Editor’s note: Travis Barrett is ranking his top 10 sports movies of all-time. No. 2 on the list is a retelling of a national “Miracle.”

Who among us, whether we care about hockey or not, doesn’t get chills each time we hear the replay of a young Al Michaels bellowing, “Do you believe in miracles? … YES!!” as the final seconds tick off the clock in the 1980 Olympic semifinal between the United States and the former Soviet Union?

So much of what took place on that day in Lake Placid, New York, has been told, retold, documented and recounted that it’s become as well known as Michael Jordan’s basketball career or Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace. The “Miracle on Ice” was just that. Miraculous. College kids, plucked from across the country for a few months, coming together to upend perhaps the greatest single ice hockey team ever to play.

The United States team that year had no business competing for a medal, let alone winning gold and beating the Russians on the way to the podium. That’s the only version there is to accept.

Where “Miracle” gets the story right is by going much deeper than the headlines and the highlights. The 2004 film starring Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks — whose name now graces that very same Lake Placid arena where the Miracle on Ice took place — is less a study in history and more a study in character.

In the late 1970s, hockey’s landscape in North America was decidedly different than it is now. There was a stigma attached to college players as they ventured off toward the professional game, the much more “acceptable” path to the National Hockey League coming via the rough-and-tumble Canadian junior circuit. For most college players stateside, a shot at a national championship was as big a career milestone as one would ever enjoy. And that shot came from a very small grouping of schools — those centered in the greater Boston area and those from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

 

When those ex-college players arrived for a mid-summer training camp, armed with bitter histories and memories carved from broken bones and battered shoulders, blood rivalries were not easily shed. One of the notes “Miracle” hits right from the very start is the manner in which Russell’s Herb Brooks willingly lets those young men hate him so much they forgot how much they were supposed to hate one another.

Look at the faces in the dressing room when a young Craig Patrick, Brooks’ assistant coach played by Noah Emmerich, walks in to tap Ralph Cox on the shoulder ahead of him being the final player cut from the roster. Look at the way the team rejects Tim Harner’s arrival midway through the exhibition season, an outsider who hasn’t paid the dues the rest of them have. Look at the way a group of men who sat on opposite sides of the same bar when they first arrived in Colorado for camp suddenly are spending Christmas together playing tackle football in a snowy field.

We know how “Miracle” ends even before the opening credits begin. It’s history. It’s our American sports history. It’s the single greatest hockey achievement in the history of the sport. It cannot be debated.

 

Over and over and over, Brooks pounded into the heads of his players that there was no room for indifference, no room for complacency. Ironically, he hardly ever let them buy into just “believing” they were good enough. He took working-class kids, made them work harder than they ever had, and they ultimately reaped those benefits.

Hearing Michaels’ words four decades later still raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It reminds you of why sports are so wonderful, and why we all watch.

But the end of “Miracle” is not the scene that so expertly encapsulates everything about what made the Miracle on Ice the achievement it was. Many assume the “moment” comes in Brooks’ pre-game speech — the “this is your time” speech — but that would miss the mark.

No, the real moment comes midway through the film, on a non-descript night in an empty Norway rink. It’s there that Brooks, incensed at his team’s lack of commitment, energy and purpose, decides to put his charges through a torturous post-game skate in the dark.

And it’s when, with bodies collapsing to the ice all around him, the future captain stands up and proclaims that he is “Mike Eruzione, Winthrop, Massachusetts.”

Brooks shoots him a glare.

There is a pregnant pause.

Brooks stares Eruzione down and finally asks, “Who do you play for?”

Eruzione doesn’t blink.

“I play for… the United States of America.”

And with that, we are done here.

The “Miracle” was born right then and there.


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