Q&A with Olympic Legend Rob McClanahan

Rob McClanahan is a former professional hockey player who is best known for his role on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team who captured a gold medal.

McClanahan also played in the NHL as a left wing with the Buffalo Sabres, Hartford Whalers and the New York Rangers from 1980-1983. He also won a national championship at the University of Minnesota in 1979, with head coach Herb Brooks. McClanahan is currently a high school hockey coach for the Blake Bears in Minnesota.

KHAN: What was the most significant lesson you took away from playing in the Olympics?

MCCLANAHAN: The biggest lesson was that I realized I was capable of far more than I thought I was. It wasn’t without hard work and pain but Herbie [Herb Brooks] taught all of us that there was a lot more in us than we thought.

Khan: Was it different playing for Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota compared to Team USA?

McClanahan: Yes. Herbie was a student of the game. We learned as hockey players as we got older and he learned as a coach and he realized he couldn’t coach the Olympic team like he coached at the University of Minnesota. He gave us more freedom offensively, partly because if he didn’t, we weren’t going to improve but he allowed us to try to be more creative when we had possession of the puck. It’s not that we weren’t disciplined but he allowed us to develop on the creative side and that made us so much better offensively and our skill levels grew so much more over that year than it ever had before.

Khan: Do you feel that your character was portrayed properly in the movie Miracle?

McClanahan: Yes, pretty much. I think Nathan West did a very nice job. I think everyone in the movie did a pretty nice job. The unfortunate thing was that our key player, Mark Johnson, was our leading scorer and best player. He was our magic so to speak and didn’t get enough credit. You can only tell so many stories in a movie and his character probably wasn’t as strong as an actor so they chose to go a different direction. Mark [Johnson] was the guy, he was the guy.

Khan: Who were the key glue type of guys on that team?

McClanahan: Mark [Johnson] was definitely one of them. You know, that’s an interesting question. No one has ever asked me that question in that manner, it’s actually a really good question. I don’t think it was one guy. Mark was our offensive leader, he was our best player without question. He would light us offensively but Mark wasn’t a “rah rah” kind of guy. Here’s the thing, most of everyone that played on that team had been or would have been a captain on their previous teams. So, you had a bunch of college kids playing and they had been captains or would have been captains if they had stayed so everyone was kind of a leader in their own right.

Khan: What was your relationship like with Herb?

McClanahan: [laughing] I didn’t have one. Herbie didn’t want one. He had to make hard decisions and didn’t want to have a personal relationship. It would have made things harder. I started to develop a relationship with him later but unfortunately, he passed away.

Khan: Do you regret not establishing a relationship with him earlier on?

McClanahan: I didn’t control that, he did. He was the boss man. He was the coach, I was the player. I wasn’t about to go in and say “Herb, I want a relationship” I learned how to play for Herb. Herb was not easy to play for and not everybody liked to play for him. Herbie was very, very much a taskmaster. He demanded a lot. That’s not a bad thing but it’s hard. There were some guys that didn’t care for it but, at the end of the day, in that era, I did what I felt was necessary to accomplish some of the things that I wanted to. Herbie was the best coach I ever played for and I’d play for him tomorrow. He was smart enough to know that the way he coached at the University of Minnesota would not be successful with the Olympic team nor would it be successful in the NHL. He adapted as well. He was very much a student of the game.

Khan: What was the most important lesson you learned from Herb?

McClanahan: That I was capable of far more than I ever thought I was. I can’t emphasize that enough. He kicked our butts. On the day after tryouts, after we had 26 guys, one of the things he said was “You guys are going to improve more in the next six months than you ever have in your lives because I’m going to let you play offensively and creatively but without the puck, we’re going to be disciplined. We may not be the best team in the Olympics but we are going to be the best conditioned team” and he wasn’t wrong. We were the best conditioned team and that was hard. It’s hard. When you try to get in shape you have to shut your mind off because if you think about it, you’re going to say “I’m not going to do this” but if you have enough passion and desire to the accomplish the objective, you endure some necessary evils to accomplish some great goals. Anything worth living for is not easy, it’s hard, and that was no exception.

Khan: In terms of conditioning, was that scene in Norway true?

McClanahan: Yes, that was true. We skated for about an hour and they turned the lights off. We skated in the dark for about 15 minutes.

Khan: How did it end?

McClanahan: It wasn’t Mike Eruzione yelling “Mike Eruizone, Team USA.” It was when Mark Johnson threw his stick against the glass. Herbie didn’t see it and asked “Who was it?” and Doc [George Nagobads] finally convinced Herbie to stop. We had to play Norway again the next day and we crushed them.

Khan: So, you guys stopped after Mark Johnson threw his stick against the glass?

McClanahan: We skated a little bit more. Herbie asked “Who did it” and nobody fessed up. It was literally in the dark.

Khan: Is it true that you and Herb got into a verbal argument during one of the intermissions in the game against Sweden?

McClanahan: It was more than a verbal argument. I got hurt the first shift of the first game. That first game started before the opening ceremonies because in those days that’s just how it happened. So, I got hurt, I thought I was done. I was in the locker with my leg bent and an icepack on my leg with my equipment off. Everyone came in, Herbie came in like you watched in the movie. What they didn’t show was that I got up and started screaming at him and almost threw a punch. I was a second away from throwing a punch when they grabbed me. He turned around and walked out of the locker room and I followed him out into the hallway and in the hallway the Sweden locker room was right next to ours. I’m yelling at Herbie and Herbie is yelling at me and the Swedish players come out of the locker room and are looking at us and it’s the first period of the first game of the Olympics and they are looking at us thinking “The U.S. team has already lost their minds.” I’ve honestly never talked to Herbie about that and I never felt comfortable enough to do it and by the time I was comfortable enough to do it, he passed away. Am I happy about it? No, I’m not but I can’t argue with the result.

Khan: So, you ended up back out on the ice?

McClanahan: I ended up playing. I played the rest of the game and the rest of the tournament.

Khan: Do you have any recollection of what he said to you?

McClanahan: No, I don’t remember exactly. I don’t remember at all. He challenged me in terms of being tough enough. I don’t remember exactly.

Khan: Was the relationship between the Minnesota and Boston guys as volatile as the movie makes it seem?

McClanahan: Yes, to begin with. As it progressed we became really close. We’re very good friends. Jack O’Callahan and I are close. Jack lived with me for awhile in Chicago while he was going through a divorce.

Khan: How long did it take to truly overcome that hatred?

McClanahan: The skating started the process. It became more of a league against Herbie. That’s one of the reasons Herbie did that. Herbie was the bad guy.

Khan: Did you and O’Callahan really get into a fight during one of the practices?

McClanahan: No. No, they only had two hours for the movie and to tell the story so they decided to do that to show the true animosity between the two groups. The animosity was real.

Khan: Who was your favorite teammate on that team?

McClanahan: Oh, I didn’t have a favorite teammate. Mark Johnson and I were very close. We played together a lot during the year. Herbie kept the left wings and the centers together for most of the year for some reason and rotated with the right wings but Mark and I played together for quite a bit. I didn’t have a best friend, we all had a blast and it was a great experience. Even if we hadn’t won the gold medal, it was a great, phenomenal experience.

Khan: I know you played in college with Neal Broten and Steve Janasek but did you grow up with any of the guys on that team?

McClanahan: Nope. I grew up knowing them but I didn’t play against any of them.

Khan: Do you keep in touch with any of the guys from that 1980 team?

McClanahan: Yeah, definitely. We don’t talk everyday we don’t talk every week but we definitely keep in touch with each other.

Khan: Before the Russia game, did you get any telegrams personally sent to you?

McClanahan: The team did. We got telegrams throughout the tournament and one of them was a woman from Texas who said “Beat those commie bastards.”

Khan: Did you guys understand at the time the significance or magnitude of what you had accomplished when you beat the Russians?

McClanahan: I don’t think so. I don’t think we had an awareness. Personally, I didn’t realize until after we had left Lake Placid and we went to Washington, D.C. to meet President Carter and then we saw the real impact we had when the streets were lined with people as we worked our way to the White House.

Khan: What was life like after you had won? How did it change?

McClanahan: It didn’t change a lot because a lot of us went to go play. I went to play in Buffalo, Mike Ramsey joined me in Buffalo. Everybody went their own separate ways. It wasn’t like we were coming back to play next year again. Once we accepted our medals, it was over. We had all said we would have loved to stay together and see what kind of team we would have become in some league because we were all so young and had a lot of talent.

Khan: Did any of you guys play on the 1984 Olympic team?

McClanahan: Phil Verchota and Johnny Harrington.

Khan: What was the biggest challenge you faced in your hockey career specifically?

McClanahan: My biggest challenge was myself. I never truly believed in myself completely until it was over. I just always had to do more to make sure I was ready. I never trusted myself completely.

Khan: What was the biggest challenge that 1980 team faced?

McClanahan: Beating the Russians when we had the opportunity. I mean, that was monumental. People call it a miracle but success occurs when preparation meets opportunity and Herbie was exceptional at that, making sure we were ready for everything. So, when we took the lead against the Soviets, he was one of the few that was ready. We weren’t but he made sure we were ready. We got lucky as hell. We play that game 100 times, we lose 98 of them but like Rizzo [Mike Eruzione] says we won the right one.

Khan: Did Vladislav Tretiak really get pulled from that game by the way?

McClanahan: Yes, they pulled him after the first period but, realize after they did that they outshot us 12-2 in the second period.

Khan: Who was the biggest partier on that team?

McClanahan: [laughing] Oh, I don’t know, it’s tough to say that. We all had the ability to blow some steam when we had to.

Khan: Do you have any regrets from your hockey career?

McClanahan: You know, I had the opportunity to go play in Europe and I decided not to. When the opportunity came I was really frustrated with the game and I chose to go down a different path. I guess if there was one regret I wish I would have gone to play in Europe. However, I think I would have enjoyed not just hockey but living in a different culture and things like that. I’ve been very fortunate, I don’t have a lot of regrets.

Khan: Do you have any life advice for a young man?

McClanahan: Yes. Make sure what you’re doing is something you’re passionate about. You have to love what you’re doing and have purpose and sometimes that means you’re going into a field where you’re not making a lot of money but you have to have something that gets you out of bed and that has purpose.

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