Watching the ‘Miracle on Ice’ From the Russian Bench

A new ESPN documentary looks at the other side of the “Miracle on Ice.”

Between countless documentaries, a Disney film, and the soft-focus Jim Nantz tribute every Winter Olympics, Americans have long been familiar with the story of the “Miracle on Ice,” the heartwarming tale of a rag-tag group of amateur hockey players toppling the mighty Soviet hockey team on the way to the gold metal in Lake Placid. In “Miracle,” the 2004 film, the Russians are portrayed as cold, overconfident, and un-feeling. A new ESPN documentary argues that the Soviets were anything but, and re-contextualizes the 1980 defeat as a mere footnote in a long history of brilliant and dominating hockey.

The new documentary, “Of Miracles and Men,” which premiered last night, traces the roots of Soviet hockey back to shortly after the second World War, when, feeling the need to prove Russian superiority, Stalin had his son assemble the best ice hockey team on earth. There was one problem – the Soviets had never seen real hockey before. Reviewing film taken from outside of the Iron Curtain, Anatoli Tarasov, dubbed “the father of Russian Hockey,” developed a new style of hockey, one that was influenced by equal parts communism and ballet, in which teamwork and passing were paramount. Drawing from the ranks of the army to fill out the team, the Soviets quickly became a force to be reckoned with, but even after winning seven world hockey championships, the Soviets were still considered inferior to the Canadian professional players, who were too busy playing in the NHL to participate in the World Championship.

In 1972, the Soviets finally got their chance to take the global hockey stage. During the Summit Series, which pitted the Soviets against the professional Canadians, the Russians had the distinct advantage, pummeling the Canadians before star Valeri Kharlamov had his ankle broken by Canadian Bobby Clarke, in one of the dirtiest plays in hockey history.

Still, only eight years before the “Miracle on Ice,” the Soviets were considered inferior to both Canadian and American hockey, a team that didn’t throw punches on the ice, relying instead on incessant passing and year-round training. When the Soviets did lose to the Americans, it was during a run where they won the gold medal in seven of nine Olympics, from 1956 to 1988.

The film profiles a few of the greats from those Soviet teams, including future NHL greats Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, as well as Vladislav Tretiak, one of the greatest goalies to have ever played the game. It was Tretiak who was pulled after the first period in that fateful game against the American, leading Soviet players to question their coach and setting the stage for one of the greatest upsets in history.

Though the upset was front-page news in the U.S., it was barely remarked upon in the U.S.S.R.. The documentary replays the Soviet radio call of the game, the transmission swiftly ending after the final buzzer. The Soviets interviewed haven’t thought too much of the game either, instead focusing on their own lives in the Soviet hockey system, which brought them international glory, but came at a steep price (as enlisted men in the army, they were confined to their barracks for much of their young lives). When Tarasov was replaced by the stern disciplinarian Viktor Tikhonov on the eve of the world championship in 1977, many players complained of some of that original exuberance being lost, in favor of a uniform, sterile style of play that more resembled the paranoia that gripped the U.S.S.R. at the peak of the cold war.

Directed by Jonathan Hock, whose previous “30 for 30” efforts included an excellent film about failed football player Marcus Dupree, gives an incredibly straight-forward, but ultimately rich telling of the Soviet player’s story and their footnote in history that remains a point of American national pride.

Asked if he’d even seen the film “Miracle,” Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov replies, laughing, “No, why would I? We lost!”

Photos by Bruce Bennet / Getty Images