- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

Herb Brooks never saw “Miracle,” and Al Michaels calls that a shame.

“In his own way Herb was an artist,” Michaels says on one of the supplementary features for the two-disc DVD set released earlier this month. “Herb was able to do something no one else had tried and get the players not only to buy into it but get them to believe, ‘Hey, anything is possible.’ And that’s why most people would be of one mind that it was the most exciting sports event of the 20th century.”

That event, the “Miracle” of the movie’s title, is the U.S. hockey team’s upset of the Soviet Union in the medal round at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. But the movie, the third in a series of superb family-friendly films from Disney following “Remember the Titans” and “The Rookie,” really tells Brooks’ story. The two-time U.S. Olympic coach died in a car accident in August 2003, just weeks after principle photography had finished, and the movie — and the DVD — are dedicated to him.

Brooks, played with uncanny accuracy by Kurt Russell, is the successful coach of the University of Minnesota when he takes the Olympic coaching job. He knows his team can’t compete with the Soviets under the American style of hockey, so he decides to change those conventions, stressing a European style of fluid, creative movement combined with the highest level of conditioning. Above all, he stresses team chemistry. And in true Hollywood fashion, the players come together just in time to run through the Olympic tournament to the gold.

For the most part, Hollywood didn’t embellish the story. The filmmakers consulted Brooks before his death and studied hours of footage to mimic the on-ice action accurately. A documentary on the making of the film shows 1980 footage side-by-side with footage choreographed for the movie — including Mike Eruzione’s game-winning goal against the Soviets — and it’s hard to tell the difference.

“Choreographing each of the plays and the movements was a very cool challenge,” said the movie’s hockey technical adviser, Ryan Walter, who local hockey fans might remember as one of the players the Capitals sent to Montreal in 1982 as part of the deal to acquire Rod Langway.

“What [director] Gavin O’Connor and his team did is, they’d give me the plays they decided that they wanted, and I took [them] and animated the plays. The guys watch it, they go, ‘Got it,’ and they go do it.”

O’Connor clearly wanted to do Brooks’ story the right way, and some of the coach’s input is captured in one of the film’s featurettes, “First Impressions: Herb Brooks with Kurt Russell and the Filmmakers.” While the disc presents only pieces of the conversation, Brooks relates many of the stories that wound up in the movie. For instance, Brooks razzed Jim Craig often to keep him sharp.

“I played mind games with Jimmy Craig right up until the very end,” Brooks tells the filmmakers. “I said, ‘Jimmy, I [screwed] up.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I played you too long. Your curveball is hanging. Not your fault. My fault.’ … He said, ‘It’s my job, you dirty blah blah blah.’ …

“After we win it, he came right up to me with a finger in my chest and said, ‘I showed you, didn’t I? I showed you, didn’t I?’ I said, ‘Yup, you sure did, Jimmy.’”

Russell re-enacts that scene with Craig (played by Edward Cahill of “Friends” fame) right after an exhibition against the Soviets before the games, though not word for word.

The film does have its flourishes. Michaels redoes his play-by-play over the choreographed scenes, though the sound goes vintage for the final 11 seconds or so, including his famous “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” call. (“How can you recreate the emotion he experienced that day?” O’Connor asks.)

Early in the film, Brooks asks the players who they play for, and each responds with his school. One of the key scenes, the postgame practice in which Brooks has the team skate even after the players begin to collapse and throw up, ends with Eruzione belting out his name, his hometown and — instead of Boston University — the United States. That jingoism never happened, though the actors filmed the scene for three days, and the puking wasn’t fake.

Says Eric Peter-Kaiser, who played Mark Johnson, in a featurette on how the filmmakers turned hockey players into actors: “No one complained because we wanted to be as true as it was, so we skated our hearts out all day.”

Luckily, the truth was the goal of all those involved in making “Miracle.” Even for Brooks, who didn’t get to see it.

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