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Adams: Inner Fire of Miracle on Ice Doctor and His Horrifying Mugging

What I have found fascinating about the whole Miracle on Ice of 1980 story is how the story is still going and growing. Having delivered this Talk now over 100 times, what I have found is audiences are inspired not just by the incredible teamwork and leadership in the story, but how much love is in it and the resiliency of all involved.

unnamedJust over a week ago something that is hard to grasp happened to the beloved team doctor from that magical run back in 1980.

George ‘Doc’ Nagobads was visiting the Crystal Lake Cemetery there in Minneapolis.

unnamedNow 94, he has visited the grave of his late wife Velta every day, except when severe weather since she died ten years ago. They had been married 54 years.

At 3 p.m on that Sunday afternoon earlier this month, a young man around age 14 in a blue hoodie confronted Nagobads. The kid struck him repeatedly on the head with an ice scraper. Summoning the kind of spirit and quick thinking that fueled the team in 1980, Nagobads protected himself with a folding chair, and then took out his wallet and threw it.

unnamed-1“And I said, that is the moment I can escape now,” Nagobads told KARE 11 TV Minneapolis. “And then, he was going for the wallet and I was running to my car and I was amazed how fast I could run with my old age.”

Using one arm to try to stop the bleeding from his head, Nagobads drove himself to North Memorial Hospital where he was treated for cuts on his scalp. He drove way over the speed limit, not caring if he got pulled over. He received 18 stitches to close the wounds. He is recovering and expected to be okay.

Unbelievable. It is appalling that such a person could do such a thing at a grave site. The cemetery said that has never happened there before.

The depth of Doc Nagobads and his contributions to the team spirit and to others have been a major reason that 1980 team recorded the greatest sports moment in U.S. history.

Just before the fresh-faced US Olympic hockey team took on the goliath-like Soviets on February 22nd of 1980, coach Herb Brooks gave the stopwatch pictured below to Nagobads and asked him to time shifts, with none going over 35 seconds so that they could stay fresh against the Soviets at the end (a shift is where the 3 offensive players stay on the ice for a period of time, then 3 more come on). To this day when you watch the game, you can see Nagobads glued to the timer, being the ultimate team player. He jokes that he was the only one that did not see the game because he was so focused!

unnamed-2He did look up long enough to respond to a Soviet player who skated over desperately to ask, “How is this happening? How are they leading us!?” Nagobads responded, “It is the fountain of youth,” relating to the average age of the U.S. boys being 20, the youngest ever U.S. Olympic hockey team.

A native of Latvia, Nagobads was the team physician for five U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Teams (1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988), He was team physician, multilingual problem solver, travel guide, and surrogate father to the young men traveling the world. Fluent in four languages, Nagobads was the perfect person to handle challenges with passports, border crossings, and KGB agent.

After the medal ceremonies in Lake Placid, Nagobads was in a room at the arena writing his medical summary when several of the Soviet players arrived at the door. Led by Helmut Balderis, nicknamed “the Electric Train” because of his speed, they asked him if he would help them buy moon boots for their wives on Main Street in Lake Placid. They could not speak English. He was glad to be of help.

Goalie Jim Craig had lost his mother to bone cancer before the 1980 Winter Games. His father had lost his job as the food manager of a junior college near Boston. Jim missed his mother greatly. Part of the brilliance of coach Herb Brooks, who I personally think was a genius, was that he saw things like this and arranged for Jim to stay in the basement of Doc and Velta’s home in Minneapolis for five of the seven months the team was based in the area before the 1980 Games. It was comforting for Jim to have them to talk to at night, and Nagobads became a mentor to him.

By staying there, Jim was also able to send home his monthly stipend to his father and siblings. Jim could have gone pro in 1979 but stayed an amateur for a whole year as his mother had asked him to play in the Olympics if he could before she died.

When the US team beat the Soviets 4-3, Nagobads ran straight for Jim to share a big hug. Nagobads would use that picture as the cover of his book, which came out recently.

unnamed-3Years later, Doc and Velta would take this picture below with Jim.

On his motivational speaker website, goldmedalstrategies.com, Jim writes about their influence on him.

“Dr. Nagobads and his wife were loving and kind. They reinforced in me, what my parents had taught and shown in their example – that love and kindness nurtures untold good and benefits the world in incalculable ways.

From Dr. Nagobads, particularly, I learned the importance of patience and the value of studying and gaining an understanding of a situation before committing and making a decision.

Dr. Nagobads emphasized the importance of preparation -thorough and total preparation, and total commitment to a goal.

unnamed-4My success as a person – as a husband, father, hockey player, and business professional – is owed in a significant way to Dr. George Nagobads.” – Jim Craig
Born in Latvia, a country on the Baltic Sea, in 1921, Nagobads began his medical education at the University of Latvia in 1941 as WWII was going on. In 1944 after the Soviets occupied Latvia, he was forced to flee (ironic that years later he would be a part of their loss in Lake Placid). He enrolled in a university in Germany near Frankfurt. He almost died as it was near a railroad station that the Allies bombed regularly. He was almost killed helping a professor evacuate medical equipment. A bomb exploded fifteen feet away, sucking the breath from his lungs and slamming him to the ground. He soon transferred to a safer university in Germany.

A few years later, armed with a PhD, he was told there were many more medical jobs in the U.S. so with his fiance Velta they came across the ocean. He did not speak English, but she did. He first worked as an orderly at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis until he learned English, and worked his way to the University of Minnesota Medical Center. Appointed the team doctor of the men’s hockey team in 1958, he would keep that role for 34 years, including the Herb Brooks years (1972-1979) as coach at Minnesota, leading into Lake Placid.

unnamed-5Herb and Doc became very close. The picture above is of them in Lake Placid.

Like so many from the 1980 Games and Lake Placid in general, he has lived a life of adventure, giving back, love and being a total team person. People are still stunned over what happened to him when he was changing his beloved Velta’s flowers, but he showed us just what the Miracle on Ice showed us 35 years ago. There is nothing we cannot overcome and nothing we cannot accomplish. In a moment where most of us would be terrified, especially at 94, he had the quick wit to fling that wallet and run like the wind to his car.

Doc Nagobads, way to inspire us all, and get well soon!



Peak Performance speaker Charlie Adams is a 1980 grad of Lafayette High who is an Ole Miss alum. His new motivational keynote More Than a Miracle is a powerful description of the greatest moment in United Sports history. He shares how a group of college kids upset the best team in hockey history in Lake Placid in the winter of 1980, and galvanized America along the way.

“I literally had to choke back tears about 5 times during this Talk. Now I now feel as if I can do anything! ANYTHING!!” – Christopher Pataro, lawyer

“As powerful a motivational talk as I have heard in 40 years.” – Bob Bayliss, former tennis coach at Notre Dame and Navy

Charlie can be reached at charlie@stokethefirewithin.com

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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