The bitter disappointment of previously undefeated Mounds View's 4-3 loss to Richfield brought star Mustangs forward Rob McClanahan to his knees after the 1976 state quarterfinal game. Minneapolis Star photo by Steve Schluter curated from the Minnesota History Center collection by Kyle Oen of Vintage Minnesota Hockey
Remember the tension early in the 2004 “Miracle” movie, when the actor playing Boston University defenseman Jack O’Callahan goes after the actor playing University of Minnesota forward Rob McClanahan?
Harsh words and a fight at practice were portrayed as fallout from the 1976 NCAA playoffs, where a cheap shot from McClanahan drew O’Callahan into a ruckus for which the Terriers’ tough guy got ejected.
False. McClanahan was a senior at Mounds View High School in 1976. O’Callahan did play in the infamous NCAA game. But he wasn’t ejected. The brawl did play a large role in Boston’s semifinal loss to eventual national champion Minnesota, however, bringing lasting pain and anger to the real-life O’Callahan.
Meanwhile, McClanahan was dealing with heartbreak of his own. Mustangs’ players woke up the morning of Thursday’s 1976 state tournament quarterfinal a perfect 24-0. They went to bed out of the championship picture.
Seeding the state tournament field wouldn’t start until 2007. Long before that, the unintended consequence of predetermined section quarterfinal matchups meant situations such as Mounds View meeting a powerful Richfield (20-3) team led by center Steve Christoff. Another quarterfinal pitted defending state champion Grand Rapids against one-loss Bloomington Kennedy.
“The top-four teams played each other in the first round,” McClanahan said. “That was unfortunate.”
The anticipation for Mounds View versus Richfield was palpable. Pictures of the state’s top two centermen made the Minneapolis Tribune’s front page Thursday morning, McClanahan (36 goals) looking right and Christoff (23 goals) facing left.
“We knew it was a huge game,” McClanahan said. “We felt the winner would win the title and the loser would win consolation.”
Each standout center made a difference in Richfield’s 4-3 victory.
Mounds View started fast, outshooting Richfield 21-3 in the first period. But a Christoff goal helped the Spartans stay even at 1-1 after one. His second period goal produced a 2-1 lead.
“We should have been up four or five to nothing,” said McClanahan, whose second-period goal knotted the score at 2-2 at the second intermission.
Christoff assisted on both of his team’s third-period goals. McClanahan assisted on Mounds View’s one goal.
Afterward, Mustangs’ coach Tom Wegleitner blocked reporters from entering the locker room and getting players’ perspectives. But a postgame photo of a kneeling McClanahan, only his gloved hands keeping his face off the St. Paul Civic Center ice, said enough.
“One of my goals was to make it to the state title game,” McClanahan recently said. “But it’s not about the result; you have to enjoy the process. I didn’t know that when I was 18 years old.”
Richfield players make certain McClanahan won’t forget the state tournament result.
“All those guys remind me of it,” he said. “But we were really good. I’m very proud of everything we did.”
As for McClanahan, as the line in “Miracle” goes, stealing the ring off O’Callahan’s finger (which didn’t happen), things worked out for both players following their 1976 heartbreak.
O’Callahan won the NCAA title with Boston in 1978. McClanahan and the Gophers did likewise the following year.
Then the duo joined Christoff for Olympic gold in 1980.