‘Of Miracles and Men’

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.


The Reign in Spain

Europe crowned a new champion on Saturday, as Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid clashed for the title in Lisbon. For a second straight year, the Champions League final featured two teams from the same country, with a feisty upstart taking on an established, incredibly wealthy power. Both years, the upstart has played brilliantly, gave it everything they could, been in good position to pull it off near the end of the game…and lost.

Stylistically, the upstarts were pretty different. Borussia Dortmund pushed the pace and went up and down the pitch with Bayern Munich last season, while Atlético Madrid’s approach was about as defensive as it gets. Led by the Man in Black, Diego Simeone, they brought a heavy dose of physicality, roughing up Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the early going and consigning him to a very minor role in the win. Their incisive interceptions frustrated the Real attack, and they pounced on Iker Casillas’s error in goal to grab the early lead. But their legs began to fail them as the game progressed, and despite countless narrow escapes, they couldn’t keep out a Sergio Ramos header in stoppage time. Spent, Atlético conceded twice in extra time, and after ten years and over a billion dollars spent in the effort, Real Madrid are champions of Europe once again.

Two players on this Real Madrid team get all the attention: Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the $100 million man who, after countless wasted chances, finally headed home the game-winner. But in reality, neither of these players makes Los Blancos go; that honor goes to the midfield duo of Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric, who had the most energy on the pitch by extra time, setting up Ronaldo and Bale time and time again before one of them finally hit paydirt. Goals are rare enough in high-level fútbol that the goal-scorers will always get outsize attention, and Ronaldo and Bale certainly have their moments of brilliance, but in so many games, the supporting cast gets far too little recognition.

If I may let my colors show some, there is nothing terribly inspiring in a Real championship, but in addition to the under-recognized midfielders, one other man deserves some credit: the patient, low-key Carlo Ancelotti, who did what the far more dynamic José Mourinho could not. The Real manager turned his players loose and let them use their prodigious skill, and in the end, it all paid off. Even with all of the resource advantages in the world, winning it all isn’t easy, and Ancelotti was willing to take some bumps in the early going to get it right in May. When the wealthy traditional powers win, it sets the standard for everyone else, and while there’s a risk of European soccer drifting toward oligarchy, things are still unpredictable enough that a team like Atlético can frustrate Real for 92 minutes. Their championship should only inspire everyone else to get on to their level.

The ending will long haunt Atlético, and with a payroll less than one third of Real’s, they’ll struggle to hold on to many of their top end players after this season. This was probably their great chance, and as impressive as their defense can be, it alone can’t win a championship. Still, it was a heroic performance from Simeone’s squad, which elevated the standard for tough play in Spain and won their first La Liga title in 18 years. Their coach is a rising star, and they played their two biggest games—the Liga season-ending, title-clinching draw with Barcelona and the Champions League final with Real—with near nothing from two of their finest players, Diego Costa and Arda Turan. With Simeone in charge and some smart personnel decisions, they’ll continue to put pressure on the two big guns in Spanish soccer.

This all brings us to the team left out of the party in Lisbon, Barcelona. The Catalan power, rulers of the European fútbol scene for the past six years, did not win a single trophy, falling to Real in the Copa del Rey and Atlético in La Liga and the Champions League. To be sure, the gap is a small one: they dismantled British champion Manchester City in the Champions League, tied Atlético five times and lost once (1-0) in six meetings, and went 2-1 against Real. They lost all three major trophies by a single goal, and with Bayern Munich looking like they were trying to shove square pegs into round holes in their first season with Pep Guardiola at the helm, it’s not hard to argue that the three best club teams in the world right now are all Spanish.

Yet the times are changing at Barça, with veteran keeper Victor Valdes and longtime captain Carlos Puyol headed for the exits, and Xavi no longer in his prime. Argentine coach Tata Martino got more flak than he deserved for his management of an injury-riddled squad, but while his tactics were competent, the consensus was that he didn’t do enough to light a fire under his stars, and he is one and done. Add in the kerfuffle over Neymar’s contract, a (temporarily suspended) transfer ban for violating stupid but clear rules in their handling of several players in their youth academy, and a lot of squabbling on the board, and it looks like a mess.

Barça has moved swiftly in the past week, bringing in fiery former star Luis Enrique to take the reins and tapping Marc Andre ter Stegen as Valdes’ successor. The board is likely to open up the pocketbook, and Real’s win only rubs more salt in the wound. Even in a “down” year, Lionel Messi is still better than pretty much anyone out there; with Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets playing at an extremely high level and younger players like Neymar and Jordi Alba in the fold, the core is there for a return to dominance.

In the end, though, the big winners of this European soccer season are the Spanish. Yes, La Liga is top-heavy, but Spanish teams were strong across all European competitions, and the imbalance is far worse in some other leagues. And when the big guns do clash, it makes for some of the most thrilling fútbol in the world, with the distinct styles and sheer star power on display. For all that bothers me about club soccer, from its inequities and questionable international oversight to its inane rumor mills to its viciously short leashes, these matches still offer some of the most compelling sports drama out there.


Since I’m writing about soccer, I’d be remiss not to mention the big news coming out of the U.S. National Team this past week: head coach Jurgen Klinsmann elected not to pick Landon Donovan, the longtime star and hero of the U.S.’s 2010 Cup run, for Brazil. It’s a gutty call, and earned him plenty of ire, especially among more casual fans, who see the 32-year-old as the face of U.S. soccer. It might just cost him his job if the U.S. doesn’t get out of the group stage—and that’s something I wouldn’t bet on happening at this point, with or without Donovan.

In principle, though, I’ll defend the decision. I don’t watch enough MLS to comment on Donovan’s form, but the reviews are generally not great, and, hard as it may be, there comes a time when teams have to move on. Klinsmann’s youth movement is a gamble, but it aims toward a brighter future, and in general, it’s a good sign to see that U.S. soccer is generating a bench deep in viable options instead of clinging to an aging fan favorite. I’m not sure I’d have done the same thing—I like the idea of a veteran, professional goal-scoring weapon off the bench—but in principle, this is a case where reasonable minds can disagree.

The most striking thing about Klinsmann’s squad, though, is its reliance on players with dual citizenship, some of whom barely qualify as “American.” It’s not that I’m chauvinistic about these things; it’s encouraging to see players excited to put on the red, white, and blue, and given my own roots, I’m rather partial to German-Americans. Plenty of other nations, including France and Germany, have had success with players who were born on different continents. Still, I can’t help but be reminded of Herb Brooks’s outrage when USA Hockey brass rushed to naturalize Canadians for U.S. Olympic hockey teams in the 1970s. U.S. hockey, Brooks argued, would never reach its potential so long as it relied on imports. Instead, it had to do the dirty work of training its own kids up from the youngest ages, building as broad a pyramid as possible to generate a self-sustaining pool of talented players. There’s no doubt Brooks’ strategy worked, and continues to work. To Klinsmann’s credit, he’s done some work on that front as well, and U.S. Soccer has given him a lot of time and freedom to do his thing. U.S. soccer doesn’t have much to lose, so it might as well let the man see out his contract and see what he can do. I appreciate Donovan’s career, but I also look forward to a day when the U.S.’s most illustrious goal on the international stage isn’t against Algeria.

Whatever one thinks of the Donovan saga, we’ve got less than three weeks until the World Cup. In Brazil. Need I say more?

The Exceptionalism of Herb Brooks

I’ve just started into a three-week stretch of wall-to-wall hockey. The U.S.-Canada hockey duels over the past two days kicked it off; the U.S. women just lost a heartbreaker to the Canadians in the gold medal match in Sochi, while the men were decidedly less impressive in a 1-0 loss that was much more lopsided than the score makes it look. But, time to move on: it’s nonstop high school sections now, with 7AA’s excellent semifinal Saturday in Duluth, the section finals next week, and the State Tournament the week after.  Fittingly enough, the book that turned up on my reading list this past week was about a man who knew both Olympic and high school hockey glory: Herb Brooks.

Herb Brooks: The Inside Story of a Hockey Mastermind is a collection of memories by John Gilbert, a Duluthian who covered Brooks’ teams as a journalist for over thirty years and built a tight bond with the coach. They met during Brooks’ seven-year stint at the University of Minnesota, during which he won the school’s first three NCAA titles, and Brooks went so far as to ask Gilbert to be his PR man for the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Gilbert declined, but wound up being the only writer with direct access to Brooks during the Miracle on Ice run after Brooks walked out of an early press conference in disgust. They remained close friends as Brooks crisscrossed the world for various coaching jobs over the next twenty years, with Brooks frequently spilling out his thoughts to Gilbert. It may not be the most crisply written book about Brooks, but it is certainly the most intimate.

Brooks was a larger-than-life figure, one whose legend came to overshadow reality. He’s best remembered for his mind games, inspirational speeches, and the brutal conditioning drills immortalized in the film Miracle. No doubt he was a master motivator, and his individualized approach had a way of bringing out the best in everyone; the most poignant moment in the book comes in Gilbert’s account of an incident during the 197-76 Gopher season, when Minnesota was swept by Michigan in Ann Arbor. The team usually had some freedom on Saturday nights after series, but this time, Brooks ordered the entire team to meet in the captains’ room at midnight. Brooks waited in the hallway, hands on hips, ordering players into the room…where they discovered a few beers and a lot of pizza. Once the team was all inside, Brooks left, leaving Gilbert to explain his methods to team captain Moose Younghans. “I suppose he’s really a hell of a guy, if you could ever get close enough to know him,” said Younghans, and that wistful comment stuck with Gilbert. Brooks created his authority from a sense of distance, and while no one can deny his success or doubt that he did genuinely care about his players, there was a sort of sad loneliness to his actions.

But while Brooks could tug at his players’ emotions and sense of destiny, he was so much more than a fiery, demanding coach. He was one of those few coaches who combine that charisma with a brilliant tactical mind, and that combination put him in a league of his own, and he made sure those tactics were very much his own. Sure, he borrowed some from the open, “progressive” brand of hockey played in Europe and always tried to bring some of its elements to his teams, but it was always a hybrid system, Brooks to the core. He attacked North American hockey orthodoxy wherever he went, disdaining dump-and-chase and the use of lanes and instead insisting on puck possession and circling. His tactics didn’t always take as easily as they did with the Olympic team, but they left lasting impressions, and Brooks was long ahead of his time in advocating for rule changes to open up play in the NHL.

Brooks is also well-known for his wars with USA Hockey and its predecessor, AHAUS. He scoffed at its efforts to naturalize Canadians so as to beef up U.S. Olympic rosters (a trick AHAUS successfully pulled off with Lou Nanne), and later blasted its waste of resources on a single National Training and Development Program when it could instead spread its efforts across the entire country. “The broader the base of the pyramid, the higher the peak,” he said time and time again, and as coach at Minnesota, he practiced what he preached, following in John Mariucci’s tradition of only recruiting Minnesotans.

There were to be no shortcuts in building a great program, no poaching of top players from elsewhere: Brooks understood that hockey’s long term success depended on grassroots recruiting and creating a broad pool of quality talent rather than identifying talent at a young age and focusing only on the best. He later proved instrumental in St. Cloud State’s move to Division-I hockey, again expanding opportunities for Minnesotans to play high-level hockey past high school. Toward the end of his life, he supported the creation of the high school Elite League and took shots at junior leagues for poaching top high school players when they should, in his mind, have focused on older players still looking for college scholarships. There was an ideological consistency to all of his actions, and while his views still have plenty of loyalists in Minnesota, one suspects his side of the argument lost a crucial spokesman when Brooks died. Understanding Brooks’s project helps explain the famous moment when Brooks corrected an unsuspecting reporter to say that winning the Minnesota State Tournament, not the gold medal, was his greatest hockey memory. He truly believed that, given enough time, he could take any talent pool and built it into a successful program from the ground up, whatever the level. In that timeless title run, he saw hockey in its purest form.

It’s impossible for me not to read a book about Brooks without also thinking of Duluth East’s Mike Randolph. A few similarities make it an easy comparison, despite their very different career paths; both were the last men cut from a U.S. Olympic team, and both are noted for their intensity and their supremely high expectations, a rigid certainly that can at times seem imperious. Gilbert arranged for a conversation between the two of them in the mid-90s, one that Randolph recalled fondly when I interviewed him for Minnesota Hockey Hub last summer. (Indeed, Brooks was the second name Randolph cited when I asked him for the biggest influences on his coaching style, coming in only after—true to form—his own high school coach, Del Genereau. This was despite the fact that Randolph never played for nor coached under Brooks.) Gilbert saw some elements of Brooks in Randolph’s tactics, and after the meeting, Brooks, despite his general disdain for Duluth, adopted the Hounds, at one point traveling with Gilbert to Grand Rapids to watch a memorable East-Rapids game in which East prevailed in the final minute.

Plenty of things separate the two men as well. Brooks was always seeking out new frontiers, while Randolph was content to settle and leave a legacy in one place. Brooks pulled one of the greatest upsets in sports history; though Randolph has scored some upsets over the years, his teams have never exactly been lacking in talent, and usually play the role of favorite. There are noticeable tactical differences, with Randolph being more willing to resort to dump-and-chase if need be. People also change over thirty-year coaching careers, and both drifted into different personas over the years. But in the end, their singular senses of authority make them iconic names in their respective milieus, and this Hounds fan can only hope Randolph channels a bit of his old friend tomorrow afternoon.