The Charming Town Where ‘Miracle on Ice’ Took Place: Lake Placid, New York

Forty-four years after USA hockey gold, Lake Placid is a patriotic winter wonderland.
The Charming Town Where ‘Miracle on Ice’ Took Place: Lake Placid, New York
Team USA celebrates their 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semi-final Men's Ice Hockey event at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Feb. 22, 1980. The game was dubbed "the Miracle on Ice.” The U.S. went on to win the gold medal by defeating Finland 4-2 in the gold medal game. (Steve Powell /Getty Images)
Cary Dunst

“Do you believe in miracles? YES!”

These were the iconic words of sportscaster Al Michaels as he called the final seconds of the greatest upset in sports history on Feb. 22, 1980, in Lake Placid, New York.

“Every time I hear it still, I get chills!” said Gina Cimaglia, 52, a hospitality executive, describing her reaction to the broadcaster’s famous catchphrase. Ms. Cimaglia has been a local since 1993, when she moved to Lake Placid after college.

The semifinal Olympic contest between the amateur USA hockey team and the four-time defending gold-medal Soviet team of professionals was set against escalating Cold War tensions. The “Miracle on Ice” was a cultural spark, reawakening national pride after years of descending morale.

“’Miracle on Ice’ was so impactful for both the town and American culture. In 1980, there was so much tension between the U.S. and Russia, and the ... win helped swing the national mood and amplify national pride. For the town, it cemented our legacy,” Ms. Cimaglia said.

That patriotic energy and history are alive and available to anyone willing to travel to the High Peaks region of New York state’s Adirondack Mountains.

Winter in Lake Placid is anchored around a Norman Rockwell-esque Main Street, the frozen Mirror Lake, and the surrounding snow-capped mountains. This tourism and recreational retreat attracts hockey fans, patriots, and seekers of a winter utopia, where kids and dogs frolic in the snow and strangers join friendly pick-up hockey games.

Lake Placid Olympic Center and Museum

The city’s hub is the Olympic Center at Miracle Plaza, a modern facility comprising a museum, gift shop, cafe, and bar. It also has three indoor ice arenas and the outdoor Olympic skating oval.

The home of the “Miracle” was renamed the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena in honor of the winning team’s immortalized coach.

Sydney Aveson, 32, a local in her fifth season as a USA Hockey official, said: “As a player ... I had the privilege of competing in the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena when I was 17 years old. Now, I officiate youth and adult hockey tournaments on weekends, where I witness the spark it ignites in every player, coach, and family. The 1980 arena isn’t just a venue; it’s a living testament to the powerful spirit of that iconic moment.”

You can walk right in, sit in the seats, and sense the ghost of hockey past hanging from the rafters. In the lobby sits the original scoreboard, still displaying the triumphant score of “USA 4,” and “URS 3.” But these hallowed walls are still put to use.

“Lake Placid is hockey, along with many other sports. We are the winter sports capital of the world,” Ms. Cimaglia said. “You can be sure every Thursday through Sunday, from November to March, town will be bustling with hockey teams arriving. Whether it be the CAN/AM tournament or a CHE (Canadian Hockey Enterprises) tournament, they come from all over the USA and Canada to be able to play in the same arena that the ‘Miracle’ took place in.

“Seeing people excited about hockey, and the enthusiasm for the ‘Miracle on Ice’ story, keeps the spark alive for me, even though I have officiated hundreds of games there,” Ms. Aveson said.

After taking tons of photos of the indoor complex and visiting the memorabilia on display in the museum, ice-skating on the outdoor oval is a must.

Main Street and Mirror Lake

Continuing from the Miracle Plaza down Main Street, you’ll find hotels, bars and restaurants, gift shops, candy stores, and a classic movie theater.

“It is a quintessential small town with the ability to transform its landscape during winter to embrace all the seasonal vibes that people look for,” Ms. Cimaglia said.

Plazas along Main Street offer entry onto the frozen, snow-covered lake, which is nearly as popular with pedestrians as is Main Street. It’s visually stunning, as the wide-open space blanketed in white reflects a tremendous amount of light, even on cloudy days. The frozen winter lake is nature’s version of a perfectly level, oversized sports field. During dawn, dusk, or a blue-bird afternoon, the colors make for a bright visual treat, and the cold mountain air seems to purify the lungs.

A popular way to tour the lake is on a dog sled guided by a professional musher. You will also encounter folks trekking about in snow shoes and see areas where the snow has been swept away—making a good spot for a pick-up hockey game.

At the end of the lake near the Olympic Museum is the Lake Placid Toboggan Chute, a steep 30-foot-high sledding ramp. For $15 ($10 for children), you can take unlimited rides, gliding as far as 1,000 feet onto the ice.

Whiteface Mountain

Two other Winter Olympics host cities, Salt Lake City in Utah, and Palisades Tahoe (formerly known as Squaw Valley) in California, are known foremost for their skiing. Because of the “Miracle,” Lake Placid is a hockey-first town.

However, its local ski and snowboard resort, Whiteface, sits on a steep and imposing mountain. Exceeding 3,000 vertical feet, it’s easily the tallest ski resort in the eastern United States and taller than its Utah and California Olympic sister cities.

Another intriguing aspect of Whiteface is that it’s managed by the State of New York’s tourism division and sits within a protected preserve 15 minutes’ drive from town. While the resort has all the modern amenities you'd expect for a great day of skiing and snowboarding, it’s in the middle of the forest and free of the hotels, condos, and retail outlets typical of similar resorts.

Mount Van Hoevenberg and the Olympic Jumping Complex

A short drive from downtown are two Olympic complexes. Mount Van Hoevenberg features the bobsled, skeleton, and luge courses, along with the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.

According to its website, the biathlon event originated with Norwegian soldiers on cross-country skis training in marksmanship, creating a contest that combines skiing and bullets.

If you want to enjoy the winter trails without shooting rifles, that’s perfectly fine, as the Nordic Center offers 35 miles of trails, along with lessons and equipment rentals for skis and snowshoes. Or you can simply go out in your hiking boots on the Mt Van Hoevenberg Trail for free.

Just down the road is the Olympic Jumping Complex, where two huge ski jumps stand as high as 240 feet, vaulting competitors into the air to fly as far as a football field. Tours give visitors insight into the sport and a great view of the entire Lake Placid area. Since most visitors will never learn to jump, a zipline called the Sky Flyer has been set up. It is said to emulate the experience of the 100-meter ski jump, with zipliners reaching speeds of 30 miles per hour.

Outside of downtown and the official Olympic sites, the greater Lake Placid area offers plenty of outdoor recreation, arts, music, shopping, and spas, all with great consideration for family and guests with special mobility needs.

“The locals share a kindness that you can only find in a small town or a Christmas movie,” Ms. Cimaglia said. The hustle and bustle of tourists gives the town an overall joyous energy. When tourists come here, they find a town steeped with history, pride, and kindness.”

So if you’re experiencing the winter blues or cabin fever, or if the news cycle has your spirit down, perhaps you'll find your own miracle in Lake Placid.

When You Go

Film Prep: Watching the 2004 movie “Miracle” is a must. It streams on Disney+ or wherever you rent movies. This docudrama starring Kurt Russell as the determined coach Herb Brooks will get you pumped and ready to tour the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena. The film can hold the attention of children and those not particularly interested in sports with its nice perspective on the coach’s family life and plenty of sports action. To hockey fans, this film is pure magic.

There are also two documentaries for those who want to go deeper. “Do You Believe in Miracles?” was made by HBO and is narrated by Liev Schreiber. “Of Miracles and Men,” narrated by Jeff Daniels, explores the Russian hockey dynasty and the “Miracle” from their perspective. The latter is part of the “30 for 30” series by ESPN.

Getting There: The High Peaks region of the Adirondacks is a five-hour drive from New York City and Boston, and six hours from Toronto. It’s approximately a 35-minute drive up into the scenic mountains off the exit from the New York Thruway. You can also fly into Plattsburgh, N.Y., where mass transit is available.
Where to Stay: There are a variety of accommodations including in-town hotels, house rentals, and gated luxury resorts. We were pampered at the High Peaks Resort on Saranac Avenue at Main Street. Its location enabled us to explore downtown and Mirror Lake on foot without needing to drive.
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