20 angry men

“Miracle” tells the story of Herb Brooks’ determination to forge a team that could beat the world.

by Brian Stensaas

More than a half hour after Minnesota’s men’s hockey team lost 6-4 to St. Cloud State in the 2000 WCHA Final Five at Target Center, Gophers senior captain Nate Miller sat alone in the hallway outside of the locker room, still wearing his equipment.

His dream was over. He had just played the final game of his college career. He knew when he slid his Minnesota jersey off his shoulders, he had done so for the final time.

But he recently slid on another jersey with almost as much pride.

Nearly four years after finishing his career at Minnesota, Miller has reappeared in the hockey spotlight, portraying forward John Harrington in “Miracle,” the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that defeated heavily favored Russia en route to the gold medal.

“It was such an honor to play at Minnesota, but this experience was just amazing,” Miller said late last week from Los Angeles. “It’s weird to be mentioned with these guys. Growing up, Neal Broten was my favorite player.”

Broten and Harrington are just two of 12 Minnesotans who were on the 20-man roster brought to Lake Placid, N.Y., by a legendary former Gophers’ coach, the late Herb Brooks, without a prayer of winning. The movie focuses largely on hockey but also touches on the separation from his family and the outside world that Brooks experienced while working to change the playing style of his disparate group of young men to match the European style against which they would compete.

In the film, Brooks – played by Kurt Russell – keeps his distance from the players in the hope that their dislike for him will transform into a commitment to each other as a team.

It’s an idea that director Gavin O’Connor wanted to mimic in making the film by keeping Russell away from the players – many of whom, like Miller, had zero acting experience.

“That was tough for (Russell) because he’s such a down to earth guy, so un-Hollywood, and he’s a huge sports fan,” Miller said. “We were on the ice shooting a scene he wasn’t in when the Gophers were in the Frozen Four (last March) and all of a sudden he’s running out saying that (Gophers forward Thomas) Vanek had scored. He put on his skates and acted out the goal.”

At over 120 minutes long, “Miracle” makes a serious attempt to recount the entire story of the team, leaving little to the imagination. Starting with Brooks’ hiring, the movie then goes into the open practices for selecting the team, the grueling workouts, the preparation for the Olympics and finally the games.

“Miracle” falls victim to that all-to-common Hollywood recipe of stuffing a film with subplots and other intrigues that feel irrelevant to the main story. While this adds dramatic tension, it also gives away too much. Perhaps this makes it easier to get swept up in the film, which is helpful, given that nearly everyone will walk in knowing the movie’s outcome.

Still, this was not simply an attempt by Disney to lift the spirits of Americans in the wake of war. It is a jubilant tribute to arguably the greatest moment on the history of American sports and to Brooks, who died in an auto accident last summer just after primary filming of the movie wrapped.

For Miller, who grew up with a poster of the 1980 Olympic team on his wall, which he eventually brought to college, the opportunity to be a part of recreating the Miracle on Ice is something he’ll take with him forever even if his newly found acting career doesn’t take off.

He joked that an Oscar nomination might come his way by 2008, but there’s nothing funny about the wonderful, motivational recreation of the “Miracle.”

“I’m still in awe of the story,” Miller said. “Hockey is something I’ll always hopefully be involved in. Doing this was an inspiration.”