Miracle on Ice team’s last cuts: Ralph Cox and Jack Hughes tell their story

    herb brooks was walking. slowly, gently, carefully but restlessly. On a frigid Minneapolis morning, she was alone in a hotel banquet hall. Round tables and chairs lined the room. the caterers prepared a feast. a celebration was coming up. And yet, Brooks showed anguish on his tense Minnesota face.

    because in no time, the empty room would fill up. U.S. hockey officials would file in. local business leaders would follow. And Brooks, the head coach, would introduce them to the 20 fans he would bring to Lake Placid for the 1980 Olympics. The 20 who had skated together for months until their quads quivered and their buttocks burned. that they had traveled the world and bled to death together. who drank beers and suffered together, all in their quest to be part of the team.

    Soon, they would lock up their apartments, pile into cars, and head to the banquet hall for their farewells. they would then board a plane to begin final preparations for the Olympics. they buzzed with excitement.

    the stream problem: there weren’t 20 of them. hours before the announcement, it was 22.

    back in the apartment that mike eruzione shared with ralph cox, the phone rang.

    cox and eruzione were boys from massachusetts. so were jack o’callahan, jack hughes and dave silk. the five of them had met, as they used to do during those unforgettable months, to go to lunch together.

    eruzione picked up the phone. she handed it to cox. “It’s for you,” she said. and the boston boys fell silent.

    cox put the phone to his ear. “yeah. yeah. uh huh,” she murmured. Yes. good.”

    Shortly after hanging up, the phone rang again. this time, eruzione gave it to hughes.

    Pretty soon, Hughes and Cox were on their way to the hotel, where Brooks was hanging out. When Cox entered the room, Brooks raised a finger. “Just give me a minute,” was Cox’s interpretation. “and I could see how upset he was.”

    then the player and coach sat down. The words almost seemed caught in Brooks’s throat. forty years later, the memories of those who actually came out are hazy. but they were from the heart. They took Brooks into his own playing experience, as the last cut of the gold-medal-winning 1960 Olympic team. So they brought tears to his eyes.

    “I can’t take you with us,” the coach said, and the already sinking hearts sank further.

    so 22 became 21. minutes later, it was hughes turn and 21 became 20.

    heartbreaking farewells were said. The 20 then embarked on a journey that would make them American heroes, culminating in the miracle on ice, the biggest upset in sports history, which took place on Saturday 40 years ago.

    hughes and cox, meanwhile, took a taxi to the airport. They boarded a small plane bound for Boston. slipped into the clouds. and you, in all likelihood, never heard from them again.

    two children, a frustrated dream, two paths

    ralph cox was born to braintree and jack hughes in somerville, five months and 15 miles apart. They crossed paths frequently as children in suburban Boston, competing in duels in junior hockey leagues. and shared a dream. For Hughes, the seed was planted in the home of a family friend. Tucked away in a closet, and occasionally brought out for show and tell, was a blue USA hockey jersey. uu. “Wow,” Hughes thought when he saw it. “That opened my eyes, as a kid, to playing hockey for my country, and what that could mean,” he says now.

    cox also imagined red, white and blue. “Kids dream of growing up and playing professional hockey,” she says. “i dreamed of growing up and representing the usa. uu. it had more meaning in my family.”

    simultaneously but separately, they rose in rank. Cox still remembers the pride he felt every time he put the Archbishop Williams High School T-shirt on his pads. He then went to the University of New Hampshire, while Hughes enrolled at Harvard. one attacker and one defender, respectively, rose to the top of the nation’s amateur pool. Cox says he had offers to leave early and turn pro. the Olympics, however, were a year away. the money could wait.

    In 1979, their parallel paths became one. they and 24 others became one big family, enduring trips and grueling practices side by side. both survived the reduction of the Olympic training camp from 26 to 22. As February 1980 approached, both felt they deserved to reach 20.

    brooks, however, thought otherwise.

    both were invited to accompany the team to lake placid as glorified cheerleaders. both declined. and so their paths forked in agony. Cox watched the Olympic opening with his father. “That was tough,” she admits.

    the nhl farm teams traveled, cox to tulsa, oklahoma, hughes to fortworth, texas. neither saw the Soviet game. forty years later, neither of them has ever seen it complete. Cox nabbed the gold medal decider, a 4-2 victory over Finland. he calls it “incredible” and “awesome.”

    “after it was over,” he says, “I was like, ‘oh shit, man, I wish I was there.'”

    they were excited for their teammates, but hughes was disappointed and angry; cox was devastated, empty, “down in the dumps”. he came home for the summer. one afternoon, he climbed into his 1967 ford mustang and cruised to a nearby estuary to fish. maybe it would ease his frustration, give him some peace of mind.

    Instead, on the banks of the river, he slipped. she lost her balance. In an attempt to steady himself, he stuck his fishing rod into a rock. the rod broke. she threw it into the water. he kicked his lure box with it. and left.

    walked towards the mustang. he reached into the backseat. he grabbed his hockey sticks and carried one over a small bridge. he went over to the railing, wound it up, and wham! – broke in two.

    then he picked up the second one and… whoosh! – again.

    then drove home. she stopped in the driveway and went into the house. his frustration had festered, simmered, built up over months. Finally, on Cape Cod in June, he broke.

    but here, in the nuances of their emotions, is where their stories differ. Cox was “devastated”, even “embarrassed” after being cut, but never angry with others. hughes, although he was never ashamed, he was absolutely bitter. While Cox loved and respected Brooks, Hughes had clashed with the uncompromising Coach.

    For the most part, he’s courteous when the subject of your relationship comes up. “We didn’t see things the same way, and, um, I’ll leave it at that,” she says. but he hints at acrimony. Between leaving that hotel room and Brooks’s death in 2003, Hughes saw his former trainer twice. First, when he played against the Brooks-coached New York Rangers, the two didn’t recognize each other. the second time was between periods at a college hockey game years later. hughes saw streams on the esplanade, 30 feet away. he says that his eyes met. and, he tells him matter-of-factly: “He really had no desire to go say hi.”

    film distortion

    Fifty-seven minutes after the 2004 movie “Miracle,” Disney’s classic retelling of the 1980 team’s history, assistant coach Craig Patrick opens a door and strides into a locker room full of jokes. he heads straight for cox, and no kidding…

    “coxey”, he says, “herb wants to see you”.

    cox freezes. the joke fades. dramatic music replaces it.

    brooks is sitting in his office. he hears a knock. “Go ahead,” he says through tight lips, and Cox does. he takes a seat. “We have to get down to 20, and right now we’re down to 21,” Brooks tells him. and without saying the words, he tells cox no. 21.

    Millions of Americans have seen the film in the 16 years since its release. millions have felt that scene. many have been fascinated. they have repeated lines and have been inspired by the characters. two, however, had a different reaction. Jack Hughes’s sons saw it. They came up to him and said, “Dad, I thought you were the last guy cut off?”

    “I was,” he told them, but he had no satisfactory explanation for why disney said otherwise.

    had approached jack o’callahan about it. O’Callahan said, and today confirms, that he wrote to the film’s producer to say that the performance was inaccurate. The producer ignored the correction, and with that, two “last cuts” became one, Hughes’s story forgotten and Cox’s remembered. “The media and the movie and everything that’s been done all about Ralph,” says Mike Eruzione. “And that really wasn’t the case.”

    but for the public, it has been. Cox is the one who gets the occasional interview request. Hughes hadn’t had one in years. When I started reporting this story, Cox was the man I turned to. In our first two interviews, he didn’t mention Hughes. he referred to himself as “the last man standing.”

    The twisted narrative bothered Hughes for a while, but not because he cared about the Hollywood acclaim. rather, because he suspected she knew a reason for it. Brooks, before his death, served as a consultant on the film. The same Brooks who cried during his long meeting with Cox in that Minneapolis hotel, and who saved no tears for Hughes. the same brooks who later worked alongside cox in the scouting department of the pittsburgh penguins and never spoke to hughes again.

    “I think herb brooks had some influence,” says hughes. “Other than that, I have nothing else to offer. it’s a hollywood movie. much of it is true. some of them are not.”

    “but believe me, I don’t lose sleep over it,” he says. in fact, she has a “miraculous” movie poster framed by segments of hockey sticks hanging on a wall in her house. he’s signed by his 1980s teammates, many of whom he hasn’t seen in decades. Some of them, in interviews, assumed that Hughes would not want to speak for this story. but he did it, and he has moved on: from the movie, from the disappointment of 40 years ago, from the anger.

    cox has too. “It was a devastating moment as an athlete. and he hurt me a lot,” he says. “But I love those guys. and I love the team. and I liked the streams of herbs. and I’ve been asked so many times, ‘if you had to go through all that again, would you do it?’

    “and I’m like, ‘Honestly, tomorrow. Even if I have to face all that pain again, I’d do it all over again.'”

    the lesson learned

    When he came home from the stick-breaking outburst, Cox’s dad asked him out. they sat at a picnic table by the water in a setting summer sun. Dad talked about fighting in World War II and about the prospect. he spoke of opportunity and fortune. He acknowledged how hard it had been to endure Ralph’s Olympic disappointment.

    “But,” the father told his 23-year-old son, “you are only at the beginning of your life.”

    The next morning, Cox’s phone rang. he was a hockey agent. saipa, a team from the city of lappeenranta, in southeastern finland, was looking for an attacker. coxey fit the profile. the agent wanted to know: were you interested?

    He was, and in a span of about 16 hours, his world had been put back on its feet. she went to finland, had a “remarkable” experience, “and i realized that i actually loved playing hockey. breaking the sticks on the bridge, that was something momentary. oh so frustrated. but then you have to move on, you have to move on.”

    hughes, completely unaware of cox’s fishing story or its turning point, has the perfect metaphor: “sometimes, you need to slide off rocks and jump back if you want to cross the river.”

    both did and have enjoyed successful careers spanning decades, hughes in investment advice, cox in real estate. They are both married and have several children. Both say they learned positive lessons from the 1980s and both lead happy lives in New England today.

    hughes, although he went into business with o’callahan and worked with him for 25 years, has chosen to remain relatively aloof from most of his 1980s teammates, turning down invitations to various team functions throughout the years, he says, “I felt like it was his celebration. Cox, on the other hand, accepts invitations and still connects with his teammates regularly, both in official and unofficial meetings. he participates in her fantasy camps at lake placid. he was invited to the 40th reunion this weekend in las vegas. he warms to the character and camaraderie of the team. When he’s asked if he ever thinks to himself, dammit, I wish he’d been a part of it, he replies, “You know, I was a part of it. that’s the thing.”

    and, in a way, their story is just as powerful as the 20 heroes you know. Disney preserved its essence, although not the details. the result is calls, emails, postal mail from everywhere. of people battling deadly diseases or just battling a high school coach who doesn’t value his daughter. When Cox can, she will call back or even pay the affected fan a visit.

    A few years ago, you received a call from a man in a Midwestern suburb. A neighbor’s son, whom we’ll call Tommy, had just been cut from his high school hockey team. Tommy could barely get out of bed. His parents were worried. he was devastated, embarrassed, as coxey once was. and coxey turned out to be his favorite character in “miracle”.

    so coxey asked for tommy’s number and called him. “And we had a wonderful conversation. I mean, it was powerful, both ways,” says Cox. he gave tommy the speech about him, about his own life experiences and about optimism, positivity and much more. on how to turn a heartbreaking moment into a fulfilling life.

    around 10:30 at night, tommy called again.

    “hello, mr. Cox,” Ralph remembers him saying. “I want you to know that I took what you said seriously. and realized there was a tryout for the local junior team. and I went down. and the coach was so excited to have me there. and he already told me that I’m on the team. ”

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