Book Review: Miracle on Ice

Mar 11, 2005
The Moscow Times

The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
By Wayne Coffey Crown
288 Pages

By Carl Schreck

The 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team was one of the most formidable collections of players ever assembled on the ice, the premium product of a national sports machine that churned out world and Olympic champions like clockwork. But as Americans grasped for something to be proud of amid the Iran hostage crisis, ballooning inflation and crippling gas prices, a group of anonymous U.S. amateurs beat the Soviet juggernaut 4-3 during the semifinals of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics in one of the greatest athletic upsets of the 20th century.

What became known as the "Miracle on Ice" -- pulled off by a group of college players guided by shrewd head coach Herb Brooks, who died in a car accident in August 2003 -- has taken its place in American sporting folklore as the ultimate David-and-Goliath narrative, a feel-good story for anyone who has ever sided with the underdog.

Wayne Coffey keeps the emotions high in "The Boys of Winter," a behind-the-scenes look at the "untold story" of how Brooks and his ragtag band of amateurs managed to topple the Soviet giant. Tracking down dozens of major and minor figures connected with the game, Coffey deftly exposes the confluence of factors that led to the U.S. triumph, from the Americans' team chemistry to their radical game plan, Brooks' manipulation of players on both sides, and, in the end, just plain good luck.

Unfortunately, Coffey largely neglects the Soviet side of the story, failing to follow up on some obvious questions. This might have come off as a calculated choice had he ignored the Soviet account altogether as was often done in Cold War stories 25 years ago, when journalists simply couldn't get to the other side. Yet over the course of his two years of research, including a visit to Moscow, Coffey gained access to many of the Soviet players and coaches, and he sprinkles his narrative with just enough nuggets to leave the reader wanting more.

Two decades on, the American players share their own reflections during a description of their reunion at Brooks' funeral, which Coffey balances with a short, though informative, history of Soviet hockey. From there, he launches into a highly detailed game report, branching off into often poignant, if sometimes mundane, summaries of what became of each U.S. player. We discover, for example, that goalie Steve Janaszak, who backed up one of the game's heroes, Jim Craig, and was the only athlete in the games who never got to compete, is the son of an electrician from White Bear Lake, Minnesota. He ended up marrying an interpreter at the Games and becoming a bond trader, and he now makes his home on the south shore of Long Island.

Coffey's approach may satisfy the reader mainly interested in the U.S. side. But compare the detail he uses to describe the Americans with one of the maddeningly curt and undeveloped factoids reserved for the Soviet team: "After the Russians cleared out of their rooms in the Lake Placid Olympic Village, cleanup workers found 121 empty vodka bottles in the dropped ceiling of their unit, the detritus of despondence."

When were they drinking the vodka? The night before the game with the United States? Coffey indicates that they were boozing from depression after the loss but gives no evidence for such a conclusion, despite the fact that he interviewed several Soviet players, most extensively Sergei Makarov, who went on to a long NHL career after the Games. It's tempting to wonder whether a collective wicked hangover from the night before the game was to blame for one of the greatest upsets in the history of 20th-century sports. And with little description of the chemistry between members of the Soviet team (a subject Coffey does explore from the U.S. side), it's equally plausible to suppose that internal squabbling might have contributed to their loss. Unfortunately, we'll never know from this book because Coffey doesn't ask these questions.

Instead, we are offered one explanation from the Soviet side as to where the superior team went wrong: Thirteen days before the Olympic semifinal, the Soviets demolished the Americans 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden in what Brooks later described as "a ploy" to get the Soviets to feel overconfident about their next matchup.

"No matter what we tried we could not get that 10-3 game out of the players' minds," Soviet head coach Viktor Tikhonov told Coffey years later. "The players told me it would be no problem. It turned out to be a very big problem."

As might be expected in a book that doesn't probe the other side, Coffey gives away his lack of Russia expertise in the details. For example, when describing Anatoly Tarasov's visits to America, he writes that the patriarch of Soviet hockey and former national team coach "developed a fondness for mayonnaise," which is a bit like saying a goateed frat boy developed a fondness for beer on a trip to the Heineken Brewery Museum in Amsterdam. Coffey obviously failed to take note on his research trip to Moscow that -- to borrow from a Russian saying that puts things in their proper place -- a chicken is not a bird, and a salad without mayonnaise is not a salad.

But the author can be forgiven for not knowing his mayo because the observation leads to one of the best quotes in the book, when Tarasov contrasts American architectural ingenuity, tourist attractions like SeaWorld and, yes, the diversity of mayonnaise, with the banality of the country's hockey:

"'Your people can build the world's tallest buildings,' Tarasov once told his friend Lou Vairo, a USA Hockey executive who was a scout on the 1980 team and the Olympic coach in 1984. 'You can make forty-nine different kinds of mayonnaise. You can teach dolphins to do the most complex tasks. Why can't you teach your hockey players to pass the puck more than two meters?'"

That all changed when Brooks, the figure that looms largest in "The Boys of Winter," set out to put a team on the ice that could match the intricate passing and weaving of the Soviets, who would emerge from their locker room "like a bunch of Clark Kents" coming out of the phone booth, "and soon they would be on the ice doing their supernatural tricks, passing from stick to stick to stick, a clacking, high-speed symphony."

Brooks knew the Soviets were better, but he also knew he only had to beat them once. Coffey gives a solid report of how the coach and his team pulled off the miracle. But he should have hung out a bit longer in Moscow and asked a few more probing questions. Without a deeper look at the other side, there is still a story left untold.

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