Once upon a time, a very special hockey team played a very big game. The biggest. And it was a game their talent alone could not win.

But this was not a team picked because they were the best hockey players. This was a team of team players. A team who won that game because they changed what it took to win.

That winning spirit changed more than that one game. More than that one Olympics. It’s a champions’ flame that continues to live in the hearts and minds of millions. Around the country and even around the globe.

And, it’s a spirit that’s especially poignant to a small group of fans and players who made a very special journey this week to Lake Placid. A pilgrimage of sorts, to skate and play hockey on that same ice. With those who were there. Those who played that most famous of all hockey games. Those who won.

The Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp

Eighty fans of that remarkable team, 62 of them hockey players themselves, came to Lake Placid’s sixth annual Miracle On Ice Fantasy Camp May 1 through 5. Fifteen players from the Miracle On Ice Team joined them to challenge and coach them.

It was in 2015, shortly after the Miracle On Ice players got together for their 35th reunion that the fantasy camp was born. Learning the players’ return to Lake Placid and the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena was such a powerful experience, the Olympic Regional Development Authority created the camp.

First time Miracle On Ice Fantasy Camper, Mario Estrada in uniform ready to play
First time camper, Mario Estrada.

First time camper and first-generation American citizen Mario Estrada recognizes there’s a diversity of campers that is tied to the universal inspiration the 1980 Team offered the world. “I started playing hockey because of the Miracle On Ice game. My dad was glued to the TV. My brother and I were watching it. It’s unusual Peruvians would be so interested, but I realized as I got older that game moved the country. It brought us together.”

In fact, not only do campers come from all corners of the United States but from many other countries, too. As in other years, there are also women among them.

For campers and the 1980 players alike, the magic of that performance endures. The Miracle On Ice Fantasy Camp is an irresistible chance to live and relive the magic of that game.

“You really couldn’t do this anywhere else,” says Estrada. “This is where it happened. This is an authentic experience. Lake Placid is where fantasy meets reality.”

Bearing Loss, Together

Like his fellow campers, Estrada is quick to express his gratitude for the event and those involved. “This blows away all my expectations. I’m lucky to have this experience, and I’m lucky to meet these great players. They are people who understand values and camaraderie and what being a teammate means.”

Unfortunately, they’ve lost three members of the 1980 team – Herb Brooks, Bob Sutter, and Mark Pavelich. “It’s sad because we’re losing great men,” says Estrada. “They’re heroes because they brought a country together.”

Mark Pavelich is the most recent member of the 1980 Team to have passed. He was 63.

Event director Eric Van Ness says, “Mark made lasting friendships at camp. This is our sixth year, and there are many strong relationships that have been forged among the team and campers. It’s been important for everyone to recognize Mark’s passing.”

Miracle On Ice Fantasy Camp participants standing next to the replica Mark Pavelich jersey before it was hoisted to the rafters in the 1980 Herb Brooks ArenaThe first day, the group held a remembrance ceremony during which 1980 teammate John Harrington spoke and shared stories. Harrington’s tribute was followed by a period of silence during which a replica of Pavelich’s jersey was lifted to the rafters over the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena.

“Campers are doing things on their own to remember Mark, too,” says Van Ness. “He was such a big part of camp, and he’s greatly missed.”

Helmets of all the players and campers bear the numbers 20 and 16, in memory of both Bob Sutter and Mark Pavelich. Herb Brooks is also visibly and permanently commemorated within the 1980 Arena that bears his name.

“There are not many sports teams who get together after 42 years,” notes Van Ness. “This is the field of dreams for hockey.”

In talking with 1980 Team members and campers, one gains and understanding of a vital concept. That the champions’ spirit the Miracle On Ice Team demonstrated to the world 42 years ago is still accessible by everyone. And that feels like the most poignant intersection of fantasy and reality in Lake Placid.

Indeed, the words of Herb Brooks apply to everyone – “You were born to be a player. You are meant to be here. This moment is yours.”