“An unvarnished and captivating read.”—Parade
Once upon a time, they taught us to believe. They were the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, a blue-collar bunch led by an unconventional coach. Their “Miracle on Ice” has become a national fairy tale, but the real Cinderella story is even more remarkable.
Wayne Coffey casts a fresh eye on this seminal sports event, giving readers an ice-level view of the amateurs who took on a Russian hockey juggernaut at the height of the Cold War. He details the unusual chemistry of the Americans—formulated by their fiercely determined coach, Herb Brooks—and seamlessly weaves portraits of the boys with the fluid action of the game itself. Coffey also traces the paths of the players and coaches since their stunning victory, examining how the Olympic events affected their lives.
Told with warmth and an uncanny eye for detail, The Boys of Winter is an intimate, perceptive portrayal of one Friday night in Lake Placid and the enduring power of the extraordinary.
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WEEDING THE GARDEN
Vladimir Petrov was skating in loose figure eights near center ice, his pace slow, his stick still and horizontal, a predator in wait. He edged in for the opening face-off. His two famous wings, Boris Mikhailov and Valery Kharlamov, were on his flanks. Petrov, No. 16, was perhaps the strongest player on the Soviet national team, with blacksmith arms and a bulging neck, a 200-pound slab of muscle who was possessed of the rarest of Russian weapons: a nasty slap shot. Historically, not many Russian players had one because for years not very many practiced slap shots, sticks being both in short supply and of inferior quality. If you wound up and cranked a slap shot, you stood a good chance of getting a splinter and having no stick to play with. “So we never slap puck,” defenseman Sergei Starikov said. “We make good wrist shot instead.” Petrov was 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time world champion. He didn’t know much of anything about Mark Johnson, the U.S. center whom he was about to face off against, except that he wore No. 10 and he looked small and ridiculously young.
It was 5:06 p.m. in Lake Placid, and 1:06 a.m. in Moscow. Bill Cleary, star of the 1960 gold-medal team that had been the last U.S. team to beat the Soviets, had just finished a brief talk in the locker room. “There’s no doubt in my mind–nor in the minds of all the guys on the ’60 team–that you are going to win this game. You are a better team than we were,” Cleary said. Herb Brooks followed him, standing at one end of Locker Room 5 in the new Olympic Field House, wearing a camel-hair sports coat and plaid pants that would’ve looked at home on the dance floor of Saturday Night Fever. The room was a cramped, unadorned rectangle with a rubber-mat floor and a steeply pitched ceiling, situated directly beneath the stands. You could hear stomping and chanting and feel the anticipatory buzz that was all over the Adirondacks. There was a small chalkboard to Brooks’s right and a tiny shower area behind him, the players on the wood benches rimming the room all around him. On the ride to the arena, Brooks sat with assistant Craig Patrick and they talked about what Brooks was going to say to the team. Brooks loved intrigue, the element of surprise. His whole style of play was constructed on it, moving players around, changing breakout patterns, keeping people guessing about everything. Just when his players were sure he was completely inhumane, he’d throw a tennis ball on the ice for a diversion, or have guys play opposite-handed or in different positions, lifting morale and breaking the routine. “You’re going to like it,” Brooks said to Patrick of his talk. The locker room was intense and quiet. Defenseman Bill Baker caught the eye of backup goaltender Steve Janaszak, his former teammate at the University of Minnesota. “What do we do now?” Baker mouthed.
“Pray,” Janaszak mouthed back.
Herb Brooks stood before his twenty players. The quiet got deeper. The coach pulled out a yellow scrap of paper and said, “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”
Neal Broten, 20-year-old center, second youngest player on the youngest Olympic hockey team the United States had ever fielded, looked down at his skates. “I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Broten said. Broten was nervous, very nervous. He knew he could handle the skating, playing the game. The Russians’ strength he wasn’t so sure about. Don’t make any glaring mistakes, he told himself.
Led by goaltender Jim Craig, the players charged out of the locker room, turned right and then right again. At the threshold of the ice, Craig paused and looked up for a second. The building was shaking from the cheers. He took it in and it felt great. Ten days earlier, the players hadn’t been much less anonymous than the Lake Placid goal judges. Now that they’d gone undefeated in five games and come from behind in four of them, they were Olympic darlings. Somebody rang a cowbell, a tinny touch of the Alps in the Adirondacks. “C’mon, Magic!” winger John “Bah” Harrington shouted to Mark Johnson from the end of the American bench. Magic was Johnson’s nickname. If you ever saw him play you know why.
The last time the U.S. players had seen Petrov and his teammates was thirteen days earlier, in Madison Square Garden, where the Americans didn’t lose so much as get annihilated. That day began with the crowd jeering the Soviet national anthem and cheering every solid American check, and it ended with the fans in numbed silence, even before Soviet winger Alexander Maltsev put a red-coated exclamation point on things. Maltsev was 30 years old and would become the Soviet Union’s all-time leading goal scorer in international competition. Speeding across the U.S. blue line in the third period, defenseman Dave Christian in front of him, Maltsev cruised left by the top of the circle and then began to spin, 360 degrees in a blur, the puck on his stick as if it were glued. When he was done spinning he started snapping, a backhand, inside the far post. In the U.S. goal, Steve Janaszak looked at Christian in disbelief and then laughed inside his mask.
“They were gods,” Janaszak said. On the U.S. bench, trainer Gary Smith walked over to Brooks. “We don’t have a chance against these guys,” Smith said.
“No shit,” the coach replied.
Brooks had spent months trying to debunk the aura surrounding the Soviets. He would talk about how Mikhailov, the fabled captain, looked like Stan Laurel, with his long face and jutting chin. He would tell his players that the team was getting old, that the Russians’ time was past. It was a hard sell on a wintry Saturday in New York City, the U.S. players taking the ice with a bit of trepidation and a lot of awe. “It was hard to even warm up,” Harrington said. “We looked down at the other end of the ice and there they were: Kharlamov, Petrov, Mikhailov. And I’m thinking, ‘Holy smokes, there are the guys I saw beating the NHL All-Stars on TV.’ We weren’t just playing when the game started. We were watching them play, and by the time we felt like we belonged on the ice with them, it was 8—0.”
The final score was 10—3 and merely confirmed what the hockey world already knew: there were the Russians, and then there was everybody else. Virtually everyone expected a similar result in the Olympics. As Harrington knew, the Russians had drubbed the best of the NHL, 6—0, on the same Garden ice the year before, and with their backup goaltender, a guy named Myshkin, no less. “What can change in two weeks?” asked Sergei Makarov, the young Russian star who would go on to a long NHL career. “You can’t get whole new team.” Even Mark Johnson said, “If you asked anyone on our team and they told you we could beat the Russians, they would’ve been lying.”
Publicly, Brooks did nothing to discourage such thinking, saying the United States should forget the Russians and worry about sneaking away with a silver or bronze medal. Privately, he was not so convinced. In the Olympic format you didn’t have to beat a team best-of-seven, or even best-of-five. You had to beat a team only once. The Americans were in superb shape and had a sturdy emotional makeup, honed from months of fending off their coach’s verbal floggings. They could skate completely unburdened by expectation, just as their coach had scripted it. Before the game in Madison Square Garden, Brooks told the players to go out and have fun. He had never said anything close to that in the previous sixty pre-Olympic games. Have fun? Brooks had followed Warren Strelow’s suggestion to let goaltenders Jim Craig and Steve Janaszak share time in the Garden goal, limiting the Soviet preview of Craig and sparing the No. 1 goalie any unnecessary angst. For the first half of that game, especially, the Americans weren’t skating, attacking. Part of it was awe, but part of it was Brooks playing at least a little bit of possum. Even Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet Olympic coach, said that the U.S. team seemed to be holding something back. Brooks himself later described the Garden game as “a ploy.” What could possibly be gained by playing the Russians tough, waking them up? Brooks was beginning to believe that if everything fell together, the United States could take the Russians into the the third period in a tight game. That’s all you could ask for. You get into that position, and you take your chances.
Six weeks after the death of Herb Brooks, Viktor Tikhonov stood in a barren room inside the arena that is home to the Central Sports Club of the Soviet Army (CSKA). He was 73 years old and surrounded by drab white walls. He had a gray tweed jacket and flat face and slicked-back hair, and the vaguely beleaguered aura of a man who is the most decorated international coach in hockey history but may be most remembered for a game his team did not win.
“No matter what we tried we could not get that 10—3 game out of the players’ minds,” Tikhonov said. “The players told me it would be no problem. It turned out to be a very big problem.”
Across the ice from the American amateurs was not simply a staggering assemblage of hockey talent but the end product of one of the most astonishing sporting dynasties ever developed. The Soviets did not look like much, at first glance, in their well-worn red sweaters and matching red helmets, their chunky skates that looked like Sputnik-era hand-me-downs. They would march into the arena in their long fur coats and fur hats, with strong Slavic faces and impassive expressions, the thick-bodied KGB guy never far away. Then it was into the locker room, into their gear, like a bunch of Clark Kents going into 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 performed by athletes with light feet and hard bodies.
“You’d get in the corner with one of those guys and they’d stick their ass out toward you, it was like pushing against cement,” Neal Broten said.
The Soviets staged a chuda (miracle) of their own once, twenty-six years before Lake Placid. It came in 1954 in Stockholm in their first appearance in the world championships. It was led by Vsevelod Bobrov, the Bolshevik Bo Jackson, star not only of the Soviet hockey team but also of the national soccer team, a man known for both his prolific scoring and his disregard for rigorous training.
The Soviets were still new kids on the world-sport block at the time, as deep a mystery to the Western world as Siberia in January. They had excluded themselves ever since they came to power during the revolution of 1917, pronouncing their distaste for Western-style sports organizations and the Olympics, which Communist party leaders saw as the ultimate bourgeois institution, a certain road to imperialist ruin. The attitude changed, swiftly and markedly, after World War II. The Soviet Union had lost 28 million people in the war and was facing the most massive reconstruction project the world had ever seen. Sports began to be seen as a welcome and pleasant diversion, as Robert Edelman notes in his history of spectator sports in the U.S.S.R., Serious Fun, but it was not enough to merely play. Against a backdrop of heightening Cold War tensions and a recognition by party officials that sporting success could be a valuable propaganda tool, the goal, increasingly, was to win, for the motherland and to show the world that Karl Marx had it right. Or as the publication Sovietskii sport argued floridly, “We have created our own Soviet style in sport, the superiority of which has been demonstrated by our football, basketball and water polo players, gymnasts, boxers and wrestlers in the biggest international competitions. Our goal is to create in this new sport for us, Canadian hockey, our advanced Soviet style, in order that our hockey players, in a short time, will become the strongest in the world.”
Nikolai Romanov, the postwar chairman of the government’s Committee on Physical Culture and Sports, was among the first to feel the heat of the winning imperative. When the Soviet speed skaters were upset in the European championships in 1948, Romanov was removed from his job. He somehow got it back in 1952 but had learned his lesson well. Scheduled to compete in the 1953 world championships in Switzerland, the Soviet hockey team pulled out after Bobrov fell ill. “In order to gain permission to go into international competition, I had to send a note to Stalin guaranteeing victory,” Romanov would write years later in his memoirs.
With Bobrov healthy if not a model of temperance, the Soviets surged into the 1954 semifinals against Canada, the most dominant hockey nation on earth. For years the Canadian custom was to send its senior-league champion to the world championships, men who had regular jobs by day and played their hockey by night. That year’s Canadian representative was the East York Lyndhursts. It wasn’t regarded as one of Canada’s stronger entries, but what difference would that make? The Soviet Union did not have a single indoor hockey arena in the entire country. Though they had played a game called bandy–essentially field hockey on ice–for decades, the Soviets had formally begun to compete in ice hockey only after World War II.
Few people inside or outside the ancient brick walls of the Kremlin could fathom it when the Soviets scored a 7—2 triumph. Two years later, the Soviets captured their first Olympic gold medal, in Cortina, Italy, shutting out Canada’s Kitchener Dutchmen. In a sport Canadians all but considered their birthright to rule, they found a new heavyweight in town. It was coached by Anatoly Tarasov and his co-coach Arkady Chernyshev, and it eschewed the rough play and dump-and-muck verticality that were the hallmarks of Canadian hockey, in favor of a system built on speed and crisscrossing movement. The Canadians couldn’t have been more jarred if the Russians had spray-painted Marxist slogans in the Montreal Forum. A major shift in the ice-borne world–strategic, philosophical, and political–was on. Any lingering doubts about it were dispelled in the Summit Series of 1972, a historic eight-game competition between premier Canadian players from the NHL and the reigning world and Olympic champions from the U.S.S.R. The Soviets were still more than fifteen years away from playing in the NHL, and this was the first time they had ever competed against the world’s top pro players. Most observers predicted a Canadian rout. “I wouldn’t mind playing the Russians with the players we won’t dress,” said coach Harry Sinden, whose roster included Ken Dryden, Phil Esposito, and Brad Park. Sinden was somewhat less swaggering after the Russians took Game 1, 7—3, rolling over the Canadians like tanks on the tundra. Ultimately, Canada would take the series, 4—3—1, but rarely has victory been so chilling. “We would never feel the same about ourselves and our game again,” Dryden would say much later in a symposium on Canadian hockey.