Look, that’s really the edifice, that white thing rising behind, but partially occluded by, an adorable gift shop. The harbor of miracles rests just steps across Main Street from the Pickled Pig pub. A sign on the side of the arena warns pedestrians about falling ice. The parking lot behind it nags that it’s for “Lake Placid Central School staff parking,” because really now, Lake Placid Central School sits just across little Cummings Road looking like some Hollywood high school set.
Herb Brooks Arena, so named since 2005 after the late coach of that American hockey team, sits in a snow-globe town way, way off Interstate 87 after the signs cautioning drivers of moose crossing. It’s near a skate shop, a Japanese restaurant, a pizza joint, a Mobil and an American Legion post, along a thick stretch of shops and one-off motels with names like Edelweiss and Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn.
Said Sandy Caligiore, who knows the arena so well, “Well, you know, it’s one big rectangle, more or less.”
Yet even 40 years since the U.S. Olympic hockey team upset-of-all-upset the Soviet Union, 4-3, on Friday, Feb. 22, 1980, then beat Finland, 4-2, for the Olympic gold medal on Sunday, Feb. 24, 1980, that building in all its glorious non-glory still breathes magic through the 2,600-strong town. It still offers its endless relevance in ways both intellectual and visceral, day to day to day, even 14,000-plus days since the Soviets came to Lake Placid 1980 having toyed with NHL clubs as part of preparation, then lost to “a ragtag mélange of peach-fuzz kids and knockaround minor leaguers,” as Leonard Shapiro wrote in The Washington Post, such that defenseman Bill Baker said, “You can’t explain what’s happened here. It just happened.”
Mary Anne Hawley owns There … And Back Again, the gift shop in front of the arena with sassy kitchen gloves beckoning from the windows. “Oh, I think it’s a daily presence,” she said of that Olympic weekend. “Yes, I do think of that all the time.”
“It’s the living history,” said Jon Lundin, the Lake Placid Olympic Center communications director who works a quick walk just a stairwell-and-change from the 1980 Rink, its formal name by now. “When you come here, you can feel it. You can feel the Olympics.”
“I drive by it every day, coming and going,” said Caligiore, who called the deathless games for nearby WNBZ radio. “And it’s always that shrine. Every single time. It’s always that shrine.”
'Seats are the same!'
That peerless Friday 40 years ago, Hawley worked with her husband in their Olympic-apparel shop across Main Street from the arena. “There was an energy and an electricity in the air during that game that I’ve never felt before or since,” she said. “You could literally hear the crowd that was inside the arena, outside the arena.” She said, “Just when we were talking here, I had goose bumps up my back.”
Surely, some days she comes to the shop and thinks about her tasks and doesn’t think about the arena.
But there are no such days.
“Every time,” she said.
For one thing, shoppers bring it up.
Forty years after a mix of geopolitics and intimacy of venue and helpful lack of Twitter that built the enchantment and will never go replicated, this rectangular little winner of fate’s grand raffle keeps busy. It hosts the ECAC men’s college hockey tournament. One could walk into it on the last Sunday in January and see the local Paul Smith’s College women playing Norwich. There are “Miracle On Ice” fantasy camps. It has youth hockey events wherein even the children look wide-eyed, relish their souvenir medals, relish on-ice photos.
Steven Zulli was visiting from Pennsylvania in January with his daughter, who was playing at Herb Brooks Arena with her Delaware Ducks team of 13 boys and two girls. The father strained to explain the magic of the place to Nicola, 10, but he did say, “She’s been playing for a few years now, so she understands what it’s like to be the underdog. She’s played on teams that were underdogs.” In the sainted Locker Room 5 where the U.S. team gathered before it played the Soviets, Ducks Coach Mike Franchetti recited to the youngsters Brooks’s famous pregame speech, parts of which are quoted on T-shirts sold in Main Street shops.
Much else remains unchanged. “Seats are the same!” Lundin said of those durable red, plastic chairs, though “they replaced the scoreboard a couple of years ago to an LED board from a lightbulb style.” The ads ringing the rink have that clunky charm: Northwoods Hotel, Price Chopper grocery store, WSLP 93.3, Ellis coffee (Family Roasted Since 1854!), Paul Smith’s College. Around the top, in white letters with red trim and light-blue backgrounds, are the names of the 20 1980 U.S. Olympic players and two coaches including Brooks and assistant Craig Patrick. It’s the same four-rink facility where Sonja Henie won her figure skating gold medal at the 1932 Olympics. It’s one of those fieldhouses in which one can hear yesteryear through the quiet.
Out on the high concourse, through large windows, the flags of the Olympic nations still flap in their row outdoors. In the distance rule the Adirondacks, but right smack down in the foreground, in front of the high school, lies the track where the Wisconsinite Eric Heiden won five speedskating gold medals and general heartthrob-itude.
The people who see this unprepossessing little arena every day have fanned out and learned how it registers across the country even to the multitudes who have never seen it. “If I’m at a conference,” Lundin said, and he states he’s from Lake Placid, the people, “They’re going to talk to a complete stranger. It’s something that immediately bonds them. It’s incredible. Nothing else has that power.” At a golf course in, say, Florida, Caligiore might find himself grouped with strangers, whose second question always tends to be, “Were you there?”
They were here
He was there, and it was so loud that he and broadcast partner Tom Fisch had to stand almost cheek-to-cheek to hear each other, and they paced as much as they could given the wires, and the game clock did seem slow, and Caligiore’s call — “It’s over! It’s over!” — well, speaking of goose bumps. He and all others can tell you how Main Street felt like Times Square that night, and how people sang, and how that guy took a trumpet to the roof of Arena Grill, which sat where the gift shop now sits, and played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“It’s fascinating to think people like yourself will still come to Lake Placid so they can remember,” Lundin said, and those people do come to the small museum in the facility — entry price: $8 — and the ABC broadcast, tape-delayed as it was at the time, does play in a loop in the corner on a Samsung framed by wood that slightly suggests 1970s paneling. That broadcast reminds that the “M*A*S*H” actor Jamie Farr joined those roaring from the stands, and that back then, TV broadcasts didn’t see the need to display the game clock in perpetuity in the corner of the screen, starting it with 20 seconds left in this case.
That lack lent a certain magic when a 35-year-old Al Michaels in his famed call would have to say, “Two-oh-nine to play in the game,” or, “A minute fifteen,” or “Thirty-eight, thirty-seven seconds left in the game!” Eventually he gets to his, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” and soon, “Unknown, totally anonymous, about a week and a half ago!”
Along a wall opposite, the museum offers small pieces of paper on which visitors can answer the question for which so many know readily the answer: Where were you?
On Main Street as a biathlon and cross-country Olympic volunteer … On 42nd Street in New York at a bar where Xerox employees met … “Outside a TV store on Main Street with hundreds of others” … Skating at age 13 at a rink in Cleveland … “Not born yet” (with sad emoji penciled in) … age 15 in Cincinnati with buddies in a basement with a 32-inch Sony Trinitron … student center at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire … in a living room in Brooklyn with six siblings … a father’s basketball game in Greendale, Wis., where they announced results … in college in Indiana, at a movie that stopped briefly for the announcement of the score … sneaking into the rink in the last period and seeing Mike Eruzione’s winning goal with 10 minutes left … “I was not even alive” … in a dorm room with a bunch of guys at the University of South Carolina … in graduate school in New Jersey, avoiding the score on the radio while watching ABC’s tape-delay … in high school and babysitting … in parents’ den in Pennsylvania with cousins and neighbors before everyone went out in the streets banging pots … At a basketball game because parents said the U.S. couldn’t possibly win … At the game with husband, behind one goal, in the middle section, “waving my flag in disbelief.”
Then when it all ended that Sunday, and Monday morning came, and the Olympics had come and gone from Caligiore’s little town, he stood before the bathroom mirror and suddenly, surprisingly sobbed. He had called radio play-by-play of an event so powerful that people 40 years later would remember it lucidly, so powerful that when Caligiore worked in communications for the Lake Placid Olympic Center from 1999 till 2009, he had himself a ritual.
At the ends of the workdays, he could have reached his car in seconds through a door near his office, or he could take minutes on a roundabout path through the arena to the parking lot. Each and every day, he chose the roundabout.