Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Where Miracles Happen

The silver-haired man in line in front of TigerBlog at the ice cream place Saturday night introduced himself as "Jeff" and asked what the "P" on TB's shirt represented.

"Princeton," TigerBlog said.

Jeff then asked TB if he had played lacrosse at Princeton. It was easy to understand why.

The ice cream place was in Lake Placid, site of a lacrosse summit that saw more than 250 teams 24 divisions - for boys and girls, men and women - settle into the Adirondacks at various times last week. The youngest players weren't in high school yet; the oldest players graduated high school more than 50 years ago. This year was the 27th edition of the tournament.

As you walked along Main Street, all you saw were lacrosse players, in lacrosse gear of all kinds. Colorful club uniforms. T shirts with college names and "Lacrosse" underneath. Or the high school versions of the same.

Jeff? No. He wasn't there for the lacrosse. He was a native of Lake Placid, lived there his whole life, and now he was out with a group of a half-dozen or so teenage girls, two of whom were his granddaughters, the rest their friends.

Of course, there's only one question you can ask of a lifelong native of this town, and TigerBlog asked it immediately. "What," TB asked, "was this place like for the Olympics?"

Jeff answered the question and then some. But TigerBlog will get to that in a second.

You can't come into Lake Placid without reminders of the 1980 Winter Olympics everywhere. Even 105.5 FM on the radio bills itself as "the Olympic Region's classic rock station," even if the Olympics haven't been here in 36 years.

TigerBlog had never been to Lake Placid before. Besides the radio station, the first sign that something had been there before was the massive ski jumps that can be seen from Route 73. Who in the world would ever go up to the top of those and jump off? 

As you near the center of town, you drive by Lake Placid High School. In front of the building sits a concrete oval with grass in the middle, giving the impression of an abandoned site for the school's track and field team. But no, it's actually where the Olympic speed skating was held in 1980.

There is a big mural on one side of the oval, and it is framed by something that is a reminder that Eric Heiden picked the wrong Olympics to do something amazing. Heiden, if you don't remember, won gold medals in all five distances in the 1980 Olympics. There is a big picture of Heiden on the mural, above which rises the Olympic ice arena, site of the greatest sporting event of all time, the Miracle on Ice.

When TigerBlog went into the rink, it was almost eerie. It was like being at the sight of a famous battlefield almost, a place where something so historic took place that even all these decades later, standing there in near silence, it's impossible not to be awed.

So let's get back to Jeff.

"The men's hockey team was here in October of 1979," he said. "They practiced and played a few exhibitions at the arena as something of a test run. They'd hang out at a bar on Main Street called 'Jimmy's 21,' and I got to know a bunch of them there."

By the time the Games started, Jeff had tickets to pretty much everything, including ice hockey. He went to all of the preliminary rounds games, and then, when it came time for the U.S.-Soviet Union game, he did something that he still can't believe.

"I thought the game was going to be a blow out," he said. "I liked those guys a lot, and I didn't want to see them lose big. So ... I gave my tickets to my brother."

The game, of course, was hardly a blowout. In fact, it was the single greatest game ever played, anywhere, in any sport. The U.S., with its team of amateur college players, defeated the overwhelmingly favored Soviets 4-3.

"I was at Mirror Lake, across the street from the rink, for the medal ceremony for the men's slalom," Jeff said. "Behind us, you could hear, coming from the arena, a sound. It was going 'boom, boom, boom.' 'Boom, boom, boom.' We couldn't tell what the sound was at first. Then we figured it out. It was the crowd, chanting 'U-S-A, U-S-A.' They actually had to stop the medal ceremony for awhile."

TigerBlog was amazed by Jeff and his story, how he brought to life those days that TB had seen on TV and been so mesmerized by all those years ago. Jeff did go to the game two days later, when the U.S. defeated Finland to clinch the gold medal, scoring three times in the third period to win 4-2.

"Herb Brooks told them after the second period that if they didn't win that game, they'd take it to their graves," Jeff said.

With that, TB took his milkshake, gave Jeff a big handshake, and was off on his way again.

TigerBlog didn't play in the tournament, though he could have gotten on with a team or two in the over-50 divisions. TigerBlog Jr. did play, reuniting with his club team, playing against other teams loaded with current college players as well. They did well, winning three of four, but winning isn't really what the point of the tournament really is.

It's about lacrosse, and it's about friendships. In TBJ's case, it's with a bunch of guys he grew up playing with in the summer.

For many of the others there, the friendships go back much further.

There were teams of college alums who had takeoffs of their school nicknames, most notably the "Gray Danes," who were former Albany Great Danes. They had t-shirts that said "the older I get, the better I was."

TigerBlog saw former players from Harvard, and Cornell, and Brown, and a million other schools. And, of course, Princeton.

The first person TB saw when he checked into the hotel was former Princeton All-America defenseman John Harrington. He was on the phone in the lobby, outside a room where there was a gathering of a bunch of former Tigers. 

Everywhere TB went in town, he saw someone from Princeton lacrosse.

Go to breakfast? There's Princeton all-time great Jon Hess and his family.

Go to dinner? Current Tiger Sam Bonafede walks in.

Go back to the hotel? There is Sean Hartofilis, one of the clutchest scorers in the history of the NCAA tournament.

Walking down Main Street? There is Matt Striebel, one of the best players Major League Lacrosse has ever seen.

Even when TB went to a field to see the Princeton alums play, there on the next field were five current players - Braedon Gait, Emmett Cordrey, J.T. Caputo, Bear Altemus and Jack O'Brien.

That's how it was all weekend. Princeton lacrosse was everywhere. So were people from all corners of the lacrosse world. TB even ran into one of TBJ's high school coaches, who was playing in the oldest division, the over-60 group.

The games themselves were played at a park across the street from the ski jump, which is near the site of the bobsled and luge. The Opening Ceremonies were held on this field, which was quite a contrast from the billion dollar production that was going on in Rio.

One game would feature recent college All-Americas. The next game on the same field could be the over-50 and over-60 guys.

Lake Placid likes to bill itself as a town "where miracles happen," and yes, the greatest sports miracle ever happened there 36 years ago.

Now, though, it's more of a place where once a year, for nearly three decades, every segment of the lacrosse world makes its pilgrimage. They come for the sport, and they are all playing to win, without making it that obvious that they are trying their best.

And they come for the fun. They come to do things like Ryan Mollett, another former All-America defenseman and the first player selected in the first MLL draft, did in one game, when with a long pole he threw a perfect behind-the-back pass about 30 yards right into the stick of a cutting teammate. Three things about that play - 1) Mollett is nearly 40 years old, 2) he never in a billion years would have dreamed of throwing such a pass when he played at Princeton for Bill Tierney and 3) the pass didn't matter because a timeout was called a split second before he threw it.

Mostly, though, they come for the friendships, born recently or decades ago, the ones that are renewed annually in this town framed by such natural beauty in all directions, the ones that will endure forever.

That is no miracle.

That is simply the best part of sports, in this case, the sport of lacrosse.

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