Pyeongchang Pursuits

Another Olympics has come and gone. As usual, it began with stupid political talking points, which this year took the form of lurid fascination with Kim Jong Un’s sister, who represented North Korea at the games. All the geopolitics, as usual, came to nothing. The Games themselves, on the other hand, had their ups and downs amid drama and intolerable talk show-style coverage. Through it all, though, there were still plenty of golden moments in which I could appreciate people attaining greatness in whatever pursuit they’ve chosen.

This was not a banner year for American Olympians, but by the end it proved a respectable one, thanks to a surge in a couple of sports the country has not medaled in much in the past: Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins’ rush to the finish in the cross-country team sprint, immortalized by the call of Duluth’s Chad Salmela, was the U.S.’s first Nordic medal in over 40 years, and a ragtag group of curlers, all but one of whom calls the Duluth area home, set off a night of revelry at the Duluth Curling Club when they stunned the curling world en route to gold. The women’s hockey team’s upset of longtime rival Canada in the gold medal game was backstopped by Maddie Rooney, the former Andover High School star now at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. (Are you sensing a theme here? You’re welcome, America: we Minnesotans, and Duluthians in particular, are your saving grace.)

The one sport where Americans did clean up as expected was snowboarding, where Shaun White cemented his Olympic legacy in the half pipe, and Jamie Anderson and Chloe Kim also took home the top prize on the women’s side. Red Gerard, who seemed every bit a 17-year-old boy as he claimed gold in slopestyle, rounded out the American domination. Gerard’s performance was impressive but a little jarring: he’s a decade younger than me, and for the first time, it seemed like the vast majority of the Olympians are younger than I am. I guess I’m doomed to never be an Olympian, unless I up and move to some Pacific island nation that wants to send a mediocre cross-country skier to some future Games.

The skiing hero of the games was Johannes Klaebo, Norway’s 21-year-old wunderkind who will be its next in a long line of Olympic superstars. (How awesome is a country where cross-country skiers become superstars?) Klaebo won golds in the classic and team sprints, and put on perhaps his most stunning performance in the 4×10 relay, one of the more storied events in cross-country skiing. He played with his food for a spell as he skied the anchor leg, and let an Olympic Athlete from Russia hang around, gliding along effortlessly while the Russian poured out all his effort to keep up. With a few kilometers to go, though, he left his trailer in a powdery dust, flying up a hill that had been named after him before he ever even skied it. He pulled into the viewing area with enough time to grab a Norwegian flag on his way by the stands and cruise across the line towing it behind him. It was a statement of national pride in a nation that usually eschews such pageantry: Norway restored order in the 4×10 after a three-Olympics drought, cleaned up the medals in cross-country, and set a new record for total medals in a single winter games. In Pyeongchang, a nation about the size of Minnesota put the rest of the world to shame.

If Klaebo brought the youthful power, the grace came in the form of German Aliona Savchenko, who, as a figure skater in her fifth Olympics, defied the march of time to deliver perfection. I’m usually a halfhearted skating follower, but every now and then, a performance is so obviously a gold medal that I can forget the vagaries of the judging system and Johnny Weir’s efforts to look like a Hunger Games character and admire sheer artistry. This time around, it was Savchenko and her pairs partner, Bruno Massot, who made me drop everything and watch in awe, and the commentators had the good sense to go quiet when it became clear just what we were watching some ways into their performance. In a year in which the Olympics allowed songs with lyrics and had us drowning in Coldplay and “Hallelujah,” Savchenko and Massot’s performance to La terre vue du ciel, a mesmerizing classical score, fit perfectly with the moment. It was the best-judged pairs free skate in history, and erased a deficit from the short program to earn the pair of immigrant Germans a gold. Savchenko fell to the ice, heaving and spent, after her performance; as the scores of their rivals rolled in she seemed nonplussed, but the emotion finally poured forth when she learned she’d finally claimed a prize that long eluded her. It was as golden a moment as you’ll ever see.

While the U.S. women’s hockey team took home the hardware, the men weren’t much to write home about, with a loss to lowly Slovenia in group play and an ultimate defeat at the hands of the Czechs. I liked the idea of going back to amateurs, but let’s stick with the kids, please: washed-up ex-stars do nothing for me. It’s back to the drawing board for the American men in Olympic hockey, who need to do a lot more to garner the attention the women earned in Pyeongchang.

And so the curtain comes down on another year of Olympic glory, from Klaebo’s power on skis to Savchenko’s sublime skating to a bunch of Duluth guys who can throw rocks and sweep ice better than anyone on earth. And sometimes glory comes in several forms for one person, as in the case of Ester Ledecká, the Czech athlete who seemed genuinely surprised when she won a gold in the downhill Super-G: she is, after all, a snowboarder who also won gold in that sport’s parallel giant slalom. We have an entertaining world, though the closing ceremony could probably survive without a painful rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, as we heard back when we started two weeks ago. Cross-cultural sharing at its finest, I suppose. Thanks for the fun, PyeongChang, and let’s do it again in another four years in Beijing.


‘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 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.

Scribblings on Sochi

We have less than a week of Winter Olympic fun left, and aside from a few faulty hotel doors and temperatures to make northern Minnesotans jealous, Sochi has delivered the goods. It has been mercifully free of geopolitics, which is a blessed change from the run-up to the Games, which included terrorism fears and an awful lot of criticism of and fixation on Vladimir Putin. (Though I agree that Russia has its share of woes that deserve attention and that Putin is, for the most part, an unpleasant autocrat, it isn’t hard to detect a nasty edge in some of the coverage of Sochi that wasn’t around in Beijing, and almost certainly will not appear in Rio.)

That is a topic for another time, though: at the Games, the focus should be on the athletes above all else. While the U.S. is right up near the top of the medal count table, it doesn’t seem like the Americans are winning a whole lot so far. Aside from the ice dancing duo of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who floated to gold dancing to “Scheherazade,” the U.S. doesn’t really have the elite skaters it’s used to. Shaun White didn’t deliver, Bode Miller is old, and the American speedskaters aren’t that good, no matter how much they try to use their suits as excuses. American breakthroughs have come in sports like skeleton and bobsled, which don’t usually grab headlines.

But that is part of the delight of the Olympics: it gives a sudden spurt of attention to countries that have become known for certain sports, often in ways one would never guess. There’s the Jamaican bobsled, of course, but watch events in some of the more obscure time slots and you’ll learn all about Latvian and German sledding, Slovenian and Polish ski-jumping, and the Dutch speedskating fans. I’m not sure what to think of some of the representatives of tropical nations, who often moved to the U.S. or some other first-world country at a very young age, or even might be wealthy foreigners who have somehow managed to gain dual citizenship somewhere. (Mexico’s Olympian is Exhibit A of the latter.) At times this looks more like a publicity stunt or a way of sneaking into the Olympics and avoiding stiffer competition in one’s own country, but if it’s accepted and boosts interest in the home country, there’s no need to impose a purity test.

The Games also focus the spotlight on sports that are otherwise mostly ignored, and sometimes these sports are genuinely fun to watch. Snowboardcross, despite sounding like something a group of kids made up while sledding in their backyard, is great fun, with snowboarders racing down a hill and crashing, their performance free from the whims of judges. Short-track speedskating has similar thrills, and the biathlon makes things exciting by adding firearms. Being a cross-country skier, I enjoy the races, particularly the storied 4×10 relay, the skiathlon that forces skiers to both skate-ski and do traditional skiing, and the 50k marathon on the final day of the Games.

Figure skating has its moments of artistry but is often overrated; the new team competition did nothing for me, and the men’s free skate was an anticlimax, with all of the top contenders falling all over themselves. Curling looks like something that would be fun to try—and it’s a pretty big deal here in Duluth, which has put people on the past two Olympic teams, and seems to be an excellent excuse for drinking while allegedly doing physical activity—but, I’m sorry, it is deathly dull as a spectator sport. Moguls look fun enough, but the scoring system—a garbled formula involving time down the hill and judges’ marks—seems about as arbitrary as it gets. Judged sports in general are more susceptible to confusing outcomes, though there was nothing arbitrary about the skating of Russians Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar, or in the monster jump by the Belorussian aerials gold medalist. There’s another unique country strength for you: Belarus swept the aerials, and is right up among the leaders of most gold medals at the Games.

The hockey tournament is reaching its climax as well; the U.S. women will play archrival Canada for gold on Thursday, while the men, fresh off the heroics of Warroad, Minnesota’s T.J. Oshie in a round-robin game with Russia, will take on the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. I’ll admit to being a bit of a skeptic of this year’s U.S. team, but the Russia win is the sort that can bring a team together; while the road will be about as tough as it gets, the Americans have the skill to play with anyone, and as long as they can do that, anything can happen. It only took one period of Latvia-Switzerland to remind me why Olympic hockey is so enjoyable, as the big ice sheet opens up more space for creativity and free-flowing play. While I wouldn’t go quite as far as Adam Gopnik in his takedown of contemporary North American hockey—just win, baby—I do love hockey when it’s played in the tradition of Anatoli Tarasov, with perpetual motion and puck possession. The more we see that style of hockey, perhaps with some Herb Brooks-esque tweaks, the more hockey wins.

Oshie’s Sochi heroics even made it into primetime on NBC, a rare occurrence for the sport. Of course it is chic to deride NBC’s coverage, particularly when it comes to the inevitable tape-delays, though to be honest, I’d rather have the Olympics in the hands of NBC than any other network. In most sports, they deliver, with a classy look and veteran commentators; in hockey, football, and Premier League soccer, their A teams are as good as any. They have a deep bench of quality commentators, though even they can only go so far, and some of the more obscure sports employ former athletes who don’t exactly provide enlightening commentary. (Are they really getting paid to say “oh!” in alarm every time a skater falls?)

Still, I do have one big critique of NBC’s coverage: sometimes it feels more like the Today Show than an actual sporting event, a problem that was only exacerbated when Matt Lauer was hauled in to substitute for Bob Costas when he went down with his eye affliction. (Why not Al Michaels?) Public interest stories are nice, but they have a habit of catering to the lowest common denominator, and there are only so many ways to hear athletes say certain canned clichés. The focus on a handful of select Americans expected to do well is good for their publicity—we’d probably never hear of them otherwise, and non-major sports need icons to get some attention—but it makes for painful theater when they lose, and NBC’s sideline reporters track down the fallen stars.

The end result has its flaws, but with those flaws, it isn’t a bad portrait of the world we live in. It’s a planet of quirky diversity with visible but malleable hierarchies, united by a handful of universals, many trite or empty, but a few which penetrate much deeper. There are always glints of gold to be found.