The Miracle's "That Guy"
Monday, 02.15.2010 / 10:20 PM / Minnesota Wild | The Road to Vancouver
By Todd Smith - Special to Wild.com
Right after Mike Eruzione scores the go-ahead goal, the camera cuts to the Team USA bench, and standing there with the thick-rimmed glasses and a raised white towel is Gary Smith, screaming along with thousands at what he just witnessed.
But "Smitty" witnessed a lot more than that shining moment in our nation's history, and he shared more of his stories with his son, Todd Smith, for a special Wild.com Olympic feature.
On the eve of the 30th anniversary of Team USA’s monumental victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics, Gary “Smitty” Smith stands as one of the few men who witnessed the ‘Miracle on Ice’ from behind the scenes. “Smitty” was the head athletic trainer for the American team, and was entrenched for the entire year at the end of the bench and inside the locker room. He carries with him an anthology of unique stories about the American players that capture what life was truly like for the team as they drudged along that lonely and strange road to Lake Placid.
One of the many things “Smitty” will tell you about the ‘Miracle on Ice’ is that it was more than one stunning victory over the Soviet Union. The entire year, in fact, was peppered with tiny inexplicable moments; daily miracles that seemed to build on each other, gain momentum and created a team of destiny: surviving a near plane crash in northern Minnesota, an on-ice team mutiny in Norway, and the unrelenting mind games of coach Herb Brooks. The way “Smitty” tells it, the true miracle was just surviving the road to get to Lake Placid.
“Before there was any gold medal glory,” he said recently, “Our team had played in nearly 60 exhibition games, 40 of which were on the road. We were usually so far off the map, so far from the Olympics, that I often wondered where we were.”
“There was one night when I woke up near the Arctic Circle on a rickety old bus. We were way up by the northern border of Russia and Finland. I was sitting next to Mark Pavelich, who was strumming a guitar. We both looked out the window and saw these huge Russian machine gun towers pointed directly at us. Barbed wire was strung all across these beautiful trees. We weren’t thinking about gold medals at the time. We were just hoping that the bus didn’t break down.”
By the time the team landed in Lake Placid, they had criss-crossed the globe, experiencing one revelation after another.
“There was this one time,” Smitty said, “When we were playing this lower rung Soviet B squad in a meaningless exhibition game. The Soviets had a shady-looking KGB man on their bench. He was there to make sure the players wouldn’t defect. The Russians thought so little of our American team that they let the KGB guy play a few shifts. The KGB guy got hit into the boards, his jersey rode up, and I saw a pistol in his pads! Hockey is a tough sport, but our boys from Minnesota hadn’t seen anyone like that before.”
The pistol packing KGB man was just one sign to Smitty that the team had clearly ventured into unchartered territory. From the very beginning, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) offered virtually no support to the hockey team. They would only check in every couple of weeks, but it was usually just to tell the team the exact figures they were costing the organization. They even put a limit on the number of sodas (two) the players could have with dinner when the team travelled in Europe.
On one unforgettable night, the USOC demanded that the team travel to Warroad, Minnesota during a massive blizzard to play an exhibition game. After the game, the plane couldn’t take off because there was too much weight on the plane and the runway was too short. The plane flew without the equipment to Thief River Falls, where the airport had a longer runway. “Smitty” had to drive the equipment to Thief River in a blizzard, and then load up the plane. As the plane was taking off it clipped a pole and the pilot had to land at the end of the runway. But the plane couldn’t go in reverse, so all the players got off the plane and had to push it back to the start of the runway.
“These were our country’s finest athletes and they were out there in penny loafers, pushing a plane in a blizzard,” Smitty quipped.
Herb Brooks eventually took the reins and steered the team through an epic slog of games across North America and Europe.
“We played in po-dunk towns all over the place,” Smith regaled, “We played one exhibition game in an old cattle ground that reeked of manure. The opposing coach had been banned for a short while because of a stick swinging incident and he decided to wear a tuxedo to the game to help class the place up. It was a real bare-knuckle kinda game. Our guys started dropping like flies. I was actually praying on the bench that our team would make it out alive.”
And it was “Smitty’s” sole job to make sure the team stayed alive. That wasn’t always easy under Brooks’ brutal conditioning regime. “Herbie” routinely punished the team with not only skating drills, but tyrannical mind games as well. Brooks crossed the threshold of sanity, though, when he skated the team immediately following a game in Norway after the Americans had delivered a lackluster performance.
“There were fans left over in the Norway arena when Brooks whistled the players to the goal line,” Smith said, shaking his head in disbelief. “As the guys skated, the fans began to applaud because they thought it was some sort of Disney On Ice skating display. Then, one of the players puked and the fans left.”
It was “Smitty” who had the unenviable task of bravely walking across the ice to tell Brooks that the rink manager was going to shut off the lights because he wanted to lock up for the night. Herb gave “Smitty” a steely look and snapped, “Smitty, get me the (expletive) keys. I’ll lock up!”
“Smitty” cornered the rink manager in a dank hallway and had to ask the man for his work keys. The Norwegian ice rink manager didn’t speak a word of English, so “Smitty” gave the man a nonverbal charades version of “Can I have your keys?” The rink manager promptly turned off the lights.
Meanwhile, Brooks kept skating the team. Then in a fit of rage, normally mild mannered Mark Johnson broke his stick on the glass in protest. Brooks blew the whistle and the session was over. “Smitty” sat on the bench with water and towels for the players. He knew at that moment, when Johnson snapped, it changed the whole direction of the team. For the very first time, the players skated to the bench in unison.
The battle tested rapport between the legendary coach and trainer began at the University of Minnesota where both men worked for the Golden Gopher hockey team. After Brooks got the nod to coach the 1980 Olympic team, the USOC told him they had assigned a team trainer.
“No thanks. I already got a trainer,” Brooks replied. “His name’s Gary Smith.”
During their three years at Minnesota and the Olympics, “Smitty” saw a softer side of Brooks that was almost never made public. To his players and the media, Brooks was for the most part a real you-know-what. But behind closed doors, Brooks was something else entirely.
“He was a villain on purpose,” Smitty said. “But in the training room, when everyone was gone, he would come back and confide in me. In the wee hours, I’d still be working and he’d bring me hot food. Then he would tell me how all he really wanted to do was take the team down to the bar for a few beers. He wanted to tell all of the players how proud he was to be coaching them. But he never could do it. He had to be the one guy that they all hated. And that is why he called it the loneliest year of his life.”
A week before the Olympics, the players hit a major pothole that nearly derailed the entire team off their road to Lake Placid. At that moment, “Smitty” walked the tightrope of Brooks’ volatile temperament to try and steer the ship back on course.
“It was days before the Olympics and we played the Russians in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden,” Smitty said. “It was to be our last official tune up before the Games. A measuring stick on how we were going to do when the games counted. We got killed, 10-3. They scored goals on us in ways that we had never seen before. The whole bench was in the dumps and Herb was fuming. Halfway through the third period, I walked down the length of the bench and sarcastically whispered in Herb’s ear, ‘We got no shot against these guys.’
Herb paused in shock. Then he chuckled, leaned in real close, and said, ‘No (expletive).’ And then he winked at me like he already had something cooking in his brain.”
"Smitty’s" proudest moment as an athletic trainer happened during the monumental game against the Soviets. He had survived the perils of a year on the road just to get to the Olympics. And right before his eyes, he watched the young American squad take it to the Russians. He could feel the magic swelling in the building. As he calmly stood in the epicenter of pandemonium, Smitty performed his own tiny miracle inside the larger Miracle unfolding on the ice.
“During the game against the Russians, we were almost done killing a penalty. But a few seconds remained. Neal Broten jumped over the boards too soon. A referee looked over and was about to call us for too many men on the ice. I reached out, grabbed Broten by the jersey collar and hauled him into the bench. I saved us from having to stare down the most awesome power play in the world for two more minutes. It could’ve changed the whole game. It could have changed the whole Olympics. Herb saw me do it, walked down the bench, and said, ‘Way to stay in the game Smitty’.”
The highlight of Mike Eruzione scoring the game winner and tap dancing on the ice in jubilee will forever be burned into our sports conscience. But take a closer look and you’ll see Smitty, too. The television camera cuts to the American bench and “Smitty” is that guy in the blue jacket, standing on the bench that was just vacated by a celebrating squad (in those days, the whole team left the bench to celebrate a goal), shaking a clenched fist and waving a white towel.
Usually, we’ll only notice a team’s athletic trainer when something terribly wrong has occurred on the field of play. A blown out knee or blood on the ice will draw the trainer out from the shadows of the sideline and into the white-hot glare of the stadium lights. But for this one golden moment in America’s sporting history, a moment made up of many tiny miracles that built a giant Miracle on Ice, we see a trainer because of something magical.
There was “Smitty,” a working class trainer from Waterloo, Iowa and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, shaking his fist in defiance of the Russian superiority. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the United States victory over the Soviets, a nation thanks Gary Smith for keeping the team alive while on that lonely and strange road to Lake Placid.
More importantly, we can thank “Smitty” for “keeping your head in the game.”