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Miracle revisits Olympic hockey, a generation in crisis

review by Chuck Cordill, staff writer

When I recently asked my daughter if she wanted to go to the movies, she kind of rolled her eyes and said, “Oh boy, another sports flick.” She usually manages to stay interested through most of the sports pictures I take her to, even if I have to explain most of the details. But that doesn’t mean she’s enthusiastic.

Then I took her to Disney’s, Miracle. “That was great!” my daughter said. “Can we see it again?”

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I realized then that Miracle was more than just a sports movie. It was more than just a chronicle of one of the greatest upsets in sports history. I realized it was about how all of us have something inside of us that we tap into when we know the task before us is impossible. It also shows how a culture desperate for heroes in trying times can find them in the most unlikely of places. And how, for almost two hours, a father and daughter cab bond emotionally over what was only, after all, a hockey game.

Director Gavin O’Conner admits he didn’t intend Miracle to be a sports movie. He sees it, instead, as a character study amidst a background of turbulent times. And though I did have to explain “line changes and power plays,” the more I watched the film, the more I understood O’Conner’s intent.

On the surface, it was about the late college hockey coach Herb Brooks molding a group of college players, along with a few NHL long-shots, into a team and preparing them to face what many say was the best hockey team in history. As O’Conner puts it, “Brooks was a mad scientist and his team a lab experiment.”

The film did an excellent job of showing the method of the U.S. coach’s madness. In fact, almost a quarter of a century later, his former players admit it’s taken them awhile to comprehend why Brooks did what he did.

Brooks was the prototype “old school” coach, pushing his players beyond their limits and basically making them “re-learn” the game. He knew that in order to beat to best team on earth, he’d have to take the Soviets’ game plan and ram it down their red throats.

Veteran actor Kurt Russell did a remarkable job for a character study. He looked like Brooks, right down to the late 70s style plaid bell-bottoms and bushy, blow-dried hair. And he managed to capture the multifaceted chemistry of a hard-nosed, emotionally detached disciplinarian who was, as well, the passionate former player who was the last to be cut from the 1960 U.S. squad that last beat the Soviets, who had since dominated the Olympics for two decades. No wonder Russell’s Brooks was teary-eyed as he made his final roster deletion.

Using Brook’s own words made everything come even more alive. Just a week prior to the start of the 1980 Games, the U.S. played the Soviets in a tune-up game at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The U.S.S.R squad, paid by the state and mostly members of the Soviet Army, trounced the U.S. team, mostly amateurs, 10-3. As one American player put it, “It was 10-3, and it wasn’t even that close.” Coach Books remarked that his team had been in awe of the superior Soviets before the game even started.

“ I knew we were in trouble when the team applauded them during introductions,” Brooks said. But the U.S. regrouped and made a surprising run over favored teams en route to the medal round, only to discover they’d have to face the Soviets once again to earn a trip to the gold medal game. Brooks knew the U.S.S.R was a far better team. “If we face this team 10 times, they’ll probably beat us 9 times,” Brooks told the team. “But not tonight. Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. This is your time. Their time is done, it’s over. This is your time.” The underdogs went on to make history.

In a way, the game was almost an afterthought for the nation. As ABC game commentator Al Michaels said prior to it, “I’m sure there are people in this building that don’t know the difference between a “blue line” and a clothes line. It’s irrelevant.”

The game took place at the height of the cold war. The Soviets had already invaded Afghanistan, in what would later lead to the United States boycotting the 1982 Summer Games in Moscow. But as the U.S team made its incredible run, it seemed everyone in America became hockey fans. The chants of, “USA, USA, USA,” carried from the arena in Lake Placid and into the consciousness of a nation desperately in need of a healing tonic.

When the game was over, when we “finally beat the Russians,” strangers embraced. People openly wept and celebrated. Spontaneous renditions of the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful could be heard around the country. American flags were the norm, and the bigger the better. Brooks’ strategy and tactics brought the United States an unbelievable Olympic victory. But he understood. “It was a lot more than a hockey game,” as he said later.

The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s improbable victory over the Soviet Union is one of those moments in modern history when just about everyone who watched the game can tell you exactly where they were when it happened. And as I watched the movie, I was taken back some 24 years and felt many of the same emotions. It was especially significant because my daughter was able to experience the same emotions her father felt as a young man just coming of age.

My daughter has grown up not knowing the Cold War. I had to explain about the Soviet Machine, the arms race, the gas shortages, the aftermath of Vietnam, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Our country was in a state of uncertainty and political tumult. And then I realized that her generation is growing up with its own sense of insecurity and uncertainty. The cold war has been replaced by the War on Terror. And we are again a divided country on the political front. And now, just as when I was a kid, we search for hope and just a few moments respite from what seems like overwhelming circumstances. And like so many times in our nation’s history, I pray that we will see victory. It’s a prayer that has been answered by our resilient youth, time and time again.

As the final seconds of America’s Miracle on Ice ticked off the clock, ABC’s Michaels shouted those infamous words in excitement, “Do you believe in MIRACLES?...YES!”

We’ve experienced 228 years of miracles. This movie chronicles but one of them.

 

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