Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I'm a guest star on another blog

My new friend Dan Cote started a great Facebook fan page for the Minnesota North Stars. He's also created fan pages for just about every former North Star you can imagine (Dwight Bialowas? Moose Vasko???).

As part of that he started a blog, North Star Green Preservation Society. A few weeks ago he asked me to share some of my North Stars memories, which I finally got around to today. I have tons of memories, including one I've already shared here.

So if you get a chance, please head on over to Dan's blog to check out what I had to write. And don't be shy about telling him you want to share your own stories. That's what he's looking for.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Miracle turns 30

It was a Friday evening in late February, and my dream of being a famous goalie remained alive as I skated through hockey practice on my neighborhood rink in Woodland.

The sky above Duluth, Minn., was just beginning to fade into night when our assistant coach came racing out of the warming shack, yelling his head off. He ran to tell us what he had just heard, "We beat the Russians!"

That was Feb. 22, 1980, and I'm sure many people remember exactly where they were when they heard Team USA had defeated the powerful Soviet hockey machine in the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

Some people mistakenly remember watching the game live. But it was shown on tape delay, the telecast starting about an hour after the game ended. I watched it in our family room, sitting about four inches from the screen the entire time.

I screamed when Mike Eruzione scored the eventual game-winner, and leaped from my seat as the final seconds ticked down, even though I already knew the result. I'm sure I stared in disbelief while watching the celebration because I still do it now when I see it replayed.

There are other seminal historical moments marking my lifetime. Nixon leaving the White House (home with my mom). The space shuttle Challenger disaster (in senior hall at Cathedral High School). The 9/11 attacks (in bed in Killeen, Texas).

Those were all negative events. The Miracle on Ice is different. It's one of the few positive moments that will always stick with me and so many other Americans. So on the 30-year anniversary of the greatest game in U.S. sports history, I thought I'd rehash where I was that incredible night.

As an added bonus, I'm also including a column I wrote for the Naperville Sun, which ran Feb. 22, 2005, on the 25th anniversary of the Miracle. Days earlier I had run into former Olympian Ken Morrow and was fortunate enough to get a short interview with him. I turned it into the following column.

There can be only one Miracle

Naperville Sun, The (IL) - Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Author: Paul LaTour

His hair is thinning and more of his forehead is showing because of it. His grizzly beard -- the one Disney inexplicably sheared off -- has been traded for a more clean-shaven look.

Otherwise Ken Morrow looks about the same as he did when he played for the one hockey team no American will ever forget: the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" when the United States upset the Soviets, 4-3, at Lake Placid, N.Y. Morrow, a defenseman, was on the ice as the clock ran out and Al Michaels uttered the unforgettable line, "Do you believe in miracles?"

Morrow was soon joined by the entire team on the ice, a swarming mass of overjoyed, exuberant players who could hardly believe what they had accomplished. Two days later, they won the gold medal with a come-from-behind win over Finland.

Most of the players will unite again today in Lake Placid for festivities honoring the 1980 U.S. Winter Olympians. Mike Eruzione, the team captain who scored the game-winning goal against the Soviets, will be there.

Morrow will be there, too. Sadly, Herb Brooks will not be.

Brooks , the U.S. coach and chief architect, was killed in a car accident Aug. 18, 2003. Brooks never saw Disney's adaptation, "Miracle," in which actor Kurt Russell gave a dead-on portrayal of him.

Although Brooks will be missing, Morrow wasn't sure his coach would have come to today's reunion anyway.

"He never really was at any of the other ones," Morrow said. "He was like that as a coach. He stayed away from the players."

Even on that glorious February night in 1980, Brooks let the players celebrate on the ice while he quietly slipped into the shadows, away from the cameras, away from the attention.

The movie, released last February, brought back a flood of attention. Morrow had nothing but praise for the film, even though some of the technical aspects were slightly askew.

One thing in particular caught Morrow's attention.

"I didn't have a beard (in the movie), that was the thing I noticed right away," Morrow said. "But with all the defining moments, they were right on the mark. They did a great job with that."

Of all the members on that team, Morrow can be considered the most fortunate in terms of hockey success. He went from a gold medal to a Stanley Cup championship with the New York Islanders in less than four months.

His championship run continued for three more years as the Islanders won four straight Cups. As rewarding as those titles must have been, beating the Russians still tops his list of accomplishments.

"It's a moment that's stood the test of time and, if anything, is gaining in stature," Morrow said. "People still want to talk about it 25 years later."

People like me, who happened to spot Morrow in the Allstate Arena press box earlier this month. Morrow, now a scout for the Islanders, was watching the Chicago Wolves play the Houston Aeros on Feb. 12.

He comes through this way quite often, actually, and not always on business. His wife's sister lives in Wheaton.

Morrow is still a recognizable figure, even without the beard. A cluster of fans stood ready to greet him between periods in the walkway behind the press box. Included in the group of autograph seekers was a man wearing a 1980 U.S. replica jersey with the No. 80 on the back.

The scene brought back memories of just how meaningful hockey once was in this country. Today, as the Olympians reunite in Lake Placid, hockey could not be on shakier ground. Talk of salary caps, lockouts and canceled seasons dominate conversations.

It is more than a little ironic, then, that a hockey game is considered by many -- myself included -- as the greatest sports moment in U.S. history.

While Morrow talked about the NHL lockout, which had not yet resulted in the cancellation of the season, he joked that if the NHL resumed play this season it would be another Miracle on Ice.

He's wrong, though. There can never be another.

Copyright, 2005, The Naperville Sun. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mr. Zero remains my favorite Blackhawk

Somewhere buried in a box stacked in a downstairs closet, a cardboard tribute to my ex-idol sits untouched for years. It's a Tony Esposito hockey card, a ragged-edged memento of my youth.

I always wanted to be a goalie. But not just any goalie – I wanted to be Tony Esposito. Thanks to that card, which I got when I was around 5 or 6, I noticed he held his goalie stick in the same hand I did – the left.

That was pretty uncommon then. So uncommon the community rink I played for in the late '70s (Woodland) didn’t even have a left-handed blocker pad. So I had to use a regular hockey glove to hold my stick. The catcher glove for my right was this mangled piece of leather that could barely be opened and closed. Thankfully, I played for a great team and wasn’t called upon to make many saves. But man, would my feet get cold standing back in the crease for what seemed like hours at a time.

I watched Espo on TV and saw how he would scrape the snow from his crease and pile it up on the sides of the net, creating a nice inhibitor to the wraparound. I would do the same thing, sometimes piling it so high a puck would get lost in it on those rare times the puck came that close to my net.

I carried Espo’s hockey card around with me all the time. The bottom became pretty tattered because I used it to play marble hockey on the upstairs hallway floor of my parents’ house. All my hockey cards bear the marks of those games, but especially Espo’s, which also had a piece of Scotch tape holding it together after it got torn in half.

Esposito played for the Chicago Blackhawks, a team I came to despise as I got older. Living in northern Minnesota, we were all North Stars fans. And the Blackhawks were our No. 1 rival, at least in the late '70s and '80s.

It was a classic rivalry, highlighted by the battles between Dino Ciccarrelli and Al Secord. So hated was Secord that North Stars fans still cheered “Secord sucks” when the Hawks were in town long after he retired. I've posted YouTube videos of the bench-clearing brawls that punctuated the teams' meetings.

Tonight the Blackhawks are honoring Esposito, as they have with many of their former superstars in the past couple of seasons. I've converted to the Dark Side by cheering for the Hawks now, but I turned away when Bob Probert, Denis Savard and Steve Larmer were given their Heritage Night honors.

It's different with Esposito, even though he played on some of those teams I hated. When he was toward the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career we used to heckle him through the TV. He had a habit of going down for a puck and then just staying on the ice. We laughed and said he was too old to get back up to his feet, or that the Chicago Stadium needed to install a crane to help him.

But I always had a hard time getting into the jeering. I wanted to fit in with my older brothers and their friends, so I pretended I also hated Esposito. Yet, deep down he remained one of my all-time favorite goalies, second only to Cesare Maniago of the North Stars.

So later today I will go digging for my old Espo playing card, the one with a 35-year-old piece of Scotch tape holding it together.* I will scour the Internet looking for articles about Esposito like this one from ex-Tribune writer Bob Verdi.

And I will watch on TV as the Hawks honor the goalie I emulated above all others. Maybe I'll even pile snow on either side of my recliner, you know, just to capture the spirit of the thing.

* -- UPDATE: I found the card, and it turns out I was confused. My Ken Dryden card from the same year is the taped-up one. The Esposito one is in one piece, though the edges are pretty ragged.