Editors note: We’ve all seen ‘that guy’ when we watch the chilling highlights of the “Miracle on Ice” from 31 years ago. You can’t miss him.
Right after Mike Eruzione scores the go-ahead goal, the camera cuts to the Team USA bench, and standing there with the thick-rimmed glasses and a raised white towel is Gary Smith, screaming along with thousands of fans who had just witnessed one of the greatest moments in sports history. But Smitty, as he was commonly known, witnessed a lot more than that shining moment in our nation’s history.
Gary “Smitty” Smith stands as one of the few men who witnessed the “Miracle on Ice” from behind the scenes. As the head athletic trainer for the American team, Smitty was entrenched for the entire year at the end of the bench and inside the locker room. He carries with him an anthology of unique stories about life on that long and sometimes lonely road to Lake Placid.
One of the many things Smitty will tell you about the ‘Miracle on Ice’ is that it was more than one stunning victory over the Soviet Union. The entire year, in fact, was peppered with tiny daily miracles that seemed to build on another, gained momentum and created a team of destiny. From surviving a near plane crash in northern Minnesota, an on-ice team mutiny in Norway and the unrelenting mind games of coach Herb Brooks, the true miracle was just surviving the pre-Olympic journey.
“Before there was any gold medal glory, our team had played in nearly 60 exhibition games, 40 of which were on the road,” he said. “We were usually so far off the map, so far from the Olympics, that I often wondered where we were.
“There was one night when I woke up near the Arctic Circle on a rickety old bus. We were way up by the northern border of Russia and Finland. I was sitting next to Mark Pavelich, who was strumming a guitar. We both looked out the window and saw these huge Russian machine gun towers pointed directly at us. We weren’t thinking about gold medals at the time. We were just hoping that the bus didn’t break down.”
By the time the team arrived in Lake Placid, they had crisscrossed the globe, experiencing one revelation after another.
“There was this one time, when we were playing this lower rung Soviet B squad in a meaningless exhibition game,” Smitty said. “The Soviets had a shady-looking KGB man on their bench. He was there to make sure the players wouldn’t defect. The Russians thought so little of our American team that they let the KGB guy play a few shifts. The KGB guy got hit into the boards, his jersey rode up, and I saw a pistol in his pads. Hockey is a tough sport, but our boys from Minnesota hadn’t seen anyone like that before.”
The pistol packing KGB man was just one sign to Smitty that the team had clearly ventured into unchartered territory.
Then there was the unforgettable night when the team was forced to travel to Warroad, Minn. during a massive blizzard to play an exhibition game. After the game, the plane couldn’t take off because there was too much weight on the plane and the runway was too short.
Smitty had to drive the equipment through the blizzard to Thief River Falls, where the airport had a longer runway. As the plane was taking off it clipped a pole and the pilot had to land at the end of the runway. But the plane couldn’t go in reverse, so all the players got off the plane and had to push it back to the start of the runway.
“These were our country’s finest athletes and they were out there in penny loafers, pushing a plane in a blizzard,” Smitty recalled.
Brooks eventually took the reins and steered the team through an epic slog of games across North America and Europe.
“We played in Podunk towns all over the place,” Smitty said. “We played one exhibition game in an old cattle ground that reeked of manure. The opposing coach had been banned for a short while because of a stick-swinging incident and he decided to wear a tuxedo to the game to help class the place up. It was a real bare-knuckle kinda game. Our guys started dropping like flies. I was actually praying on the bench that our team would make it out alive.”
And it was Smitty’s job to make sure the team stayed alive. That wasn’t always easy under Brooks’ brutal conditioning regime. “Herbie” routinely punished the team with not only skating drills, but tyrannical mind games as well. Many thought that Brooks crossed the threshold of sanity when he skated the team following a game in Norway after the Americans had delivered a lackluster performance.
“There were fans left in the Norway arena when Brooks whistled the players to the goal line,” Smith said, shaking his head in disbelief. “As the guys skated, the fans began to applaud because they thought it was some sort of Disney On Ice skating display. Then one of the players puked and the fans left.”
It was Smitty who had the unenviable task of telling Brooks that the rink manager was going to shut off the lights because he wanted to lock up for the night. Herb gave Smitty a steely look and snapped, “Smitty, get me the (expletive) keys. I’ll lock up!”
With that, Smitty cornered the rink manager in a dank hallway and had to ask the man for his work keys. The Norwegian ice rink manager didn’t speak a word of English, so Smitty gave the man a nonverbal charades version of “Can I have your keys?” The rink manager promptly turned off the lights.
Meanwhile, Brooks kept skating the team. Then in a fit of rage, normally mild-mannered Mark Johnson broke his stick on the glass in protest. Brooks blew the whistle and the session was over. He knew at that moment, when Johnson snapped, it changed the whole direction of the team. For the very first time, the players skated to the bench in unison.
The battle-tested rapport between the coach and trainer began at the University of Minnesota, where both men worked for the Golden Gophers hockey team. After Brooks got the nod to coach the 1980 Olympic Team, the U.S. Olympic Committee told him they had assigned a team trainer.
“No thanks,” Brooks replied. “I already got a trainer. His name is Gary Smith.”
During their three years together at Minnesota and the Olympics, Smitty saw a softer side of Brooks that was almost never made public.
“He was a villain on purpose,” Smitty said. “But in the training room, when everyone was gone, he would come back and confide in me. He would tell me how all he really wanted to do was take the team down to the bar for a few beers. He wanted to tell all of the players how proud he was to be coaching them. But he never could do it. He had to be the one guy that they all hated. And that is why he called it the loneliest year of his life.”
A week before the Olympics, the players hit a major pothole that nearly derailed the entire team off their road to Lake Placid. During their last official tune-up game against the mighty Russians at Madison Square Garden, the Americans found themselves on the losing end of a 10-3 blowout.
“The whole bench was in the dumps and Herb was fuming. Halfway through the third period, I walked down the length of the bench and sarcastically whispered in Herb’s ear, ‘We got no shot against these guys,’ ” Smitty said.
“Herb paused in shock, chuckled and leaned in real close and said, ‘No (expletive).’ And then he winked at me like he already had something cooking in his brain.”
Smitty’s proudest moment as an athletic trainer and an American came several weeks later. Right before his eyes, the young American squad that he had spent the past year with did the unthinkable. They derailed the mighty Russian machine.
The highlight of Mike Eruzione scoring the game winner and tap dancing on the ice in jubilee will forever be burned into our sports conscience. So is the brief clip of Smitty standing on the vacated bench, shaking a clenched fist and white towel as the team celebrated on the ice.
For the man who typically toiled in anonymity behind the scenes it was a very public celebration.
An athletic trainer is usually out of the spotlight until something bad happens. A blown out knee or blood on the ice will draw the trainer out from the shadows of the sideline and into the white-hot glare of the stadium lights.
But for this one golden moment in America’s sporting history, a moment made up of many tiny miracles that built a giant Miracle on Ice, Smitty stood proudly at center stage.
Todd Smith is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. He is also Gary Smith’s son.