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Gleason: McClanahan's belief in miracles never fades

Thirty-two years later, the salt in his hair blending with the pepper, the subject still hasn't grown tedious. Rob McClanahan is 54 years old, a successful businessman. No matter how much time has passed, no matter how many times he's asked, he'll never get tired of discussing the Miracle on Ice.
Then again, if you'll forever enjoy the greatest moment in American sports history, why wouldn't he? McClanahan was a key figure among a group of feisty college kids who came together on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team under frosty coach Herb Brooks, defied the odds and knocked off Russia en route to gold in Lake Placid.
"No, it doesn't get old," McClanahan, who will be back in Buffalo to coach in the All-American Prospects Game this weekend in First Niagara Center, said Thursday. "It's a great subject. Most people who ask about it remember where they were for that situation. It wasn't just the Soviet game but also when we won the gold medal."
Many people believe the story ended when the Americans beat the Russians, setting off a national celebration that unified the country at the height of the Cold War. They forget that the U.S. still needed to beat Finland in the final game to secure the gold. If they lost, they wouldn't have won any medal.
And who scored the winner against the Finns, a footnote somehow lost in time?
Rob McClanahan.
McClanahan became an inspiration for the U.S. team and finished with five goals and eight points in seven games in 1980. He's known as much these days for his passionate dressing-room blowup with Brooks, for whom he played at the University of Minnesota, as for anything he accomplished on the ice.
Brooks, who died in a 2003 car accident, was a stern disciplinarian who relentlessly rode his players in an effort to build chemistry. Their confrontation between periods in the opener against Sweden, in which Brooks accused McClanahan of being soft and McClanahan refused to back down, made for a memorable scene in the Disney hit movie "Miracle."
McClanahan played through the injury, which is what Brooks intended with his Machiavellian style, and the U.S. rallied for a tie. At the same time, McClanahan showed his teammates they could overcome anything. Team USA won its next four games and came away with the gold medal.
"I don't remember exactly what I said or if he called me a candy-ass [as portrayed in the movie]," McClanahan said. "I know that I had gotten hurt and had an ice pack on my thigh. Everybody I talked to tells me it was an intense scene in the movie. In reality, it was far more intense. I was going to throw a punch. He walked out of the locker room. I followed him out to the hallway."
A few weeks later, still flying high, McClanahan jumped from Brooks and the U.S. team to Scotty Bowman and the Sabres, who selected him in the 1978 NHL entry draft. "From one legend to another," he said. McClanahan watched his first game after signing his contract as Rick Martin scored four goals and Gilbert Perreault had four assists in a win over St. Louis.
The next game, in Winnipeg, he was on their line.
Speedy and smart but small, McClanahan finished the season with two goals and five points in 13 games. He had only three goals in 53 games the following season and was waived. He played briefly for Hartford and had 22 goals and 48 points in one full season with the Rangers before his career fizzled.
"Scotty gave me a chance to play," McClanahan said. "I couldn't have asked for a better situation, but I shouldn't have played that spring in 1980. I was completely fried. . I have no complaints at all. I've been blessed. I've been very lucky. The things I've done, I've been fortunate to play on some very good teams."
It's hard to believe more than three decades have passed. When he played for the Rangers, he had an internship with Morgan Stanley. It led to a successful life after hockey in Minnesota, where he has worked in finance. He helped his brother coach briefly years ago and now is helping out with his 12-year-old daughter's team.
The political landscape has changed and, with it, the game. NHL players come from across the country and around the world. They're faster and stronger than ever. And yet a previous generation would argue that the world was a better, simpler place and hockey was a better, simpler game when McClanahan played than what you see today.
In truth, he doesn't know much about the players he'll be coaching this weekend. He views himself more as a figurehead, a former player from a great team who is doing a favor for USA Hockey. Phil Housley will coach the opposing team. Bowman, who coached McClanahan and Housley, will drop the ceremonial first puck.
McClanahan isn't going to make his collection of prospects better in one day, but maybe he can share his passion and his wisdom. Maybe, after all these years, he can make a difference for the players who came after him. Maybe he can inspire them the way he did his teammates some 32 years ago.
"It's all about the kids," he said. "I don't have a secret sauce. But if I can make an impact on one kid, I've won."