GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- To this day, it’s still considered the greatest moment ever in American sports history.
The 1980 United States Olympic hockey team, which was made up of amateur players and led by coach Herb Brooks, stunningly defeated the Soviet Union national team, which had won Olympic hockey gold in six of the seven previous Winter Olympic games.
February 22nd, 2016, will be the 36th anniversary of this hockey game, which unfolded inside the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York.
The capacity crowd of only 8,500 people watched as Team USA edged the Soviets by a final score of 4-3.
The shocking win over the Soviets was during a semifinal contest. A few days later, Team USA won the gold medal by defeating Finland, 4-2.
To give some perspective as to how good the Soviet national hockey team was, they entered the Lake Placid games as the heavy favorite. In the four Olympics following their 1960 upset loss to Team USA at Squaw Valley, Soviet teams had compiled an eye-popping 27-1-1 (wins-losses-ties) record, and outscored the opposition by a combined 175-44.
Soon after the 1980 game was played, it became known as the “Miracle on Ice.”
Names like Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Neal Broten, Mark Johnson and Dave Silk went from complete obscurity to becoming household names and, still to this day, are remembered for their respective roles in that game, traveling the country doing speaking engagements and participating in autograph signings.
Sports Illustrated would eventually name the “Miracle on Ice” the Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century. At its 100th anniversary celebration in 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) chose the “Miracle on Ice” as the century’s number-one international ice hockey story.
And to think, a high school hockey referee from West Michigan could have been a member of the 1980 “Miracle” team.
“Actually in my mind, I should have been there,” said Dave Rost, who played hockey collegiately at West Point in the mid-1970s, and has called Grand Rapids, Michigan, his home since 1989. “Every year around this time I find myself wondering, ‘what if.’”
If the name Dave Rost doesn’t ring a bell, that’s understandable, and even Rost himself would tell you that’s understandable. Unless you grew up in Buffalo, New York, attended or religiously follow athletics at the United States Military Academy at West Point, or are a college hockey stat-geek, it’s highly likely you’ve never heard of him.
But his back story is beyond amazing.
Rost spent his formative years in South Buffalo, New York. His father built him an ice rink in the family’s backyard and that’s where he learned to skate and play hockey.
“There was also a swamp at the end of our street next to an old railroad bed where we’d occasionally play hockey,” said Rost. “As a young kid, I just thought it was the greatest game in the world.”
Rost played in all the organized Midget and Bantam hockey leagues as a kid. He says when he was in 8th grade, that’s when he knew where he’d play college hockey.
“My family and I went on a visit to West Point Academy,” remembered Rost. “As a 14-year-old, I was completely awestruck by the school, and decided the moment we got home from the visit that I was going to go there.”
In June of 1973, Rost became an Army Cadet, after receiving his acceptance letter from the Academy. Little did he know he was about to become one of the best players in collegiate hockey history.
During the next four years, Rost scored an NCAA Division 1-record 330 points and had 226 assists in only 114 career games for Army.
His points record still stands today.
“Right place, right time and right teammates,” said Rost. “I can’t believe the record has stood for almost 40 years. That makes it pretty amazing, I guess.”
Rost also still shares the NCAA Division 1 single-season scoring record. He and Dave Taylor (who played for Clarkson University at the time) each had 108 points during the 1976-77 season.
“The numbers are there to get broken, and they will,” added Rost. “I just hope I’m still around to see it when it happens."
“It’s a team honor, that we as the team hold, but it just so happens to have my name on it.”
While Rost was re-writing the college hockey record books and becoming a legend at Army, it helped that he had a head coach who happened to be legendary in his own right.
John Riley coached Army Hockey from 1950-1986. Coach Riley had an Olympic pedigree, having been a member of the U.S. National Team from 1947-49, then he served as the head coach of the 1960 U.S. team which went on to win the gold medal.
“One night when we we’re on the bus returning from a road game, coach Riley started a discussion with me about the Winter Olympics, which were still three years out at the time,” said Rost. “He told me there was no doubt I could make the 1980 U.S. National team if I wanted to try out.
“I was really taken back by his endorsement of me,” said Rost. “After he asked me about the Olympics, I thought that this man won Olympic gold in 1960, so he knows what it takes.”
Rost said he debated the idea of the Olympics, but in the end, he remembered the promise he made to himself before he started attending West Point.
“The Academy was number one, and hockey was number two,” Rost said. “I decided to finish my senior season out hard, then go serve my country.”
And that’s exactly what Rost did.
In March of 1978, he was sent down for training in Fort Gordon, Georgia. After training wrapped up, he was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany for 52 months.
That’s where he was when the “Miracle on Ice” happened.
“I watched it,” Rost said. “I remember feeling the chills run up my spine as Team USA beat the Soviets.”
While watching that game, he says he couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that he could have been a member of that hockey team, rather than being 3,697 miles away in Frankfurt.
“After hearing what coach Riley told me three years earlier, in my mind, there was no doubt I could have been there,” said Rost. “Every time I see the highlights of that game, I think, ‘what if’; ‘why didn’t you?'"
“But sometimes we go down the path that was meant to be for us.”
He chose the military over the “Miracle.”
His passion to serve his country far outweighed his passion to play for it.
“Coach Riley telling me that I was more than good enough to be an Olympic hockey player was more than enough for me,” said Rost. “Every time I find myself thinking about my decision, and second-guessing the opportunity I passed up, I remember coach’s words.”
Thirty-nine years after he played his final hockey game at Army, Dave Rost – along with two other former Cadet players – were invited back to West Point for a very special weekend.
On February 6, 2016, Rost (USMA-Class 1977), along with Dave Merher (USMA-Class 1969) and George Clark (USMA-Class 1975), all had their jersey numbers retired at a special pre-game ceremony before Army dropped the puck in a game against Holy Cross. Each player was brought individually onto the ice for an ovation from the crowd, then watched as their jerseys were unfurled from the rafters.
Rost says he was extremely humbled as he witnessed his #14 banner hanging above the sheet of ice where he racked up all those records four decades ago.
“When I saw that banner, racing through my thoughts were images of people,” Rost said soon after the jersey ceremony. “I had flashbacks of all the coaches and teammates that supported me from the days I first started skating as a kid, to my last game at Army.”
It was the perfect bookend for Rost, whose hockey past is now no longer a secret, because when your name and number hang somewhere, that means you did something special.
“I don’t know how I’m going to handle it going forward,” Rost said.
These days, the 61-year-old can still be found cutting up and down West Michigan ice rinks.
But he’s traded in his stick and pads for stripes.
“I love refereeing,” said Rost. “I’m amazed at how fast today’s kids can skate, and seeing all the new skills and developments in the game.”
Every once in a while, while he’s officiating a game, Rost says a kid or a coach will whine about a call or tell him he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“For me, it’s inner laughter,” joked Rost. “Thing is, I do know; I do know a lot about the game.”
Dave Rost is no longer lost in obscurity. He’s humbled his record still stands at Army; he’s thrilled his officiating career is helping shape the future of the game, and he’s content with his choice of the Military over the “Miracle.”
“I don’t have any regrets,” said Rost.
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