Americans love their underdogs. Even more so, perhaps, because America so rarely plays the role of the underdog. That’s why the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., remains one of the country’s greatest sports stories ever told.
For every underdog story, however, there is the favorite’s tragedy. Of Miracles and Men, the latest documentary in ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series, takes the Miracle on Ice tale and tells it from the other side. Like the recently released Red Army, it humanizes the supposed robots of the Big Red Machine that were upset by a group of college kids on a Friday night in February some 35 years ago.
The film follows Slava Fetisov as he retraces his steps to the sight of where one of the most famous silver medals in sports history was won. Fetisov isn’t quite as candid and colorful as he is in Red Army, but his moments of reflection and recollection reveal a man in his mid-50s still stung by a loss suffered as a 21-year-old Soviet prodigy.
To set up the game between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., director Jonathan Hock and narrator Jeff Daniels take viewers through the history of Soviet hockey, from its origins in the Second World War, through its domination of international competition in the 1960s, to its showdown with Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.
Along the way, the film shows the development of the Soviet program, which began under Anatoli Tarasov, whose unorthodox, artistic and heartwarming philosophy of hockey is contrasted with the bureaucratic, hardline and heartless approach of the late Viktor Tikhonov, his successor.
As footage from the round robin game is replayed, bouncing between Al Michaels' call of the game and the expressionless tone of Soviet announcer Nikolai Ozerov, Fetisov and his teammates relive their defeat. Tikhonov's knee-jerk pulling of Vladislav Tretiak after the first period comes off as the reason the Soviets lost to the Americans.
Although Fetisov is the centerpiece of the film, the supporting cast is its true stars. Tretiak, Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Petrov, Sergei Makarov, Alexei Kasatonov and Vladimir Myshkin (Tretiak’s replacement) all shine in their honesty. Not to be missed among the interviews are Russian journalists Vitali Melik-Karamov and, especially, Vsevolod Kukushkin whose ho-hum account of the game dismisses the Disney fairytale in stereotypical Soviet style.
Play the tape again and the players know they win that game going away 99 times out of 100, just like they did when they trounced Team USA 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden before the Olympic Games began. In the game that mattered, however, the U.S. was the better team, and the former Soviets admit it. They were overconfident. They beat themselves.
Of Miracles and Men is more about the men than it is the miracle. The first 45 minutes are spent setting up the upset as Fetisov makes his way to Lake Placid with his daughter Anastasia, and the last half hour is all about the struggles he faced in his attempt to play in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils and the Stanley Cup he won with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 as part of the Russian Five. Only the 30 minutes in between are dedicated to the Miracle on Ice itself.
One of the more touching moments in the film is when Fetisov and his daughter first walk into the dressing room the Soviets were in for their game against Team USA. With her father standing in the middle of the room, Anastasia randomly selects a stall to sit down in. It just happens to be the one Fetisov dressed in all those years ago. She’s 21 years old, the same age as her father when he lost to one of the most underdog teams of all-time.
The documentary premieres Feb. 8 at 9 p.m. EST on ESPN.
[Editor's Note: This article originally stated the game between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. was the semifinal matchup. The tournament was a round robin and there was no playoff format. The game was a scheduled matchup between the two teams.]