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Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp a family affair
April 12, 2019

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LAKE PLACID - Mark Strbiak, 51, was sitting on the far end of the bench just before the third period of the gold-medal game at the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp. His team was in the lead.

This is where miracles happen. The other team could come from behind and win the gold, just as the U.S. hockey team did in this arena during the 1980 Winter Olympics when they beat the Soviet Union and then Finland for the gold. Victory wasn't assured for Strbiak and his team. Would they lose, or would they hang on to the lead like the 1980 team did in the last 10 minutes and beat their opponent?

"Great moments are born from great opportunity, and that's what you have here tonight, boys."

Actor Kurt Russell's voice came out of the Olympic Center speakers, his image portraying 1980 head coach Herb Brooks in the 2004 Disney movie "Miracle" shown on the screen of the scoreboard over the ice. This was the speech Brooks gave in the locker room before the Feb. 22, 1980 game against the Soviets.

"That's what you've earned here tonight," Russell continued. "One game. If we played them 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight we skate with them. Tonight we stay with them, and we shut them down because we can. Tonight we are the greatest hockey team in the world."

Some fantasy campers looked up at the screen and watched the speech. Others sat or stood patiently.

"You were born to be hockey players, everyone of you. You were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It's over. I'm sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw 'em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it."

Strbiak's wife, Heather, sat in a red arena seat and cried.

"I remember watching the game with my dad (John Allen), and my dad died four years later (of pancreatic cancer)," Heather said on the ice next to her husband after he won a gold medal with Mike Ramsey's team. "So whenever I'm here, I think about my dad, and I think about how much he would love being here and how much he would love to be a part of it. Every time I see that speech, every time I see these guys, it reminds me of that."

The Strbiaks live in Renton, Washington outside of Seattle. Mark's been to the fantasy camp before.

"It was a good year," Heather said.

"Yeah, it was a good year," Mark added.

"This is his fifth year."

"The best one yet."

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What would Herb Brooks think?

As for Herb Brooks's take on the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp, he's not around to ask. He died in 2003, and the 1980 arena was named after him a couple years later for the 25th anniversary of the Olympics.

1980 player Dave Christian said he thinks Brooks would enjoy the camp.

"He would be here right in the middle of it. He never got tired of growing the game and teaching and talking hockey, and he would do it in any setting. He would have a great time visiting with campers."

1980 player Rob McClanahan, on the other hand, thinks Brooks may not be as cozy with the campers as Christian believes.

"I think he would probably be proud of it," McClanahan said. "I can't say that he would be here, and if he were here, he may be here for a brief appearance."

McClanahan explained that Brooks never wanted the limelight.

"Herbie never shook our hands after we won the gold medal. He walked out. We won the game against the Finns, Herbie walked off the bench. We beat the Soviets, Herbie walked off the bench. That just wasn't his MO, it wasn't his makeup. ... Everything that he did was for a reason. He had a purpose for everything he did. ... He wasn't comfortable really in a public forum."

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"Miracle" family grows bigger every year

There was a lot of talk about "family" during the MOI Fantasy Camp this year, held from March 31 to April 3. Not just family members attending the camp together - like the three father-and-son duos, Matt and Warren Ikawa, Jim and Michael Flanagan and Ed and Roger Brandt - but the family of 1980 players and now the growing fantasy camp family, which includes players and campers.

"We try to think of every single little detail with this camp," said fantasy camp co-director Katie Million, "but one of the things that we could never plan for was the friendships and camaraderie that came out of this camp. These guys, besides this camp, now they get together around the country in different locations just so that the campers can see each other."

There have also been a number of friendships that have formed between campers and 1980 players.

"Actually, John Harrington and I have become pretty good friends because we share the same birth date, May 24th, though he's 10 years younger than I am," said 71-year-old Stanley Rumbough of Greenwich, Connecticut. "So we call each other on the birthday, and he called when he found out that my mother had passed."

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The Flanagans

Jim Flanagan, 58, of Lloyd Harbor, New York, on the north shore of Long Island, is a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, a multinational professional services network. He's been playing hockey since he was a kid, mostly street hockey, and started playing ice hockey when he was in junior high school. Then he played club hockey during and after college.

His son, 23-year-old Michael, recently graduated from Marist College with degrees in psychology and criminal justice. He started playing ice hockey as a high school senior six years ago and played deck and road hockey when he was younger.

So why the fantasy camp?

"Michael had graduated and this time next year he might be working somewhere, so it was a great opportunity for the two of us to kind of connect and do something as father and son," Jim said. "Hopefully we'll still be able to do it for years to come. It's so much fun to be able to do something that I remember as a kid, and Michael has obviously heard about it over the years but wasn't alive when it happened in 1980."

Born in 1960, Jim was in college at the time of the 1980 Winter Olympics, age 19 going on 20. He's about the same age as some of the 1980 players.

"I was actually working in a shoe store on Long Island at Thom McAn when the game was being played," Jim said. "I remember them announcing it at the mall. There was no internet. You couldn't check your phone. ... So we were just listening to it on the radio and making announcements at the end of the periods in the mall."

While Jim lived through that era, Michael had to learn about the Miracle on Ice the way most young people do today.

"I feel like I learned most of it from the Disney movie," Michael said, adding that he's learned even more through firsthand accounts from the 1980 players. "I love their stories. You really hear it in-depth, and it seems much more personal than the Disney movie did."

Coming into camp, Jim's expectations weren't lofty. He had no dreams of winning a gold medal. He actually won a bronze with Bill Baker's Dirty Dozen.

"My expectations were just to meet the guys and have a great time," Jim said. "That's what is fun about it. We're here to play hockey, but we're not playing NHL or Olympic hockey. We're a bunch of guys that love the game and want to just get to know the guys and learn and hear the stories."

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Fantasy camp

The 5th annual Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp team draft was almost over at the Crowne Plaza Resort. It was time for No. 40 out of 45. 1980 player John Harrington made the announcement.

"We're here looking for somebody that was good in the dressing room, good on the bench and good on the ice ... and nobody had any of those qualities left, so we ended up with this guy ... Paul Pelowski."

The crowd applauded, but there was no Paul Pelowski. Instead, an older gentleman approached the stage.

"My name is Rick Pelowski," Paul's father said, walking onto the stage. "Paul had to go to someplace very urgently - the bathroom."

There was laughter, then clapping.

"Do you want me to run and get him?" someone said.

"No," Rick said. "You don't want to go in there."

More laughter. Paul walked into the room. More applause.

"You guys are too slow. Sorry," Paul said. Then he reached out to shake someone's hand. "Thank you sir."

"Did you wash your hands?" another person asked.

This is the kind of fun campers and 1980 players have at the MOI Fantasy Camp. Some stories we can tell. Others we can't. Either way, it's a treat for all involved.

"We love the fact that they want to come here and skate and compete in this environment," Christian said. "We owe this camp to the campers that come back and those first-time campers who want to experience Lake Placid. What a great little community."

Christian said he likes the camaraderie the most.

"The camaraderie with the guys, the teammates, and the camaraderie with all the campers. ... Until they kick me out and tell me I can't come back, I'm coming every year."

The first MOI Fantasy Camp was held in 2015 shortly after the team's 35th anniversary reunion at Lake Placid's Olympic Center. In all, 45 campers attended this year - down from 64 last year - from Sunday to Wednesday. All games were played Tuesday and Wednesday at the 1980 Rink in the Herb Brooks Arena.

Thirteen of the 19 surviving members of 1980 hockey team participated in the camp this year: Bill Baker, Neal Broten, Dave Christian, Mike Eruzione, John Harrington, Steve Janaszak, Mark Johnson, Rob McClanahan, Ken Morrow, Mike Ramsey, Buzz Schneider, Eric Strobel and Mark Wells.

Living teammates who did not attend were Steve Christoff, Jim Craig, Jack O'Callahan, Mark Pavelich, Dave Silk and Phil Verchota. Defenseman Bob Suter died of a heart attack in September 2014, and his jersey was retired to the Olympic Center rafters at the beginning of the 35th anniversary reunion in February 2015.

In addition, three other non-players from the 1980 team were in attendance during this year's camp: assistant coach Craig Patrick, team doctor George Nagobads and head athletic trainer Gary "Smitty" Smith.

The co-directors of the camp again were state Olympic Regional Development Authority Events Director Jeff Potter and former ORDA employee Katie Million, who traveled from Minnesota, where she is currently the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's vice president and Women's League commissioner. She was recently named director of women's national team programs for USA Hockey and begins that job May 1.

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One season in three days

For the most part, the fantasy camp is treated like a real professional hockey season, only boiled down to three days of intensity.

Campers skated on the Olympic Center ice Monday morning so members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team could evaluate their skills. The Olympians then conducted a draft Monday afternoon, selecting players to fill four teams: Red, White, Blue and Gold. After the teams were filled, had their team meetings, and named their teams, the players participated in practice time on the ice.

Team Red was coached by Bill Baker and Steve Janaszak. Team White was coached by Ken Morrow, Rob McClanahan and Buzz Schneider. Team Blue was coached by Mike Eruzione, Mark Johnson and Neal Broten. Team Gold was coached by Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian and John Harrington.

Teams played three games each, Tuesday morning and afternoon and Wednesday morning, before moving on to either the Bronze Game or the Gold Game Wednesday afternoon. Team Gold won the gold, Team White won the silver, and Team Red won the bronze. A medal ceremony was held afterward before the official fantasy camp photo was taken on the ice.

How much does it cost to be a part of the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp family? After the early-bird prices increased in September 2018, the costs were $5,795 for goalies returning or referred by family and friends, $6,295 for forward/defense campers returning or referred, $6,295 for new goalies and $6,795 for new forward/defense campers. Guests of campers were charged $1,295.

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