LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Wayne Gretzky played a small role in inspiring Saturday’s “Relive the Miracle,” the first time all living 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey players will unite in Lake Placid since they won gold.
About one year ago, Gretzky was asked to appear at an event (not in Lake Placid) but had to decline, said Jeff Holbrook, Gretzky’s representative. So, Holbrook found replacements in 1980 U.S. Olympians Mike Ramsey and Dave Christian.
After the event, Holbrook said Ramsey asked if he could find similar opportunities for appearances. That got Holbrook thinking. Hey, the 35-year anniversary of the Miracle on Ice is coming up.
“I started putting all the pieces together,” Holbrook said Thursday while sitting inside Herb Brooks Arena, where the U.S. stunned the Soviet Union 4-3 at the 1980 Winter Games.
More about reunion during Hockey Day in America, Sunday at noon on NBC and online
Holbrook, formerly the Arizona Coyotes executive vice president, bounced thoughts off Gretzky and ran ideas up the NHL flagpole to deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Maybe they could get the team together at an NHL event, such as the Winter Classic. Or have a single NHL team take it over, such as when the Coyotes brought several players to a game last February.
Further along, Holbrook realized it would be best to do it in Lake Placid, where the 1980 Winter Olympics still live outside Main Street window displays and inside, on looped highlights around the hockey arena.
“Having them all together here means a lot more than having them all together in Rochester, or some place,” Holbrook said, conjuring one of Brooks’ lines from the 2004 film “Miracle.” “Coming here probably pushes them over the edge [to want to come], where maybe in the past they wouldn’t have.”
When all 19 living players (of 20 total) gather here Saturday, it’s believed to be their first full reunion since Brooks’ death in 2003 (forward Mark Pavelich reportedly attended the wake but not the funeral). The only other full reunion since 1980 was for an NHL All-Star weekend event in Los Angeles in 2002 (pictured).
Details of Saturday night’s ‘Relive the Miracle’ event
Arranging reunions proved so difficult that not even the honor of lighting the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic cauldron was a 20-for-20 success.
But starting last January, Holbrook began texting, emailing, calling and even meeting face to face with the 20 members of the 1980 U.S. team.
“It wasn’t as easy as sending out an email saying, ‘Do you want to come?'” he joked. “There’s a reason why it hasn’t been done in 35 years.”
In initial player conversations last spring and summer, the impetus was to do this now, while everybody is still alive.
One of the players whom Holbrook spoke with in person was defenseman Bob Suter, at an NHL playoff game last season. Suter was on board for the reunion, but he died of a heart attack in September. Suter’s jersey will be raised to the rafters to climax Saturday night.
“In a weird way, that’s why everyone is here,” said Todd Walsh, the Arizona Coyotes broadcaster who will moderate Saturday night’s chronological look back with the players before an expected crowd of about 5,000. “I think with Bob going, it’s a reminder of everyone’s mortality. That’s just my sense.”
Then there’s the reclusive Pavelich. In addition to Brooks’ funeral, he was also not present for the 2002 Olympic cauldron lighting, according to reports from Salt Lake City.
Holbrook said teammates including Buzz Schneider and John Harrington reached out to Pavelich and, importantly, stayed on him until he committed.
Pavelich was on his way to Lake Placid as of Thursday night, driving with two dogs from Oregon with a stop in Minnesota.
“I think the fact that he is coming I think pushed other guys over the edge to be here, too,” said Holbrook, managing partner of Potentia Athletic Partners. “If it wasn’t Lake Placid, I don’t know if Mark would have come.”
Holbrook, a 13-year-old playing Space Invaders when the Miracle happened, said he’s dedicated one year of his life to making the reunion happen. He also stressed help from his family, co-workers and the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) that manages the 1980 Olympic facilities.
“I’ve seen presidents of countries cower in Wayne’s presence,” Holbrook said of Gretzky. “I didn’t think I could ever see anything that elicits that sort of response from people. This is the only thing that really does, to me. When you talk about this to people, they always get the same look on their face.”
The biggest challenge of the endeavor is yet to come, Holbrook said. That’s the event Saturday night, the eve of the 35-year anniversary of the Miracle game.
“Knowing how important it is to people,” Holbrook said. “We can’t screw it up.”
Walsh, who has spent nearly two decades as a Coyotes broadcaster, has butterflies, too.
“I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that I’ll be up there,” Walsh said, looking down as workers constructed the stage on what is usually an ice rink, in his first five minutes inside Herb Brooks Arena. “I kid you not. I don’t even know what to say.”
Photos: Herb Brooks’ Miracle on Ice items up for auction