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St. Pete’s Jim Craig, Olympic hero, on the anniversary of the ‘Miracle on Ice’

Mark Parker

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As a goalie for the U.S. hockey team during the "Miracle on Ice," Jim Craig recorded 36 saves out of 39 Soviet attempts. Pictured: Eddie Cahill as Craig in the 2004 movie "Miracle." Craig served as a consultant for the film he called "terrific." Photo provided.

What many people consider one of the most memorable moments in American Olympic history – and all of sports for that matter – occurred 42 years ago today, and a St. Petersburg resident was at the center of the “miracle.”

On Feb. 22, 1980, the U.S. men’s hockey team pulled off an upset against the Soviet Union so stunning it became known as the “Miracle on Ice.” At the time, the Soviet Union had won five of the last six gold medals in the event, and the team was heavily favored to win it all again at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

Many considered Jim Craig, just 22 at the time, the MVP of the Miracle on Ice for his 36 saves on 39 shots from the vaunted Soviet offense. Craig, now a motivational speaker and resident of St. Pete, told the Catalyst that the team focused on the journey along the way rather than a potential showdown with the Soviet juggernaut.

“We took each game one at a time,” said Craig. “When it was time to play them, we were prepared to win.”

Craig noted that just because the team prepared to win did not guarantee victory. He said winning requires execution, and he and his teammates “did just that.” Craig said the American squad’s coach, Herb Brooks, changed how the team trained and played. After 61 games together and under Brooks’ tutelage, Craig said the team’s improvement became evident.

The Soviet team was comprised primarily of professional athletes battle-tested in international play. The U.S. team consisted of hungry amateurs looking to make a name for themselves, and at an average age of 21, it became the youngest U.S. Olympic team in history. Not only did the Soviets beat the NHL All-Stars the year before, but in the last exhibition match before the start of the Olympics, the Soviets crushed their American counterparts 10-3 at Madison Square Garden.

The Americans just reaching the medal round was a surprise, and they drew the Soviets in the first game. After going down 3-2 to the Soviets in the second period, the Americans scored two goals in the final to secure a 4-3 victory. Two days later, the Americans defeated Finland to take the gold. The upset earned its nickname, in part, due to Al Michaels’ famous call in the closing seconds of the game.

“Do you believe in miracles,” asked Michaels on ABC’s live broadcast. “YES!”

Craig described his role on the team as a coach on the ice. He often tells people that when a goalie makes a mistake a big red light goes off, and the mistake is displayed on the scoreboard. He said his focus was just keeping the team in the game for as long as possible.

Craig said the team had dreams of playing in the National Hockey League and a responsibility to represent the United States to the best of their ability.

“When you combine those, and you put them together, and you do something that nobody thinks is possible except for your coaches and your teammates,” said Craig. “Especially with the climate of what was going on between the countries – it was incredibly powerful.”

The Miracle on Ice occurred at the height of the decades-old Cold War. In protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan just two months before the Winter Olympics, President Jimmy Carter announced he was considering a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Carter eventually decided in favor of the boycott.

In addition to fears stemming from the Cold War, America went through an energy crisis in 1979 that resulted in gas lines and several states rationing fuel. The U.S. was also embroiled in the Iran hostage crisis during the 1980 Winter Olympics. Craig said the Olympics and sports represent human emotion, and the country generally felt like an underdog and vulnerable at the time.

“For us – as a bunch of American college kids – to beat the best hockey team in the world, I think it gave a lot of Americans hope that the future is going to be brighter,” said Craig. “It also set the path for a lot of American hockey players and women to get involved in the sport.”

Craig said that 42 years later, he still gets reminded every day of how impactful that moment was to several generations of Americans. He called it a moment in time that “will be hard to duplicate.”

Hollywood has tried to capture that moment, first through a made-for-TV movie in 1981, followed by an HBO documentary in 2001. In 2004, Walt Disney Pictures released Miracle, starring Kurt Russell as Brooks. Upon release Miracle was dedicated to Brooks, as the coach died during filming.

“The movie Miracle was terrific,” said Craig. “Five of us were able to be consultants for it, and Disney did a great job to provide a different generation with a really good sense of what my teammates and I were able to accomplish.”

In 1999, Sports Illustrated named the Miracle on Ice its top sports moment of the entire 20th century. Craig credited “tremendous life lessons” for the moment’s staying power. He said chief among those life lessons is the power of remaining positive in the face of adversity.

After the Olympics, Craig would achieve his dream of playing in the NHL. He played professionally for the Atlanta Flames, Boston Bruins and Minnesota North Stars from 1980-1983 but said an injury cut his career short.

Craig said the Miracle on Ice changed his life in ways he could have never imagined. He called the years after a great journey with many different chapters, and he’s thankful he can now give back, motivate and inspire people through his Gold Medal Strategies (GMS) consulting company. According to its website, GMS is a “boutique motivational speaking and relationship-based consulting company” that takes a “family-first” approach to organizational and team development.

Jim Craig was the goalie for the 1980 Winter Olympics U.S. hockey team that defeated the Soviet Union and went on to win the gold medal. Photo provided.

“When I created Gold Medal Strategies, I wanted to set a standard of what I would have to do as a company,” said Craig. “Today, what I would like to do, is take all the failures that I’ve had, and explain to people that failure isn’t fatal. But being afraid to (fail) is.

“You learn more from failure sometimes than you do from successes.”

Craig now travels the country speaking and consulting, but the Massachusetts-born Olympic hero calls St. Pete home.

He said his sister moved to the area years ago, and he fell in love with the Gulf Coast during frequent trips to visit. While Craig is an avid boater and angler, he is also fond of the people on the west coast, calling them “special.” Craig mentioned the region as an ideal place for sports fans, with the Bucs, Rays, and especially the NHL’s Lightning achieving great success.

While he grew up learning that Florida was where people moved when they got old, Craig said St. Pete is a young, up-and-coming city now. “It’s exciting,” he added.

As someone who takes pride in his patriotism and honoring those that serve their country, Craig said the Tampa-based Special Operations Warrior Foundation is near to his heart. The nonprofit provides lifelong educational support to children of all special operations soldiers, and financial assistance to severely wounded, ill and injured personnel.

“As I develop my home and my roots here in the St. Pete area, I just appreciate the people and the fact that I can give back to the community,” he said.

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