Forty years ago today, the United States Olympic hockey team won gold medals in Lake Placid, New York. The immensity of this achievement cannot be overstated, and only one man in America had the vision and the will to lead the Americans to that infamous victory – Poetic Justice Warrior Herb Brooks. The only game they didn’t win was in the preliminary round with Sweden, a 2 – 2 tie. While the average age of the bronze medal Swedes was 25, the Americans were 21-year-old college kids, literally. Another overlooked fact is that the US team beat Finland for the gold medal.
Its the Miracle on Ice game against the Soviet team that is remembered most, in part because of the 2004 documentary movie titled Miracle, featuring an inspired performance by Kurt Russell as coach Brooks. The Russians were the most well-coached and successful professional team on earth, average age of 26, and boasted the greatest goaltender of the era in Vladislav Tretiak.
One year earlier, the Soviets had defeated the NHL All-Stars (20 future Hall of Famers) in the Challenge Cup series at Madison Square Garden, winning the decisive game three in a 6 – 0 rout. While some of the American Olympic skaters went on to noteworthy NHL careers, their prospects to medal were slim, and comparing them to the NHL All-Stars was not appropriate. Yet Brooks’ sense of justice would not allow him to dismiss their productive virtues.
Mind, Body, and Soul
Between 1972 and 1984, there was little turnover on the Soviet roster, and they won every Olympic gold from 1964 to 1988, except this one. Arguably, this Soviet team was the best ever, anywhere, with a powerhouse starting forward line of Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov, and Boris Mikhailov, and amazing young talent that coach and GM Scotty Bowman would later poach for the Detroit Red Wings such as Slava Fetisov, who later remembered –
The 1980 team was probably the best team ever put together in the Soviet Union. We never thought of losing, never thought it could happen. That’s why they call it a miracle.
There are no miracles, and Bowman’s experiment with Fetisov was a bust, until he surrounded Slava with four other players from the Soviet system including Sergei Federov and Igor Larionov. Like all great collective achievements, there is an individualist spark. In the case of the Soviet Red Army team’s international dominance, it was coach Anatoli Tarasov who perfected the Russian style of play; one that featured sharp skating skills, passing artistry, and offense. It was fast, graceful, non-individualistic, and to Tarasov, the essence of Soviet patriotism. Ironically, he claimed,
The ultimate aim of a pass was to get a free player. So if our opponents make 150 passes in a game against our 270, this means we had 120 more playing opportunities.
Tarasov brought the North American game to Russia, and transformed their primitive style into an art form. He introduced training methods borrowed from the artistry and athleticism of Russian ballet. According to Bolshoi trained master Elena Segal,
One of the secrets to the condition of Soviet players was ballet training. Anatoli Tarasov realized that Russian ballet employs precise, incremental, scientific methods for training the body and mind, helping an athlete gain confidence and remain injury-free.
After the Americans won the Olympic gold medal in 1960 at Squaw Valley, California, Tarasov’s Red Army teams proceeded to beat the Canadians and Americans at their own game by refining and redefining it. His hockey players had “the wisdom of a chess player, the accuracy of a sniper, and the rhythm of a musician.” Applying reason to reality, Herb Brooks understood what he was up against – politically, ideologically, and athletically, and it wasn’t funny. He had to become the hockey version of Bobby Fischer against the Soviet Method.
Western Individualism Faces Off With Eastern Collectivism
The Cold War was raging, and the Berlin Wall would not be forced down for another ten years. Regardless, the same egalitarian Olympic Committee that awarded the 1936 Games to Nazi Germany (aiding the Final Solution), was allowing Soviet Bloc professionals (abetting the Great Terror coverup) to compete against Western amateur athletes. Coach Brooks couldn’t do anything about this, but he could control who made his team. The critical first step was to select offensive hockey minds. Then each of the 68 players who tried out was given a 300 question test to evaluate their resilience under prolonged stress.
Brooks knew these 68 were hard-working young men from good, tough blue-collar families, but compared to Russians who only knew poverty and self-sacrifice, they were coddled twenty-somethings. To be sure, there was some amazing American talent; Ken Morrow, Neil Broten, Mark Johnson, Mark Pavelich, and Dave Silk come to mind. For the year preceding the Olympic Games, Brooks’s challenge was to mold prideful individualists into a mature special forces unit.
To catch up with Russian skating grace and power, he hired a figure skating coach. Instead of defending the Russian offensive system, he studied film to select players whose principled action was to attack. For his players to forget animosities from their college days, Brooks got them to hate him instead. He knew how hard to push them, when to back off, and why. To invest themselves for team glory, he appealed to their individualist spirits –
You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. You were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick of hearing what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.
Herb Brooks already knew what Anatoli Tarasov had learned. To beat the Russians, the Americans had to match their mind and body discipline with the Western souls they shared with the Canadians. As Tarasov explains,
The Canadians battled with the ferocity and intensity of a cornered animal. Our players were better conditioned and stronger in skills than their professionals. But we could not match them in heart and desire, always the strongest part of the Canadian game.
Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov blinked, pulled Tretiak after the first period, and American goaltender Jim Craig delivered a lights-out performance. As team captain Mike Eruzione remembers about Coach Brooks, “I firmly believed that he loved our hockey team, but we didn’t know it.”
Herb Brooks Legacy Continues
As the game clock wound down to zero, Brooks’ son Dan was watching his dad closely from the arena, “He just went crazy for that one split second moment,” and immediately left the bench to let his players shine in the spotlight, despite the fact that he had missed this moment once before. Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960 US gold medal team. More than anyone, he knew the significance of this heroic victory by his college players, and the lasting impact it would have on the sport and people he loved in America.
Women’s hockey is now a winter Olympic spectacle thanks to the Canadian and American programs, and the USA Hockey director of public relations remembers “We didn’t know what hit us.” Youth hockey membership has since quintupled. As Poetic Justice would have it, college club hockey has also soared, including the University of Kentucky in 1984. The land of bluegrass, thoroughbreds, bourbon, and basketball began throwing body checks and buying Ashley Judd hockey posters by the thousands. Dubbed Midnight Mayhem, hockey is the third most well-attended sport at UK.
As Poetic Justice should have it, ‘Do you remember where you were when the Americans won the 1980 Miracle on Ice?’ is part of American culture. Thank you Coach Brooks!