ST. PAUL -- U.S. Olympian Jim Craig was back in the Twin Cities last month, a place he fondly refers to as his second home after spending some time in the area as a member of the Minnesota North Stars back in the mid-1980s.
While he’s become a fairly notable motivational speaker these days, and was in town for a couple of speaking engagements recently with Comcast Business, no doubt Craig always will be remembered as the goaltender for Miracle On Ice’s 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team that shocked the world by capturing the gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Maybe it’s not a surprise he got into motivational speaking after his playing career was over, especially considering that team was coached by St. Paul native Herb Brooks, one of the best motivational speakers ever.
“I still try to emulate Herb with what I do,” Craig said during a sit-down interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I swear that he’s still up there guiding me to do these things.”
After he retired from the NHL in the mid-1980s, Craig took a position in sales before ultimately starting his own business. He now serves as the president of Gold Medal Strategies, a promotions and marketing firm based out of Boston, and credits a lot of his success in that realm to the skills he learned while playing for Brooks.
“He cared about people greatly,” Craig said. “He didn’t just make us better hockey players. He made us better men, better husbands, better fathers. He just cared. The biggest compliment I would give Herb is that when he passed away, if someone were to ask every one of us who his favorite was, we all would’ve said ourselves. That’s a hard thing to do.”
Asked about his first memory of Brooks from back in the day, Craig cracked a smile and his eyes lit up. He was a hot-shot goaltender for Boston University at the time after leading his team to the NCAA championship in 1978. He got a phone call from Brooks a year later asking him if he wanted to play for Team USA at the World Championships in Moscow.
“He was the first college coach to coach in the World Championships,” Craig said. “And I didn’t even know who he was at the time.”
Little did Craig know, that phone call was going to change his life.
“When I met him I met a person that could look right inside someone’s soul and find out if they were worth spending his time with,” Craig said. “We had an immediate connection. Sometimes we run into someone that puts us in a position that we personally would never put ourselves in in order to get to where we need to go. His biggest asset was he always did that for us.”
The rest of the story is well documented, as Brooks was hired to coach Team USA in 1980, handpicking his roster, and guiding a bunch of no-name players to immortality.
“If anyone watches any of the films, they will see him staring out,” Craig said. “We saw that stare and we knew he was thinking of a way to make us better whenever he did that. He’s trying to figure it out. I still remember that stare.”
Whether it was that stare, or simply the fact that Brooks truly believed in the bunch, the team carried itself with a sense of swagger throughout its unlikely run to the gold medal.
“You don’t get buy-in unless the group believes in the leader,” Craig said. “You can’t tell people how to feel. It was his vision and his belief that was so contagious. He believed it so strongly that he got us to believe it as well.”
To this day, Craig remembers Brooks as the best coach he ever had.
“You know, there are some coaches that a great in preparation, and there are some coaches that are great at being tactical during games,” Craig said. “There are very few that are both. He was both.”
As good as he was behind the bench, Brooks was much more than that to the people that knew him best, which is why his sudden death more than 15 years ago hit so hard.
“I remember when he died I was traveling for work and I’m walking through the airport and I see this newsflash,” Craig said. “It was like a piece of my soul was taken away from me. You can’t call him up anymore. That was hard. He was a friend and a mentor and someone I trusted, and all of a sudden I didn’t have that anymore.”
Walking around the Twin Cities on his recent visit, Craig was at least happy to hear Brooks is still a legend in this neck of the woods. He even has his own statue, which sits next to Rice Park downtown, and now stands more than 10 feet high after being redone a couple of years a back. It’s roughly double the size of the original version it replaced, which has since been moved to the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn.
As he walked out of the St. Paul Hotel, Craig stopped to talk to the bellman about the Herb Brooks statue, only recalling the much smaller version.
“I said, ‘Hey, did they ever get that statue of Herb fixed?’ ” Craig said. “You know, because a statue is supposed to be larger than life, and that old one was like his actual size.”
As far as Craig was concerned, they had to fix it, and he was glad to find out that they did.
“It had to be big,” Craig said. “Because he was.”