In 1980, Herb Brooks took a team of 12 Minnesotans, four Massachusians, two Michiganders and a pair of Wisconsinites to Lake Placid, N.Y., and shocked the world by beating the mighty Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice.
Forty-one years later, the growth of hockey throughout the United States was on display at the World Junior Championship in Edmonton, Alberta, when the Americans won the gold medal with a team comprised of players from 14 states, including as many California natives (four) as those born in Minnesota.
Still, when the Team USA players were frolicking around Rogers Place on Tuesday night with gold medals around their neck and standing arm-in-arm while singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," Minnesota once again was well-represented.
Team USA included six players with strong Minnesota ties on its roster — Gophers defenseman Brock Faber (Maple Grove), Jackson LaCombe (Eden Prairie) and Ryan Johnson (Irvine, Calif.), University of Denver forward Bobby Brink of Minnetonka, and a Boston College duo, defenseman Drew Helleson of Farmington and forward Matt Boldy, the Wild's 2019 first-round draft choice from Millis, Mass. They helped the Americans post a 6-1 record, punctuated by a 2-0 victory over an unbeaten Canada team that ultimately proved vincible in the gold medal game.
"I'm still feeling pretty high about it," said Brink, a holdover from last year's team. "It was such a surreal event and a once-in-a-lifetime thing that it's hard to come down from it."
Added Faber, a freshman for the top-ranked Gophers: "I still can't really put into words what it felt like to win gold. … I get chills thinking about it."
Recent history suggests that describing the U.S. triumph as a miracle would be a bit much, considering the Americans, Canada and Finland each have won this tournament three times in the past nine years. Though the Canadians had 20 first-round NHL draft picks on their roster and had outscored opponents 41-4 entering the final, U.S. players weren't buying the hype.
"We heard a lot about how good they were, and they were the favorites to win," Helleson said. "We used that as motivation. That's who we wanted to play in the end. It doesn't get much better than beating them in their country."
To get to that gold medal game of a tournament that features the world's top under-20 players, the U.S. first had to beat nemesis Finland 4-3 in the semifinal on Monday night.
"After that game, we had one goal in mind, to take down our last barrel, which was Canada," LaCombe said, referring to the controversial big blue barrels adorned with the logo of that game's opponent that the Americans used as motivational tools.
As U.S. players expected, Canada came out strong in the final and carried play early, but goalie Spencer Knight of Boston College made 34 saves in the 2-0 victory.
Reunited on the rink
The bonds among three of the six players with Minnesota ties goes all the way back to middle school. Brink, Helleson and LaCombe all attended Breakaway Academy in Chaska. They played pond hockey and spent summers together before taking separate paths to college hockey.
The trio quickly reunited at Team USA training camp in Plymouth, Mich., and hung out together in Edmonton.
"We've known each other from a long way back and have been lifelong friends," said Brink, whose father, Andy, has been an owner of Breakaway Academy since 2001. "It was great going to a new team knowing you have two close friends already on it."
"Those two guys were my closest friends on the team, and I hung out with them a lot," Helleson said.
Players arrived back at their college campuses on Wednesday, still reveling in the triumph. The three Gophers received a rousing welcome from teammates, including Sampo Ranta, a Finn, and Jack LaFontaine, a Canadian.
"Sampo was pumped even though we beat Finland in the semis. He knew it was a good game," Johnson said. "Laffer was just excited to see the gold and put on my jersey."
In Chestnut Hill, Mass., Boldy reflected on the accomplishment and the bonds developed.
"I'm going to know those guys the rest of my life as some of my best friends," he said. "I don't think there's anything better you can take away from it than the team aspect with all the brothers and friendships we've made.''