The “miracle on ice” was one of the greatest achievements in American sports history. If you’re unfamiliar with the event, an American amateur hockey team of mostly college upperclassmen and recent graduates won the gold medal in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics in New York.
The Soviet hockey team they defeated at Lake Placid had won seven World Championships over the previous decade and the previous four Olympic gold medals. The Russians had built and fostered the team over multiple decades, drafting all of their players into the army to make them state officials that could focus on hockey with an intensity even beyond professionalism. For the Americans to beat them with amateurs was vaguely akin to when the Greeks beat the US dream team at the FIBA 2006 World Championship with a squad devoid of NBA talent.
You can get a few peaks into the history, the game, and the American team that won gold in multiple places. You can get a nice view into the history of the Soviet hockey team and their perspective on that game in the ESPN documentary “of miracles and men.”
It’s hard to do better than “Miracle” which was a Disney produced movie about the event directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, The Accountant, The way back) and starring Kurt Russell as US coach Herb Brooks. If you love “Remember the titans” there’s a better than decent chance you’d love this movie as well.
Part of what I love about this movie is that the strategy elements of the story, which are truly essential to the tale, play a major role in the movie and are done carefully. There’s some strategy in “Remember the titans” that is occasionally done well and at others times makes not even one lick of sense.
The challenge of the Soviets
One of the ideas in the movie that they try to connect with the audience is how downcast and defeated many in America felt in 1980. Economic “stagnation,” the Vietnam war, and a rough four years of Jimmy Carter didn’t have the country feeling particularly confident. The Cold War was still very much a big deal and Ronald Reagan was about to win an electoral landslide over the incumbent Carter with a “Make America Great Again” message.
The immediate challenge to the American Olympic commission was how to make a respectable defense of their home ice against the invading Soviet hockey team. As noted above, the Russians were devastatingly good at hockey and had beat up some All-Star teams comprised of American and Canadian professionals. The movie toes the line between the accurate depiction of that team and then the one that everyone expects in a movie.
Matching the normal stereotype from Cold War movies would involve a big, hulking Russian team comprised of Ivan Dragos that had been turned into hockey-playing machines by Soviet science and authoritarian policy. They do play on that stereotype some in this movie, particularly in shots when the young American players are on the ice lined up across from big, older Russian men. They turn Russian forward Boris Mikhailov into a looming brute with an amused and condescending look on his face examining the young American across from him at the opening face off.
In reality the older and legendary Russian forwards that were at the head of that team, Boris Mikhailov and Valeri Kharlamov, were 5-10/169 and 5-8/165. They weren’t brutes on the ice, they were exceptionally fast and creative hockey players. Much more Steph and Klay then Laimbeer and Rodman.
When they talk the Soviet strategy and style in “Miracle” they are more faithful to the truth and the challenge of trying to defeat that team. The Soviets were fast, exceptionally skilled, and they played a very free flowing and “read and react” style of hockey as a tight-knit team that was extremely hard to match.
Even the best, physical defenders on the team weren’t necessarily stereotypical Ivan Drago brutes. They were eventual Red Wing Viacheslav Fetisov (features prominently in the ESPN doc) who was on the bigger side at 6-1/215 and soon-to-be team captain Valeri Vasiliev who was 5-11/185. Vasiliev was ultra-physical, the Canadians were afraid of him when he’d come in to check players and he once played through a heart attack in a game. But he was also small and more a scrappy underdog sort of archetype than a big, imposing machine.
The movie opens with Herb Brooks making his case to be the head coach for the American team and trying to explain to the Olympic commission that the reason they keep getting embarrassed by the Russians isn’t a lack of talent but the fact that their teams don’t play like teams and can’t match the Soviet chemistry.
While the commission is a bit incredulous, they seem to be taken aback by the degree of Brooks’ passion and focus on the problem at hand and end up tagging him as their man for the task.
The movie once again tries to balance between what we want the solution to be for defeating the Soviets and what it was in reality. The movie uses up lots of fun and compelling scenes in which Brooks basically dials up the totalitarian within himself in order to get an immature and disparate group of young men to move beyond college rivalries and differences and unite as an American team.
There’s a true story depicted in the movie in a famous scene in which the team plays the Swedish team in a lackadaisical manner in a friendly tune-up and Brooks keeps the team on the ice after the game to skate “Herbies” until everyone is good and punished.
Kurt Russell is truly tremendous in this movie.
After the miracle is achieved, you hear Russell’s Brooks describe how compelling it was for him to see so many young men from different backgrounds unite as a team to accomplish something historic. That’s how the movie ends before a fun “where are they now” sequence to Aerosmith’s “Dream on.”
The actual solution though that is presented in the movie and was clearly the real way that the Americans achieved a gold medal was not exactly that.
There’s a great scene early on in which they host hockey players from across the country in a two week tryout and you see the Olympic commission folks taking notes and discussing who’s going to make the team. Then you find out that Herb Brooks went into the tryouts having already selected his team, based on years of research and scouting, and he announces his roster without consulting the commission. His friend within that group has to go to bat for him but Brooks’ totalitarian regime is defended and established.
How’d he build his roster? Well…of the 20 players on the final roster, nine were from Brook’s own college team at the University of Minnesota. Two more were from Minnesota-Duluth, and four were from Boston U. Then there were a couple from Bowling Green, one from North Dakota, and two from Wisconsin. Brooks basically took the strongest core of his Minnesota team and patched in players that he’d faced and scouted from other strong college hockey programs.
Then, he taught them a hybrid hockey style he’d already been phasing in at Minnesota that was modeled in large part after the free-flowing Soviet style. The Americans spent an extra long period of time mastering the style as a cohesive team while also doing intense conditioning work, as the Russians did, in order to take advantage of their young legs and be the fastest and most difficult to corral team at the Olympics.
It worked and that’s given as an express reason for the success within Disney’s rendering of the story. They won most of their games by comebacks, wearing down opposing teams, and with the assistance of a few semi-fluky goals against the Russians and panic by their head coach in pulling out the world’s best goalie Vladislav Tretiak, they defeated the dreaded Soviet team.
What Herb Brooks did was come as close to modeling both the creative, free-flowing style of the Soviet team as well as the top down, authoritarian structure of their organization. They beat the Russians at their own game and afterwards the Soviets adjusted by retiring the line of 35-year old Mikhailov, 32-year old Vladimir Petrov, and also 32-year old Kharlamov who almost immediately and tragically died in a car accident.
The Russians arguably got stronger from this, going with a new generation of speedy forwards and winning the next several World Championships while reclaiming gold in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. In the book, “The Captain Class” by Sam Walker, which I highly recommend…
…Walker tells a few stories about Vasiliev (some are included here) and how his captaincy helped the Soviets take off after the miracle on ice and enjoy perhaps their most dominant run.
Btw, “The Captain Class” is also a great book for dispelling of the notion that Michael Jordan’s leadership style was particularly good or even a primary cause for the Bulls’ 90s success.
Takeaways from the Miracle
Disney clearly wanted this to be an inspirational tale about people from different backgrounds uniting to achieve a common cause. All the specific details belie that narrative though and tell a different story.
They tell the story of a team that was designed to be as homogenous as possible and then driven to even greater unity and greatness by a totalitarian leader…in pursuit of beating a similar opponent.
There’s still some diversity of background amongst the players of course, even though most of them are from the upper Great Plains, and they did have to graft in the Bostonians which surely wasn’t the most simple thing in the world but was probably less of a big deal than portrayed in the movie.
But again, this is much more similar to when the Greeks defeated the US 2006 “dream team” in the semifinal game because they had a more cohesive squad. Although unlike the Miracle American team, the Greeks couldn’t seal the deal in the gold medal round. The Americans beat Finland in 1980 while the 2006 Greeks went down against Pau Gasol and the Spanish team. Of note, the American team was phasing in the next generation with Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard under Mike Kryziewksi and hadn’t adjusted to the international game yet. It was still shocking that the Greeks beat them.
The big takeaway from this achievement that is captured in the movie is this: Chemistry trumps talent because chemistry allows teams to react more quickly in the moment.
It’s the OODA loop again. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It’s the same reason that the HUNH spread works so well in football. A versatile team moving fast and making decisions in the moment will crush even the most carefully prepared and scripted opponent because they can cycle through the OODA loop more quickly. They’ll see opportunities more quickly and they’ll be empowered to take advantage of them rather than allowing windows of time to slip by.
There’s mirrored scenes in “Miracle” where you see Brooks explain his free-flowing offense and how different movements create multiple options for getting shots on goal. At first his players have no idea what he’s talking about but in time they develop the “conehead” line and everyone starts to work it out.
You want a college football analogy? Of course you do. It’s one I break down in the book…
…the 2008 Texas Longhorns.
Check out the space force components to that team:
At left tackle, 3-star Adam Ulatoski of Southlake Carroll. The 5-man skill lineup was 26-year old Quan Cosby at the X (minor league baseball), Jordan Shipley in the slot and often inside replacing the tight end, up and coming wideouts Brandon Collins and James Kirkendoll, and then redshirt senior Chris Ogbonnaya at running back. Ogbonnaya came to Texas and spent time at wide receiver, served a little as a fullback when he got heavier, and ultimately proved their best running back that year because his route-running and pass protection skills best matched their reliance on the spread passing game.
Colt McCoy was a redshirt junior and in his 3rd year as the starting quarterback after an intensive offseason in which he’d gained weight and worked insanely hard to be ready to carry the team. The Longhorns were losing NFL left tackle Tony Hills, NFL tight end Jermichael Finley, and NFL running back Jamaal Charles. They looked like a team that should be facing a steep decline.
Instead the chemistry and experience across the unit allowed them to go out and play read and react football in the passing game and just take opponents apart. They had some hangups in 2009 sans Quan Cosby and facing dime defenses from Nebraska and Oklahoma but they had Alabama dead to rights before the freak nerve injury killed Colt’s arm.
Fielding units with high levels of chemistry that are empowered to adjust in real-time is the ultimate winning strategy in sports (or life in general). That was the reason for the Miracle on Ice. Go see the movie if you haven’t, that’s not its central message but it’s still a great film.