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NHL Viewers Club: ‘Miracle,’ the story of the 1980 USA Hockey team

With the 2019-20 NHL season on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic (here’s the latest update on where things stand), we’ve started the NHL Viewers Club, highlighting some of the most rewatchable games from this season — such as when EBUG David Ayres beat the Maple Leafs — along with some cool hockey documentaries on ESPN+. So far, that has included “Big Shot” — covering the fraudulent purchase of the New York Islanders — as well as “Kings Ransom,” which explored the events leading to Wayne Gretzky‘s trade to the Los Angeles Kings.

Today, we’re looking back at “Miracle,” a 2004 film that told the story of the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team’s gold medal run, from player selection through training, the Olympic tournament and the stunning upset of the Soviets.

Describe the movie in 10 words or fewer:

Emily Kaplan: Great moments are born from great opportunity.

Greg Wyshynski: Holy smokes, hockey can look that good? Again! [whistle] Again!

Best ‘inside hockey’ moment?

Kaplan: Early during player tryouts, Jim Craig asks Jack O’Callahan if there was a reason Joe Mullen wasn’t trying out. “Yeah, about 30,000 of ’em sitting in his New York bank account,” O’Callahan says. Mullen, one of the greatest American-born NHL players ever, had just graduated from Boston College. He was undrafted and unaffiliated, and was actually invited by Herb Brooks to attend the Olympic training camp. But Mullen wanted to pursue his goal of playing in the NHL, so he accepted a contract offer (and signing bonus) from the St. Louis Blues instead.

“I watched the Olympics, sure,” Mullen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004. “I got to know a lot of the guys when we played in the world championships the year before. What they did was great, but I have no regrets. I know, deep in my heart, I made the right choice.”

Added Mike Eruzione, in that same story: “Maybe I don’t make the team if Joey plays. Joey probably would have been on the top line with Mark Johnson and Rob McClanahan. I don’t know how much better we could have been, but Joey would have made us better.”

Wyshynski: The Herb Brooks speech before the game against the Russians is the Hall of Fame moment of the movie, or any sports movie. But it’s Brooks’ speech between periods when the U.S. is facing Sweden that’s always stuck with me. That’s the one where he’s trying to fire up the players, and he targets McClanahan, who suffered an upper thigh injury during the game.

Brooks is tipping over a table, frothing at the mouth, and demands that McClanahan get back in the game with the stinging indictment, “Bruise on the leg is a helluva long way from the heart, you candy ass.” But as he leaves, we see it’s all a ruse just to get the team fired up to rally against Sweden, which it did. Some variation of this has played out in every NHL dressing room at some point, where the coach willingingly becomes the fulcrum of scorn to motivate the players.

Best on-ice hockey moment?

Kaplan: Honestly, it’s all of the camera angles for the on-ice action. The filmmakers really took advantage here, as the cameras showed us perspectives a typical television broadcast can’t.

Bill Baker’s last-minute goal in the opening Olympic game against Sweden, which earned the U.S. a tie, stood out. We get to see a closeup of the puck on the pass from Mark Pavelich to Baker, and then we are taken behind the goalie to see the puck rip into the net from that angle. It felt super intimate, and almost interactive, and had me brainstorming about what hockey broadcasts could look like in the future.

Wyshynski: Again! Again! The most famous bag skate in hockey history came after a 3-3 tie between the U.S. and a Norwegian junior team in September 1979. That’s when the players were told to keep their gear on after the game — some players had to change back from street clothes — and get back on the ice for a “Herbie” drill, aka sprints between the goal line, blue line, red line, the other blue line and then the other goal line. A drill that seemed endless to the players.

“He skated them and skated them and skated them. It was definitely over an hour. Then I think he just decided they’d had enough,” recalled assistant coach Craig Patrick to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

  • Fun fact No. 1: Rather than blowing his whistle next to Brooks, Patrick was actually off the ice trying to convince the rink manager to keep the lights on.

  • Fun fact No. 2: No one can actually recall Mike Eruzione’s famous “[I play for] the United States of America” line ending the bag skate.

Favorite sports movie trope?

Kaplan: Well, it’s not exactly my favorite, but my answer here is “the wet blanket wife.” Patricia Clarkson does a fine job portraying Patti Brooks, Herb Brooks’ wife. Her function in the movie, however, is to hover and nag and ground our protagonist who has life-changing aspirations. The dynamics of being married to a coach are always complicated, but this oversimplified version feels lame.

Wyshynski: When dealing with a monstrous antagonist, sports movies either save the big confrontation with our heroes until the finale or give us a thudding defeat earlier in the film that leads to redemption later on. “Miracle” takes the latter path, because the 1980 U.S. national team’s road to Lake Placid included a speed bump in Madison Square Garden where the Russians pummeled them 10-3. “We showed what we can do, and they didn’t,” Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov said at the time, through an interpreter. The movie does a great job in capturing how things changed for Team USA through one subtle scene: While he turned his head away from a faceoff with Boris Mikhailov in the prelim, Mark Johnson stares him down to win a draw in the “Miracle” rematch (and scores later in the period).

Second place is the “Where are they now?” montage at the end with Aerosmith’s “Dream On” playing.

Favorite late-1970s/early-1980s hockey nostalgia?

Kaplan: Loved seeing television footage recapping the 1979 Challenge Cup — when the NHL replaced its All-Star Game in 1979 with an exhibition series between top NHL players and the Soviet national team. I thought about this event a lot when I went to Moscow for the KHL All-Star Game in January and how cool it would be to stage a crossover event between the KHL and NHL. I know the KHL would be game. I can’t imagine the NHL agreeing to it anytime soon.

Wyshynski: The rod hockey (and/or slot hockey) game that Herb Brooks is playing with his son, the one with the large cardboard cutouts of players twirling around. If I had to guess, I’d say this is an Easter egg: The most famous version of rod hockey is based on the USA’s Olympic victory over the USSR. In 1982, Super Chexx created an arcade version of the classic tabletop game and sold more than 5,000 units in its first year. It was hockey’s answer to foosball, and it traded on the mania over the “Miracle.” But bubble hockey’s larva stage was that unwieldy home version that the Brookses were playing.

Best actor not named Kurt Russell?

Kaplan: Mike Mantenuto, who played Jack O’Callahan. His performance in this movie is great, but it also haunts me. Mantenuto was a former college hockey player himself at Maine, and this is his most high-profile role as an actor. About six years after filming, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a Special Forces soldier. In 2017, at age 35, he took his own life. It’s hard watching him in this movie knowing that. Every scene he’s in — especially from the moment he’s lying on the training table of Madison Square Garden, after he injured his knee in the exhibition game against the Soviets, on — kind of wrecked me.

Wyshynski: Noah Emmerich is a dependably good actor perpetually cast as “the friend” in movies like “The Truman Show,” or “the unhinged neighbor” in movies like “Little Children” or “the unwitting neighbor” in “The Americans” who was employed by the FBI and happened to have KGB agents next door. As Craig Patrick, he’s the quintessential assistant coach: both “good cop” and “partner in crime” with Brooks. Just a very underrated performance in contrast with Russell going big.

What’s the plot for ‘Miracle 2,’ were it ever to be made?

Kaplan: Two options here. I wouldn’t mind seeing a movie version of the Vegas Golden Knights‘ inaugural season — really leaning into the whole Golden Misfits narrative. The stakes aren’t quite as high, but there’s enough interesting characters and against-all-odds build up to make a good film. An inside-the-war-room (dramatized) depiction of the expansion draft would be really fun. This is also a team that forged a strong bond with its home community after the unspeakable mass shooting tragedy just prior to its inaugural season on the ice.

I also think the story of whatever women’s hockey team dethrones the U.S. or Canada at the Olympics would be a compelling movie.

Wyshynski: Oh, this one’s obvious. You make the “Letters From Iwo Jima” of sports movies. That was the 2006 film directed by Clint Eastwood as a companion piece to “Flags of Our Fathers,” which told the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective. “Letters” was in Japanese and told it from the other side of the conflict.

So give us “Miracle,” but from the Soviet perspective, including what it was like for them to grow up in the program. Throw in some 1970s Canada Cup action and you’ve got a hockey odyssey with one bummer of an ending for the Russians.

Any lingering questions after watching?

Kaplan: The most famous scene in this movie is of course Kurt Russell’s locker room speech before the big game against the Soviets in the Olympics. It’s stirring, it’s powerful, and it includes five or so chunk quotes that have been quoted ad nauseam — including by yours truly. But I want to know, how authentic was the speech compared to what Brooks actually said? Did he really say “Screw ’em”? Were these guys really told they were born to be hockey players — each and every one of them — and that if they played the Soviets 10 times, the Soviets might win nine?

Boston’s WBUR did a story on this in 2015, which included this fascinating anecdote from the real Jack O’Callahan. According to O’Callahan, the director asked him to write down what he remembered from Brooks’ speech. “So I wrote that speech out that they actually used in the movie,” O’Callahan said. “It wasn’t word for word. There were some things in there that were probably what he said and some things that were just me putting my own words in there based on my memories. But when the guys all saw the movie, I actually asked a few guys, ‘Is that kinda what he said before the game?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, pretty much.'”

Wyshynski: How did Kurt Russell not get an Academy Award nomination for this? Or even a Golden Globe? It’s his performance that makes this a movie, and he’s absolutely captivating in the role of Herb Brooks. My favorite Russell moments of the film are the quieter ones: when he has to cut a player before the Olympics, just as Brooks was cut in 1960; and after the U.S. wins, when Brooks is alone in a hallway finally allowing some emotional catharsis to escape his body, out of the view of his players.

According to IMDB, Russell’s only nominations for “Miracle” were an AARP award for best actor and a Stinkers Bad Movie Award for “worst fake accent,” which he lost to Richard Roxburgh as Dracula in “Van Helsing.” Then again, Gene Hackman wasn’t nominated for “Hoosiers,” either. The fact is that while sports movies in general can generate award nominations, most of the ones that win awards involve boxing.

Speaking of which: “Million Dollar Baby” won Best Picture that year. “Miracle” is a better film. Please don’t tell Clint. We’ve seen what happens when he gets angry.

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