I’m sure we’ve all seen Miracle at least 75 times. We know the names, we may even know where they’re from. We know the call from Al Michaels. All in all, a lot has been said about the 1980 U.s. Olympic hockey team. The subtitle for this book is “The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team”. The key word there? Untold.
I was born in 1985, five years after a team of young men did what many perceived to be impossible. I have no idea what the 1980 Olympics were like. I remember watching shows about the greatest sports moments in history when I was a kid, and seeing footage of that night in Lake Placid. My dad’s told me a bit about it, what he can remember. The Soviet team had won every Olympic gold in hockey since 1964, when they were beat by the Americans. No one gave the kids a chance, despite their youthful enthusiasm. I know that the U.S. beat the Soviets 4-3, that Mike Eruzione scored the game-winner with 10 minutes remaining, and that Jim Craig played the game of his life, making 36 saves on 39 shots. But those are all numbers. The Disney film from 2004 gave us some insight into what Herb Brooks was like, how he tried, on purpose, to make the players hate him in order for them to bond and forget their regional differences.
Wayne Coffey spins the story together fluidly. He uses the game as a sort of plot device, breaking off into telling the players’ stories when appropriate. The description of the game is in minute detail, so much that you could almost hear a play-by-play going on in your head as you read it. He interviewed players from the team, finding them in their lakeside homes, or suburban dwellings, or horse farms (in the case of Neal Broten), to ask them to relive what was possibly the greatest moment of their lives. Some have done well. Some, like Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig, are now public speakers who recieve standing ovations. Some have more tragic stories to tell.
The team was a group of college kids, mostly more introverted guys who were proud to play on Olympic ice. Brooks’s style was fear and intimidation. He is remembered by his team with a lot of gratitude and respect, but you get the feeling they weren’t exactly friends. Most seem to understand why Brooks acted the way he did, but there’s still the feeling of hurt and frustration behind it.
The Russians are not portrayed as the villains of the story. Often, the Russian side is glossed over. The focal point of Coffey’s book is the U.S. team, sure, but you get glimpses of the Russians as well. For example, the crew who cleaned up the Olympic Village in Lake Placid found 121 empty vodka bottles in the rooms where the Russians were staying. Russian forward Helmut Balderis made it a point to find Brooks and congratulate him after the win. American team doctor George Nagobads warned him against doing it in front of coach Viktor Tikhonov, and Balderis’s reaction? “He can go shit in his pants.”
What Coffey does manage to do is avoid the sentimentality of the story. Sure, it was the Miracle on Ice. Certainly, it was a proud moment for the United States, and there was a lot of flag-waving and patriotism, as there should be. Coffey avoids talking about that, sticking to the story he wanted to tell – the story of a bunch of American kids struggling to win Olympic Gold.