Winter Olympic Memories

In the excitement following the gold medal win over Finland, Robert Verchota, father of U.S. Olympic hockey player Phil Verchota, grabbed a shotgun and fired three triumphant blasts from the front porch of the Verchota home in Duluth on Feb. 25, 1980. Charles Curtis / News Tribune

As the 2010 Winter Olympics begin in Vancouver, we remembered that Duluth News Tribune sports writer covered the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. Here’s his column from the opening ceremonies along with some people mentioned.

John Harrington waits out a penalty during a Team USA exhibition game in Duluth in October, 1983. News Tribune

By Kevin Pates/News Tribune Staff Writer

The guy in front of me looked a lot like Mark Johnson, but it was hard to tell. The 55,000 people crammed into Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium on Friday night were all wearing white. It was part of the Opening Ceremony group performance. Everyone got a white cape, colored placards, a flashlight and a flute.

So I kept looking at this guy who reminded me of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey player. He turned around once to say something to another guy. “Hey Bah,’ he said. Bah? Like John “Bah’ Harrington, another 1980 Olympian from Virginia? Hey, it was Bah. And there was goalie Jim Craig in front of me. And Mike Eruzione over here. And Eric Strobel over there.

And wasn’t that Duluthian Phil Verchota?

You don’t have to hit me over the head with a hockey stick. The rumors were right. The Olympic torch would reach the cauldron with the help of the most-remembered Olympic team in U.S. history.

They were all right there on stadium bleacher seats waiting their turn. Well, 18 of the 20. Evelethian Mark Pavelich is back on his land near Lutsen, and Mike Ramsey is working as an assistant coach with the Minnesota Wild.

But everyone else was there, and these Olympians were still willing to talk about Lake Placid even 22 years after the fact.

“The 1980 Olympics has been a wonderful part of my life. It’s what sports is all about,’ said Verchota, a Willmar, Minn., banker who sat in the cool night air with his wife, Julie. “Getting a chance to get together with our team the last two weeks has been absolutely exciting.’

Verchota, 45, was also captain of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and played that year, again, with Harrington.

Harrington brought his son, Chris, to a 1980 Olympic reunion in Los Angeles a week ago, and had his two daughters, Leah, a St. Benedict College freshman, and Patty, a high school junior, with him Friday. They loved the patriotic, USA atmosphere that featured the Dixie Chicks, Yo-Yo Ma, President Bush and the World Trade Center flag.

Craig, 44, hadn’t been to another Olympics until Friday, but he’s never stopped being reminded about 1980.

“There isn’t a month that goes by, probably not even a week, that someone wants to talk about Lake Placid. And I never get tired of talking about it,’ said Craig, who lives in North Easton, Mass., and is a motivational speaker and an account manager for an advertising publisher.

So here are these guys, and their families, dressed in white and loving the spectacle on a Utah night of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doing the wave.

And I’m talking to Verchota, catching up on his parents, Bob and Phyllis, who still live in Duluth, and he says, “Hey, I’ve got to go.’ The 1980 team vanishes, and minutes later the Olympic torch reaches the stadium.

It’s handed off in a U.S. Olympic relay from Dorothy Hamill and Dick Button, to Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton, to Bill Johnson and Phil Mahre, to Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair, to Jim Shea Sr. and Jim Shea Jr., to Picabo Street and Cammi Granato.

Then, at the base of a spiral staircase, Eruzione appeared in a replica of his 1980 jersey, followed by the rest of the hockey team, like Buzzy Schneider of Babbitt and Bill Baker of Grand Rapids. During a group lighting, the “USA!’ chants felt real again.

The best-kept secret of the opening ceremonies wasn’t such a secret after all.

I could’ve told you that, once I figured it all out.


7 Responses

  1. sleep deprived

    I remember going to Lake Placid when UMD played in the Final Four…there was a young guy who was telling everyone he was Phil Verchota (looked very much like him, too) so we played along with him. Of course he had no idea that I knew Phil from high school. We ended up hanging out with him almost the entire trip. Then, next season when UMD played North Dakota, we ran into him in the concourse at the Duluth Arena. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I yelled out “Hey,’s Phil Verchota ! ” Those were some fun days, that’s for sure.

    Anyone remember Mr J’s on Superior Street ? After the Olympics, 3 players from the Miracle on Ice team came in dressed in their USA jackets and white cowboy hats….Mark Pavelich, Bill Baker and Phil Verchota. You’d think it was the second coming of Christ….everyone went nuts cheering.

  2. Arvo Maki

    Ahh! I’m happy for him. No real harm.

    I also so happy to see the five young ladies from UMD playing hockey on the Suomi (Finn) Olympic team.

    Duluth and the Northwoods should be celebrating all of the great Olympians we’ve produced in years past, and now.

    Here on the South Shore, I could probably shoot off an Atlas Rocket, and nobody would notice. I guess I need to dig out my old potato gun in celebration.

  3. Tonto

    Well, if they are not going to issue this gent a citation, maybe others could shoot a couple off on New Year’s Eve? Don’t think that is a very good idea, though. Maybe this gent is in a rural area of Duluth and no harm done, or just how does the ordinance read? What say you Chief Ramsay?

  4. Kathie

    I wonder what would happen If someone went out and shot a shotgun off their front porch to celebrate these days? LOL

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