Miracle on ice

The release of the film “Miracle” provides an inevitable occasion to remember Herb Brooks, his gold medal team, and his accomplishment. In Minnesota, we saw Herb up close for a long time, and familiarity never bred contempt. He is our once and future home town hero. Last weekend’s St. Paul Pioneer Press ran several interesting stories related to the film, perhaps the best of which was Chris Hewitt’s portrait of Kurt Russell bringing his craft to bear on capturing Brooks on film: “Coach Class.”
One of the best short profiles of Brooks that I have ever read is Gerald Eskenazi’s “A miracle on ice: A hockey moment frozen in time” in today’s Wall Street Journal. Having written on sports for the New York Times for nearly 50 years, Eskenazi is an old-school big-city sportswriter whose cynicism surrendered to Herb’s all-American authenticity:

I met Herb for the first time a few months before the Olympics and was immediately struck by his hatred of the Soviets and his evangelical belief in an American system that could topple them. Indeed, we had a fascinating discussion about capitalism and communism, and how the entrepreneurial spirit would translate to the athletic field or the rink. Eventually, he believed, someone would rise above the collective to create an American victory — on and off the ice. Ronald Reagan could have taken his “evil empire” description of the Soviet Union from one of those well-known “Brooks-isms.” Like the one he used to tell his players about “looking the tiger in the eye and spitting in his face.”
We were in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Herbie — as his players called him, without affection — was preparing 20 players to face the defending Olympic champions. The Americans? We had one player with Olympic experience. The Soviets? They had captured the Olympic gold four straight times. Mr. Brooks was intent — no, obsessed — with getting his youngsters so focused on disliking him that they would coalesce into a team. A team that could skate on the same ice as the Soviets. He had to bring together players from the Midwest with their colleagues from the Northeast — usually competing regions where each believed its hockey was the best.
Herbie knew me from my hockey writing in the New York Times. He said to me, “Jerry, I’m a street kid from St. Paul, and I know what it takes to beat these guys.” I thought he was a bit of a blowhard. A “street kid” from St. Paul, Minn.? To me, born in Brooklyn, well . . . I knew something about street kids. I never thought of the sidewalks of the American Heartland as producing street kids.
Ah, but did he hate those Russians! Some years earlier, in their first exhibition game against the National Hockey League’s best, the Soviet team pounded the Canadian pros. It prompted the Montreal Canadiens’ left wing, Frank Mahovlich, to remark, “If you gave them a football, in two years they’d win the Super Bowl.”
Most sports legends are inseparable from their time — a sort of Toynbee-esque theory I’ve developed after more than 40 years of writing sports. Herb took over a group of unheralded young Americans when we were being held hostage in Iran, and there was a sense of futility emanating from the Carter White House. Mr. Brooks whispered to me — as if fearful someone had stuck a microphone into the locker room — how he was creating an “American” style of hockey.
It would be based on speed, movement, and a refusal to simply dump the puck in and chase it. Out with the old verities. He was, in a real sense, the anti-NHL old-school style. He had learned his hockey in the Midwest; he had starred at Minnesota; he knew he was smarter than a lot of experts who theorized the Soviet Union could not be handled. The metaphor was delicious, and Herb was driven to succeed.


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