Cloquet Olympians share their experiences
“When you guys were little hockey players like bantams, did you ever think you would play in the Olympics?” an audience member asked former Olympians Corey Millen and Jamie Langenbrunner at the Cloquet Library Monday night.
Held as part of the One Book Northland joint reading venture by area libraries — which elected to read "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics" by Daniel James Brown — the event came together at the last minute but provided audience members and participants with some moments to remember.
Mike Sylvester, a former Pine Knot editor who played hockey at Cloquet high school, then juniors and at Dartmouth College, moderated the question-and-answer event with help from WKLK radio host Randy Stahl.
Sylvester and Stahl asked the men questions about what the Olympic experience was like for each of them. They asked how the experience was different each time they went, or if they watched any of the other events going on at the Olympics. Then each of the former Olympians took turns answering, with a little good-natured joking thrown in at times as they compared how different their experiences were.
For all of the parallels in their hockey lives, the two Cloquet natives had very different experiences in the Olympics.
Both men were encouraged by their parents to try all sports as youth but chose hockey and went on to play high school hockey in Cloquet. Millen graduated in 1982 and Langenbrunner 11 years later in 1993.
Both men played in the National Hockey League on teams that brought home the Stanley Cup.
Millen helped bring Lord Stanley’s Cup home in 1993 while playing for the Los Angeles Kings and Langenbrunner followed his example in 1999 while playing with the Dallas Stars and again in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils. Both men brought the cup back to Cloquet to share with family, friends and a few thousand excited fans who stood in a line for hours waiting for their turn for photographs and autographs.
Millen participated in the Olympics in 1984 and again in 1988. Langenbrunner played in 1998 and 2010, when he was also named captain of the team.
“I was very fortunate to grow up in this town and have this guy to look at,” Langenbrunner said, nodding to Millen. “For me that dream was possible because I had somebody to look up to.”
Millen looked to the University of Minnesota-Duluth hockey players for his role models, then moved his goals higher as he grew older and understood what opportunities were out there for him.
“My dreams probably changed on an annual basis,” Millen said. “College was probably my goal because that's what I watched.”
Sylvester, who graduated between the two Olympians, remembered when he was a squirt-level player in Cloquet.
“Everyone wanted No. 6 because that was Corey’s number,” Sylvester said. “When it came time to pick jerseys for the squirt team there was always a fight over who got No. 6 because he was the first real role model.”
When Langenbrunner was a sophomore on the 1992-1993 CEC team, then-assistant coach Richard Bartholdi gave the players T-shirts with pictures of the faces of the 1984 Olympic team, including Millen.
“We all wore the shirts under our equipment, I wore mine for two years and I don't think I washed it. It was pretty disgusting,” Langenbrunner said with a laugh. “We wore those because [Coach Bart] thought we could get there too.”
Millen participated in the 1984 Winter Olympics, officially known as the XIV Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. He was also on the 1988 Olympic Winter hockey team in Calgary, Canada, where he was the leading scorer through four games.
Even his two visits were different experiences.
Millen admits that he was young for the 1984 team, just 19 at the time. He was not on the original roster to play in the Olympics as he had hoped, but was heading back to college when he received the call. Team USA was training against a Russian team in Alaska when Millen was called to join them and play on the 1984 Olympic team.
In the 1980s the players skated together for a year before the Olympics, as seen in the popular hockey movie “Miracle on Ice.” A change was made in the ’90s, however, to accept NHL players, who trained and played together at the Olympics instead of a year in advance.
The players in the ’80s attended a U.S. Olympic Festival hockey tournament which was used to select players for the Olympic team. The festivals would have several thousand athletes participating in roughly 30 sports, depending on the year, and that helped give amateur athletes the opportunity to experience a competitive event and prepare for the Olympics.
“Jamie’s experience was probably different than mine,” Millen said. “The process of tryouts was different over the years. They invited 80 guys to go play at the festival and that was tryouts. They read your name off of a list (for the men who were selected to play at the Olympics), so that was my experience.”
Millen admits that the team did not play well at the ’84 Olympics.
“There was a lot of attention on the American hockey team after the 1980 gold medal team,” Millen said. “There was a spotlight on us because of what they had done.”
Although the players on Millen’s team were all amateurs, many of them went on to play in the NHL later.
“You're more comfortable when you're older and I had a better year in 1998. Sarajevo was an experience, it was a whole different world,” Millen said. “We were an hour late because of Olympic traffic in 1984 and barely made it to the ice for warmups. Then 30 seconds into the game we were down 1-0 and we never recovered. It was a tough experience there.”
The host country had built a village to hold the Olympics. According to Millen, the food they served was atrocious.
“The Italian team brought their own food and their own chef,” Millen said. “We figured out when they were serving and we went there.”
“Everywhere we went we were treated well that year,” he added.
When he went again in 1988 the guys were all more mature and played better.
“It was a better experience there,” Millen added.
When Millen played in Calgary, the team was playing at the time of the opening ceremony and were not able to attend.
The selection process changed in the 1990s to include hand-picked NHL players as well as amateurs, creating a larger pool to choose from and a very different experience for Langenbrunner than Millen, who had to try out to be a part of the Olympics.
“Now with the addition of the NHL the players, they are at the peak of their game,” Langenbrunner said. “The players are from 19 or 20 years old to mid-30s and it makes for a good tournament.”
What did the NHL players think of playing in the Olympics knowing there could be a potential of getting injured and have their career derailed, Stahl asked Langenbrunner, noting that playing in the NHL was their job, their income.
“I was 22, so I had no thought process like that,” Langenbrunner said with a big laugh.
Then he got serious. There is an insurance issue now for the NHL players and their contracts. There is a big risk, he said, adding that he believes the players do want to participate in the Olympics as it was an enjoyable experience for him.
Langenbrunner was called to play in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano after a player got injured in the first game.
“My wife was nine months pregnant at the time when I got the phone call. I said, ‘I have to check with my wife,’” Langenbrunner said, which he did. “She said, ‘It's the Olympics, Jamie, get on the plane.’”
Langenbrunner flew to Nagano, Japan, spent time practicing and playing, but their team did not win. He came back home and his daughter was born the next day. He said he did not feel the Olympic experience that time, that “it was more like attending a weekend hockey tournament.”
He did feel the experience more on his next visit to Vancouver in 2010 when he was made captain and the team won the silver medal.
Sylvester remembered watching the unveiling of the 2010 Olympic roster on television. Youth hockey players wore the name of one of the chosen players on the back of their jersey. As the kids turned their backs one by one to the audience, they showed the name of the player.
Sylvester laughed as he told the group Langenbrunner’s name was so long on the little player that it went down the side as well as across the top of the jersey.
Langenbrunner said the players only found who was going to the Olympics a few hours before the rest of the country did.
The host country of the 2010 games had condominiums built for the families of the players and the players from each country and a common area for all of the athletes to hang out in.
“It was a real good setup in Vancouver,” Langenbrunner said.
Langenbrunner enjoyed meeting other athletes from other sports and getting to know them.
“I found that to be real interesting and a lot of fun,” Langenbrunner said.
While Langenbrunner was busy practicing and participating in the Olympic games, his family was able to attend many of the different events at the Olympics.
“There really isn't time to go see other events with the practicing every other day and then the games,” Langenbrunner said. “The security is so tight, you have to leave hours before to get to the events. My family got to see everything, but I didn't.”
They did manage to watch the women's gold medal hockey game play.
Expectations for the USA team was low for the Vancouver Olympics as they were ranked around fifth or sixth, Langenbrunner said. The team was young and played well and surprised the other teams by winning in overtime. Canada was expected to win the gold.
“For us beating Canada in Canada was great — Langenbrunner had the winning goal, Sylvester pointed out — and a shot in the arm,” Langenbrunner said. “It was very nice to hear Vancouver silent that night. That gold medal game was amazing. The goals didn't go our way, but it was a great experience.”
Of course the USA hockey team won the silver medal, and Langenbrunner brought his silver medal to the library Monday night to display. The medals are about half an inch thick, heavy and each one is unique. They have the Olympic rings logo small on the medal.
Millen brought his USA Olympic jerseys, which were very clean and white, for people to see, as well as photos of them playing over the years in a variety of games.
Millen’s favorite hockey career memory was being a part of winning the Stanley Cup, while Langenbrunner’s was being named captain of the Olympic team in 2010.