Peconic girl trains, plays on sacred Lake Placid ice

COURTESY PHOTO | Sarah Sinning practices and plays on the same rink that the United States men’s hockey team won the Olympic gold medal on in 1980.

The site has witnessed a miracle.

It was 33 years ago when the world came to Lake Placid, N.Y., and watched a team of amateur American hockey players pull off a sports miracle. They call it the “Miracle on Ice,” the United States’ stunning upset of the former powerhouse, the Soviet Union, in the medal round of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games men’s hockey tournament. Who could forget that? Television play-by-play announcer Al Michaels counted down the final seconds of a 4-3 American victory, capping it off with: “Do you believe in miracles!? Yes!”

And then there were scenes of absolute exultation amid a flurry of red, white and blue uniforms and waving American flags. Joyful American players hugged each other and screamed. The United States goaltender, Jim Craig, with an American flag draped around his shoulders, slowly skated along the ice, looking for his father in the stands.

For many, it was more than a game; it was a defining moment of American glory, wrapped around one hearty team of underdogs. There was the tough, demanding coach, Herb Brooks, who while his players celebrated on the ice, reportedly ran to the locker room and cried. There were the players. Names like Neal Broten, Mike Eruzione, Ken Morrow, Buzz Schneider. They will be forever linked for what they did that February day and afterward. A win over Finland in its final game gave the United States the gold medal, but it is the triumph over the Soviets that is most remembered.

Sports Illustrated called “The Miracle on Ice” the top sports moment of the 20th century.

COURTESY PHOTO | In her first season playing for the National Sports Academy under-19 team, Sarah Sinning recorded 5 goals and 11 assists in 63 games.
COURTESY PHOTO | In her first season playing for the National Sports Academy under-19 team, Sarah Sinning recorded 5 goals and 11 assists in 63 games.

After the Lake Placid Games ended, the players and coaches moved on, but the memories and the hockey facility — since renamed the Herb Brooks Arena — remain. It is here, on this sacred ice, where Sarah Sinning of Peconic practices and plays hockey for the National Sports Academy (NSA).

First established in 1977 as a ski school under the name The Mountain House, the NSA is a private preparatory school for winter sports athletes. Altogether, 57 students attend the school, including the 18 who play on the under-19 girls hockey team.

The team colors? What else? Red, white and blue.

Bill Ward, who has been the team’s coach for 11 years, said that when he first started coaching at the Lake Placid school, just skating on the famed hockey rink brought goosebumps and tears.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s definitely a special place.”

Of course, neither Sinning, 16, or any of her teammates were alive when the United States won hockey gold there in 1980. For her, Lake Placid is a training ground for her to pursue her dream of playing college hockey.

Sinning had been a roller hockey player just about her whole life along with her brother, Jack, and sister, Nicole. Seeing no future in roller hockey and not many ice hockey opportunities for girls on Long Island, her interest was drawn to the NSA by a friend. Eventually, she convinced her father, John, and her mother, Toni Ann, that she needed to go to Lake Placid to reach the level she needs to be as a player. She started attending classes at the school this past September.

What drew Sinning to the NSA?

“My coach,” she said. “He’s awesome. He’s amazing.”

Life at the school is regimented. A typical day was described as follows: breakfast at 6:30 a.m.; practice around 7:30 a.m., followed by running and strength training; lunch at noon; classes start at 1 p.m. and run until 6 p.m. when dinner is served; mandatory study hall from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (except for students on the honor roll, who are permitted to study in their dorm rooms); lights out at 10 p.m.

COURTESY PHOTO | The National Sports Academy in Lake Placid is a private preparatory school for winter sports athletes.
COURTESY PHOTO | The National Sports Academy in Lake Placid is a private preparatory school for winter sports athletes.

Sinning is receiving quite a hockey education, playing alongside college-bound teammates and one player, junior Denisa Krizova, who is a member of the Czech Republic senior national team.

The NSA team is on the ice for seven months of the nine-month school year, practicing or playing games six days a week. The Mountaineers have traveled extensively, too, playing in other states such as Minnesota, North Dakota and Virginia. “We’re all over the place,” Sinning said. “All the girls are there for the same reason, to play hockey.”

Ward called it “the opportunity of a lifetime” for his young players. “They’re playing with and against some of the best players in the country, some of the best players in the world,” he said. “They’re learning to play and make decisions at a real fast pace.”

A few weeks ago the Mountaineers completed their rigorous 76-game schedule with a 50-23-3 record, setting a school mark for the most wins in a season in team history and finishing in third place in the Junior Women’s Hockey League.

Sinning, a junior forward in her fourth year of playing ice hockey, dealt with a couple of injuries during the season and missed the playoffs because of illness. She finished with 5 goals and 11 assists for 16 points in 63 games, with 20 penalty minutes.

More importantly, Sinning has made progress, said her coach. “She’s developed quite a bit since being here,” Ward said. “Her skating has definitely improved. She has very good hands, and a very quick release shot.” He said she is coachable and eager to learn.

Sinning said: “I think I played really well. It was a really big step up from the game I was playing here at home.”

The biggest adjustment Sinning said she had to make was getting accustomed to the speed of the game.

One thing that may be even more difficult to adjust to is the Lake Placid weather. Although the setting is idyllic (“It’s beautiful, especially in the winter,” said Sinning), it can get awfully cold in Lake Placid. One morning at 6:30 a.m., Sinning said, it was minus-37 degrees outside. “At that point,” she said, “when the wind’s blowing, there’s nothing you can put on to keep the wind from cutting through your clothes.”

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