LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team will always be remembered as the 20 players who made history and allowed the country to once again believe in miracles.
But 35 years later, there’s now an empty spot in the legendary locker room where defenseman Bob Suter once sat.
As the 19 surviving members of the team gathered in Lake Placid on the anniversary of their game against the Soviet Union, they were able to reflect on the life of their teammate and friend, who passed away from a heart attack in September 2014 at the age of 57.
“For a lot of us, we were stunned,” said Mark Johnson. “You don’t normally go into the office to pick up the phone and get the message that one of your best friends and one of your teammates has passed away.
“When reality set in for a lot of us, it was a very, very sad day. When the end comes, it’s hard because you’re not going to get a chance to go to the rink the next day and see and talk to Bobby.”
Being a Wisconsin native as well, Johnson was able to see more of Suter than most.
“The night before he passed away, one of my sons was at the rink and talked to him for 45 minutes to an hour,” he said. “That’s just who he was. He’ll never get the opportunity to do that again. That’s what makes it so hard.”
Even during the ceremony, the close-knit team had a hard time remembering it was just 19 of them now as Jack O’Callahan slipped during his speech and mentioned the 20 of them gathered on stage before correcting himself.
But they all know he was still with them up there, even in spirit.
“He meant a lot to our team and certainly he meant a lot to the game of hockey” Johnson said. “He did a lot of things, not only in the community of Madison as a native of Wisconsin but throughout the country to support hockey and grow hockey. Most important is he gave a lot of young kids the opportunity to play this sport.”
Unable to be in attendance was Suter’s son, Ryan, who currently plays for the Minnesota Wild in the NHL.
But the people who organized the event were able to broadcast a short clip of his son talking about his father and the memories he has when he would relive his Olympic days.
During the 35th anniversary ceremony, there was a moment at the end where the players and audience stood up and watched as Suter’s name and number were raised to the rafters to forever be retired in the Herb Brooks Arena — the same place he won gold all those years ago.
“I was happy for his family — certainly his wife and kids,” Johnson said. “It’s just another way to celebrate his life. Now when people come back and look at the 1980 rink and look into the rafters, they’ll see Bobby Suter’s number and reflect back on what kind of person he was. He was a very good hockey player, but more importantly, a good person.”
Unfortunately, the 19 players left will forever be known as the “surviving members,” something they are all well aware of now as the years continue to pass before them.
It may have even been a contributing factor in getting all the members together in Lake Placid for the first time since they won gold in 1980.
“Bobby’s death has really solidified how important it is to make time,” Jim Craig said. “My daughter had her last college hockey game that she’ll ever play in and I left early. It has to be something really special to do that.
“We’re smart enough to understand that this might never happen again with all of us. You have to enjoy each moment and appreciate the time you have together.”