The ‘underdog’s underdog’

1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ forward Mark Wells dies at 66

1980 U.S. Olympic hockey player Mark Wells waves during the 2017 Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp in Lake Placid. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

LAKE PLACID — A third jersey from the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team will now be raised to the roof of the Olympic Center’s Herb Brooks Arena as Mark Wells has died at the age of 66. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Wells’s death was confirmed Saturday, May 18 by his former teammates and the team’s social media pages.

“Sad day today for our 1980 Olympic team. Number 15 Mark Wells passed away yesterday,” 1980 U.S. Olympic team captain Mike Eruzione posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “Great teammate obviously a great hockey player and we will miss him.”

Wells played in all seven U.S. games during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, scoring two goals and adding one assist. He was a center on the team’s fourth line, alongside Phil Verchota and Eric Strobel.

Former New York Daily News Sports Writer Wayne Coffey described Wells as the quintessential player for that 1980 team.

After the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp draft in 2017 at the Lake Placid Conference Center, 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team player Mark Wells, who was the commissioner for the camp, points to himself in the celebratory photo taken after his team won the “Miracle on Ice” game against the Soviet Union on Feb. 22, 1980. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

“He was full of grit. He didn’t care about the odds,” Coffey said on Tuesday. “He wasn’t going to say, ‘Oh God, these guys are the Soviets. We’re never going to beat them.’ He was like, ‘Damn it, I’m Mark Wells and I may be short, you may not think that I can do anything, but I’m coming right at you.’ I think really that spirit, which Herb really embraced the underdog mentality, Mark really was the underdog’s underdog. I think ultimately that’s what got him on this team and what I’ll remember him.”

Coffey wrote the New York Times bestseller, “The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U. S. Olympic Hockey Team.”

Born on Sept. 18, 1957, Mark Ronald Wells was born and raised in St. Claire Shores, Michigan. Despite being a hockey star in high school, Wells did not receive a collegiate scholarship offer to play for Bowling Green — the same team that featured 1980 player Ken Morrow. Wells later received a full scholarship after his first season.

The 5-foot-9 forward may have been small by hockey standards, but his fiercely competitive nature was what enabled him to achieve what he achieved.

“I think because of his size, he always felt that he had to prove himself to people,” Coffey said. “I think there was a defiance that in some ways endeared him to (Herb) Brooks. I think it also drove Herb Brooks a little crazy.”

1980 U.S. Olympic hockey player Mark Wells signs a camper after the draft during the 2017 Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp in Lake Placid. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Prior to the 1980 Winter Olympics, Brooks had asked Wells to play right wing, according to Coffey’s book. Wells declined, stating he plays center. Brooks nearly kicked him off the team right then and there.

Like many on the squad, Wells later gained a massive amount of respect for what Brooks did for the players.

“I pray for that man every day,” Wells told the Lake Placid News in 2017, while pointing to a picture of Brooks during the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp in Lake Placid.

During the 1980 games, Wells scored one goal against Norway in a 5-1 victory and another against Romania in a 7-2 defeat — both in the preliminary round. His lone assist was during their 4-2 victory over West Germany. Wells played a more defensive role during the Olympics, despite being a solid goal scorer in college.

“As far as I could tell, he accepted his role, but he burned to do more,” Coffey said. “He burned to show that he could — OK, he’s not going to knock Mark Johnson off of first line center — but I really think he felt that maybe he could contribute more to the team. He wasn’t completely healthy either.”

1980 U.S. Olympic hockey player Mark Wells speaks during the 2019 Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp in Lake Placid. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Four months before the 1980 Olympics, Wells suffered a hairline fracture in his ankle while training with 1980 Assistant Coach Craig Patrick in Norway. The injury nearly kept him off the Olympic roster.

“I think that may have limited him somewhat, but he did his job and he did it well,” Coffey said. “I think he was proud of that, and he should be proud of that.”

Wells was selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the 13th round (No. 176) of the 1977 NHL Draft after his second season at Bowling Green State University. Despite various stints in the minor leagues, he never played a game in the NHL.

“He really was an outstanding player, and I think people never really appreciated how good he was,” Coffey said. “Mark was just a good salt-of-the-earth soul, and I was so fond of him and have great respect for him.”

Following his hockey career, Wells returned to Minnesota and became a restaurant manager, but he was forced into an early retirement following rare spinal cord disease diagnosis that eventually rendered him bed-ridden.

From left, 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team Assistant Coach Craig Patrick and players Mark Wells and Eric Strobel pose during the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp in Lake Placid in 2019. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

“He struggled with health issues to the point of wondering if it was even worth being alive,” Coffey said. “He faced almost every obstacle you could face and he did it bravely. To me, he showed a tremendous amount of strength even just sharing his story with me as openly as he did.”

In 2010, because of his health issues, Wells sold his Olympic gold medal at an auction.

“It’s a sad story because he reached this incredible pinnacle in 1980 and then so many things went wrong for him after that, mostly health-wise,” Coffey said.

MOI Fantasy Camp

In the spring of 2015, the state Olympic Regional Development Authority began hosting the annual Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp. Wells had attended all eight fantasy camps — with the exception of 2020 and 2021 when the camps were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic — but because of his health issues, he was unable to play and coach. This year’s camp was held from May 5 to 8.

“We wanted to find a role for him and we thought he’d do a great job as the commissioner and kind of be the PR guy,” MOI Fantasy Camp co-director and former ORDA employee Jeff Potter said on Monday. “I know all the campers enjoyed their time with him and found him to be a real humble guy and just a nice human being.”

MOI Fantasy Camp co-director and former ORDA employee Katie Million, who is currently the director of women’s national team programs for USA Hockey, said Wells absolutely loved coming to the camp.

“He looked forward to it every year and reuniting with his teammates and all the campers that have become friends and family,” she said Tuesday. “I know it was special for him to be here just a couple of weeks ago, and I think we’re all lucky we had this one last chance with him. What I can say was Mark was always a fighter and always super positive. He definitely had not the easiest life, and you’d never know it from talking to him because he was always just a positive force and didn’t let things get to him.”

As the camp’s commissioner, Wells spent most of his time cheering from the stands or interacting with fellow campers. He helped out by going over the rules and overseeing things with the staff … mostly behind the scenes.

Despite being the guy off the ice, Wells loved to talk and tell stories from the 1980 games.

“He’d have a conversation with anyone,” Million said. “It doesn’t matter who you are if you’re the president of the United States or the guy sweeping the floor and washing the dishes. He was just that kind of guy.”

Potter, who has been involved with Miracle on Ice reunions held by ORDA dating back to 1990, said Wells was always a guy you could sit down with and talk about what’s going on with your life.

“He’s always been a true gentlemen and a great guy,” he said. “He obviously had some health issues — probably even during his playing career. I actually just got to see him at camp this past week and spent some time with him. He seemed to be doing a lot better than he had in previous camps. I’m kind of shocked to have heard that he passed away.”

Wells was predeceased by teammates Bob Suter, who died in 2014, Mark Pavelich, who died in 2021, and head coach Herb Brooks, who died in 2004. In what’s become a tradition at ORDA and the fantasy camp, the jerseys of Suter (No. 20) and Pavelich (No. 16) have already been raised for display in the Olympic Center’s 1980 Herb Brooks Arena. ORDA Communications Manager Darcy Norfolk said the organization intends to raise Wells’s No. 15 jersey to the rafters, but the process will take some time.

One of Wells’s jerseys and a pair of signed gloves are on display in the Stroh Center at Bowling Green State University, where he was inducted into the Bowling Green State University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992.

“We are saddened to learn about the passing of Miracle on Ice team member Mark Wells,” Olympic Center General Manager Chadd Cassidy said in a statement. “Mark was extremely popular with our staff at the Olympic Center. We always looked forward to his trips back to Lake Placid. He was always friendly and endearing. He was simply a great man and will be dearly missed.”

On Monday, 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team goalie Jim Craig paid tribute to Wells on Instagram.

“Mark symbolized everything the team stood for: an indomitable winning spirit and the heart of an underdog,” he said. “Known for his unwavering dedication and grit, he inspired those around him to strive for greatness against all odds. Beyond his athletic prowess, Mark was the kindest soul, always ready with a smile and a helping hand. His warmth, generosity, and exceptional character made him a terrific person who left a lasting impact on everyone who knew him. Mark Wells will be deeply missed, but his legacy of perseverance and kindness will continue to inspire us all.”

There are now 17 of 20 U.S. Olympic hockey players from the 1980 Winter Olympics still alive. Those players include: Bill Baker, Neal Broten, Dave Christian, Steve Christoff, Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, John Harrington, Steve Janaszak, Mark Johnson, Rob McClanahan, Ken Morrow, Jack O’Callahan, Mike Ramsey, Buzz Schneider, Dave Silk, Eric Strobel and Phil Verchota.

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