Saturday will mark the 40th anniversary of the Miracle On Ice, the United States’ 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y. Feel free to celebrate, Minnesotans. You need not be provincial to lay claim to the greatest sporting event of our lifetimes.
“Nine guys on the team were Gophers,” Wayne Coffey said. “Twelve of the 20 players on the team were from Minnesota, and the coach was a working-class guy from east St. Paul, and his support staff was just about all Minnesotans. At its core, it is such a Minnesota story.”
Coffey has authored five New York Times bestsellers. That game, and the subsequent victory over Finland that gave the United States the gold medal, have been celebrated annually and extensively for 40 years, most famously in the movie “Miracle.”
If you’re interested in nuance and detail, I’m not sure you’ll find as thorough a retelling of the story anywhere other than in Coffey’s “The Boys of Winter.” He traveled Russia and traveled throughout Minnesota, gathering stories about working-class parents who would build backyard rinks or drive to the lake at night and practice in the glow of car lights.
He was in Minnesota, scheduled to speak with Herb Brooks, the coach and architect of the team, the night that Brooks was killed in a car accident near Forest Lake. The book opens with scenes from Brooks’ funeral in the Cathedral of St. Paul, with his former players forming a canopy of hockey sticks over his casket, and includes scenes from the dismal housing in the Olympic Village.
Coffey provides vivid reminders that this was a unique place and time. The Games were held in a remote village of 2,800. Housing was sparse and Spartan, even for the most famous Olympians. “It’s this tiny, little Adirondack village, 30 miles from the nearest highway,” Coffey said. “The idea that they held the Olympics there is mind-blowing.’’
The U.S.-Soviet Union game was broadcast on tape-delay. The U.S. team of college kids was facing what might have been the greatest hockey team ever assembled, one that beat them 10-3 weeks earlier at Madison Square Garden. A year before, the Soviets had beaten the NHL all-stars 6-0.
“People who know more about hockey than I do consider that Russian team the greatest collection of hockey talent, ever,” Coffey said. “Another thing people forget about that game is that the Russians outshot the U.S., 39-16. If Jim Craig doesn’t play out of his mind, we’re not even talking about this right now.
“It was men versus boys in this last Olympics to be held in a little village, the last time a game of that magnitude will ever be shown in tape-delay,” Coffey said.
Coffey weaves intricate game details with profiles of players, many of whom he tracked down in remote Minnesota locations. He notes that backup goalie Steve Janaszak of White Bear Lake was the most valuable player of the 1979 NCAA championship tournament for Brooks when the Gophers won the national title but became the only Olympian not to participate at the Lake Placid Games.
Brooks was maniacal and Machiavellian. He appears to have thrown the Madison Square Garden game to the Soviets to make them overconfident — and it worked.
Brooks was bumped off the 1960 Olympic team days before the Games began. U.S. coach Jack Riley wanted 1956 Olympic star Bill Cleary to join the team. Bill insisted that he and his brother, Bob, were a package.
The team pasted Bob Cleary’s face over Brooks’ in the team picture, and the U.S. went on to win the gold. Brooks watched at home in St. Paul with his father, who, at the conclusion of the tournament, turned to Herb and said, “Well, I guess the coach cut the right guy.”
“Sad to say, but the most indelible memories we all have are almost always horrible,” Coffey said. “I can tell you where I was standing when JFK was assassinated, and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. This was an event that was incredibly positive that everyone remembers where they were and who they were with.
“We learn in sportswriting to never say never. Lou Gehrig’s record would never be broken, until it was. But this will never happen again. This can’t ever happen again. And it was Herb Brooks who made it possible.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org