June 2004, Valley Sports News & Review

Maybe it's because I'm Canadian, but I find the title of this 2004 flick which chronicles the USA Olympic hockey team's jaw-dropping defeat of the mighty Soviet team in a pivotal game and subsequent gold medal win at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York a little much. Oh, for sure, it was a definite feel good moment, and a much needed national morale boost, but a miracle?

I mean, I can certainly understand the intense emotions triggered by that victory ­ we Canadians had already gone through our own hockey "miracle" when Team Canada defeated the Soviets in September 1972, culminating in Paul Henderson's nail-biting final goal in the final seconds of the eighth and final game in Moscow, giving us the game and the series.

Like the US's 1980 win, it was a defining national moment, a rousing, heart-grabbing, whoop-out-loud, fist-in-the-air, hug-complete-strangers triumph, one much discussed and analyzed for its political, social and cultural ramifications for years to come, and subsequently polished to a legendary sheen. And like Canada's 1972 win, it played a large part in changing North American hockey forever.

But a miracle? Or was it, as Kurt Russell, in a powerfully understated performance as Team USA's obsessive, driven coach Herb Brooks keeps insisting to anyone who will listen throughout the film, "only a hockey game"?


That's the thing with sports ­ we cheer the home team victory, but we tend to translate their victories into an assurance that we, personally, are somehow the best ­ not at hockey or baseball or badminton or whatever, but at EVERYTHING! It's a dodgy sort of self-affirmation by proxy, and when the hometeam is a national team, the stakes just get raised higher and the rhetoric gets even more ridiculous.

Fortunately, director Gavin O'Connor steers a clear course between the rhetoric and the reality, keeping the flag-waving and jingoism off-ice for the most part and concentrating on what should really matter in a movie about hockey: hockey. And I have to say this is simply the best hockey movie I've seen, better even than crudely entertaining Slap Shot or the under-rated Mystery, Alaska at capturing the bruising grace of the sport at its finest.

With its commendable emphasis on teamwork, hard work and commitment, this is a fine flick to watch with young hockey fans. Brooks, the "man with the plan" and the loud plaid jackets, makes a point right from the get-go of telling people that he's not looking for the best players, but "the right ones." Nor is he interested in showboat superstars ­ as he says, "When you pull on that jersey, the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back."

In a creative masterstroke O'Connor even brings back the two TV commentators who called the original game to reprise their roles, and it's a real joy seeing Al Michaels and particularly legendary Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden recreate their roles.

And even non-fans will get caught up in the tension -- O'Connor has assembled a cast of mostly unknown actors who were also hockey players, lending a much appreciated verisimilitude to the action. The cameras get right down on the ice and you can practically feel the chill of the ice, the bone-jarring thud of bodies against the boards, the slash of steel, the squeak of leather, and the sheer thrill of the game at its hardest and fastest. And O'Connor gets extra kudos for showing not just the action on ice, but also the backstage heartbreak of not making the cut and the much-needed support Brooks received from his long-suffering wife, Patti, superbly played by Patricia Clarkson.

If there is a gripe, or at least a reason to pause and reflect, it's in the suggestion some viewers may take away that a victory always justifies the means. Brooks' hard-nosed and Machiavellian coaching techniques sometimes teeter on the edge of cruelty. Yes, they won, but what if they hadn't? Does it matter? What if the Soviets' had thrashed the U.S. soundly ­ a distinct possibility? Would Brooks, who's pretty much been anointed a hockey saint and national hero, still be so admired, or would he have been dismissed as the Captain Bligh of hockey, a man who let his own obsessions and ambitions sink the team?

It's a good question, and one worth discussing with your children. Sure, we all want to work as hard as we can to win, but at what point do we allow the pursuit of victory to triumph over the simple joy of the game?


But that's a question best raised after the credits roll. O'Connor has crafted a fine sports movie here, possibly predictable -- does anyone alive not know how it will end? ­ yet compelling and entertaining throughout. Only at the very end does a little hokum slip in, perhaps unavoidably, but fortunately O'Connor and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim allow Russell as Brooks to step back from the hoopla momentarily and wrap it up nicely, Yeah, Brooks allows, maybe it really was more than just a hockey game, but "I've often been asked in the years since Lake Placid what was the best moment for me. Well, it was here -- the sight of twenty young men of such differing backgrounds now standing as one."

It's a genuinely moving moment. And in this day and age of superstar greed and prima donna jocks , we have a big budget sports movie that truly celebrates teamwork, and people play for the pure joy of sport and love of the game? Now that's a miracle.

Now out on DVD as a nice two disk set with a slew of bonus features. I found the one showing the young actors training for the film particularly fascinating. With hockey season over for the year, this is the ideal time to sit back one night and enjoy a sports movie the whole family can enjoy. Yeah maybe it was just a hockey game. But what a hockey game.

Miracle (2004, Walt Disney Pictures)
Rated PG for language and some rough sports action.
135 minutes
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
Screenplay by Eric Guggenheim
Starring Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Sean McCann
Currently available on DVD and VHS.