It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything about a movie, but since Miracle was on TV yesterday, why not write about it? Last week also just happened to be the 33rd anniversary of the win over the Soviet Union.
In case you have never heard of this movie or the story it’s based on, let’s get started with the basics. Miracle tells the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, led by former player and collegiate coach Herb Brooks. They ultimately won the gold medal, against some pretty incredible odds. While this story does finish with the gold medal, it primarily deals with the actual miracle of beating the best team in the world at the time — the Soviet Union.
Our story begins in 1979 with the head coach selection process. Herb Brooks is one of the candidates, having won three national titles at the University of Minnesota (1974, 1976, 1979) and one runner-up finish (1975). He’s a hot coaching commodity, understandably.
Once Brooks is picked (it wasn’t nearly as surprising a pick as the film makes it out to be), we move on to the training camp in Colorado Springs. While the camp did take place in Colorado Springs, it did not last only a few hours, as the film would have you believe. It was a 10-day round robin tournament. Brooks had invited several collegiate coaches to help him asses the talent. While Brooks, of course, had the final say, he absolutely did not pick the team on day one and shun the input of others.
With the team picked, the squad moves to Minnesota to being practicing for the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid. One of the very first things that happens is a fight between Rob McClanahan, a former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher, and Jack O’Callahan, a former Boston University Terrier. Per the movie, the bad blood that led up to the fight started from the 1976 NCAA playoffs. The fight never happened, but what about 1976, which is brought up a few times?
In 1976, Minnesota beat Boston U 4-2 in the NCAA semifinals. Jack refers to Rob giving him a cheap shot in that game. The problem is Rob McClanahan did not play in that game. His first ice time with the Gophers came during the 1976-77 season. O’Callahan did play for the 1975-76 BU squad, but to single out McClanahan was a bit much. There were other Gophers on the 1980 U.S. squad that did play in 1975-76 — Bill Baker and Phil Verchota. Unlikely he would have gone after Baker, though, as Bill was a defenseman like O’Callahan. Verchota was a forward and could have provided a target, and a big one (Verchota was a pretty big forward for the time, being 6’2 210).
The team then begins a pretty lengthy schedule leading up to the games. One of the earlier games takes place (at least in the movie) against Norway. After an embarrassing tie, Brooks keeps the players on the ice, forcing them to do “Herbies.” These are known by many names in the hockey world, but the end result is the same — you feel terrible. Starting at one end of the ice, you skate to the near blue line and back, the center red line and back, the far blue line and back, and the far end of the ice and back. This did happen, but Mike Eruzione’s “captain moment” did not end it nor did it happen.
One of the things you will notice about the team is the Conehead line. It consisted of Buzz Schneider, Mark Pavelich, and John Harrington. Harrington apparently coined the term. One reason they might have had such good chemistry is the fact that they all came from Minnesota’s iron range. Schneider was from Babbitt, MN, Harrington was from Virginia, MN, and Pavelich was from Eveleth, MN.
As the film moves on, you’ll notice that Herb Brooks played a lot of mind games to get his team going. This was certainly true and he had done so quite a bit during his time at the University of Minnesota. One such thing was bringing in guys like Tim Harrer. He actually played in four games and Eruzione was most definitely afraid of losing his spot. And why not? Harrer would have been a solid addition to any team — his “big year” for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 1979-80 included 53 goals.
Immediately prior to the Olympics, the team is routed 10-3 by the Soviets in Madison Square Garden. That did happen, as did the injury to Jack O’Callahan. And yes, there was a serious debate as to whether or not he should be kept on the team. Brooks, of course, made the decision to keep him.
The U.S. team’s only blemish, if you will, was a 2-2 tie against Sweden. Yes, that did actually happen and Bill Baker did really score in the final moments of the game to tie it up. They would go on to win the rest of their games.
Press conferences take on a major role during the Olympic games portion of the film. It is true that Brooks doesn’t allow his players to take part in these, at least not until after the win over the Soviet Union. This, of course, causes some disagreement amongst players and reporters.
Another thing that is heavily promoted is the underdog status of the U.S. team. They certainly are underdogs against teams like the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden, but make no mistake, they were a talented team, despite the fact that Brooks uses the “you’re not talented enough to win on talent alone.” Some reporters thought this was a ploy to allow Brooks an out if the team failed. Nope, this was Brooks being Brooks. He did the same thing at the University of Minnesota, and the results speak for themselves.
Finally, there’s the game against the Soviet Union. If you don’t follow hockey closely, you might think that this game was for the gold medal. It was not. The teams that qualified for the medal round were: the United States, Soviet Union, Finland, and Sweden. It wasn’t even a semi-final game. If the U.S. beat the Soviets and lost their next game to Finland, they could potentially finish in 4th place and not earn a medal.
In the first period of that game, the Soviets did score first and it probably looked like a repeat of the Madison Square Garden game. Buzz Schneider tied the game with a beautiful slap shot as he skated down the left side. Sergei Makarov put the Soviets back in front 2-1 until the final second of the period, when Mark Johnson scored on a Dave Christian rebound. It was that play that led to perhaps the biggest controversy of the game — Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov pulling goalie Vladislav Tretiak in favor of Valdimir Myshkin.
The Soviets dominated the second period, outshooting Team USA 12-2 but only managed a single goal.
In the third, the Soviets held the lead until 8:39, when Mark Johnson scored on the power play to tie the game at 3-3. It didn’t take long for the goal heard around the world, as just 1:21 later, Mike Eruzione fired a wrist shot past Myshkin that put Team USA up 4-3. The Soviets pushed hard, but couldn’t beat Jim Craig and ultimately lost 4-3, never having even pulled their goalie.
It is true that Tikhonov did not pull his goalie for the extra attacker. It was something he didn’t believe in and the Soviets never practiced. The pulling of Tretiak continues to spark debate to this day. Would it have mattered? Maybe. In the end, Tretiak did allow two first period goals, and Myshkin allowed two goals over two periods. I doubt it would have mattered. Needless to say, Tikhonov was not happy with the goals Tretiak did allow.
Team USA went on to beat Finland 4-2 to capture the gold medal.