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The ‘Miracle’ that was Herb Brooks

Famed hockey coach died last year
/ Source: The Associated Press

A generation of Americans doesn’t know the exhilarating win dubbed the “Miracle on Ice” or the tale behind sportscaster Al Michaels’ breathless call, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Jim Craig wants an upcoming movie to change that.

“It’s a wonderful love story about guys who have this dream, a coach who has a vision and a country that needed uplifting,” said Craig, the goaltender of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

“Miracle,” which opens Friday nationwide, tells the story of 20 fresh-faced college kids who upset the seemingly unstoppable Soviets 4-3 en route to a gold medal at the Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The star of the movie is not the scrappy team, but its legendary coach.

“It’s the Herb Brooks story and we just happened to be a part of it,” team captain Mike Eruzione said.

A mix of actors and athletesKurt Russell portrays the icy intensity and calculated aloofness of Brooks, who died in last August in a car crash in Minnesota. Eddie Cahill, best known for his recurring role as Rachel Green’s assistant on “Friends,” plays Craig.

Director Gavin O’Connor wanted real hockey players to portray the athletes, so most of the “actors” are former college or junior league hockey players. Longtime hockey player and first-time actor Patrick O’Brien Demsey took on Eruzione’s role. Left wing Buzz Schneider is portrayed by his son Billy.

Just six months before the 1980 Olympics, Brooks stitched together players from Minnesota, Boston and frozen places in between.

“We played 60 games in three months. An NHL season, at least when I played, had 80 in nine months, so you can envision how vigorous the training was,” Craig said after a recent appearance at a Columbus Blue Jackets game to promote the film.

Cold War milestoneThe significance of the victory during the Cold War extended beyond sports.

Iranian revolutionaries were holding 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Watergate, the Vietnam War, high interest rates and a gasoline shortage led President Jimmy Carter to say America was experiencing a “crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.”

“When you’re in the Olympics and you’re playing another country the intensity is incredible. It’s our way of life versus someone else’s,” Craig said.

The Americans only hoped to avoid being embarrassed at home by the mighty Soviet machine. The Russians had won gold medals the last 20 years with waves of robotic squadrons that didn’t even smile after scoring goals.

Three days before the opening ceremony, the two teams played an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. The Soviets won 10-3.

“We were way strong. Nobody doubted that. We were professionals and they were just students,” Soviet starting goalie Vladislav Tretiak said in the 2001 HBO documentary “Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team.”

“Simply put, we did not respect their team and you cannot do that in hockey,” he said.

On Feb. 22, 1980, the Americans were down 3-2 going into the third period. Mark Johnson netted a goal to even the score, and 81 seconds later Eruzione added another. The frenzied crowd of 8,500 chanted “USA! USA!” But the players and Brooks could only bite their lips and glance nervously at the scoreboard.

There were still 10 minutes left.

“The Russians had won so many games in their careers in the last two minutes, last five minutes, so 10 minutes — it was like a lifetime,” Craig said.

Many people still get chills when they remember the last seconds of the game ticking away, the famous call by Michaels, the young team spilling onto the ice with sticks and fists raised, mouths wide with screams of victory.

A country rejoicesThey didn’t realize the rest of the country was celebrating, too.

“We weren’t allowed to talk to the media, so we didn’t even know people were watching. When we got out in the countryside, that’s when we realized it was pretty special,” Eruzione said.

“Seeing people lining the streets in Washington, the letters, the fan mail — it was kind of shocking.”

Producers Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi said they were inspired by the victory that Sports Illustrated named the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

“These players are iconic,” Ciardi said. “It’s an honor to be able to tell their story.”

Craig wants his children to one day tell the story, which was made into a TV movie in 1981, to their kids.

After “Miracle,” 15-year-old J.D. and 12-year-old Taylor will know that their father stood strong for a very long 10 minutes that night, stopping 39 shots.

A miracle?

“You know what’s funny,” Craig said. “After you see this movie, you’ll find out that it wasn’t really a miracle. It was a lot of hard work.”