They did not cancel the 10:30 a.m. church service at Zion Lutheran in Warroad, Minn., on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 24, 1980. In retrospect, Pastor Paul Gustafson may as well have instructed his flock to stay home and pray for 20 young men in dark blue hockey sweaters. Most in Warroad were already doing that anyway.
Had the organist not been Pastor Paul’s wife, Beverly, it would likely have been a near-silent service that morning, as most of this little town of less than 2,000, just six miles from the Canadian border, either skipped church, or went to the 8:30 a.m. service which was usually lightly attended. With the final Olympic hockey game set to face off at 11 a.m. and a local boy gunning for a gold medal, the pews were packed for early church.
As a 10-year-old growing up in the town that locals call “Hockeytown, USA” the previous two weeks had been memorable to be sure, but also seemed almost laid out according to some script. Twenty years prior to the on-ice heroics of Lake Placid, N.Y., two more Warroad boys — brothers Bill and Roger Christian — had skated for Team USA at Olympic Games played on the other side of the country, in Squaw Valley, Calif., and had returned to the banks of the Warroad River with two of the first set of American hockey gold medals. To watch Bill’s son Dave driving toward the same goal in 1980, leading the American team in assists, seemed to make perfect sense.
That’s not to say that we were not amazed and delighted by what was happening in upstate New York, or that we weren’t glued to every moment of the TV coverage. The Olympic opener, versus Sweden, took place on a Tuesday night, at the same time as Warroad’s high school team had a game in Roseau, which had its own native son — Neal Broten — skating in Lake Placid. On that night, the twice-yearly renewal of one of Minnesota’s truly great sports and civic rivalries was almost an afterthought, as many fans crowded around the arena’s concession stand to watch the final minutes of the Americans’ dramatic tie with the Swedes on a grainy black-and-white TV set up in a corner, next to the urn of hot chocolate and the box of Charleston Chews.
It was just a few weeks earlier, on their barnstorming pre-Olympic tour of the country, that coach Herb Brooks and his team had come to Warroad for a Sunday afternoon game versus the Warroad Lakers, a senior team that played for 50 years, winning national titles in the U.S. and Canada. Wedged between my parents in the jam-packed uninsulated wooden barn that was the true center of our community, wearing a black snowmobile suit on a typically frigid day, we got a first-hand look at soon-to-be household names like Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Ken Morrow and Mark Johnson (whose father Bob’s first coaching job had come in the late 1950s, when he coached Warroad High School and played for the Lakers for a season).
Team USA routed a good Lakers team 10-0 that day. Today, it is a well-known part of the Miracle on Ice story that even that afternoon, a mere nine days before their first game in Lake Placid, Brooks was still musing out loud about tinkering with the lineup, and not even the team captain’s place on the roster was a sure thing. A decade later, when the Olympians held their 10-year reunion at a golf tournament in Warroad, Eruzione was teased by a teammate who said, “Rizzo, if you wouldn’t have gotten a hat trick against the Warroad Lakers, you might not have even made the team!”
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Leaving the rink that day, my snowmobile suit making that crinkling noise that comes from walking outside when it is well below zero, I recall telling my parents, “If they’re good enough to beat the Lakers by 10 goals, they’re definitely going to win the gold medal.”
Flash forward 19 days, to a cold Friday afternoon and the showdown with the Soviets. While most television viewers throughout the country watched a tape-delayed version of the game at 7 p.m., towns like ours in the northernmost reaches of the 218 got two channels from Winnipeg, and one of them broadcast the game live at 4 p.m. Pretty much all of Warroad left work early that day and gathered with friends to watch what was sure to be an exciting but ultimately fruitless attempt to dethrone the intimidating and unbeatable communist horde.
About the time the Canadian broadcast of the game ended — and you could hear the sound of fireworks and car horns ringing throughout town — the ABC tape-delayed broadcast was beginning, meaning that most of those gathered at house parties to watch the game live opened another beer, sat back, and watched the whole thing again.
Dave Christian came home a few days after the clinching win over Finland, gold medal dangling from his neck, and walked on a red carpet on the red line at the packed Memorial Arena, signing a NHL contract with the Winnipeg Jets at center ice.
It was an unforgettable moment — right there in our no-stoplight town — which delivered a clear message to every 10-year-old boy and girl in attendance that absolutely any dream could come true. Even if it meant skipping church once in a while.