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"Miracle," Ten Years Later

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I have a lot of feelings about this movie.

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I spent the better part of an evening looking everywhere for a DVD. Not just any DVD, though -- a DVD whose feature portrayed the Hollywood-ish version of the first hockey story I had ever fallen in love with, which I'd owned for nearly 10 years up to this point. Needless to say, I've torn up my entire room from top to bottom and haven't even come close to finding it, which is making me extremely nervous.

But that's okay, I've got it basically memorized.

Miracle (dir. Gavin O'Connor, 2004) is the story of the 1980 U.S. men's Olympic hockey team and its head coach, Herb Brooks, which together made up the last squad to win a American gold medal in men's hockey. It's a special story because of the incredible odds they faced and triumphed over -- beating, among other teams, the Soviet Union, which had been a powerhouse for the last 16 years. That feat and their subsequent win over Finland for the gold was dubbed the "Miracle on Ice." But we all know this story.

The film was released in 2004, which is shocking to me that it's already been 10 years. After a couple of Twitter polls and multiple live-tweets involving it every year, it's clear to see Miracle still holds a treasured place in hockey fans' hearts (not unlike another Disney hockey movie, or hockey movie franchise, I should say...). As I alluded to before, I can quote full scenes from it, and I still get a little teary-eyed at the ending. It's just one of those movies for me. In fact, it's the movie that got me into hockey -- I saw it during the lockout season of 2004-05, and as soon as the NHL started up again, I began following it.

So what makes it memorable?

Basically, the story. Americans love tales of their own country triumphing over "bad" guys (insert snarky comments about ~patriotism/jingoism here). American sports fans in particular love to see their country doing well at anything (*refrains from making a "because that's so rare outside the sports world" joke... oops, fail). At least, the ones I've gotten to know via Twitter seem to do so. And I mean, it's such a great story of doing well -- here, the U.S. is actually an underdog! Here, the 20-odd guys on the ice actually have to come together and learn to be a team (and I mean, yeah, that's become a cliche, but considering that was actually the case with the real team, I'll let it slide). It hits me right in my American feels, for sure.

Not that I really paid attention to the country they played for in this movie. I was more focused on the players themselves. In the film, we don't get a lot of backstory on each of the guys (read Wayne Coffey's "The Boys of Winter" for that), but the ones we do get are compelling. Jimmy Craig, the goaltender, is still dealing with the death of his mother, and is on the team as an ode to her. Mike Eruzione, the captain, has the heart but perhaps not the talent of his counterparts and is terrified at the thought of going home. Jack O'Callahan, the gritty defenseman, has an ax to grind with former rival Rob McClanahan and overcomes it, only to find himself down with a knee injury just before the Olympics. (I've just realized these are all Boston boys. What, were the Minnesotans too boring for the screenwriters?)

And of course, we get the scoop on the coach. Kurt Russell pretty much played Brooks to a T in this film. The hair, the mannerisms, the accent -- even writing lefthanded (Russell is actually a righty). It's really interesting to see how much he connected with Brooks's personality and embodied his attitude. Brooks's own story is pretty great, too -- having been cut from the 1960 team (the last team to win gold before '80), he's consumed with the idea of having a medal of his own, to the point where it strains his relationship with his wife and family and alienates many on the U.S. Olympic Committee. In fact, he adopts much of the same attitude as the Soviet coach, the late Viktor Tikhonov, who reportedly executed absolute control over his team on and off the ice and cut players whom he thought might defect to the West. You can feel the slight edge of desperation in Russell's performance.

In some ways, I kind of wish the film had glimpsed at least a bit deeper into the Russian team, simply because their coach influenced the West so much in terms of changing style and training. Just look at what Brooks says in the beginning: "My goal is to beat them at their own game." He took elements from the Soviet school and combined them with the Canadian/North American game to create what would effectively defeat the Russians. That kind of influence deserves a little bit closer look... but I understand that the ultimate story is the Americans' triumph, not what influenced them to get there.

As far as everything else in this film? The feel for the '80s is pretty good -- I of course don't know for sure, seeing as my mother was 11 and my father 12 when the American men last won gold, but I did appreciate the nods to late 70s/early 80s events and pop culture. The acting aside from Russell is decent -- Patricia Clarkson was a great choice for Herb's wife, Patty, and Noah Emmerich is the good cop, assistant coach Craig Patrick, to Herb's bad cop.

I did like that the directors chose to find mostly hockey players who could act, rather than actors who could skate. The two exceptions were Eddie Cahill (Jimmy Craig), who starred on "CSI:NY" and is currently in the "Under the Dome" TV series, and Nathan West (Rob McClanahan), aka Jan in Bring it On. They do well and certainly look the part -- the resemblance between Cahill and Craig in particular is uncanny. The other actors do pretty well too, considering most of them hadn't really had much experience before Miracle -- Michael Mantenuto in particular plays a very good O'Callahan -- but basically, I'm glad they could actually do the players justice on the ice, and might I add that recreating the actual hockey scenes from the U.S.-USSR game could not have been easy, but they did it. And it does a great job of capturing the feel of the game, something that obviously stuck with me, as here I am ten years later, a full-fledged (ish) hockey fan.

Miracle as it stands is definitely a feel-good movie (and thanks to Disney, one the kids can watch with their parents, unlike Slap Shot), which is probably why it resonates ten years later. I say this because there was another movie, aptly named Miracle on Ice, made for TV in 1981. It wasn't nearly as memorable (I could barely get through a few scenes because the acting was so bad, unfortunately), though perhaps a little more accurate and filled-out. As far as getting Herb Brooks right, though, it doesn't hold a candle to the 2004 version. Now if only we could see a movie about the 1998 team that won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women's hockey for the U.S. Hmmmmmmm...

Women's Hockey Roundup:

  • The semester is over for NCAA hockey, but that hasn't meant a lack of drama. UMD announced it would not be renewing women's coach Shannon Miller's contract after this year, prompting a literal shitstorm across the campus and the college hockey world. Some broke down Miller's contract, prompted by the statement that UMD is facing a deficit, and pointed out that significantly more money is spent on men's hockey than women's at this point. (Miller also said she would have taken a pay cut, but wasn't given an option.) Others pointed out that Miller's record has slipped in recent years and the Bulldogs have struggled against better opponents. Personally, I think the school's handling of this has been atrocious and it comes at the expense of a coach who, despite current record, has still done a lot to turn Minnesota-Duluth into a competitive women's hockey program. If it was time for a change, then do so, but make it clear that that's what it is. As of right now, the entire thing still seems slightly suspect. (Read more: THW, Duluth News Tribune)
  • CWHL games! Yay! After a successful All-Star Game (read my piece on it here), the teams have returned to their respective sides for this weekend. The Blades are in Toronto this weekend for the final two matches of play before the New Year. Tomorrow's game will be streamed! Check cwhl.ca for details.
  • Another day, another sexist fool shows his ass on Twitter. This time, it's Pittsburgh radio jock Mark Madden, who targeted ESPN reported Britt McHenry on his show for apparently trying to get an interview with Sidney Crosby (who has the mumps, in case you missed it). Stanley Cup of Chowder's Zoë (whom I continue to give super props to, seriously, she's a great writer) has a separate blog, Hockey Without Propriety, which she used to detail the entire incident and the issues apparent in this latest display of douchebaggery. Definitely worth a read.
  • Tickets are on sale now for the Women's Frozen Four. It's at Ridder Arena this year, so if you live close by, check it out!
  • Also, the Women's World U-18s are in Buffalo in January and the U.S. roster was unveiled earlier this month. Who's going? I'm going. Aww, yeah.
(EDIT 12/19, 12:46 p.m.: added one sentence regarding Shannon Miller's contract)