It's an interesting moment, and it's featured in the trailer of Miracle. But it's fiction. Brooks never asked players, "What's your name and who do you play for?" These were smart guys. They'd have answered correctly the first time. But the wind sprints in the dark after a tie in Norway were true. That was Brooks in a cold rage. I remember hearing that story while reporting the Sportsmen of the Year article in 1980, first from Silk, then from Buzz Schneider, then from Johnson. And the sprint session ended not with Eruzione galvanizing the troops but with Johnson, the soft-spoken offensive star, breaking his stick against the boards in anger—which set off Brooks again. "If I ever see a kid hit a stick on the boards again," he screamed, "I'll skate you till you die!"
But if Miracle isn't always a slave to the literal truth of the team's experience, it's refreshingly faithful to its spirit. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the game action, which is sensational. O'Connor wisely chose to cast hockey players—minor leaguers and collegians—instead of actors who could skate. (Schneider, who scored the first goal against the Soviets, is played by his son Billy.) The results are by far the best hockey scenes ever filmed—maybe the best sports scenes, period. The bodychecks are brutal. The passing and scoring sing with authenticity, having been carefully choreographed from actual footage of the U.S. team's games. The Soviet players appear smoother and more polished than the youthful Americans, which of course they were. Craig's goaltending (the masked Craig is played by former NHL goalie Bill Ranford) is perfectly rendered, including the stand-up, kick-save style that is no longer in vogue. The low camera angles capture, for die first time on
film, hockey's dizzying speed.
It makes for compelling viewing. It doesn't matter that everyone in the audience knows how the story will end. People will cheer, maybe even jump up, after the U.S. beats the Soviet Union. The film will transport you, whether you were in Lake Placid the first time around, watching and praying and not believing your eyes, or you are of a younger generation that has only heard about this inspiriting team. At the end of the game against the Soviets, which is nearly the end of the film as well, you will be counting down the seconds, heart rate elevated, repressing an urge to hug the person beside you.
What's sad, of course, is that Brooks isn't here to enjoy it, to bask again in the glory of that remarkable victory. He went on to coach four NHL teams over the next 20 years but never won a Stanley Cup. Never had the horses. So the game didn't move in the direction he had hoped, to his beloved weaving, flowing, open style of play. Not even the Russians play that way anymore. What we're left with in hockey—a horrible clutch-and-grab, left-wing-lock, neutral-zone-trap mess—used to make Brooks sick. He never stopped trying to improve the game. His last stint behind the bench was in 2002, at the Salt Lake City Olympics, at which his U.S. team, made up of top professionals, won the silver medal. It was wonderful hockey, the best that fans had seen in years.
The players on the 1980 team are now older than Brooks was when he coached them. To a man they speak of him fondly. With age, they've grown to appreciate his methods, his commitment to their improvement. Publicly he treated them all the same: like dogs. It was a standing joke among them. But privately he treated them all differently. The praise was meted out man to man, almost secretly. "Every player on that team thought Herb liked him best," Jim Craig recently told me.
The guys reunited at Brooks's wake last summer. Every one of them—even Mark Pavelich, who'd avoided all but one reunion in 23 years. Seeing the group together would have made Brooks proud, might even have surprised him. The coach was never able to fully close the distance he'd put between himself and his players that Olympic year. But all of them readily acknowledge that he brought out in them qualities they didn't know they had. And together, as a team, they did the same for us. For Americans.
I've always believed that was the miracle—that a hockey team could do such a thing.
For more on the Miracle on Ice, including E.M. Swift's original story on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team's heroics, go to si.com/hockey.