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Desert Miracle

As a fifteen year old hockey fanatic living in a semi remote desert area who wasn't old enough to legally drive, I didn't have a lot going for me that winter. Not a lot going for me and even less to do. My parents disapproved of us watching anything except the occasional sporting event on TV and there was nothing on but basketball anyway. I couldn't reasonably walk or even bike to any of my friend's houses and all the girls my age, who had seemed smitten with my wit and charm as recently as the year before, had lately discovered that the upper classmen in my new high school (especially the one's with access to a car) were much more worthy of their time. I had nothing to keep me busy after I got home from school except reading anything I could find, throwing rocks at various cacti, and doing sit ups and push ups in hopes of adding some pounds to my skinny adolescent frame. Mostly what I would do though is head out into the garage and blast hockey pucks at the wall. It being the middle of an "energy crisis" that winter, my parents had jumped on that excuse to explain why they couldn't possibly drive me anywhere unless it was an emergency and since, I didn't have many of those to break up the monotony, I was pretty much cooped up. My only relief that was parentally sanctioned was that they would drop me off at hockey practice twice a week. 

I had lived and breathed hockey since I was old enough to skate (which my mother claims was a few months before I learned to walk) but, since being extirpated and expatriated to Tucson, it had been basically fanaticism in isolation. There were only about ten of us in my age group in the whole city that cared to play hockey and we had to ride in a van a hundred miles each way to Phoenix on weekends to play our games since Tucson didn't even have it's own full size rink. No one at my school knew anything about it or understood the sport since it was nearly impossible to follow any of the pro teams. ESPN hadn't been invented yet and there was no cable TV in our area anyway. Despite all that, I spent endless hours in the garage after school, wristing and slapping pucks past Cheever, the deformed and scary masked, if completely immobile, goalie that I had painted on the plywood board fixed against the brick wall. Yes, with the Iran hostage crisis, the gas shortage, the recession, and being a transplant from upstate Vermont stranded in a desert not to mention the fifteen years old with nothing to do situation, things were bleak that winter of 1980. And then the Lake Placid Olympics rolled around.

It was part of the cultural hegemony to hate the Russians back then and I was fully on board, although not because I knew anything about them really other than that they had aggressively invaded Afghanistan, an act that everyone was saying was supposed to be bad news for us. They were also said to have a bunch of nuclear weapons pointed directly at our country in general and Tucson in particular because of the air force base and all the missile silos scattered around the area. My parents tended to think globally and weren't all that jingoistic but I was more susceptible to the us-vs-them thing at that age and had become pretty sure I didn't like Russians very much. I also knew that their Red Army hockey squad was the best in the world and had just come over and beaten a group of my NHL all-star heroes something like 10-1. They had a team carefully culled by natural selection and supported by national pride, some of whom had been playing together since before I was born and, even though the Olympics were supposedly for amateurs back then, these guys were basically pro athletes in their country since they had been hand selected at a young age and brought up together specifically to play hockey with all their bills paid and nothing else to worry about. They had won four Olympic gold medals in a row and all 42 of their last 42 games. 

The US on the other hand, which didn't have all that many good hockey players anyway back then since kids south of Minneapolis and Boston didn't have much chance to learn the game in youth programs, had put together a team made up of a bunch of college players. College hockey in those days was basically the equivalent of college baseball now in that it typically meant that a person wasn't quite good enough to play in the pros. Actually though very few American born players even got a look from the pro teams regardless since the NHL was about 95 percent Canadian and biased towards the Canadian junior ranks at the time. Taskmaster Herb Brooks was in charge of our boys and I eagerly awaited the first drop of the puck even though I didn't harbor much hope of us actually winning even a game. I just wanted to watch some hockey and knew the network wouldn't show much of it unless the US team was involved. So when the initial face off against Sweden finally came, I was glued in front of our little TV to watch it. As the Swedes got out to an early lead I was surprised when my dad, who I'd never seen watch much of anything on TV before that day but who grew up in Maine playing some hockey and had flirted with the Olympic team as a skier, plopped down next to me.

The USA didn't win, but they did manage a last minute tie when Bill Baker, the player I identified with most since he played my position and had other similar physical features, blasted a slap shot past the Swedish goalie with 21 seconds left in what had been a classic contest. My dad, a reserved and studious sort normally who rarely even attended any of my hockey games, pumped his fist when Baker's shot snapped against the twine, threw his arm around my shoulders and shook me like a rag doll before excusing himself and returning to his study to work.

It got better with each game of course as the USA defeated heavily favored Czechoslovakia and then Romania and West Germany over the next week. It culminated on the night of February 22nd when we (and I personally have not experienced a stronger sense of we whether patriotic or otherwise before or since) skated against the Russian Red Army for a chance to play for the Gold medal. Even though, despite growing up fifty miles from Lake Placid, I was stranded under the cruel desert sun, watching the game not with a group of my hockey playing friends from school after coming in from a four hour skate on the back yard rink but with my dad and mom and little sister who suddenly had an interest in what I'd been practicing every day making so much noise out in the garage, I was so excited I could barely sleep the night before. "Now remember folks," I can still hear my dad saying before the game, ever the realistic one, "This Russian team hasn't been beaten in years. They've played together, and practiced together, and traveled together for so long that they know each other better than they know themselves. Our guys just met their teammates a few months ago and mostly are not far out of high school. We shouldn't expect too much out of our boys. They've done very very well just to get this far."

Despite being a young pup still wet behind the competitive ears, I wasn't so sure. I knew my dad had always mostly competed in individual sports where, for example, no matter how much you will yourself to win, you were not going to suddenly cut a minute off your time for an incredible upset in the mile run or soar twenty five feet further for a surprise victory in the ski jump. But team sports are different which is why I'd always preferred them. It is possible in team sports, with so many different mitigating factors involved, to overcome overwhelming odds if certain things fall into place. I'd watched our team intently for every second of every telecast and saw something in each and every one of my new hero's faces that I'd seen only very rarely in various opponents or teammates over the years. I'd been on some teams that had had some success in hockey, soccer and baseball and had briefly glimpsed that mix of confidence, drive, and pride in the eyes of certain players at certain times. But I'd never seen it collectively and unwaveringly painted across the countenances of an entire team. A youthful brashness backed up with the confidence that comes with the intensive conditioning that Brooks had put this team through. The togetherness, the resolve, and the chants of a nation that had been starving for something to cheer about thundering out of the stands. USA USA USA USA USA USA USA. The whole thing had seemed to have become personal and about me somehow. The choices I'd made, the miles I'd trudged as a younger kid in the early morning freeze to get to hockey practice, the fact that I'd been laughed at in a new school because I'd never played basketball before since it had always been concurrent with hockey season. The bruises, the stitches in my chin and lips, the chipped teeth, all my allowance wasted on the expensive gear, the two hour rides to play "home" games in Phoenix against traveling teams from northern cities with three times as many players that often beat us by double digits. A transplanted kid who loved hockey in a climate that didn't make any sense to him, living for a game that almost nobody else in the area appreciated. And now, before my very eyes, the rest of the country was finding out why hockey was the greatest sport in the world. Vindication of a sort would be mine. This was our time!

And then the Red Army came down and, almost effortlessly it seemed, scored an early goal.

Battling that sinking feeling in my stomach I searched the faces of the US team for the signs of panic that I was sure would be there. I didn't see any. They were being outplayed for sure, but goalie Jim Craig was stopping damn near everything, our wingers kept dumping the puck, clearing the zone, and attacking, and the defensemen kept hitting. By the end of the first period, when Mark Johnson snuck a long rebound past the legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak with no time left on the clock, the score was tied 2 - 2 and the new hockey fans in the stadium and our living room went berserk. Our boys had faced the Red Army's best assault of 20 minutes and come out even.

In the second period, the Soviets again came out and unleashed a barrage of shots at Craig who turned away all but one of them as we managed only two shots on goal ourselves the entire period. As the horn sounded for the second time you could almost feel it as the whole country took a deep breath. We would be entering the final frame against Russia only one goal down. Tense with excitement to the point where I almost couldn't move, I lay prone on the floor chin in my hands, staring up at the small screen during the intermission as they featured Eric Heiden's heroics and showed idyllic winter scenes from the Olympic village. I wondered where all the kids I grew up in Vermont playing hockey with were right then and if any of them were in that arena that night watching in person. I remembered  cheering for Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione and Jack O'Callahan playing for Boston University when they lost to Brook's Minnesota team in '76. As they huddled around Brooks just before the start of the third period, with the thundering crowd above stomping USA USA USA USA and you could read the coach's lips shouting into the din. "Listen to that sound." Brooks yelled motioning to the crowd "That is what you guys did. Now let's finish it up. On three who do you play for boys. U S A!" The chills ran down from the back of my neck to my toes.

As the third period wore on, Brooks strategy of quick line changes to keep his players fresh and Craig's awesome goaltending began to have an effect. Johnson scooped up another bumbled puck and zipped it home for the tie and the Olympic stadium virtually shook. Minutes later team captain Eruzione capitalized on another defensive Soviet bobble, took a pass, skated into the high slot and snapped a 25-foot wrist shot past the screened Soviet goaltender for a 4 - 3 lead. A bunch of US college kids were leading the best team in the world with ten minutes to go in the game.

The remaining ten minutes seemed to last about a week. The Red Army bombarded the splitting, kicking, glove saving, flopping Craig with shot after shot each and every one of which he turned away. The Soviet coach stuck with his veterans who were growing exhausted as the young Americans cleared puck after puck and Brooks ruthless conditioning regimen paid off. The minutes slowly dwindled. Finally, our entire family on it's feet, my mother covering her face with a pillow, tears streaming from my sister's eyes, we heard Al Michaels utter his now famous words, "Eleven seconds. You got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now. Five seconds left in the game! Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

The USA went on to win the Gold of course, defeating Finland 4 - 2 in the finals and I began to notice almost immediately that I had become a bit more popular at school as word spread that I was a hockey player. Attendance at our games and practices swelled, my wit and charm made a miraculous comeback as older girls with cars suddenly were wanting to spend time with me, and my dad helped me build a real net so I wouldn't beat up the garage wall so much. Tucson got a semi pro team and I got a driver's license and begin working as a stick boy for them so I could log more ice time. The University of Arizona Icecats were born around then and quickly won a national club championship. Hockey in the desert had become a household word. 

 So, almost 25 years later, still in the desert but having traveled many miles since, I was excited to hear that a movie called "Miracle" was coming out. A guy on an adjacent bar stool brought it to my attention out of nowhere when he said "Wow you know you're getting old when they start bringing out historical dramas about events you actually remember." When I inquired as to what he was referring he said "The Miracle on Ice. They're making a movie about it with Kurt Russell playing Herb Brooks. It's coming out soon. You remember the Miracle on Ice don't you?" 

Yes indeed I did remember the Miracle on Ice. Even though my own hockey career had long since ended, terminated abruptly freshman year in college when I caught a chunk of crappy ice with a skate edge during the first month of Icecats practice and slammed into the wall awkwardly and tore my left shoulder completely out of it's socket. By the time it had healed a year later I'd decided that the time and money I'd been wasting on hockey could be put to better use drinking beer and heading to the beaches and ski areas every chance I got. Eventually I moved to Hawaii and hockey went almost completely off my radar.

But I went to see Miracle the first night it came out. I entered the theater skeptical of course thinking there was no way Disney was going to be able to capture even a small fraction of the emotion and drama that accompanied the actual event without putting some hokey spin on it that would somehow tarnish the actual memory. They would sap it up somehow, attempting to tug at your patriotic heart strings, probably introduce players girlfriends with terrible diseases or something into the mix and I couldn't really picture Kurt Russell playing a hockey coach from Minnesota. I assumed some stooge like Ashton Kutcher or a group of those American Pie jackasses would be cast as the players and any actual hockey footage would be glossed over to compensate for the fact that none of the stars could really skate. I was mistaken. The director had made a decision to cast hockey players that could sort of act and not actors that could sort of play hockey. And Miracle, at least for this reminiscing viewer, was one Hell of a film.

Most importantly, the writers simply let the story tell itself. As Al Michaels said at the time during the gold medal game, "The screenwriters wouldn't dare" and these screenwriters didn't mess with the story at all. Their plan to cast mostly unknown actors that had real experience playing hockey in the roles of the players really pays off in the live action game footage and, since they also eschewed any temptation to fudge up the tale with outside the locker room or off the ice story lines, the players themselves and the hockey team remain the heart of the story. Russell, for his part, does an excellent job, shedding his normally somewhat swarthy image and settling into the role as the fastidious, idiosyncratic coach. His accent is right on as are many of his mannerisms and, according to some of the players who said they had goose bumps when they saw Russell's performance, he absolutely nailed the role. Since Brooks was tragically killed in a one car accident on a Minnesota highway a few months before the film opened, we'll never get to hear what he thought about the film. As it says of Brooks just before the credits roll, "He never saw it. He lived it."

And although even the most cynical viewers should emerge from this film with that uplifted feeling that great films produce, it is somewhat hard to ascertain whether Miracle is a great film in and of itself or simply a good film about a great event. And while in some instances that question might make for an interesting debate, in this case, to those of us who were lucky enough to experience both of them, the distinction escapes us. The confident look in Mark Johnson's eyes as he readied to take the face off against the great Russian center Boris Mikhailov at the start of the crucial third period was identical to the look in actor Eric Peter-Kaiser's eyes as he recreated the moment. All the movie did was allow us to dwell on it for a few seconds longer. And basically that's what the movie does. Allows those of us who remember the game to reminisce and enjoy it all over again and those of us who never saw it to learn some history and enjoy it for the first time. In a story that would seem to sum this point up, it was reported that the movie makers invited members of the Miracle On Ice team to attend the opening of the film and then staged a party on their behalf afterwards. Team captain Mike Eruzione reportedly addressed the gathering and said: 'We used to be 20 strong. Now we're 40 strong.' What he meant was that the actors who portrayed him and the rest of the players on the team gave such a spectacular effort, that they were now part of the group. And that is high praise indeed for a movie of an event which Sports Illustrated voted to be it's greatest sports moment of the century. 

On that point, we at the Goliard couldn't agree more.

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