The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
It’s been a decade since I first read The Boys of Winter, sixteen years since one of my all-time favorite movies, Miracle, was released in theaters, and 40 years, almost to the day, since the “Miracle on Ice” games was played between the seasoned USSR team and the fresh out of college USA team. A game that the world still cares about all these years later.
From the Back Cover:
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, and they engineered what Sports Illustrated called the greatest sports moment of the twentieth century. 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.
I grew up an avid hockey fan and occasional player. I don’t remember a time before I could skate and my fondest childhood memories are flying across the ice and knocking the puck around on the frozen lake on the edge of the backyard of my dad’s house. I’d curse the toe picks I was stuck with on the goofy figure skates and longed for a real pair of hockey skates to live out my goalie dreams. On non-frozen-water, I was a goalie in floor hockey, and later, with the right skates, on ice. And in college I taught my cat how to shoot a street hockey puck on a net. It’s my long time sporting love.
Which meant, every time an new hockey book is published, I read it. Especially in the summer during the agonizing wait between the end of the Stanley Cup finals and the start of pre-season on or around my September birthday. (For years I really thought hockey season was my own personal birthday present.) The more hockey, the better. And a few days ago I finished A Team of Their Own about the Korean women’s team at the 2018 Olympics, and almost swapped it this week for this one, but I couldn’t let the 40th anniversary pass unmarked. The Boys of Winter is my first hockey book love.
I read it in college during a rare semester not full of assigned reading. When it first published I was in high school and hockey or not, I wasn’t a big nonfiction reader. It was while I was in high school that the movie of the team and game, Miracle, was released. It was my comfort movie when I missed home, and the ice, while at the University of Pittsburgh (the only school of the 10 I applied to not to have an NCAA ice hockey team… but how I ended up at Pitt is a whole other story).
I remember finding The Boys of Winter on the shelf of the Barnes & Noble on the Waterfront (the only bookstore I knew the bus route for) with a blurb marking that it was the 30th anniversary of the game. I could already recite all of the players by name and thought I understood Herb Brooks’ coaching philosophy, but I realized I really didn’t have a great understanding of what went through everyone’s heads leading up to the game. Miracle‘s a great movie, but it’s only a two hour window into a very busy and crazy cross-section of recent world history.
In 1960, Herb Brooks was cut from the Olympic hockey team and sent home (he played on the ’64 and ’68 teams). Twenty years later, in 1980 when he returned to the world stage as its coach, the world had changed significantly in terms of technology (we landed on the moon and had early computers) but very little in geopolitical terms. The Cold War was still in full swing. The 1980 Winter Olympics were set to be a peaceful battleground to assert dominance on the global scale. And the ice hockey game between the USSR and the USA was to be the greatest sporting showdown of the century. If the Americans could make it that far.
The team Brooks assembled was a microcosm of the US hockey world at the time, which reflected various cultural differences around the country. The boys from the midwest and the boys from the northeast had to not only put their college rivalries aside, but learn how to play and get along with people who had different values and personalities off the ice as well. Craig and Eruzione, goalie and captain and lifelong New Englanders, have parlayed their roles in the game into lengthy public speaking and income-generating careers long after their retirement as players, where many of the midwestern players went home after their hockey careers to quiet lives in the woods.
And yet. These twenty young men fresh out of college put their personal differences aside to play hockey for a stormy and impassioned coach, and for the opportunity to beat the USSR. While The Boys of Winter is not overly political, it’s impossible to ignore the giant Cold War sized elephant in the room. The match up between the USA and the USSR was never going to be “just a game,” Olympics level pressures aside.
Wayne Coffey’s book is a chronological account of the game, with player bios and world events sprinkled in along the way. Even for those who think they know the game, the players, and the coach, it’s a great read and a wonderful collection of interviews with the players after the fact. (And up next on my hockey TBR list is Mike Eruzione’s The Making of a Miracle.)
Rating: 9 out of 10 stars