June 25, 2008

The Boys Of Winter

One of my favorite hockey books of all time is Wayne Coffey's The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, a New York Times best seller.

| Buy at chapters.indigo.ca or at Amazon |

It is billed as the story of, according Sports Illustrated nonetheless, the greatest sports moment of the twentieth century. Coffey goes a bit deeper and looks at how a bunch of introverted US college kids and one brooding, obsessed coach that made up the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team won gold on Lake Placid home ice, knocking off the powerful Soviets in the process.

It is now known to Americans, whether they know what a puck is or not, as the “Miracle on Ice.” It has become an American fairy tale, a miracle in itself for a hockey moment.

Wayne Coffey's story is almost as remarkable.

The game against the Soviets is front and center in Coffey's retelling. He precisely and grippingly describes it period by period -- even play by play sometimes -- pausing where appropriate to weave in very nice biographical sketches of the players and repeatedly the coach. After all, coach Herb Brooks, part hockey genius/part madman is the main character of this tale, though Coffey correctly paints him as the right coach at the right time.

Brooks, a stand out coach with the University of Minnesota, relied heavily on fear and intimidation, which can work in short time frames but rarely over the long haul. Coffey interestingly compares Brooks to his arch rival, Bob Johnson of the University of Wisconsin. The two were the only two rising powers on the American coaching scene in the late 1970s. They are as different as black and white, and neither of them liked each other. Johnson would go on to NHL fame and glory. Brooks, with significant help from Johnson's son, would be immortalized by the 1980 Olympic win.

The book portrays the vast majority of the players as introverted choir boys, the perfect personality type for the maniacal Brooks to play mind games with. As much as these collegians all brought strong skill sets to the team, you get the feeling Brooks wanted players he could manipulate. The result may have been Olympic gold and immortality, but, as Coffey suggests, Brooks is remembered by his team with gratitude and respect but not much personal fondness.

For me, the beauty of this book is Coffey's repackaging of a legend. He somehow manages to avoid all the hype, sentimentality and American flag waving. Instead he chose his path and stuck to it like an obedient player back in Lake Placid. He understates much of the legendary story, avoiding unnecessary phrases in search of metaphors. His text is raw and efficient.

That in itself is a small Miracle.


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