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Monday, February 9, 2004
Updated: February 12, 4:31 PM ET
Reel Life: 'Miracle' rings true ... sometimes

By Jeff Merron
Page 3 staff

"Miracle," the film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal, opened last weekend to generally good reviews. It's been greatly lauded for its authenticity in getting both the general story and the hockey scenes right.

But did Disney really do such a good job? You be the judge.

Setting the stage

Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks
"Miracle" is really the story of how Herb Brooks molded his team, and Kurt Russell plays that role perfectly.
In Reel Life: In the opening montage of historical moments, there's a short clip about "Billy Beer."
In Real Life: Billy Carter, Jimmy's younger brother, ran a gas station in Plains, GA., and would be a real embarrassment to the President during his term in office. Billy shamelessly tried to cash in on his status as First Brother, and pitching "Billy Beer" was his best-known endeavor. On each can (and 12-pack box) was his personal endorsement: "It's the best beer I've ever tasted. And I've tasted a lot."

In fact, it was lousy beer -- one critic, according to CBS News, said, "Pour it back in the horse it came from." But it sold well -- to people hoping to cash in on a valuable collectible a couple decades later. Wouldn't happen, because -- well, lots of people bought it, nobody drank it, and everyone saved it.

"You can barely give Billy Brew away," Stan Galloway of "American Breweriana" magazine told Buck Wolf of ABC News in 2000. "It's one of the biggest bombs in brewery history." A can of Billy Beer that sold for 50 cents in 1977 is worth about 50 cents today.

Billy Carter died of pancreatic cancer in 1988 -- several years after he stopped drinking.

The interview and tryouts

In Reel Life: When Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) is interviewed for the job of U.S. coach, he says his goal is to beat the Soviet Union. "Pretty lofty goal, Herb," says committee member Lou Nanne (Bill Mondy).
In Real Life: Nanne, the former North Stars general manager, wasn't at the meeting and never said anything like it. He did know in advance that those words would be put in his mouth in the movie and had no problem with it.

But Nanne did have a problem with Mondy's physical stature, reports Bob Sansevere in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "They might have thought about me playing in the NHL a while and that I was bigger and stronger than (Mondy). I think he quit growing at 14."

In Reel Life: The committee is skeptical about Brooks' idiosyncratic ideas about a new kind of hockey. But he is backed up by Walter (Walter Bush, played by Sean McCann).
In Real Life: Bush was instrumental in bringing the North Stars to Minnesota and is currently president of U.S.A. Hockey. Bush had played at the U. of Minnesota, managed the 1964 Olympic Team, which Brooks played on and knew Brooks well. He was also an advisor to the committee and played a key role in getting him the coaching job.

In Reel Life: Brooks' assistant coach is Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich). Brooks tells Patrick, "You'll make a helluva coach one day."
In Real Life: Good guess. Craig played in the NHL and WHA throughout the 1970s. After his stint as the Olympic team's assistant coach, he was GM of the Rangers for five years. He became GM of the Penguins in 1989, a job he still holds. In 2002 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Patrick's grandfather, Lester, built the New York Rangers, and was in the first class inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947. His father, Lynn, is also a Hall of Famer.

During his career Patrick did have four coaching stints, as a mid-season replacement. But they were brief, stopgap assignments.

Things came full circle in 1999 when Patrick hired Brooks to coach the Penguins.

For the most part, "Miracle" the movie was well diagrammed.

In Reel Life: Tryouts for the team are held at the National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs. They're supposed to last a week, with players selected by Brooks and a committee of advisors. Instead, they last only a few hours, and Brooks chooses the team on his own, ignoring the advice of others.
In Real Life: Sixty-eight players participated in a 10-day-long round-robin tournament. The team was chosen, at the end, by Brooks and coaches from the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, University of New Hampshire, Colorado College and Boston University. Brooks had specifically invited these coaches to the festival to help him assess the players and pick the team.

In Reel Life: Among the players chosen in the Colorado tryout are goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) and forward Mark Johnson (Eric Peter-Kaiser).
In Real Life: Craig wasn't there. Neither was Johnson. But Brooks had seen them both play, and he knew he wanted them on the team.

In Reel Life: A big deal is made of the fact that Craig didn't take a long psychological test that Brooks passed out during the tryouts.
In Real Life: It would have been like Brooks to pass out such a test. On the day he chose the team -- Aug. 2, 1979 -- Gerald Eskenazi of the New York Times wrote, "Brooks has been busy compiling a physiological and psychological profile of the players. He has determined how they will handle the anxiety and work loads."

The months before the Games

In Reel Life: Brooks tells the players that if they need a friend, they should turn to Patrick or to Doc (Kenneth Welsh). Doc, who wears a bow tie and speaks with an accent, is a near-constant presence in the movie.
In Real Life: Doc isn't listed as a main character at the film's Web site, and he's also not given a prominent credit at the end of the movie. Why? Is Doc a fictional or composite character?

No. Doc is Dr. V. George Nagobads, a former amateur hockey player who was born in Latvia and educated in Germany. He worked with Brooks as the Gophers' team doctor, retiring just before the 1980 Games. He was also the U.S. national team's doctor for several decades. Because of the many years he spent with Brooks at Minnesota, he was a close advisor to the coach. He was there in 1980, accent and all.

Perhaps Disney took a cue from the University of Minnesota in giving Doc/Welsh little credit. Apparently, Doc was often overlooked. After he retired, the Gophers honored him by handing out an annual "Dr. V. George Nagobads Unsung Hero" award.

Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks
Director Gavin O'Connor insisted on casting hockey players who could act ... not actors who tried to play hockey.
In Reel Life: The hockey action looks, well, real.
In Real Life: Most of the actors were at least good amateur hockey players, and many are former pros. A company called ReelSports Solutions held trials in six cities to come up with U.S. team players, then held tryouts in Vancouver to fill out the roster and also the opposing teams. Five former NHL players -- Sasha Lakovic, Bill Ranford, Todd Harkins, Mike MacWilliam, and Randy Heath, would play on the "Soviet" squad. And a Vancouver lawyer and huge fan of the Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak, Roger Watts, took off a few months from his practice to portray his hero.

The producers then held a six-week training camp in Vancouver. Action was choreographed with the help of Ryan Walter, a former Canucks player, and Chris Nelson, a former pro.

"The thing is you can't fake hockey," Rob Miller of ReelSports Solutions told Gary Mason of the Vancouver Sun. "It takes such unique skills to play the game at a high level that you can't fake it. You see it right away."

Peter-Kaiser, who played at SUNY-Potsdam before taking on the role of Johnson, attested that the action sequences are authentic. "If anyone says that this isn't real, I have about eight injuries that can prove that every hit was real," he told the New York Times. "I took stitches in the face. I ripped every ligament in my shoulder. We took it to heart."

In Reel Life: Tryouts are held in Colorado Springs. The team practices in St. Paul, Minnesota. We see game action taking place in Lake Placid, N.Y., and various other spots in North America and Europe.
In Real Life: The film was shot in Vancouver, where Kurt Russell lives part of the year with Goldie Hawn, his longtime companion, and their son, Wyatt.

(Wyatt, 17, is a goalie for the Richmond Sockeyes. He's the leading goalie in the Pacific International Junior Hockey League with a Goals Against Average of 2.65 in 30 games.

Wyatt tried out for the movie, but didn't make it.

In Reel Life: In one of the team's first practices, Jack O'Callahan (Michael Mantenuto) and Rob McClanahan (Nathan West) get into a brawl.
In Real Life: Mantenuto, who played hockey at the University of Maine in 2000-01 while majoring in drama, got into a brawl during auditions with another actor. This led some to speculate that was why he was cast as O'Callahan, who spent more time in the penalty box than any other U.S. player.

But the fight during practice? Never happened.

In Reel Life: After a game in Norway, Brooks, angry at the team's lackluster play, has them run through a grueling set of sprints. The workout goes on so long (Brooks gives the "Again" command 13 times) that the lights are turned off in the arena during the session, and Doc is moved to yell, "Stop, they've had enough!" The workout doesn't end until Eruzione says, "I'm Mike Eruzione, and I play for the United States of America."
In Real Life: The Eruzione business is fiction, as are the piecemeal player introductions throughout the film. But the rest happened. The sprints lasted about 45 minutes, just a few minutes longer than the seemingly endless scene in the movie. The lights were turned off. And Doc, according to Tim Wendel's account of the team, "Going for the Gold," did yell, "Herbie, Herbie, stop, stop, they've had enough!"

A few things are left out of the account, though. Johnson got so angry he broke his stick against the glass. Three others didn't take part because they had been ejected from the game and were in the locker room, reports Sansevere.

In Reel Life: During one road trip, the team's plane is delayed after hitting a moose in the runway.
In Real Life: The plane was delayed because it hit a telephone poll -- not a moose.

Herb Brooks

Herb Brooks
Brooks led a bunch of college kids to the greatest upset in sports history.
In Reel Life: Brooks is a lifetime hockey man -- a player who knew he'd become a coach.
In Real Life: Russell is a baseball man -- and a good one, too, playing several years in the minors before an injury halted his pro career.

In Reel Life: Brooks is a Midwesterner and has a slight, though distinctive, regional accent.
In Real Life: Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press writes that, "Russell captures the Minnesota dialect, particularly the elongated O's in words like 'boat,' but he doesn't 'Fargo' it up."

"One of the things I've always disliked about Hollywood is the way accents tend to be depicted," Russell told Hewitt. "It gets real condescending real fast. I don't like that about Hollywood movies."

In Reel Life: Brooks is left-handed.
In Real Life: Russell is left-handed, as was Brooks. And, Patti Brooks told the Pioneer Press, Russell also "captured Herbie, all his little nuances, his walk, even the way he chewed gum behind the bench, the way he held his glasses, stroked his tie."

In Reel Life: A recurring theme is that Brooks wants his players to win the gold medal because he was the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. team, which had also, miraculously, won a gold.
In Real Life: Brooks played three years of varsity hockey for the U. of Minnesota Gophers, scoring 18 goals with 27 assists. He was, indeed, the last man cut from that 1960 team. He did play for the U.S. in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics.

The team

In Reel Life: Mike Eruzione (Patrick Demsey) is from the Boston area.
In Real Life: As is Demsey, who recently graduated from Fitchburg State College, not far from Boston. Demsey almost didn't get the part, though. According to Richard Duckett of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Demsey didn't find out about the Boston auditions until the day before they ended. Fortunately, he found the casting call on a Web site, showed up and got the part.

Of the 2,000 people who auditioned for the featured U.S. player parts, only a half-dozen or so were chosen.

In Reel Life: Jim Craig is the team's star goalie, playing every minute of every game.
In Real Life: Craig played most of the time, but that isn't actor Eddie Cahill you see in every shot. Bill Ranford, the former Oilers and Bruins goalie who won the 1990 Conn Smythe Trophy, was Cahill's "stunt goalie." During filming, he took at least one puck to the head that required stitches, reports John Levesque of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Cahill did attend the six-week hockey camp, but Ranford took his place for most of the game action.

In Reel Life: Before the team departs for Europe, Brooks tells John Harrington (Nate Miller), Mark Pavelich (Chris Koch), and Buzz Schneider (Billy Schneider) they'll play on a line together. The line is called the Coneheads, after a popular recurring "Saturday Night Live" skit.
In Real Life: Harrington came up with the Coneheads moniker, but the line was also called the Iron Rangers.

A nice family moment for Team USA.
In Reel Life: A few weeks before the Olympics, Brooks brings in Tim Harrer (Adam Knight) to try out for the team. The players, who've been together for months, confront Brooks and tell him they don't want Harrer on the team because they're a "family." Eruzione, particularly, seems scared he may lose his place on the team. Brooks relents, and lets Harrer go.
In Real Life: Harrer did play four games late in the team's pre-Olympic schedule, and the confrontation did take place. After a team meeting, Eruzione and Patrick talked Brooks out of bringing on Harrer. And Eruzione was genuinely concerned about losing his spot on the squad. "The thing we questioned was 'Why now'?" Eruzione says in Going for the Gold. " Why only a couple of weeks before the games? Aaron Broten (another college backup) may have taken my job away from me if I hadn't gotten going."

The Olympics

In Reel Life: Going into the Olympics, the U.S. team is portrayed as huge underdogs.
In Real Life: In a way, they were. But it's unlikely that anyone (save, perhaps, the Soviets) took the U.S. too lightly. Most of the players had already been drafted by the NHL. Mike Ramsey was the first American to be chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft. And with lesser squads, the Americans won silver in the 1972 Games and just missed a bronze in 1976.

Through the long training period leading up to the Games, the U.S. team went 42-16-2, playing four games against NHL teams and 18 games that counted in the CHL standings.

In Reel Life: The Soviets crush the U.S., 10-3, in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden three days before the Games. During the contest, O'Callahan is badly injured and it's unclear whether he'll be able to play in the Olympics.
In Real Life: As depicted in the film, O'Callahan suffered stretched knee ligaments. Right after the Soviet win, the Washington Post reported that he was "probably lost for the Olympics."

In Reel Life: Despite the injury, Brooks decides to keep O'Callahan on the Olympic roster. He delivers this news to his player as the two stand alone in the middle of the rink. After, O'Callahan lets out a lone cheer and then hops off the ice on his crutches.
In Real Life: There was a huge debate about whether to keep O'Callahan on the team. Some doctors said the ligaments were torn, meaning he wouldn't be able to play at all during the Games. Brooks told O'Callahan of his decision in the locker room, in front of the entire team, and it provided a great emotional boost. According to Wendel, after Brooks made the announcement, the coach and player hugged and the team cheered.

In Reel Life: In the opening game, there's a fair amount of crowd noise as the Americans manage a 2-2 tie against Sweden.
In Real Life: The first game, coming before the Opening Ceremonies and right at the start of major transportation problems in Lake Placid, didn't draw much of a crowd. There were only about 3,000 fans in the Olympic Arena, which had a capacity of 8,000. If you wanted, you could have bought a $20 ticket for $3.

In Reel Life: Until almost the end of the Games, only Brooks represents the team during press conferences. He doesn't allow the team to meet the press.
In Real Life: True. And some players and reporters were unhappy about this arrangement. After the win over the Soviets, Ken Denlinger wrote in The Washington Post, "For the first time in the entire tournament, Brooks allowed his players to attend a formal press conference, to share the public glory with them instead of forcing reporters to chase about the postgame crowds and Olympic Village for non-coaching wisdom."

In Reel Life: Brooks continually reminds the media that his team is an underdog, and, in one way or another, keeps pounding home to team members the gist of his famous Brooksism, "You're not talented enough to win on talent alone."
In Real Life: By the Olympics, a lot of players chafed at hearing Brooks talk about their lack of talent. And some thought he was being manipulative. "By downplaying his team's talent consistently," wrote Phil Hersh in the March 1, 1980 Sporting News, "Brooks would escape unscathed if the team failed and head straight for Olympus if it won."

In Reel Life: During one press conference, a reporter tries to bait Brooks, accusing him of hogging the spotlight.
In Real Life: Brooks was criticized in this fashion, and some said he was grandstanding to maximize the chance he'd get offers from NHL teams after the Games. "Brooks will win a gold in public relations and a silver in self-promotion," wrote columnist Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News.

In Reel Life: In the locker room before the Soviet game, Brooks gives a rousing speech. "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here at this moment. You were meant to be here at this game."
In Real Life: Those were Brooks' words, as he read them to the media after the game.

In Reel Life: The Soviet coach, Viktor Tikhonov, pulls his top goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, after the first period.
In Real Life: That's what happened. Tretiak, who currently works for the Blackhawks, told the Pioneer Press recently, "If I would have played the second and third periods of that game, maybe the U.S.A. wouldn't have had that miracle. I don't know why he did it."

U.S.A. celebration
Team USA celebrates after its shocking 4-3 victory over the Soviets in 1980.
In Reel Life: The win over the Russians and the gold medal, are a great triumph for a downbeaten nation.
In Real Life: It's almost too corny to be true, but it was. "After a long run of lousy luck, Americans finally had something to cheer," wrote Haynes Johnson in The Washington Post after the team visited the White House. "The victory will not wipe out the feelings of humiliation and impotence about the hostages in Iran, or the frustrations and fears involving the Soviet moves toward the Persian Gulf, or the mock expressions of concern from our allies about how sad to see the mighty Americans fall so low in the world. You can put all those lofty sentiments aside. Winning was wonderful, and winning at this moment in that way, most glorious of all."

The strange world of Hollywood

In Reel Life: Check out the closing credits. You'll see that the film was written by Eric Guggenheim.
In Real Life: Not really, reports Shawn Levy of the Portland Oregonian. It was all written by Mike Rich, who has also written "Finding Forrester," "The Rookie," and "Radio." Said producer Gordon Gray, "Mike wrote every word, and without Mike there wouldn't be a movie. Mike wrote 100 percent of the screenplay and Guggenheim wrote nothing, zero."

Guggenheim did write an early draft of the script, but it was tossed out by the producers. Because of convoluted Writers Guild of America rules, Guggenheim gets the credit. And a lot of cash.