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Jon Dolezar Inside the NHL

Instant classic

Miracle captures spirit of USA's magical run to gold in 1980

Posted: Thursday February 5, 2004 10:15PM; Updated: Friday February 6, 2004 2:55AM
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  Movie poster for Miracle
Miracle opens Friday at theaters nationwide, just 2 1/2 weeks shy of the 24th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice game.
Walt Disney Pictures

Everyone knows how this story ends, so there will be no Crying Game moment at the end of Miracle.

There are no gimmicks like Memento and no twists like The Usual Suspects.

But if the devil is in the details, and the journey of getting to the end is as important as the end result itself, then Miracle is destined to be a classic.

After catching a screening on Tuesday, my only question was: When does the DVD come out?

The lasting image of the actual Miracle on Ice for me is the gloves and sticks flying every which way, followed by the unbridled joy on the players' faces when they realized what they had accomplished. Miracle brilliantly captures the emotions and drama of the seven-month journey the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team made from its initial training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., to the gold medal celebration of captain Mike Eruzione waving his teammates onto the podium with him on Feb. 24, 1980, in Lake Placid, N.Y.

It's clear that this isn't just a movie for hockey fans, but rather a movie to bring new fans to the game, and rope in even hockey-haters with a story that, had it not happened in real life, would never have been accepted by movie studios for being too far-fetched. In many ways, it follows the feel-good, formulaic path that Remember the Titans and The Rookie did. And that shouldn't be a coincidence, since those are both Disney pictures, too.

The Miracle on Ice has a special place in my heart because, like so many other American boys and girls born in the 1970s, it led directly to my interest in hockey. Though I was only 5 1/2 when it happened, I clearly recall taking in the revelry and genuine shock displayed by the 20 American players and conveyed on television through Al Michaels' voice. It was quickly clear that this was no ordinary upset. It was a life-altering moment for the hockey world.

As a teenage hockey player I got to meet Mark Johnson while attending his father's hockey camp one summer in Madison, Wis. Johnson brought along his gold medal and posed for a picture with each camper, allowing everyone to wear his medal for the photograph. The medal was much heavier than I ever would've guessed, and the picture of me with one of the most famous hockey players from the Miracle on Ice bunch is one of my special memories of my youth.

Having grown up in the Midwest and been mocked for my accent occasionally throughout my professional life, I knew that Kurt Russell's chief challenge would be to nail Herb Brooks' Minn-e-soooooooo-da accent. Unlike Frances McDormand's caricature of the nasal upper Midwest tones in Fargo, Russell deftly handle Brooks' voice, sayings and mannerisms, with his spot-on take on the accent.

Russell's long career is dotted with both brilliant and ordinary performances, but his superb job nailing Brooks' challenging coaching style is his best work since his turn as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone in 1993.

While most of the hockey action was choreographed as true as possible to the original events from the 1980 Olympics, dramatic license was taken in a few instances to enhance the story. Brooks never asked the players who they were playing for, nor did Rob McClanahan and Jack O'Callahan actually brawl on the first day of the team's training camp.

The former was inserted in an attempt to play up the "team" feel of the film, while the latter was used to enhance the rivalry between the Minnesota and Boston kids. Other than that, only a late-game faceoff that actually took place in the neutral zone was moved back into the defensive zone for added drama.

Director Gavin O'Connor begins the film with a snappy montage of politically charged news clips from the 1970s to build the atmosphere that built up to the tension surrounding the U.S.-Soviet game. Anyone who was born after 1989 and doesn't know a world when the Cold War existed won't take as much from the political aura that surrounded this monumental upset, but the story will ring true for anyone who has participated in an athletic competition, no matter what level.

I was a bit dismayed that the film didn't give more time to the victory over Finland two days after the win over the Soviet Union. If the U.S. hadn't come back from a 2-1 deficit to defeat Finland, the Miracle on Ice game would've been for naught, since the medal round at the time was a round-robin competition.

1980 U.S. Olympic team
The celebration at the end of the Miracle on Ice game will have you leaping to your feet in the theaters.
AP
 

One of Brooks' most famous moments of his ultra-intense persona came when he entered the locker room with his team trailing the Finns after the second period. With the Americans buzzing eagerly to get back on the ice and attempt to rally for the gold, Brooks strode in and reminded them in his own special way just exactly what was at stake.

"If you lose this game, you'll take it to your [expletive] graves," Brooks said.

He turned to walk out of the locker room and upon reaching the door frame, he stopped and turned back toward his players and yelled: "Your [expletive] graves!"

The U.S. rallied to beat Finland 4-2 to clinch the gold. O'Connor said he didn't want to add time to the movie just to give one more line, and the film is filled with plenty of dramatic moments, so it can live without it.

"I don't think there's much I don't know about the seven-month journey leading up to the games," O'Connor said. "I spent a year just doing research. But it seemed to me that including that [Finland] game after coming off a high point [with the Miracle game] ... where do you go from there? You can't go through all of the Finland game just to hear a guy say a line. It just doesn't work in the movie. Believe me, we killed a lot of darlings that were great moments. My job is to think of the film before the scenes."

The acting in Miracle isn't especially notable outside of the professionals such as Russell, Noah Emmerich and Patricia Clarkson. The decision to go with amateur hockey players produces the best on-ice hockey action ever caught on film, but it also gives limited drama in the off-ice scenes.

The standout among the hockey players posing as actors is Michael Mantenuto, who comes across as the smug, fiery defenseman O'Callahan. The former University of Maine player gives a brash debut performance and captures the nuances of the rivalry between the cocky Easterners and the more down-home Midwestern players.

Emmerich plays assistant coach Craig Patrick, whose main purpose was to keep the players from quitting after suffering under Brooks' dictatorial reign.

Clarkson pulls viewers in with her poignant portrayal of the ignored coach's wife, who is often left to raise the kids on her own. She has excellent on-screen chemistry with Russell, and the look Russell gives her in the crowd after the final buzzer of the upset of the Soviets is the most tender moment of the film.

O'Connor played outside linebacker at Pennsylvania in the mid-80s, so he had the athletic experience necessary to crave the authenticity in the recreations of the hockey scenes. But growing up on Long Island in Huntington, N.Y., in the days before the Islanders dynasty began, O'Connor wasn't a hockey guy at heart, and knew he needed to bring in some big guns to help get it right.

Hockey consultant Ryan Walter was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1978 NHL Amateur Draft, and his 1,003 games of NHL experience were invaluable in lending realism to the hockey action.

Russell's experience playing minor league baseball (he reached Class-AA in the California Angels' farm system until a torn shoulder forced him to quit in 1973) also was crucial to his understanding of the intensity and loneliness that Brooks brought to his role as the team's mentor.

"When I met him and we talked about how to approach the part, I told him how much I loved him in Elvis," O'Connor said. "Because he wasn't Kurt, he was Elvis. I didn't want Kurt -- I didn't want the hair and the swagger and the dimples. I didn't want the movie star -- because Kurt is a [expletive] movie star, and deservedly so.

"I wanted Herb Brooks. And so did Kurt. And Kurt showed up every day as Herb. The guys [from the Miracle on Ice team] are really happy with the movie. Jack O'Callahan said that it's just like watching home movies, because that's how exact Kurt was."

Russell was so into the role that he spent three months learning how to write lefthanded like Brooks did, a fact that stunned Brooks' widow Patty, who just assumed that Russell was a natural lefty.

At the screening I saw, fans groaned at every personal challenge from Brooks to his team, and cheered every goal. The theater felt like Lake Placid, N.Y., as the clock ticked down to the end of the Miracle on Ice game.

It may not stand up there with Bull Durham, Raging Bull, Rocky, Hoosiers and the creme de la creme of sports movies, but Miracle is clearly among the best hockey films ever made.

Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.

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