I have never seen the movie Miracle. You know, the one with Kurt Russell? I understand if you want to turn me over to the Midwest Thought Police and watch with glee as they revoke my license to be Minnesotan and send me off to a reeducation camp. I have no excuse aside from my excuse for everything—I was too lazy to make an effort to find it, rent it, pirate it, or read the synopsis on IMDB about it. If finding the path of least resistance had been an event at the Winter Games in Lake Placid instead of ice hockey, you better believe I would have ended up on a box of Wheaties and the subject of a Disney major motion picture.
I don’t really know the best way to help you understand the miracle of my having played hockey as a kid. I’ve thought about this for several minutes just now, and there’s no time to cover the scope of it—to track and turn into an infographic the precise alignment of all the unlikely planets it took to make it happen would exhaust and kill me. But let me try. Briefly.
Hockey is dangerous. From birth, while other babies were probably sung lullabies and told nursery rhymes, I was warned about all the bad things that could result from going outside, climbing on things, throwing things, catching things, running with sticks, playing near water, drinking water, breathing, conversing, and existing in general. It’s a lot of bad things, trust me. They are burned into my memory for the rest of time, all fourteen billion and eight untimely demises that are possible. A new one is invented every couple years or so because technology and accidents often hold hands and go skipping together, so my count may be slightly off. But not by much.
Why my parents—expert watchmen set against the things that might harm me—signed my name in the ledgers of the Cloquet Amateur Hockey Association is something I can never know. But it happened, and shortly after I was padded, helmeted, athletic supportered, and given permission to risk my life. It might have felt like freedom, or like getting away with something, or like a chore. I can’t really remember. It was just a natural seeming part of life. Although, since there is almost nothing natural about attaching blades to ones feet and whizzing around on frozen water, they gave us steel chairs to hang onto for dear life while we got our bearings.
And they called us Ice Mites. Can we just pause for one second and imagine a rink full of five year old kids wearing hand me down wool hats tucked under their too big helmets, trying to stand on weak ankles and loosely tied skates, and can just all say “awwwwww” together?
We Ice Mites had dreams of growing up to be play for our high school team, the Lumberjacks. We attended their games and we learned their names and we pretended to be them during our pickup games. Most of the names were pretty nondescript (by Nordic Minnesota standards) but there was a name that seemed insanely far away from our own: Sergei Petrov, an exchange student from Russia. Our fans would sometimes bring a Russian flag to show our support. I remember fans from Duluth Denfeld–the enemy–brought an American flag to show their anti-support, and a huge fight broke out. See what I mean? Danger.
Cloquet had seen three of its sons go off to play in the NHL. Cory Millen, Derek Plante, and Jamie Langenbrunner had done us proud, and we paid them honor every time we went to practice at The Barn, which was our loving nickname for the local arena. I can close my eyes and smell that place to this day, and it’s not a gross smell as you might have just assumed—it’s a smell like very cold water clashing with extremely dry air, and cold rubber, and cold glass. I don’t know. Maybe you know the smell I am failing at describing, and maybe you can describe it better. It’s a good smell; it’s one of those smells that is a time machine, and if I ever smelled it again I would in an instant be a nine year-old who is overweight and underagressive and really isn’t very good at hockey at all.
But I tried. I think my gentle nature won some of my teammates’ parents over, and every year when I would finally make my annual goal, I felt like the place would just about erupt with sound and with fury. Imagination and sport combine to make a pretty miraculous team sometimes.
It happened in the 1980 Winter Games, when a handful of scruffy American college kids with their feathered hair and charming naiveté represented team USA both on the ice and in the collective imaginations of so many Americans as they skated against the biggest, baddest dudes the Soviet Union could fit into red jerseys—the Red Army club. They skated against players who were trained since childhood to be perfect scoring machines and impenetrable walls of defense.
As the clock counted down to victory appeared to be at hand we were asked, all of us, if we believed in miracles. And then we won. It seems like the plot of a schmaltzy, 80s era Magical World of Disney made for TV movie, but it was real. We felt our victory was more than the sum of pucks finding their way into nets. I think we must have felt like it was the sum of every metaphor we could pack into our flag. The good guys won, because good guys are supposed to win.
Enter “Red Army,” a new documentary I caught this weekend at The Lagoon theater. It follows the path of those with CCCP sewn into their jerseys and into their souls. It’s a story that we probably didn’t care to hear for many decades. But I do always like a story when it’s from the point of view of the antagonist.
Most of the interviews follow team USSRs star defensemen, Slava Fetisov, who like thousands of other hopeful boys, signed his name on the ledgers of the feeder program that would lead him to the national hockey team. You don’t have to appreciate the sport to appreciate the struggles imposed on these fellows. The loss of their lovable and loved coach—a creative genius who used ballet and chess in his strategies and training methods—as he was very politically replaced by the hated and hatable Viktor Tikhonov, the beauty of their intricate and artful passing game that was the confusing bane of western players, the pressures put on them to train eleven months out of each year, the brief phone calls they were allowed to make to their wives and children. You don’t have to like sports to understand, to feel, to cheer.
I found myself cheering for team USSR. When they later were allowed to play in the NHL, to see Slava’s shocked face receive a punch thrown by a rowdy Canadian…I don’t know. It’s hard to not cheer for them. They were decent humans, unfairly fetishized with the viler traits of Stalin, of oppression, of conformity.
It’s good to remember that the villains in your story are usually the heroes of their own. It’s good.