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Thursday, February 5, 2004
Updated: February 9, 10:12 AM ET
Learning to believe in 'Miracle'

By Sherry Skalko NHL editor

And for those of you who do know the difference -- and know the history of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and its players and have seen the Americans' 4-3 victory over the Soviets again and again and again -- relax.

The "Miracle"
"Miracle," the movie about the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, opens Friday. Check out all our "Miracle" content and then watch a replay of the historical "Miracle on Ice" game against the Soviet Union tonight on ESPN Classic.

  • Jim Caple: Behind the scenes of the filming of "Miracle"
  • Page 3: 10 Burning Questions with Kurt Russell
  • Sports Guy: I'm not going to watch
  • Eric Neel: Other teams worthy of big screen

    Tonight on ESPN Classic:
    8 ET: SportsCentury: Jim Craig
    8:30 ET: The Making of Walt Disney's "Miracle"
    9 ET: Classic Big Ticket: U.S. vs. USSR
  • Disney's "Miracle" is the story of legendary coach Herb Brooks and how he turned a bunch of 20-something college players and minor-leaguers into a team, and how that team became a family. It's the story of a country's wounded spirit, of gas lines, inflation and unemployment. It's a story of the Cold War, the Iran hostage crisis, and the decline of America's role on the world stage. It's a story of overcoming adversity and realizing dreams.

    It is not a documentary.

    It took me two weeks and three phone calls to get over that.

    I went to the first preview thinking "Miracle" could be the greatest hockey movie of all time. (This is what hockey types do. We're grateful for "Slap Shot," can recite it line for line, but we have problems living down "Youngblood" and yearn for a mainstream classic. Or maybe it's just me.)

    I went with friends from work, a combination of hockey fans and those who knew the plot but not the details. After the movie, they had a curious look of inspiration, as if they were expecting a lot of "Rudy" but got a lot more "Rocky."

    Me? I was annoyed. I was still hung up on a scene that happened eight minutes in, the one from the trailer where Jack O'Callahan asks Ralph Cox why he wanted to play college hockey and Cox replies: "Isn't it obvious. For the girls." Well, O'Callahan, a defenseman from Boston University, wanted to win a national title, and he accuses University of Minnesota forward Rob McClanahan of cheap-shotting him in the 1976 NCAA tournament and stealing the ring right off his "finga," as only a native of Charlestown, Mass., could. That scene and the one that follows do an excellent job in conveying college hockey's culture at the time: East vs. West, Boston vs. Minnesota. Problem is McClanahan was still in high school in 1976, and O'Callahan had reached his goal the season before, captaining the Terriers to the 1978 title. I spent the rest of the movie questioning every detail.

    The next morning, I called Ed Carpenter, BU sports information director, seeking consolation. Was O'C really that passionate? Was Jim Craig really that good? Was Mike Eruzione really that close to being cut? Give the movie a chance, he said.

    I spent the rest of the weekend piling criticism on top of criticism. How can you make a movie about the Olympics without showing the opening ceremony? Or the final game against Finland? And Brooks' between-periods tirade when he screams: "If you don't win this game, you'll take it to your graves!"

    Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks
    "Miracle" is really the story of how Herb Brooks molded his team, and Kurt Russell plays that role perfectly.
    "It would have been four hours long," Eruzione said.

    Noah Emmerich, the actor who portrays assistant coach Craig Patrick, put it best. "All the details of the 'Miracle on Ice' aren't served well by Hollywood," he said. "The movie isn't what happened, it's the way it happened."

    Bottom line: It's the story about the men and the miracle, not the medal.

    So, I saw it again. And instead of paying attention to the details, I watched all the stuff people who don't know a blue line from a clothesline watch. And I loved it.

    Kurt Russell portrays the Herb Brooks only those close to him knew -- the one who was the last player cut from the 1960 gold-medal winning Olympic team, the one who left the safety and success of winning three national titles at the University of Minnesota to chase his Olympic dream and wasn't about to let anyone fail, not the bright-eyed, optimistic players who shared his hopes or himself.

    To mold 20 players into a cohesive team of champions, Brooks alienated himself by being brash, confrontational and manipulative -- not because it was the way he wanted to do it, but because it was the best way for it to be done. Brooks called those seven months the loneliest of his life, and Russell's acting only makes Brooks' vulnerable and compassionate moments more poignant.

    The casting of Russell as the movie's only star is fitting as Brooks, fresh off capturing the 1979 NCAA championship, was the only "star" of the '80 team.

    Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks
    Director Gavin O'Connor insisted on casting hockey players who could act ... not actors who tried to play hockey.
    Except for Emmerich ("Beautiful Girls," "Copland") and Eddie Cahill (Rachel's assistant on "Friends") who plays Craig, the rest of the cast is made up of former hockey players with an acting gene, as director Gavin O'Connor described them. Not only were they better able than actors to execute the on-ice scenes, they were better able to genuinely convey the fear, nervousness, disappointment and excitement that comes with trying to make the best hockey team in the country and having to play the best team in the world.

    Because the hockey scenes were filmed in order -- from tryouts to the game against the Soviets, including the "Herbies" scene after the exhibition game against Norway -- the actors bonded on and off the ice in much the same way as the actual players. That chemistry, combined with excellent camera work and painstaking choreography, produced the best hockey sequences ever captured on film.

    The "real" hockey made the players more real, their accents more real, their clothes and hairstyles more real, their stories more real. I didn't realize I was getting caught up in the movie until I began worrying along with Eruzione that he wouldn't make the team and was choking up when Brooks cut the last player (no tears, though).

    And even though I knew the historic details, there I sat, with the Americans trailing the Soviets by a goal and going on the power play, thinking these guys can win this game.

    Sherry Skalko is the NHL Editor for