I was ten years old when the U.S. national hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the semi-finals of the 1980 Winter Olympics. That event became known as the “Miracle on Ice,” and was dramatized in the movie Miracle (2004), among others. I’ve watched Miracle a dozen times, and I visit the Lake Placid, NY arena where the match was held annually. I’ve never wondered how the Soviet players felt about the game.
Jonathan Hock’s documentary Of Miracles and Men (originally broadcast on ESPN, and available on Netflix) not only wonders about those Soviet players, it lets them talk. Viacheslav Fetisov, considered one of the great players in history, is the main interview. He recalls his boyhood in Russia, then journeys with his adult daughter to Lake Placid, his first return visit in thirty years. Several of the players from the 1980 team also offer running commentary throughout. Additionally, the film traces the history of Soviet hockey, from its inception by legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov, to its wildly successful years and later decline under the dour Viktor Tikhonov.
Some things I can’t stop thinking about: First, the dignity of the Soviet players is deeply impressive, even more so when compared to asshole celebrity athletes today. Second, the teams at Lake Placid in 1980 were housed in a prison. Irony aside, one of the Soviet players says it was by far the worst accommodations they’d ever had. To make things worse, Soviet team members were continually harassed by American spectators.
The 1980 match occupies about thirty minutes in the middle of the film, perhaps disconcerting for American audiences used to its being the climax. Because some might be tempted to stop watching after that part (Hock’s style is less flashy than some), I’ll add that the movie’s emotional climax, when Fetisov finally leaves the Soviet Union, wins the Stanley Cup, and brings it to Moscow, packs an unexpected wallop.
As much as I love Miracle, this is a much better film, and could become my preferred February 22 anniversary remembrance. Highly recommended.