A talk with John Harrington
EAGLE – It really doesn’t seem like it was 25 years ago.A quarter century ago, the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team did the unthinkable, defeating the Soviet Union, essentially a professional juggernaut, 4-3, in Lake Placid, N.Y., on its way to the gold medal. Al Michaels’ television call on ABC, “Do you believe in Miracles? YES!” still gives sports fans of all kinds of goose bumps.One of the team’s right wingers, John Harrington was in Eagle this week for the Red Wing Alumni Hockey Camp. He’s spent the last few days working with local hockey players and coaches.Now the head coach at Division III St. John’s University in Minnesota, Harrington reflected on the events of 25 years ago with the Vail Daily Saturday. The complete transcript of the interview follows:Daily: What’s the week been like for you?Harrington: It’s been a lot of fun, I’ll tell you. I was lucky to get the opportunity to come out and work with some good coaches and some young players who want to get better. Certainly being here in the Vail Valley in Eagle and Avon and everything else and people bending over backwards to do things for you, it’s been a terrific week.Daily: What advice do you have for younger players who want to get better and have higher career aspirations?Harrington: I think first and foremost, they need to work on the fundamentals. There are a lot of kids nowadays, their playing is an emphasis on games. They want to try to score. Hockey is a game that you can constantly be better in your skill level and improving your skill level and I think the biggest thing is working on the skills of skating and puckhanding and shooting and passing. Then, I think you’ve got to stay with it. Sometimes, you have to have some desire and commitment to stay with the game. Enjoy it. Enjoy the challenges of trying to get better and who knows? If you don’t dream big or have an idea of what you want to do, it’s kind of hard to set that as a goal.Daily: Does some of that attitude come from your days at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and being of the fourth line of the Olympic Team with Buzz Schneider and Mark Pavelich?Harrington: Yeah, I think so. Having played on the Olympic team, everybody always assumed that you were the best player your whole life and that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a lot of self-made players. There’s certainly players who had a lot of good coaching, but there are players like myself that had to study the game and work hard at the game and try to do things better than other players to try to improve their games. So, I think for me it’s what I felt when I was young and not making all the travel teams and whatnot. I had to figure out a way to get better and see what the best players are doing and then try to practice that and get better at those particular skills.Daily: Does the “Miracle on Ice” still have the resonance 25 years later for you?Harrington: Obviously, my first response to that is always it’s probably the biggest miracle is that we’re still talking about it 25 years later. That might be bigger than actually what happened in 1980. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I hope, I’ve learned to appreciate that accomplishment much more than I did when I was 22 years old and it happened. At that time like any young person, it’s like, “Well, this is what we were trying to do, you know.” Now, it hasn’t been done by the U.S. men since then. Now, they’re using pros and I don’t think something like that will ever happen again. If they win the Olympics, it won’t be the same. It won’t even be close. It’ll be a great accomplishment, but not the same magnitude as ours in 1980. You know with the last five years, of course, with the 20th anniversary, the movie (“Miracle”) coming out, it’s caught another second wind with a whole new generation of players who are watching this whose parents are saying, “I remember that happening.” It’s been fun in that I can’t say, and I’m certain any other player on our team wouldn’t say, that they don’t enjoy talking about it when someone brings it up.Daily: Where’s the medal?Harrington: It’s at home. It’s in the same box I got it in. Well, I’ll have to move it now because you know it’s there.Daily: No worries. We’re not coming after it.
Harrington: I’ve kept it around. When my kids were young and in grade school, I always went to show-and-tell with them and when I do speaking engagements at any type of athletic function, I bring it with (me). I’m proud of it and I want kids to hold it and see it and go, “Oh, wow.” People someday might get those aspirations or make that a goal of theirs. That’s what you have to do if you want to have a chance of doing something like this.Daily: When did you start considering trying out for the team?Harrington: To tell you the truth, I think it was a dream of mine when I probably got started in college. That’s what I wanted to do. That was a goal of mine. I said, “I’ll make the Olympic Team.” It became as much more realistic goal probably at the end of my junior year of college. I was hurt a little bit during my sophomore year. My junior year early in the season, I didn’t make a road trip with the team, so I wasn’t in the lineup. I got back in the lineup and ended up having a pretty good year as a junior. I had a real good year as a senior. Probably, it was at the end of my junior year at college. Certainly, I started working toward being the best college player I could be the next year, so I could get a chance to try out.Daily: What were tryouts like in Colorado Springs?Harrington: We came out to Colorado Springs for the National Sports Festival, which was kind of a U.S. Olympic competition of sports every year. Before an Olympic year, those would become the hockey tryouts. So, 80 players got invited to Colorado Springs. I think it started at the end of July and finished in August. When I got done at school in May or June at UMD, I came out to Colorado Springs because I knew a couple of guys out there who had played for Colorado College. They were going to be in the tryouts. Ice was available out there where it wasn’t available in northern Minnesota. The altitude and everything, I wanted to give myself the best chance to succeed in these tryouts. We had 80 players and four teams of 20 guys. For 10 days or two weeks, we practiced and played games against each other. You played everybody once and they had a bronze-medal game and a gold-medal game. Over the course of this competition, Herb Brooks, along with other selected coaches, evaluated the play and put their list together.Daily: And, the team got down to 26 players.Harrington: He picked 26. Obviously, we had to have some extra players on the team. So it was 26, but then he had to cut down to 20 right before we got to the Olympic Games. You can only take 20 to Lake Placid.Daily: What was it like when you found out you were on the 26? Harrington: It was certainly a weight of your shoulders. Herb never gave too much of an inclination of who was in and who was not. There were certainly a core group of guys you knew who were going to be on the team. I considered myself in that second group of just needing always to perform and perform well when we played. It felt constantly like it was an evaluation. But when I found out when I was going to be one of the 20 who were going, it was a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.Daily: How did a bunch of Minnesotans and New Englanders meld as a team?Harrington: I think well. I think there was some animosity and dislike for each other. The Boston guy was typically more outspoken and then there were the conservative Midwestern guys. The Boston guys sort of dominated the conversation, especially with the Boston U. guys, those four guys (Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, Jack O’Callahan and Dave Silk) and the University of Minnesota guys, there was a bit of a rivalry in the (NCAA) Tournaments the previous couple of years. There was probably a little bit of hatred amongst those guys. But, Herb treated everybody the same. He certainly didn’t play favorites. He constantly kept us on edge. I think that’s what really helped us come together because you had to be together as a group because you certainly weren’t going to get any sympathy from Herb.Daily: Talk about Herb Brooks’ coaching style.Harrington: He was old-school coach, you know, negative reinforcement. He would pretty much tell you how bad you were and it would motivate you to say, “Oh, yeah?” It would motivate the players he had to say, “Oh, yeah? I’ll show you how I can play this game.” I don’t know if that would necessarily work with a lot of players today. We all knew that he was the best college hockey coach in the country and won three championships in the past seven years (at Minnesota) and also that we were on the Olympic team an that’s what we wanted to do and we were willing to go quite a distance before we said, “Hey, we’re not going to do this.” Sometimes, it was by design the way he acted toward us. A lot of our players felt that that was his personality. It was probably somewhere in between. He was tough and demanding, but he certainly, with the success we had, as a player, you say, “Well, that’s what I wanted to do and I would pay the price to do that.”Daily: Can we get some Herbie-isms from you?
Harrington: People ask me about those. There’s “You have talent and you can’t win on talent alone” or “You’re not talented enough to win on talent alone.” If you did something that didn’t work, it was like “That went out with short pants.” “You’re playing worse every day, and right now, you’re playing like next week.” That always changed to what he thought of you. For me, it always seemed like it was, “You’re playing worse every day and right now you’re playing like next month.” Other guys were just playing like next week. So, I think that meant I was playing really bad. And, certainly he had some ones, too, that probably can’t be repeated.Daily: It was quite shock when Brooks died in a car accident. How much do you miss him?Harrington: I miss him a lot because over the years he became someone who I could call up or leave a message for and he would always get back to me if I had any questions about what I was trying to do with my team now or about certain players. He was great because he was a great sounding board. He would always give you his opinion. He would say, “John, do what you want to do. Be committed to what you what you want to do, whatever you decide.’ I really appreciated that with him. I know that when you ran into him in public and you were around other hockey people, you still always had that little bit of fear of him. He always still made you feel like you were still a player and he was a coach. It was kind of weird. But, I don’t ever remember pulling him to the side or grabbing him by the sleeve or something to say, “You know what, Herb, thanks for giving me that opportunity.” I don’t know that anybody ever did. (The team) kind of went its separate ways. I don’t know if anybody said that to him. Maybe, they did, but I sure wish I had the opportunity or at least had the time to do that because things can end pretty suddenly and it gives you lesson on saying things that should be said and not waiting.Daily: How did Brooks affect your coaching style at St. John’s?Harrington: I think I still do some things that he does tactically. When I first started coaching, probably like most young coaches in any sport, they coach like the coach they had the most success with. As I’ve gotten older and mellowed, as I tell my former players who think I’m very soft right now, I say I have evolved. When I first started coaching, I was crawling out of the ocean and now I’m walking upright. I try to treat my players better. We work hard. I demand a lot out of my guys. We have expectations about how we play, how you should play for us. I imagine I can still peel some paint off the wall if I need to do that. There’s different ways to skin a cat. One plus three is four and so is two plus two. There’s different ways to get to four and there are different ways to be successful. I think I’ve kind of changed a little bit and leaned more toward being positive toward my players.Daily: The U.S. team tied Norway, 3-3, during your exhibition schedule. How much truth is there to the postgame-skate legend?Harrington: That happened. Herb was just disappointed in the way we had played. I know our team had been (in Europe) for a number of weeks, playing a lot of games and we were ready to go home and didn’t play up to Herb’s standards. That was their B-team. That wasn’t even their A-team and we were going to play them in the Olympics. Of course, Herb wanted to send a message to that team and he made us pay for it. He kept us on the ice. We started doing stuff and all the crowd cheered and they thought it was a skating exhibition. Then, they started booing because they saw we were getting punished. Then, they left. The rink guy turned the lights out and he’s hollering in Norwegian in the corner. We probably skated for 45 minutes. In actuality, I think our trainer convinced him to stop or he was going to kill somebody if he kept going. What they don’t show in the movie also is that we played that same team the next night and I believe it was, 10-0. You’d have to look it up. But, it was a blowout. Herb certainly got his message across.Daily: What were your expectations going into the Olympics, especially after losing to the U.S.S.R., 10-3, in a exhibition three days before the tournament began?Harrington: I think going in realistically, we were playing for a bronze medal. Sweden’s first. We’ve got the Czechs second, two of the top-three teams in the world. We’d have to have some great luck to get us into the medal round and then it would probably be the Soviets or the Finns or Canada. We had our work cut out for us to win a bronze medal. Certainly winning a medal was our goal. But as things got going – we tied Sweden late and blew out Czechoslovakia and started getting some momentum – a lot of possibilities came up.Daily: Was there a moment in pool play where you guys sensed that you were onto something?Harrington: Certainly after we played Czechoslovakia, that was a pretty dominant performance against a pretty good team. All of a sudden, against the two toughest teams in our pool, we had three points, a tie and a win. The next teams we knew were teams we could beat if we played anywhere near our potential. At that moment at least we thought, “Hey, we’ve got a chance to go to the medal round, if we don’t slip up here against somebody else.”Daily: What did you go through in those three hours against the Soviet Union?Harrington: It was exciting. It was electric in that building. The momentum and the fan interest and the excitement over our team was growing, it was growing through the two weeks. All of a sudden, here were are in the semifinals. I think it was brought up by people that we had got pounded by (the U.S.S.R) two weeks ago. But, certainly a number of fans sure acted like we had a chance. As the Games went on, Herb convinced us that the Russians were an older team. They had some of the greatest players in the world, but they were getting up in their 30s and he convinced us that we had young legs and that we could skate with these guys. The Soviets had struggled. They had to come from behind to beat Canada and they had to come from behind to beat Finland in round-robin play He had given us a lot of motivation, a lot of ideas why we could win that game. (The Soviets were) terrific. I can’t sit here and tell you we outplayed them. We didn’t out play them. (Goalie) Jim Craig was terrific and we got some timely goals and we won the hockey game. It was unbelievable.Daily: What’s it like when Mike Eruzione scores with 10 minutes left?
Harrington: I think everybody has said when you look at that clock and it was 10 minutes and it seemed to last a lifetime. It’s like the clock wasn’t even moving. You didn’t want to watch. You wanted to concentrate on the game and just keep ticking down, ticking down. Every shift, you had to play like it was your last. I think too as the game wound down to end, they had some good scoring chances, but they kind of up into a bit of a panic mode. There’s always been some speculation, questioning of why they didn’t pull their goalie or anything like that. I’m not sure that was ever in their repertoire to pull a goalie. They probably didn’t have to do that or they just were so confident that they could win this game right to the end. But, it was terrific and it was thrill.Daily: Describe the celebration.Harrington: We were out on the ice, going crazy. You don’t remember. It was real spontaneous. It’s not like, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” It was one of those things where it was unbelievable. I’m sure it’s one of those games now where a 100,000 people will have said they were in the building, but it was exciting.Daily: Did you believe you had beaten the Soviets?Harrington: It was one of those nights when you don’t want to go to bed. You sort of laid there and said, “Did we just win that game? Did we just beat the Soviets?” You just don’t want to fall asleep because you don’t want someone to say that really didn’t happen.Daily: What was the Finland game like and what did Brooks say to you before that?Harrington: You know what he said. You’ve heard what he said. It’s exactly true. (The quote was, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your grave, your (expletive) grave). That was about it. He didn’t have to say much and we knew what was at stake. In the Olympic Games there, we had worked hard throughout the year and he had coached us all year hard and when we got to that point, it was like he didn’t have to say too much. We knew what we had to do. We knew what we could do. We were certainly aware of the fact that if we would lose that game and there was some kind of combination of scoring in the Soviet-Sweden game that we could still finish fourth in the whole thing. It wasn’t like we were guaranteed second place. We could have finished fourth and out of the medals with a combination of goal differential, you know. But, I tell you right after that Russia game, it wasn’t too many minutes after that that Herb reminded us that we hadn’t done anything yet. He brought us back to Earth pretty quick to get us ready for that game Sunday morning.Daily: What was the gold-medal ceremony like?Harrington: It was amazing. To go up and get any medal around your neck, much less a gold would have been a thrill. To have a gold medal and be on the highest step there and have your flag go up higher than anybody else’s and your national anthem, it’s as proud as you can be, representing your country. People ask me how did you feel? You Must have been going crazy. I think the biggest thing was a sense of satisfaction that I had accomplished exactly what I had set out to do as an individual and certainly as a team, we had accomplished what we had wanted to do. We were excited, but I just remember that sense of satisfaction, how hard we had worked to try to attain something and having it happen. It was more than that than anything else.Daily: What do you think of the movie “Miracle?”Harrington: I don’t know. Some people have said that they watched it and said there were great players like Mark Johnson, Neal Broten and Ken Morrow, guys that were certainly our top players along with Jim Craig and that. They really don’t get mentioned. I think they have to find some story lines when they make a movie and they happened to chose some other ones. They wanted it to be a movie not a documentary, where they talked to everybody on the team. It’s pretty accurate. It’s good. They took a few liberties. It’s a movie. It’s Hollywood. They’ll do what they want to do. They’ll put some drama into it. After watching it a second and a third time, I think, I watched it more for the message it had and it’s a great sports movie. It tells a great story about a guy who had a mission and a dream of how we wanted to accomplish something, was committed to it, found a bunch of young guys who were dreamers. “Hey, we can envision this and we can achieve this, if we work hard together.” It shows that it takes a lot of hard work and commitment and not everything’s going to go right all the time, but you persevere. I thought it was pretty good. I saw a sneak preview of it before it opened and then we got out to California. They flew us out there for the premiere. I have to say I haven’t seen it since. I have to watch it again to see what I think of it. I tell people the most inaccurate thing about it is that I played more in the movie than I did in 1980. I got more ice time. That wasn’t realistic. My son plays for the Minnesota Gophers. He’s a senior this year. When he saw it for the first time, he turned around and his first comments were “Dad, you were never on the power play.” I’m like, “Hey thanks, Chris.” I did tell Kurt Russell (who plays Brooks in the movie) out in California that I appreciated his eye for talent because he seemed to want to play me more than Herb did. That probably wasn’t exactly accurate.Daily: You’re coaching at St. John’s. What’s your future?Harrington: I love it at St. John’s. It’s my 13th year this fall. It’s a great place to work. We get great student-athletes to come to school there and we’ve had some success. It’s a great place to work. Our football coach, this will be his 53rd year. Our basketball coach has been there 40 years. There’s a reason those guys stick around. But, I don’t know. Certainly when I started my college-coaching career, I wanted to be a Division I coach. I would assume most assistant coaches aspire to the top of their profession. Pro hockey intrigues me. That would be the top of the profession as far as level of play. Maybe, as far as quality of life and job security, it isn’t. I don’t know. I like what I do. We’re trying to get a rink built at St. John’s and that’s a goal of mine and that would really make that school and that program a gold mine, I think. We’re working on that. If someone else saw what I was doing and became interested in me, whether it be a Division I situation or some other thing in the pros, I certainly would listen, but it doesn’t mean I’d do it. I think as far as pursuing other jobs I think I’m done doing that. I did that for the last 20 years or so and where I’m at is a great place to coach.Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 614 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado
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