When I was in the second grade, I did a pretty ridiculous thing. At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing. All my teachers kept asking me about this medal that my dad had at home. I had never seen it. I didn’t even understand what they were talking about.
“Ryan, have you seen the medal? Can you bring it in for show-and-tell? Or can your dad bring it in? Ask him.”
So I went home and I asked my dad, “Do you have a medal?”
He said, “Yeah, it’s somewhere.”
I said, “Can I bring it to school? Some teachers want to see it.”
And he probably said something like, “Huh? The medal? Uhh … Yeah, let me find it.”
A couple of days passed. Maybe even weeks. Eventually, my dad gave me this gold medal. It said LAKE PLACID 1980. So I popped it in my backpack and took it to school. I knew he had won it playing hockey, and I had heard some people in my family talking about “the Miracle,” but you know how it is when you hear those kind of family stories when you’re a kid. All that stuff is kind of like a myth. I mean, he was just my dad. Blue jeans and work boots, every day.
I got to school with the medal, and I just shoved it inside my desk with all my papers and stuff. Then, at some point, we were doing show-and-tell, and all the kids were probably like, “Here’s a picture of our new puppy. Here’s a Lego thing I made …”
And then I pulled the medal out, totally oblivious, like, Is this what you wanted me to bring in?
All the teachers were freaking out. They thought it was the coolest thing. They were trying to explain what the medal meant to all us kids, and they kept saying, “The Miracle on Ice, the Miracle on Ice.”
And I’m like, Wow, this is a pretty cool show-and-tell. But I really had no idea about the true magnitude of what my dad and his teammates had done. He never talked about it. He never watched the tapes of the game. It just wasn’t his nature.
So after show-and-tell was over, we had these little lockers in the back of the room — they weren’t even locked. I think they call them cubby holes? I put the 1980 Olympic gold medal in my cubby, and I left in there for, like, two weeks.
Finally, I came home one day and my dad said, “Hey, do you still have my medal? Somebody else wants to borrow it.”
And I was like, “Yeah, it’s in my cubby. All the teachers really thought it was cool!”
If I had known then what I know now, I definitely wouldn’t have kept the Miracle on Ice gold medal next to a box of Crayola Crayons for two weeks.
But that was my dad in a nutshell. He was a part of one of the greatest hockey teams of all time, but you would never know it in a million years by the way he carried himself. He was the definition of blue-collar. When he came home to Wisconsin after the Olympics, the first thing he did was open up a sporting goods store on the east side of Madison. But it wasn’t just a sporting goods store. The other half was a bait shop. I was too young to remember, but he’d tell me stories about opening up in the morning and walking in and seeing dead minnows all over all the goalie pads. I guess they’d pop off the top of the bait buckets in the middle of the night and try to escape.
It was the most Wisconsin thing ever.
My first memories in life are of waking up in the morning and going to the shop and having one of my brothers put on the brand-new goalie gear. We’d play right in the back of the store until my dad was done with work, and then we’d drive over to hockey practice in my dad’s beat-up old pickup truck. And when I say beat-up, I mean beat-up. Holes in the floor boards. One little bench seat. We’d pile in there and sit four-across, probably smelling terrible. My dad couldn’t even reach the stick shift with all our legs in the way, so he taught us how to shift gears for him. It was a team effort.
All we did, every day, every minute, was hockey.
My dad was my coach from the time I started skating, and he ran some hockey camps, too, but his dream was always to open up his own rink. When I was about 12 years old, he and a few other guys got some money together and built Capitol Ice Rink in Middleton. Once again, my dad being my dad, he was like a one-man construction crew. I don’t even know if it was legal, but he had me and my brothers driving the Bobcats, dumping dirt all over the parking lot and everything. It was unreal.
Whenever there was a problem, he’d never call anybody. He’d just shrug and be like, “We’ll figure it out.”
Cap Ice was his baby. When the place opened, he was so proud. He was there from sunup to sundown. He had so much going on it was comical. He’d clean the toilets, run the Zamboni, stock the vending machines, do the practice scheduling, run the register at the hockey shop, fix the broken light fixtures, then he’d go out and coach his youth team. Sometimes he’d be driving the Zamboni with his hockey skates on, just because he didn’t want anyone else to do it.
He was always running — no, seriously, sprinting — around the rink. He never expected anything from anybody. This one time, he was so busy that he jumped on the Zamboni and pulled out to clean the ice for a tournament game, and he forgot to detach the water hose. He got about halfway to the red line before the hose snapped.
He was nuts, in the best way possible. A lot of guys who accomplished what he did in Lake Placid would’ve had their Team USA jerseys hanging up all over the rink. They would’ve wanted to be a local legend. But my dad was the complete opposite. You never would’ve known.
It was like a running joke around the rink, when people would come from out of town for a tournament and want to get a picture with my dad, the regulars would say, “Take a step back and make sure you get his boots in the picture.”
I think he still had the same work boots from the ’70s.
If a kid came up and asked him about the Miracle on Ice, he’d always deflect the question and ask them something about themselves like, “How’s your team doing? What tournaments are you playing in?”
Sometimes, when he was going all-out to put on these unbelievable youth tournaments and camps, people would ask him, “Why are you doing all this? Why don’t you just take it easy?”
And he would say the same thing every time. “It’s all about the kids. That’s why we do it.”
It really wasn’t a cliché. He genuinely loved hockey and he genuinely loved helping kids. For 16 years, he poured everything he had into that rink.
Three years ago, right around this time, I was just getting back on the ice in Minnesota before training camp with the Wild. I remember seeing my wife Becky in the stands, and she was crying. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought maybe something had happened with our kids. Then she came down to the glass, and she said, “Something happened with your dad.”
He was working at the rink when he had a fatal heart attack.
I had just seen him two days before. He came by our house to drop off something we’d left behind at a wedding. I saw him pull up, so I went out to the garage to say hi. But, with my dad being my dad, he was already on the run. By the time I got there, he was pulling out of the driveway.
I waved to him.
He waved back.
He had to get to the rink.
It’s been three years now since his passing, and it still sucks. It still hurts. Every day, I wish he was here. He was a great person who cared so much about his family and hockey and helping people get better. I would give anything to be hosting a tournament at Cap Ice, sweeping the floor with my dad at 11 o’clock at night, and walking out of there knowing that the locker rooms were clean for the kids coming in at 6 a.m. the next morning. To us, that was happiness. I would give anything to have that moment again.
But you know what? I take comfort in knowing that my father died in the place that he built with his bare hands, doing the thing that he loved the most. He truly loved every minute of it. He really did. He loved hockey. He loved the rink. He loved the kids.
I actually had no idea how many lives he touched until his funeral service. At the wake, more than 4,000 people showed up. You had generations of Wisconsin hockey parents and kids and coaches, and you know what was so amazing about it? They almost never mentioned the Miracle on Ice.
They said, “Man, your dad was the best. He fitted me for my first pair of skates, and he took an hour to make sure that they were perfect.”
They said, “I used to get all my kids’ hockey equipment at your dad’s shop, and he used to sell me stuff at cost, because he knew we could barely afford it.”
The best lesson I think people can take from my dad is his humility. He was a part of the single greatest moment in American sports history. But he never talked about it. He never wanted any glory. He was happy to go sweep the floors at the end of the night.
He never wanted to be a local legend. But he became one anyway. He did it his way.
I know that he was proud of what I accomplished in hockey, but honestly I think he was the most proud whenever he saw me around my wife and kids. He just loved being a grandpa, and he couldn’t sit still. That was perfect for the kids. We’d all go out to dinner and whenever my kids would be getting restless, he’d say, “Hey kids, what do you say we go outside?”
And they’d go on their little adventure together.
I don’t know why, maybe it was because he had been to the top of the mountain, but to him, hockey was just … it was just fun. It wasn’t about glory.
I remember before I left with Team USA for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, he said, “Ahh, you guys gotta win this so they can finally stop talking about us.”
And he was really serious.
I’ve still never watched the Miracle game against Russia. We have the DVDs somewhere, but I don’t know if I’ll ever watch it. It’s not what my dad would’ve wanted. I honestly don’t think he ever watched it, either.
I can just see him saying, “Watch it? I played in it. Let’s go to the rink.”
There’s a song that comes on the radio a lot, and whenever it does, I get a little bit emotional. It’s a Tim McGraw song, and the last line sums up my father in five words.
“Always stay humble and kind.”
I can’t think of better advice for anybody.
My dad is my hero. But I’m not proud of him because he was the guy who won the gold medal in 1980. I’m proud of him because he was the guy sweeping the floors in the locker room, and the guy who taught hundreds of kids how to play the great game of hockey, and the guy who was a hell of a dad to me and my brothers.
You were one of a kind.
Thanks for everything, Dad.