‘Of Miracles and Men’

14 Feb

ESPN’s 30-for-30 series of documentaries rarely delivers a dud, but it outdid itself this past Sunday, with the debut of “Of Miracles and Men,” the story of the supposedly invincible Soviet hockey team that fell to the United States in the 1980 Olympics. The Soviet squad, usually painted as a heartless machine in comparison to Herb Brooks’ plucky college kids, suddenly become humans: stolid but vulnerable men, brusque or wistful as they recollect what went wrong in Lake Placid.

After introducing its main characters, who wander back among Soviet apartment blocks to remember the street corner rinks where they learned the game, “Miracles” travels back in time to the birth of Russian hockey. This means the story of Anatoli Tarasov, a man who knew little of hockey before taking the reins of the national team, and swiftly determined that it was no good trying to beat the Canadians at their own game. And so he reinvented it, and changed hockey forever. He studied ballet and sought to bring its seamless coordination on to the ice, building fluid teams that moved at a pace no opponent could match. Russia and its satellites won every Olympic tournament between the U.S.’s less-remembered shocking run in Squaw Valley in 1960 and Sweden’s emergence in 1994, the first Games in which the former Soviet “Republics” fielded their own teams. All save one, that is.

Of course, Tarasov never got a chance to prove his worth in the 1980 games. He’d been fired some years earlier for failing to follow the party line, and the Soviets rashly chose to abandon the man who’d made them relevant. Tarasov was the architect of the Soviets’ stunning arrival on the hockey scene, the 1972 Summit Series, which matched the Red Army team against an absurd collection of Canadian all-stars and showed the world that Canada had nothing on the USSR. His legacy lived on into the 80s, most prominently in the form of his star goalie disciple, Vladislav Tretiak.

The documentary didn’t go here, but it’s important to remember that Tarasov’s style was an important part of the Soviets’ undoing in 1980. Herb Brooks had many sources for his more open style of play, but Tarasov was certainly one of them, with much of that knowledge coming via Lou Vairo, an advance scout for the U.S. squad who labored in obscurity for many years to study Tarasov and bring his methods to the U.S. Brooks abandoned the North American obsession with lanes and turned hockey into a free-flowing ice dance, coupling violence and grace to create the form of hockey that remains its pinnacle.

It’s probably a mistake to lionize Tarasov too much; he did work his players to absurd limits, and had the full power of the Soviet state backing him. He loved his players, but his control was so absolute that there was no alternative. The narrative pitched by the documentary, in which he represents the purity of the revolutionary ideal before it went sour, is also too simple a reading of Soviet history; Stalin’s depravity was simply the most extreme flare-up of a ruthless totalitarian state, and the very revolution that started it all etched its evil into its DNA. But it fits a certain romantic tale quite nicely, and one can certainly see how Tarasov might have seen himself this way. Just as the revolutionary idealism faded in the face or reality, Soviet hockey’s cynical turn post-Tarasov was all too real.

Still, it’s wrong to make his successor, Viktor Tikhonov, nothing but a villain. He was most clearly a tyrant, but “Miracles” never really stopped to admire just how dominant his teams were. He might not have been all that pleasant, but he sure knew what he was doing, and though he was a strict disciplinarian, he did still allow his teams to play Tarasov’s free-flowing style on the ice. He had plenty of moments of triumph, and his legacy in the USSR goes far beyond the Lake Placid loss. But like so many tyrants, his downfall was his obsessive control. His decision to bench Tretiak after the first period likely cost the Soviets the game against the U.S., and helped to end the goalie’s career at age 32, far too early for the man who many have been the greatest tender of all time.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, Tikhonov’s fist grew ever tighter, as he tried to keep his players from jumping ship to the NHL. Several veterans were axed from the team, and the greatest skater they had, Slava Fetisov, was strung out for years with vague promises of eventual freedom. Fetisov’s story became something out of a spy movie, as he met secretly with New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello in a hotel room, communicating via writing so as to hide from the government bugs, and eventually had a terrifying audience before a livid Dmitry Yazov, the Soviet Minister of Defense. But Yazov did let him go. Finally, in 1989, he brought down hockey’s Iron Curtain and made the leap to the NHL, becoming the first Soviet citizen to ever hold a foreign work visa.

It is perhaps a bit ironic that Fetisov went to the Devils, seeing as Lamoriello’s teams often became, stylistically, the anti-Tarasov. Adam Gopnik called many of the players he acquired en route to three Stanley Cups “Lou-Bots” because they were just plugged into a machine-like system—and a boring one at that, given its reliance on the trap. There was little room for free-flowing, Tarasov-style hockey in Lamoriello’s NHL, though times are changing, as analytics takes hold and the rediscovery of puck possession brings some old ideas back to the fore. Somehow, Fetisov probably didn’t care: he was far more free in a Devils’ trapping machine than he was in the USSR, and after he moved to the Red Wings, he became the first man to bring the Stanley Cup back to Red Square.

Fetisov travels back to Lake Placid for the first time in “Miracles,” wandering the streets with his daughter, making his way back into the locker room, and revisiting the old dormitory—now a prison, a facility so miserable that it offended Soviet sensibilities. He steps back out on to the ice at the Olympic Center—now, the Herb Brooks Arena—and one can still sense those lingering chants of “USA! USA!” in that hallowed sporting ground. Many of the Soviets now try to pooh-pooh the loss; understandably so, given their greatness for such a long time. But they still all know they were on the wrong side of that Miracle, and there are few words to describe that emptiness of stunned defeat. This is the stuff of legend, and Fetisov is left only with a wry smile, this man who stood up to the Soviet Union cast as a villain in the story of American hockey glory. Such are the vagaries of sports. The legacy, however, endures, uniting winners and losers, their stories forever intertwined in a tale that reminds us the impossible can happen.

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3 Responses to “‘Of Miracles and Men’”

  1. Ruth Olson March 2, 2015 at 8:40 pm #

    Karl, I really like this piece. I learned something too!

  2. Green4 March 9, 2015 at 7:09 pm #

    I just watched this one today, very nice documentary.
    Another one that has recently been released and can be found at the Lagoon theater in Uptown is titled the Red Army. There are many similarities, but the Red Army talks more about the Russian’s style of play along with their top “Russian five” line.

    • karlschuettler March 9, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

      Just heard about Red Army today–I’ll have to wander down Hennepin sometime soon to see it. Sound like another must-see.

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