COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Pennsylvania is the gold-medal state it was announced today by The USA Hockey Foundation in wrapping up its “Paint America Red, White and Blue” fundraising campaign that spanned the month of December.
The Keystone State's 32 donations led the nation, thus giving it the gold-medal designation. Michigan was not far behind with 27 donors and Massachusetts finished third with 24 donations. Contributions also came from newer hockey markets, including Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina. In total, some 300 people took part with more than $40,000 raised to benefit the continued advancement of hockey in the United States.
“We couldn’t be more thankful to those that participated in this very first Paint America Red, White and Blue campaign,” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey and The USA Hockey Foundation. “The contributions received will help further opportunities in the sport at all levels and we are so appreciative of every single gift.”
The USA Hockey Foundation supports USA Hockey efforts that provide opportunities to disabled and disadvantaged youth; help increase participation through a variety of initiatives; enhance the safety of the game; help the U.S. be the best internationally; provide education programs for athletes, coaches, officials and parents; and celebrate the game through commemoration.
While there have been plenty of United States Olympians who’ve embodied the “Got Milk?”-like wholesome symbolism of success over the years, A.J. (Mleczko) Griswold, gold medalist in 1998 and silver medalist in 2002, may top them all. The Nantucket, Mass., native’s credentials border on unassailable.
In 1999 alone, she won a national championship with the Harvard University women’s hockey team, she was selected First Team All-America, she earned the second-ever Patty Kazmaier Award and she claimed Bob Allen Women's Player of the Year honors. She is also a member of two halls of fame: The New England Women's Sports Hall of Fame (2002) and the Women's Beanpot Hall of Fame (2011).
One could convincingly argue that the self-actualization box has been checked.
USA Hockey caught up with Griswold at her Concord, Mass., home recently, where she had just returned from her third Olympics as a hockey broadcaster for NBC Sports. Reflecting on her transition to the media, she said, “It was very different. I had played in two Olympics, retired and started a family. Like anyone entering the field, I had to audition, which was scary, and then take on a steep learning curve. I was seven months pregnant when I first went on the air for the network in Torino.”
As for the contrast between playing a game and communicating a game’s happenings to viewers, Griswold said, “Initially, it was hard to watch and not be involved. It was a new challenge though, to look at hockey in an analytical way, and entirely different to watch a game and form opinions. Furthermore, you have to be impartial. In spite of playing with many of the (Team USA) women on the ice, I noticed it was not as hard to be unbiased.”
She also added, perhaps surprisingly, that “you have more free time as an athlete.” As a broadcaster (at any Olympics), Griswold regularly preps for, and calls, two to three games a day.
When it came to the alleged, Twitter-fueled mishaps in Sochi, Griswold was quick to debunk them.
“I didn’t have the experience (as an employee of NBC Sports) of a typical attendee, but I can tell you my hotel was great and the weather was great. While the four previous host sites spread the Olympics around the respective cities, there was an Olympic Park with beautiful, state-of-the art facilities in Sochi. I ate my meals at the NBC Commissary, where American food was served.”
The byproduct of such a layout, however, was that “I didn’t feel like I was in Russia.”
When asked how she stays close to the game and USA Hockey, the mother of four with husband, Jason, was excited to mention that she is an athlete director with USA Hockey and also a board member with the USA Hockey Foundation.
It’s in coaching though, often times with Jason, a hockey player himself and a lacrosse player in college at Colgate University, that she feels is the best way to stay involved and keep learning.
“Coaching kids, including our own, is the best way to give back, to share your expertise,” she said. “It’s at the grassroots level where you make a real difference.”
Their skates may move a little slower than they did nearly 42 years ago in Sapporo, Japan, and there’s probably more silver and white in their hair, but talk to any member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, and they instantly go back to that time like it happened just yesterday.
“I can still hear the crunch of the snow from our early morning runs around the Olympic Village and playing in those games,” said former defenseman Tom Mellor, a Rhode Island native. “What an experience it all was – just a bunch of amateur hockey players going out to take on the world one game at a time.”
An improbable run to the silver medal started with an upset of Czechoslovakia that some compared to the U.S.’s wins over the Soviet Union in the 1960 and 1980 Olympic Games. Team member and Minnesota native Craig Sarner credits the intense team bond to helping lift Team USA to its success that year.
U.S. Head Coach Murray Williamson demanded that the team stick together right away, beginning with practices and tryouts that began months prior to the Olympic Games. Sarner and Mellor both note that, “everyone had one another’s backs” and “it became one of our biggest and most important families.”
And it’s a family that hasn’t drifted, even though states and careers now separate them. The team chemistry still carries on today with the majority of the players that donned the Red, White and Blue all those years ago.
“The medal was important,” said Sarner. “But the friendships we developed and the lifelong bond we have is the biggest part of it all. We just enjoy the heck out of being together, and it was that chemistry that helped us prove that will does beat skill sometimes.”
After the Olympic Games, most of the team, which included the likes of a then 16-year-old Mark Howe, Henry Boucha and Mike “Lefty” Curran, went on to some sort of professional hockey career, still staying in touch every year via email and phone calls and trips all across the U.S. Sarner, Mellor and the rest of the squad get together frequently. Their last trip was to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the summer of 2012. Mellor said the team already has plans to meet up again this year, a reunion that everyone looks forward to.
The conversation is not always focused solely on hockey. Sarner is still involved as a scout for the United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League. Mellor hung up the skates and moved on to “life after hockey.”
They also update the hockey family on each player’s personal family.
“I’m a new grandpa with a granddaughter, Eve, so I am boring the guys with photos and information about her constantly,” said Sarner, whose silver-plated medal hangs in Eve’s room. “So I know they’re tiring of it, but we all update on family life and just everything that’s going on with one another. Never a lack of stories, some true, some fabricated, when this group gets together.”
Stories will be shared by the 1972 alums and their extended USA Hockey family for years to come.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to play with and meet than that team,” said Mellor. “Them and really everyone involved in the USA Hockey organization, from the 1980 team, and beyond, it’s neat to be a part of something like that – to be a part of that family.”