Mark Wells went from being a member of the “Miracle on Ice” USA hockey team in 1980 to a three-year pro career to spending the next several years in body casts and pain. The only constant during that time of incredible peaks and valleys was his faith.
Wells visited Culver Academies on Sunday, May 6, to speak at chapel, meet with students, and talk to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. During his time with the FCA members, Wells said he relied on God when he hit a particularly rough stretch with USA hockey just before the 1980 Olympics and never blamed God for his problems with his back and neck.
“I blame genetics,” he said of his degenerative spinal column disease. It was a disease that his family had battled in the past, he added. Wells spent three years in a body cast after having titanium screws inserted in his back to stabilize his lower spine, only to have those screws break.
“It’s rare,” Wells explained, but his doctors told him it does happen. That meant having his spine fused and another body cast. Then, he had problems with his neck. When he first started walking again, “I walked like a penguin.” He drives a pickup because he can’t bend enough to fit in a car. Once, when he got out of his truck, police thought he was drunk because he walked so funny.
All the while, he has never lost faith. A Catholic, Wells showed the students his rosary, which came from his grandmother. His “spirit and strength” comes from his belief in God. And he remembers to “thank God” often, just as his grandmother told him to do. “Don’t live in doubt,” he said.
Wells has always set goals throughout this life. Playing for USA hockey and in the NHL were his early goals, though he thought of quitting the USA team just prior to the Olympics. He had signed a contract with the Montreal Canadiens and he had just gotten engaged, so he seriously considered quitting “and just getting on with my life.”
He asked God what he should do during a drive to his fiancée’s home over Christmas break, and “he answered me,” Wells said. God told him he had “the strength to finish this. Show your faith to me. He took control.” When Wells didn’t play in a Detroit exhibition game against Canada, his father asked him about his chances of getting to the Olympics. Wells told him “God’s gonna get me there.”
On coach Herb Brooks, Wells said he was tough. “He told us, ‘I’ll be your coach. I won’t be your friend.’”
Brooks knew that to beat the Russians, who had defeated the NHL All Stars, the USA team would have to be in better shape physically and mentally tough. That meant running the team hard and keeping the players slightly off-balance so they were ready for anything.
While the 4-3 win over Russia made history, the team had to defeat Finland to win the gold medal, which they did, 4-2. After the gold medal game, Brooks told them that their lives would change after that. And they did. Ask any of the players what their biggest hockey moment was and they will tell you it was winning the gold in Lake Placid, he said, even those players who have won Stanley Cups.
For Wells, though, the gold medal is no longer in his possession. He was forced to sell it to pay his medical bills. He sold it for $40,000. Years later, it was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for more than $320,000.
Now in his fifties, Wells said he still regularly sets goals. His timeline is two years for short-term goals and five years for long-term goals. “Set achievable goals,” he said, and don’t be afraid of failure.
“We all fail. That’s how we learn.”