Ralph Cox Weighs in on NCAA, the Olympics & Life Beyond 1980September 12, 2018
The 1980s were a tumultuous time politically and economically worldwide. The nation needed encouragement and hope and they found that in sports. The incredible story of a couple college kids beating the USSR hockey team is one that most sports fans are familiar with. The incredible triumph of students coming together and defying the odds is one that resonates with virtually everybody. These young men, plucked from college and junior league hockey teams, became the face of a revolution. Ralph Cox was one of those young men. Reflecting on his time in the NCAA, Ralph is confident in the system and the importance of development.
ralph cox and team usa
The NCAA D1 (division one) consists of 20 teams in the United States. The 1980 team was primarily from the schools in the D1 league, like Ralph Cox. Hitting the ice together wasn’t a foreign concept as most of them had played against each other before. “All the players on the ‘80 team had previously either played with or against one another so, we were familiar with each other,” Ralph told Access Hockey MI. “We all knew everyone was extremely talented which caused great completion and brought out our best every day. All the players had played on nationally rank teams and knew how to play under extreme pressure.”
Cox was a University of New Hampshire graduate and an extremely successful hockey player. In three of his four seasons with the team, he tallied 70+ points. So, when the Olympic tryouts came around, it seemed pretty clear why Herb Brooks, the selected coach for Team USA, chose him to be a part of the team.
development in the ncaa
The college league is different than other junior leagues in the sense that men like Cox, were playing against other well-developed and older guys. “Playing any D-1 sport is challenging because it involves the best of the best. In order to rise to the top you must give maximum effort every day…there are no days off,” Ralph said. The physical and mental demands are compounded on top of the off-ice attitudes a player of that caliber is to have, “You must be a great off-ice leader in the community,” Cox said, “To quote; ‘to those who are given much…much is expected’. You come to realize that being a good athlete also means or should mean being a good human being…every day.” Every hockey player understands, that to be the best, you must live and play like the best.
Ralph Cox and his fellow Team USA teammates embraced the attitude of continual leadership, whether or not they wore the “C” on their jersey. “To be successful in hockey you have to a great team player, you know you have to work extremely hard to be good, you need to have a great attitude, give maximum effort every day, be honest and humble just to stay relevant and have success,” Ralph told Access Hockey MI. Maintaining a champion’s attitude is no easy task, but it enabled Cox to play the best hockey he could and understand that his teammates were his priority.
a college and international hybrid
Coming into the Olympics, no other attitude would have enabled the team to accomplish such a feat. Being coached by Brooks, intense as he was, Cox was able to develop even further – beyond his existing UNH experience. “They were similar in that they were the early leaders in bringing a European style of hockey to the US with the central objective around puck controlling and passing often,” Cox said. Prior to the Olympics, UNH and other colleges had begun adopting the “European style” which Herb Brooks heavily enforced while training the 1980 team. European ice is 15 feet wider than US ice, making more opportunity for passing plays and control. “International hockey is so fast, competitive and involves the highly trained train and talented players in the world,” Cox said, “So you better prepare or you’re going to get run over.” Cox understood where Coach Brooks was going with his strange methods. In Herb’s mind, the US style, playing the trap and shooting from anywhere on the ice, wasn’t going to cut it against the European teams participating in the Olympics.
Thankfully for Cox, he found that his NCAA time varied only slightly from what Brooks was introducing to this young team. Many of them had already been accustomed to this method, though perhaps not to Brooks’ intensity. Reminiscing on Brooks’s methods, Ralph said, “They were different in that Herb had few matches for his intensity in practice and in games. Rightfully so…he had no patience or tolerance for lack of effort.” The NCAA requires a great deal of effort, but Cox as well as his teammates, soon understood that they were playing on a world stage. Tapping into his UNH background and matching that in tandem with Herb’s teaching style, they were able to create a hybrid style to meet the demands of international play. This hybrid creation and the players’ ability to work cohesively, ultimately lead to their victory. Without the collegiate background and discipline, however, this could have proven to be very different for Team USA.
amateurs in the olympics
Shortly after the team took home gold in 1980, the Olympic committee opted to use professional skaters to represent Team USA. It was an upset to all the hopefuls making their way through the college circuit. As of recently, the Olympic committee has once again
decided to switch that rule around, and use amateurs. Cox, having the experience of international, NCAA and pro hockey, sees both sides of the coin, “ It’s good and bad,” he said, “You can’t just have one country sending amateurs. Given the way sports have evolved, I think the best players in the world should be in the Olympics and that the NHL should just play a shorter season on those years but share in the TV revenues to help make up the financial loss.”
Going forward for NCAA, there are more changes to be had. The USHL and NCAA have more common routes for future pros to take. For Cox, he sees a slight disadvantage in spending too much time at the USHL or junior level, “I think the NCAA should adopt a rule that college players only have 5 years post-high school to play 4 years of varsity hockey. I’m not a fan of a 22-year-old freshman.” Coming from one who went through the college route with no prior junior experience, Cox makes a good point. Many players who don’t go pro out of college, are left to find a career path outside of hockey at a later stage in life than they would have had they started sooner, “If everyone had to play by these rules it would be much better for 95% of the players because they’re not turning pro and should be getting on with their lives,” stated Cox.
life beyond the olympics
It is not to undermine the college or junior levels, but from someone who was a participant in one of the greatest moments in sports history, there is merit to his opinions. More and more players take the USHL route and attending college perhaps a few years later than they normally would have. Each league, the USHL, NCAA, OHL and so on, have an important role in developing the next generation of athlete, but athlete’s need to be aware of the work their putting in and how it will impact their long-term plan. As for Ralph, he doesn’t regret the path that he chose, “I have amazing friends from all over the world…and I learned early that attitude, effort, honesty, and courage mean something. People want to be around positive, smart, hungry people. I am very fortunate to have learned that early in life.” Without his time at UNH and his life-changing experience with Team USA, Cox would not be the same person he is today.
The American leagues are difficult to maneuver and getting harder as more international skaters are coming here to play. Going through the NCAA league secured Cox’s future for a time and gave him the tools to move on to a profession – holding onto the memories and lessons learned from that season of life.
In parting, Cox offered a piece of advice for the junior skater pursuing hockey as a profession, “Attitude and effort! Be 150% positive to all your teammates and coaches….don’t be a sulking sourpuss! Believe me, if you do this…and have talent…coaches will play you!!” Cox may not have been the superstar and didn’t go on to the NHL long-term, however, the growth he experienced at UNH and under Brooks are life lessons, no matter what stage of life he’s in.
For all the hopefuls grinding through the junior leagues and NCAA, you are in good company. Ralph Cox became a part of history simply by doing what he loved. Put in the work, devote your time to your team, and it it will pay off.