Enjoyed being interviewed by Yankee magazine’s Kristina M. Dodge. Posted with permission of New York Yankees Partnership. ©Yankees Magazine.
All rights reserved.
As goaltender of the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team, Jim Craig contributed to one of the biggest upsets in sports history — America’s 4-3 victory over a Soviet Union team that had dominated the Olympic stage for decades. The win cleared the way for the United States’ goldmedal triumph over Finland. After the Olympics, Craig went on to a brief career in the NHL, playing for Atlanta, Boston and Minnesota, but never recapturing the magic from Lake Placid. Today, he owns a motivational speaking and sales training company; has written a book, Gold Medal Strategies; and works with sports psychologists on resiliency. In August, Craig took a timeout at Yankee Stadium to talk to Yankees Magazine deputy editor Kristina M. Dodge.
YANKEES MAGAZINE: The executive director of USA Hockey Dave Ogrean described the United States Olympic hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union as “the most transcending moment in the history” of the sport. How has the accomplishment shaped your life?
JIM CRAIG: It’s kind of amazing because throughout the years, you learn so much more as you get older on what it meant to not only one generation, but different generations, and so I think what it’s done is provided a great platform for a number of different things — not only work, but a way to go and explore the world, to do some really good things with charities.
YM: What did it mean to you then, when you were in your 20s, versus now?
JC: In life, you work really hard at a dream and a goal, and then you make a lot of sacrifices to get there. But when you get older, you realize that you really didn’t do any of the sacrificing. It was really everybody else, and you really took advantage of the opportunity. I’m proud that I took advantage of that opportunity. I was with a great group of guys who committed to something that nobody else believed in, so that was really, really special. As I get older, I find different ways to make that moment special for a lot of different people.
YM: As far as different people, are you referring to different generations?
JC: Not only different generations, but somebody who might be dying of cancer, or somebody who is down on his luck, or somebody who needs some inspiration. The movie Miracle and what our team did has inspired so many different people. The moment in time when I was looking for my father after our victory over Finland, I’ve seen so many men feel good about giving their dad a hug and kiss and feeling good about that relationship. So I think there’s a lot of things that have transcended since then that have been very positive.
YM: Leading into the Olympics, you played the Soviet team in an exhibition game and lost 10-3. How did that outcome shape what followed?
JC: I think coach Herb Brooks set it up really interestingly. He didn’t want to play the game — at least that’s what he told us. I had an injury, and I only played a period and a half, and it was kind of like, “OK, just come and warm up” — like an exhibition game. But I think it was Herb’s intention all along, to have us play against them, get that out of the way in case we ever played them again, and I think all of my teammates had been used to winning and knew what it took to win and so it was a very personal loss. I mean 10-3 — it wasn’t even that close. That’s an incredible hockey team, so playing that game was probably the best thing that could happen to us.
YM: How much more did you find that you needed to improve?
JC: Anytime you go out there and can see some great players, you learn that you have to practice at other aspects of your game because these players are so good. I tell young kids today, if you watch a high school practice and you’re a goalie, they’ll attempt 500 shots, for example. The players will probably hit the net 100 times. And then you’ll go to a really good college team, and they’ll take 500 shots in practice, and they might hit the net 300 times. But when you play against professionals and they take 500 shots, they hit the net 500 times. The level of competition and expectation, and your conditioning, your mental skill, increases incredibly.
YM: It was a much different political climate in 1980. Did this dawn on you and your teammates during that game against the Soviets?
JC: Seven of us had played in the world championships in Moscow in 1979. We saw the Cold War firsthand; we saw the nervousness of when we landed and getting taken off the airplane on the tarmac with a bus with machine guns. So we knew of it. But the respect we have as athletes for other athletes was just tremendous. If a great player is a great player, I don’t care if he’s Russian; I don’t care if he’s Swedish. It’s a person. Nobody has any color. They’re just people. And you like them for what they are. YM: Did you feel the weight of Americans’ hopes? JC: You always do. When you walk in the locker room and, all of a sudden, you see all these uniforms hanging up and the logo on the front is USA and it has your name on it, that’s an incredible responsibility — and pride. Because everybody is rooting for you. This isn’t a Boston fan hoping the Red Sox win or a Yankees fan hoping the Yankees win. This is a fan of your country. We were in a very fragile state.
YM: So the United States has the Miracle on Ice; the Canadians have the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets. Is sport still capable of creating those iconic international moments?
JC: I think what happens is you are what you believe; you are what your goals are. So someone out there is having a dream and is going to be an underdog. So I think these moments — these dreams — haven’t even been dreamt yet by some people, and they’ll create and do things that nobody thought was possible.
YM: One of the most iconic images of the team’s win over Finland is you draped in the American flag searching for your father in the crowd. What was the urgency for you to connect with him?
JC: Well, first of all, my father, in his late 40s, had a massive heart attack, and so he used to be right behind the goal for me, and then ABC moved his seat to a different spot for the broadcast, which I didn’t know about. So I’m thinking, “We won 4-3. He was probably really nervous. I hope he didn’t have a heart attack.” Mark Johnson’s fiancée was able to find him for me. But my reason for looking for my father was that my mother had passed away of cancer, and to do something that important in your life and knowing how much a part of it she had been for so long, it becomes really important to appreciate the fact that I knew my father was thinking the same thing at the same time. It was really a moment of, “She was the one who got up real early; my father was the one working.” That’s the personal sacrifice part. A lot of athletes think it’s about them: “I got up. I worked out. I didn’t do this.” And they have no idea they’ve been given this opportunity from other people’s sacrifice, and I knew that. It was a show of appreciation.
YM: Going into the game, the U.S. team was the underdog. What was the biggest misconception about that team?
JC: I don’t think they realized how good we were and how well coached we were. Herb always said that nobody worked hard enough to beat the Russians, and we would. And it was about conditioning. I think the misconception was it was lucky. It wasn’t lucky. It was not probable, but it wasn’t lucky. Lucky would have been people on the other team making all kinds of mistakes. They didn’t. We worked hard. We were smarter. We were better coached. That particular night, we were a better team.
YM: How does Coach Brooks compare to other coaches you had?
JC: Some coaches are really good at preparation, and some coaches are really good at bench-coaching, but Herb was great at both, and not only that, whatever worked, he didn’t just always try to do the same thing. He was very innovative, and he had the ability to pull greatness out of his players — all of his players. A lot of coaches have the ability to identify somebody who’s really good and identify somebody who’s not really good, and I think a lot of coaches can watch film and identify the mistake. But when you had Herb, he corrected it. He figured it out. He made every player better, every single day, and he made them feel good about what they were doing.
YM: Do any “Brookisms” pepper the motivational speeches you give now?
JC: He’s been a tremendous influence on me. Herb never asked anybody to do anything that he wouldn’t have done. I love the Steve Christoff line: “Christoff, you’re getting worse every day, and today, you’re playing like it’s next month.” You can appreciate Herb being able to pick the right guy he could do that to. He had his players that he could lean on. I was one of them. Jack O’Callahan was one of them. He really knew what he was doing. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.