incapable of caring about our teammates?
Throughout the movie, Coach Brooks repeatedly stopped drills and asked his players, “Who are you?” and, “Who do you play for?” And, repeatedly, the players boldly bellowed their names and the names of their former college teams — which was not what Brooks wanted to hear. This continued until the film’s most poignant scene. After a brutal conditioning drill that bordered on cruelty, and amid bent-over, gasping teammates, an exhausted but convicted voice from the rear of the pack declared, “Mike Eurzione! (pant, pant) I play for (pant, pant) THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!”
And the rest is history.
Herb Brooks valued every player on his team, and every player felt valued. He inspired each of them to play their best game, not for themselves, not for their colleges, but for Team USA. Good coaches find a way to do this, to bring all the players on board. It’s the only way to succeed against great odds: all of the players playing as one.
So there sat my grandchildren. They will face challenges that make defeating the Soviet hockey team look like child’s play. My grandchildren and yours need to succeed against climate change, famine, widening income disparity, nuclear proliferation, a growing national debt, threats against our democracy, the challenges of affordable education, exploding technology, and more.
The public good, the mission of team, must be put ahead of self-interest before any team can succeed. Where are the leaders who will inspire all of us to be great in the best sense of that word? Leaders who will bring us together — all colors, men and women, old and young, rural and urban, wealthy and poor, and, yes, Democrats and Republicans?
We have plenty of self-serving people strutting around in red jerseys and blue jerseys, doing their tribal best — but precious few wearing the red, white, and blue. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Who do we play for?
I’m on a hunt for a coach who can bring America together and lead this nation to the fulfillment of our ideals.
Who do you play for?
I play for the United States of America — and I believe in miracles!
Pat Francisco is chairman of the Duluth Heritage Sports Center Foundation. He is a former player and assistant coach for the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's hockey team.