I just finished reading The Boys of Winter: The untold story of a coach, a dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, by Wayne Coffey (Three Rivers Press, 2005). It tells the famous “Miracle on Ice” story, of course, with a focus on Coach Herb Brooks. People who know infinitely more about literature and sports than I do often say that baseball lends itself well to literature — outdoor summer setting, slow pace, whatever — and it seems like hockey doesn’t. (The Quebec shortstory “The hockey sweater” is an exception, I guess.) Coffey set himself a challenge, interweaving the story of one (already familiar, to many) game with the lives of players and the coach. In ways, he succeeds in the end, like with a complex portrayal of Brooks, brutal on players but also fundamentally human. The book starts with Brooks’ funeral, maybe the most human place you could start.
Coffey does underplay themes that many of us would have felt compelled to focus on, like the nationalism surrounding this US-Soviet battle at the height of the Cold War. Still, he gets some things cold right: Being on the ice brings out intensity I’ve never seen anywhere else; this book tells the classic stories of kids playing on outdoor rinks by the lights of dad’s old Rambler, the obsessions of hockey families and fans in Boston and the Iron Range, and so on. He gets things that click for skaters, like when Mark Johnson (coach of the Wisconsin women’s hockey team, national champs last year and this) says “There’s nothing more pure than skating on a sheet of ice under the stars”.
Many of hockey’s transcendental moments come when teamwork is perfect: The breakout pass from your defenseman as a defender crashes in on him that pulls you as a winger to just the right place for the shot on goal, or picking up a pass down low while having your head up to tap it out to the centerman in the high slot for an open shot. (And, yes, getting the assist is almost always better than getting the goal.) Coffey quotes one of the Russians on why the Americans won that game:” They were team”. A good friend of mine, one of the best players I’ve ever skated with, says that hockey is “an hour of fucking up for that one tiny moment of getting it just right.” Yeah, and that’s usually not about you getting it right, but you and a teammate or two. You feel that a little in this book.
Another thing about the game is this constant awareness of the value of tenacity: Whatever happens, you are struggling to stay in the play. As you fall to the ice after getting hit or losing an edge, you’re planning how to get up fastest and where to get to. One of my best moments in hockey ever was a month or so ago when I scored a goal simply by staying in the play through various twists and turns, moving around, passing, getting banged around in front of the goal. The goal itself was ‘picking up the trash’ as they say (an easy rebound goal), but my heart rate had been completely maxed out for 20 seconds by that point. I skated back to the bench and tapped gloves with folks, then a teammate said “we’re gonna stop calling you Mr. Verb and start calling you Mr. Tenacity”. If I had been hit by a bus going out the door of the rink, I would have died happy. That’s at the very lowest level of hockey, an “old farts scrimmage”, as it’s known. In the 1980 game, there’s an example of tenacity at the very highest level: At the very end of the first period, an American fired a shot from center ice, as the Soviets were just about to go to the locker room. The famous Soviet goalie Tretiak stopped the shot but allowed a big rebound with a couple of seconds left. Mark Johnson was just coming onto the ice and screamed down to pick up the puck, skate around Tretiak and pop the puck past him to tie the game with 1 second left. That changed the game.
Johnson was in many ways a hero of that game and yet Coffey talks about him walking around unrecognized in public. His success with the women’s team is changing that, surely. Part of his growing reputation is that he is said to be very decent with and to the players. In the Shell, the University’s ice rink, he’s regarded with awe. When he walks through during a scrimmage, everybody on the bench stops talking and watches him. Passing him outside the Shell, I've had somebody run up and tell me in a whisper, "god, that was Mark Johnson and he spoke to him." I see the chancellor and governor around town on occasion and they don't get that reaction. Johnson smiles and nods or says hi when you pass him carrying your gear and stick ... no glad handing, just greeting fellow hockey players whose best feats on the ice will be stuff he mastered at age 8. And every time we know we’re walking past a real legend when we see him. Now, there's a guy who could act like he's god and get away with it, but he seems utterly human.