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Backchecking: Bill Baker continues gold medal work on patients

Bill Baker played 143 NHL games, totaling 32 points. (THN Archives)

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Bill Baker played 143 NHL games, totaling 32 points. (THN Archives)

By Alan Bass

Bill Baker is often known for his game-tying goal against Sweden in the opening game of the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.; a game that helped propel Team USA to the medal round before their famous Miracle on Ice upset of the Soviet Union en route to the gold medal. His powerful one-timer from a Mark Pavelich pass tied the game 2-2.

However, the hands that were once used to handle a puck are now being put to use in the doctor’s office as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

Baker, having played for Team USA coach Herb Brooks for the previous four years at the University of Minnesota, was not handed a roster spot on the Olympic team.

“Some of these (guys) were getting guarantees that they’d be on the team,” Baker said. “I had inquired about it because I had been accepted into dental school at the time and I just got that stare (from Brooks), like, ‘Why are you wasting my time?’ That look that I got a lot.”

Nonetheless, Baker made the team, eventually scoring the aforementioned goal that tied the opening game of the Olympics in the closing minute.

“The faceoff…came back to (Mike) Ramsey…he slides it back to me, and I’m like, ‘What am I supposed to do with it?’ ” Baker reminisced with a laugh. “So I just ring it around the boards; you know, take the easy way out.”

A few seconds later, though, Baker took a pass from Pavelich in the slot and slapped it between the legs of Swedish goaltender Pelle Lindbergh.

Baker explained that Brooks often attempted to motivate the team, although sometimes in unneeded situations.

After beating the Soviets, the U.S. still had to defeat Finland to secure the gold medal.  

“I do remember everybody thinking, ‘we have to beat the Finns or this is all for naught,’ ” Baker recalled. “Then (Brooks) comes in and he says, ‘If you don’t win tonight, you’re going to take it to your f***in’ graves.’ Well, no kidding! We all thought of that, thanks for reminding us right before game time.”

But Brooks was much more than simply a coach.  He was an influence to Baker and the rest of the team.

“Obviously from the hockey side, he gave me every opportunity in the world,” Baker said. “You can’t thank him enough for that. He took me from a pretty raw high school player, gave me a good opportunity at Minnesota to become a better player…then kept on with the chance to play on the Olympic team…and all the way to the NHL. I owe him a tremendous amount from that standpoint.

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“I think what he taught me afterwards is just that discipline; you knew that everyday you had to get up, go to school, get to the rink, do whatever it took to get through, study and to be responsible for your actions. In life, with everything I do, it’s really evident that he was a big influence. My dad is kind of the same way.”

After playing in the NHL for more than 100 games with the Canadiens, Blues, Rangers, and Rockies, Baker returned to dental school and oral and maxillofacial school, each for four years. Baker’s firm - which has 19 employees - treats diseases of the hard and soft tissue in the head and neck. In addition to implants, denture fittings and other surgeries, Baker performs major jaw surgery, treats trauma and jaw fractures and lacerations.

“The oral surgery was something I’d wanted to do when I started playing college hockey,” Baker said. “It was something that intrigued me…it seemed like something that would be real challenging.”

Baker even sees a connection between hockey and maxillofacial surgery.

“Brooks in particular taught me a lot in how to outwork the person next to you,” Baker concluded. “You make up for less skill in hockey by being more motivated. I’ve used those ideas today. I don’t think I have the best hands as a surgeon, but I know there are not too many that are going to outwork me.”

However, Baker does admit that sometimes he would like to go back into hockey management, perhaps as a GM.  

“It may be more fun when you’re retired from oral surgery as opposed to now,” he said. “But I sometimes think about that, especially when I talk to some of my friends who are still in hockey.”

For now, Baker is more than satisfied aiding his patients.

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