Monday, March 30, 2020

Books: Wayne Coffey's "The Boys Of Winter" On The Miracle On Ice

The Boys Of Winter: The Untold Story of A Coach, A Dream, and The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
By Wayne Coffey; foreword by Jim Craig; with a new afterword by Ken Morrow for the 40th anniversary of the "Miracle On Ice"
Broadway Books; paperback; $17.00

The Miracle On Ice, when the United States hockey team triumphed over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, is one of the most iconic moments in sports history.

Instantly recognizable from Al Michaels' "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" call, this group of amateur players (the NHL did not allow professionals to participate until 1998), full of blue-collar guys, was led by an unconventional coach, Herb Brooks, who then went on to coach the Rangers.

This Cinderella story, and the people that made it possible, is told in stunning detail by Wayne Coffey in his seminal work, The Boys Of Winter, which was originally published in 2005 and  has been re-released for the 40th anniversary.

Coffey gives readers an ice-level view of the amateurs who took on the Russian hockey juggernaut at the height of the Cold War. He details the unusual chemistry of the American team, which was formulated by Brooks. 

Just as he did with his book on another sports miracle, the 1969 Mets, They Said It Couldn't Be Donewhen Coffey told stories of the Mets players amidst the action of that season - he gives portraits of the U.S. hockey players within a play-by-play of this landmark game. The book is also divided into three parts, one for each period.

Coffey writes this on a big moment in the first period: "Five minutes after his giveaway had put his team down a goal, Buzz Schneider evened it up and there was a full-throated roar in the building to prove it. It was a nice time to continue his uncanny success against (Vladislav) Tretiak. Schneider had scored a hat trick on him in the 1975 world championships, a claim few forwards in the world could make. 'Buzzy owned Tretiak,' Rob McClanahan joked.

After a tentative start, the U.S. players were skating with more conviction. They were tied with the greatest team on earth, and with the way the period had begun, that was not a bad thing. 

William 'Buzz' Schneider got his nickname from an aunt when he was a little boy. He had been getting up and down his wing for almost as long, skating as if he were turbo-powered. Schneider shot harder than anyone on the team. He needed a little room to get the shot off, but once he did, it was no fun for the goalies. Some guys drive their slap shot and the puck arrives late and unmenacing. When Schneider shot, the puck felt like an anvil. 'It hurt to catch it,' said Lefty Curran, the star goaltender of the U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in Japan in 1972 and Schneider's friend and former boss for Great Dane, a tractor-trailer company. 'It was all in his timing. He's got a terrible golf swing, and I've seen him hit golf balls miles.'

Without the overt edginess of a Dave Silk or the Olympic genes of a Dave Christian, Schneider was far from the biggest name on the team, but he was a superb athlete who may well have been a better baseball player than a hockey player. His other nickname was the Babbitt Rabbit, derived from his speed and his hometown on the eastern end of Minnesota's Iron Range, just down Route 21 from Embarrass. Home to 685 people, Embarrass proudly calls itself 'The Nation's Cold Spot,' a quirk of airflow making it a few degrees colder than neighboring towns. The official record low for Embarrass is -57, on January 20, 1996. It barely broke -50 in Babbitt that day. 'In spite of our cold temperatures,' Embarrassites like to say, 'we are known for our warm hearts.'

Buzz Schneider would pass through Embarrass on his trips to Eveleth, where his wife, Gayle, grew up. He was an out-of-towner, but everybody liked Buzz Schneider. he may have been the most popular and industrious player on the team; some guys were sure he would've been captain if the election had been decided by a truly democratic vote. The team did vote for captain, but Brooks wanted Mike Eruzione and nobody was sure how accurate the ballot count was. This was no knock on Eruzione, who turned into a terrific captain. It was just a testament to Schneider's immense likeability."

The Boys of Winter is an one of the best sports books you will ever read, from one of the genre's best storytellers, Wayne Coffey. It will make you appreciate what this team achieved even more.

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