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'Miracle' on DVD
Another chance to believe
by Mark Anderson

f there's any solace to the world's current state, it's that miracles often happen when we really need them.

Miracle man: Herb Brooks was equal parts coach, psychologist and dreamer. ["Herbie," by Mary Bergherr]

Just such a situation is vividly displayed at the beginning of "Miracle," the recent Kurt Russell movie released last month on DVD.

News footage recalls the dreary landscape of the late-1970s: A Middle East crisis is embarrassingly out of control. Oil poses growing problems. The mysterious Soviets represent an ominous, ongoing threat. A president is in over his head. The nation's morale is frighteningly low.

By 1980, the country was eager for any sort of inspiration.

Enter Herb Brooks, equal parts coach, psychologist and dreamer – along with a bunch of over-achieving college boys about to be swept up in their coach's passionate, improbable vision.

But hockey?

That a hockey team transcended sport and helped restore a sense of national pride is almost hard to believe a quarter-century later – even for those who witnessed every twist and turn. Yet, two decades after the fact, Sports Illustrated named that team's two-week run for an Olympic gold medal as the greatest sporting event of the 20th century.

Clearly, something miraculous happened.

Latter-day Herb: Brooks continued coaching at the professional, international and collegiate levels.

The story line seems like Hollywood at its most contrived: Complex, confident coach bucks system and selects team his own way. Players, slow to embrace coach's tough-guy ways, eventually train unusually hard, flounder in exhibitions, learn weighty lessons, come together just as the games begin to matter.

Lying in wait are the big, bad Soviets, who dominate the sport and expect to rattle off their fifth straight gold.

International rules of the day were skewed such that the U.S. team was made up of amateurs, average age 21. The so-called Soviet amateurs were grown men who had played together for many years – some say the best professional hockey team ever assembled.

The crux of Brooks's method was to beat the Soviets at their own game of free-flowing skating and supreme conditioning.

The director of "Miracle," Gavin O'Connor, is smart enough to know that the story tells itself. As the DVD's added features attest, proper emphasis was placed on getting the hockey scenes right. Casting calls sought hockey ability over acting – a wise choice, because the story is about a coach and his team, not player personalities. Elaborate on-ice camera placements give the painstakingly choreographed game footage a feeling of authentic urgency.

Understanding the task: Kurt Russell as coach Brooks.

The movie's key moment concerns an exhibition game partway through the months-long training process. The U.S. team's lackluster effort against a mediocre foe causes Brooks to punish his players after the game – sending them through endless, grueling conditioning drills. But not only do the players begin to galvanize as a team, they also begin to understand the herculean task ahead: to dethrone the mighty Soviets.

Brooks himself had been the final player cut from the 1960 team – the last U.S. squad to win gold. Brooks went home to St. Paul to watch the games on TV with his father and, at the moment the U.S. team won, father turned to son and said, "I guess they cut the right guy."

Brooks made the Olympic team in '64 and '68, then turned to coaching. By the time period depicted in the movie, Brooks understands the nuances of the game as well as the human psyche. He prods and cajoles. He lets his assistant befriend the players as he takes on the bad-cop role. Team becomes family as Brooks puts his own home life on hold (Patricia Clarkson plays wife Patti) in order to pursue the grail.

In the end, the story is not merely one of genius combined with hard work, mental preparedness and a greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts team. It's also about a country being pulled along for a giddy two-week ride.

Miracle on Ice: the greatest sporting event of the 20th century, according to SI.

For many Americans in their mid-30s and beyond, the semifinal victory over the Soviets is one of those where-were-you-when-men-landed-on-the-moon moments.

I was in college in Minnesota – the state Brooks and half his team called home. It was a winter afternoon and the game against the Soviets had already been played. I planned to watch ABC's tape-delayed broadcast that evening. A sportscaster warned that anyone who didn't want the score ought to turn down the volume or leave the room.

Stepping out of the apartment building, I heard a spine-tingling, collective roar begin to ooze from all the homes, apartments and dorms of those who hadn't turned off their TVs. The mighty Soviets had fallen and the reaction was euphoric – a stirring, unforgettable memory.

The easily forgotten end of the story is that the U.S. team still had to win once more to claim the big prize. They beat a formidable Finnish team and the miracle at Lake Placid was complete. That it all played out as if following a script is part of the story's charm.

A half-dozen of those players were from within a hundred miles of my hometown. One graduated from my high school a year ahead of me. He was far from the best athlete in town, much less the best hockey player. But he clearly had the work ethic and was obviously very good.

The point?

As Brooks tells his assistant early in the movie, it's not always about picking the best players. Sometimes, as Brooks had learned 20 years before, it's picking the right ones.

In the aftermath, Brooks continued to coach at the professional, international and collegiate levels. He coached the French team in the 1998 Olympics and led the 2002 U.S. team to a silver medal. By then, of course, the Olympics had long allowed professional dream teams.

In a sad, ironic twist, Brooks died in a car crash last summer and never saw the finished film. But the DVD extras include raw footage of Brooks, Russell and the filmmakers in pre-production meetings. Listening to Brooks tell Russell the tale is a bittersweet treat.

The DVD: just when we need it.

Some look back at the U.S. team's 1980 run as an overhyped upset – rampant jingoism, dumb luck and a hot goalie. Poor them.

That kind of thinking doesn't explain how a bunch of over-achieving kids suffered a 10-3 exhibition loss to those same Soviets three days before the Olympic tournament began, then strung together a tie and six straight pressure-cooker come-from-behind victories.

Not only does "Miracle" keep the memory alive, it also serves as a reminder: our next miraculous occurrence seems long overdue.

Substitute Iraq for Iran, China for the Soviet Union, Bush for Carter – a remarkably similar stage is set.

Unless a miracle is as blunt as water into wine, the modern-day variety is neither easy to prove nor likely to survive in the rearview mirror. But while miracles are best enjoyed as they're happening, they're still worth remembering any way we can.

"Now that we have dream teams," says Russell in a Brooksian voiceover at movie's end, "we seldom ever get to dream."

It's one thing to dream, another to believe. Until the next miracle gets here, the version from the winter of 1980 will have to do.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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