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Phil Verchota of Bemidji says the gold medal he earned with the 1980 Olympic men's hockey team remains special 30 years later. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

Another Olympics miracle? Verchota, Baker keeping eyes on U.S. hockey team

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When the United States men's hockey team defeated heavily favored Canada 5-3 in Olympic pool play Sunday night, the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" gold medal team was put back into the spotlight with comparisons from national media and casual observers.

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Phil Verchota and Bill Baker were teammates on that 1980 squad, and both agreed the Americans played well.

But comparing Sunday's win to their experience in Lake Placid might be a reach.

"Who knows?" said Verchota, president and northern market manager of Deerwood Bank in Bemidji. "What I do know is that was a doggone good hockey game, an upset and a great victory against some great hockey players."

Baker, who practices dentistry in Brainerd with a satellite office in Bemidji, tuned into the game as well and was impressed with the win.

"My take is that it's still very early," Baker said. "I think it was more of a mental challenge for them ... they played with a lot of energy and played very well against Canada, but there's still a ways to go. As for comparing it to us - it's not nearly the magnitude. These are pros who know each other and in 1980 we were at the top of the hockey world as college kids."

The American victory over Canada came nearly 30 years to the day after the 1980 team shocked the Soviet Union with a 4-3 semifinal victory at Lake Placid. Al Michaels delivered the now famous broadcast call, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" as time expired in front of thousands of flag-waving American hockey fans.

Verchota and Baker reflected Tuesday on the significance of that victory, which resonated beyond hockey circles and developed into a wave of patriotic pride across America in one of the most enduring images of the Olympic games.

"For me the only time I seem to talk about it is every four years and I'm more than willing to talk about it because it's something I'm proud of," Baker said. "But it hasn't changed me. I still am early to work and late to get home; the 30 years is a milestone but it's also just another day. It doesn't change the fact that I'm still an oral surgeon for eight hours a day."

The significance of the win over the Soviets was rooted in nationalistic pride between the two nations during the Cold War. Sports Illustrated ran a cover shot of the American players celebrating on the ice and it remains the only cover in the history of the publication to run without a headline or caption.

"What's changed for me the most has just been the realization that the timing of that win was very important and special for a lot of people," Verchota said. "The longevity of the story has been the most important thing for me."

The Americans were heavy underdogs in the 1980 tournament and were not expected to challenge the mighty Soviet Union, which dominated an exhibition match between the two teams with a 10-3 win two weeks prior to the Olympics.

"We just wanted to get into the medal round," Verchota said.

European and Russian players are now common in the National Hockey League, but during the Cold War era skilled hockey players never left their home communist countries unless they were sneaked across national borders. So the prospect of United States success in 1980 was a long shot at the time.

"We never dreamed we could win a gold medal because the Russians were so good," said Baker.

Baker said the main motivational factor for the Americans was to play a respectable game against the Russians and avoid a blowout.

"That was the uniqueness of that Olympics," Verchota said. "We were so young and we were essentially playing against professional all-star teams from the Czech Republic and Russia. They were experienced and they were mature."

Once on the ice, that gap was felt by the players.

"I remember I was going up against (Vladimir) Petrov on a faceoff ... and my stick got caught in his skate," Baker said. "So there he was, standing with one leg up in the air and I'm trying get my stick back by pushing him off. But I couldn't move him because he was that strong."

The United States went on to defeat Finland 4-2 in the gold medal game to ensure the team's place in Olympic history. Baker's jersey is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

"There was pressure on us to play well and beat Finland, which we had always seemed to play well against ... it was a good matchup for the last game," Verchota said.

Verchota retired from hockey after playing on the U.S. team in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. He went into the banking profession. His career has taken him from the Twin Cities area to International Falls, Willmar and now Bemidji.

Baker has been practicing dentistry at his main office in Brainerd for 17 years and he said Bemidji holds a special place in his heart.

His grandparents, Tom and Mary Ellen Baker, use to own an upholstery shop in town and he would visit them in the summers growing up.

"My grandfather was a huge, huge BSU Beaver fan and he'd be loving the run they are having right now with the Frozen Four they had last year," Baker said.

Verchota said the team tries to get together every so often, though work commitments seem to get in the way and keep the team from regularly reuniting in one spot.

"We try to get a chance to see each other whenever we can," Verchota said. "I see Billy more often because he's in Bemidji. A lot of the players on that team grew up in Minnesota and have lived in Minnesota all their lives - (John) Harrington, (Rob) McClanahan, (Mark) Pavelich, (Dave) Christian, Buzzy Schneider and Steve Janaszak for awhile - so I see them when I can."

Verchota sees some similarity between 1980 and the current United States squad in Vancouver. He will be following the team for the rest of the tournament from Bemidji.

"For them, a win (against Canada) would have been a super upset and if they lost, well at least they could say they played well. It's kind of like how we were in 1980 in a way. We were selected to finish fourth, fifth or sixth and we would have been lucky to get a bronze medal."

Verchota and Baker were college roommates at the University of Minnesota and played for Minnesota hockey legend Herb Brooks, who also coached the 1980 U.S. team. The cultural moment the team gave America remains special to the players and the two insist they do not get tired of answering questions about the game against Russia and the Olympics - even 30 years after it happened.

"I seem to end up talking about (1980) every four years and more than I ever expected to.

"It's been real interesting for me."

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