‘Miracle on Ice’ Resonates 40 Years Later for Mark Wells
America is full of heroes, and Mark Wells is one of them.
No, he never rescued anyone. He wasn’t a respected politician. And he didn’t go to war.
Forty years ago, Wells was one of 20 college-aged men chosen to represent the United States at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
Galvanized by the gruff, hockey mastermind Herb Brooks, the team beat the heavily favored Soviet Union during what most consider the greatest sports moment in American history. Two days later, USA beat Finland for the gold medal.
At their very essence, these were mere hockey games.
For anyone who remembers, they were nothing short of a miracle.
“I think to myself, ‘I really helped my country,’” Wells said. “It really helped with morale.”
Last man in
Wells was the last player chosen by Brooks, who in addition to customary tryouts, put players through a 300-question psychological test to give insight on how they’d react under stress.
Yet in some ways, Wells was actually the first.
Just a few months before Olympic tryouts were held, Brooks and Wells met during a 1979 NCAA hockey playoff game. Though Wells’ Bowling Green Falcons lost to Brooks’ Minnesota Golden Gophers, Brooks was impressed.
After the game, Brooks had a message for Wells that was part-mandate, part-prophetic.
“I’ll see you in the Olympics,” Brooks told him.
Though only 5 feet, 9 inches tall, Wells had remarkable speed. He was Brooks’ secret weapon, as he elected not to use Wells during a pre-Olympics exhibition game against the Soviets at Madison Square Garden.
After the Russians crushed the United States 10-3, it proved to be one reason the hockey juggernaut sorely underestimated America during medal round play.
“Everybody talked about the Russians, but I’m not the kind of guy who shakes at hearsay,” Wells said.
Neither was Brooks.
Silence is golden, but speeches are, too
During his celebrated pre-game speech – recreated by actor Kurt Russell in Disney’s “Miracle” – Brooks read his players a speech he had pre-written, telling them that “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”
Wells remembers it well.
“That speech made me feel like the greatest player in the world,” Wells recalled. “It was the greatest speech of all time.”
As Wells entered the ice, he felt the sheer intensity of facing off against the dreaded Soviet Union.
“I looked at them as communists,” he said. “They looked big and like robots. They were huge, but they didn’t intimidate me. They just made me mad. I went in thinking ‘win.’”
Wells credits his Catholic faith for keeping him “alive with the Soviets,” as well as his mother, who taught him about Jesus Christ.
He needed all of it, because Wells said the Russians panicked in the last two minutes and “literally put on the steam.”
Wells suffered a broken neck during the game, but remained on the ice without realizing it.
A team of leaders
As the game ended and Al Michaels’ uttered his iconic phrase, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!,” most remember the “U-S-A” chants, flag waving and team celebration.
But Wells witnessed what others didn’t – the Russians’ disappointment, which gave him an important reminder about life in America.
“They were upset. They didn’t smile. They were disarrayed,” he recalled. “In democracy, you have opportunity, but not in a Soviet, communistic, socialistic environment. We caught them by surprise because we were molded into a team, not by socialism. Brooks had the intelligence to do that. Each one of us were leaders.”
And though Wells knew they experienced hockey history, they still needed one more against Finland to capture gold.
“I don’t think I totally understood it, although I knew it was a big event,” he said. “I wasn’t there to beat the Soviets. I was there to win the medal.”
After America defeated Finland and won gold, the hockey team was invited to the White House, where the enormity of the accomplishment hit home.
“There must have been 100,000 people lined up at the (Washington) airport,” Wells said. “It was the whole runway, all waving flags. That’s when we realized we did something.”
All Wells and good
Following the Olympics, Wells played three years professionally before retiring.
Now 62 years old and living in Florida, Wells dedicates much of his time to his two young sons. He’s writing a book about his Olympic experience, set to debut in 2022 – just two weeks before the next Winter Olympics.
He sold his Olympic gold medal to help pay for medical costs after incurring fractured vertebra, multiple surgeries and a rare degenerative spinal disease.
Most of his teammates sold their medals, too, for varying reasons. Wells has no regrets from doing so, but wishes his sons could enjoy it.
“The only reason I’d want it back is because I had my children later in life,” he said.
Nothing however, can take away the memories from being part of the greatest moment in American sports.
“When we became a team, it was magical,” he said. “It was 20 guys who just gave their heart to that day. That was the greatest feeling I ever felt in my life. Playing for the USA and wearing that uniform is like wrapping a flag around you.”
A true reflection of the American spirit.
“Win or lose, Americans unite,” he said. “When you see people sacrifice – well, that word means a lot in America.”