'Miracle' scores with hockey locals

Area youth players know folklore from Olympic footage

Baltimore ... Or Less

February 08, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

Lauren and David Abramson grew up in a "die-hard Baltimore hockey family," so it came as no surprise that the skating siblings came early to a private, pre-release screening of a certain new movie at Loews Theater at Owings Mills last week.

It's not that they didn't already know the plot of Miracle. Like any good hockey kids, they were already so well-versed in the tale of the U.S. Olympic team and its long-shot quest for the gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Games that they could recite it by heart.

The brash ingenuity of American coach Herb Brooks. The heroic play of goalie Jim Craig, whose mother died not long before the Olympics. The grit of Mike Eruzione, whose high wrist shot into the net sent Russia to its first major defeat since 1960.

"They were just a bunch of college kids," gushed Lauren, 17, a converted figure skater, Wednesday night, just before a private screening for players from Baltimore Youth Hockey, the largest kids' hockey organization in the area, and their families. "The Russians were professionals. They hadn't lost a gold medal in 20 years. How did we ever beat them? It really was a miracle."

Lauren, who played last year for the Baltimore Blizzard girls team, and David, 14, a center for one of the BYH Stars traveling teams in the Capital Beltway Hockey League, had reason to know the story. Their father, Howard, an Owings Mills businessman, grew up a "rink rat" in Baltimore, never got the sport out of his system, and passed it along.

Abramson, a former BYH coach who now volunteers in an in-line hockey program at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills, was one of millions who tuned in on Feb. 22, 1980. And he didn't just witness the epic, 4-3 upset. He taped it for posterity.

"We've seen it a million times," said Lauren. "It's so awesome. It doesn't even matter that we know how it ends. It's always fun to see."

The Abramsons were among dozens of BYH players in the theater Wednesday. In the back row, Mac Manning, 12, of Cockeysville, a defenseman for the Shooting Stars Pee Wee team, sported a scarlet Team Canada jersey and showed off a gap-toothed grin. "I got hit by a puck once," he said, "and then I was, uh, a little too rough with the false tooth.

"I was never that interested in this till I saw a tape of the game," he said. "The way they came from behind was amazing. All my friends say the movie's even better."

But hockey players are exacting critics. Every player knows the game's minutiae -- the taping-up of stick blades before games, the crunch of sharpened blades on ice, the echo of the coach's whistle in a cold, empty rink -- so well that the liberties taken in many hockey films, from Slap Shot through the Mighty Ducks series and Mystery, Alaska have left many cold.

"For some reason, on the drive here, I was thinking about sticks," said Lauren, a rabid fan of the NHL's Washington Capitals. "In 1980, the sticks were all wood. I didn't want to see graphite or fiberglass, like today's."

Miracle did not disappoint. The sound of skates spraying shavings, of pucks "pinging" the goalpost, of a coach shouting, "Short shifts -- I want fresh legs out there!" rang true. Goalie Craig's Baw-ston accent was right on target. American stars Dave Silk and Ken Morrow were shown with period pants and helmets, and filmmakers even placed Craig's trademark four-leaf clover on his acrylic mask. And yes, the sticks were wood.

"The whole movie was like the real thing," said David Abramson, grinning.

Sometimes that made it hard to watch. No player can fail to be astonished by the brutal "suicide" sprinting drills they see Kurt Russell's Herb Brooks put his players through as he blows his whistle again and again. "My coach works us really hard," said David with a nervous laugh, "but man, I hope he doesn't see this movie. I don't want him getting any ideas."

But the bantam center was glimpsing exactly how Brooks -- long viewed in the hockey world as a difficult genius -- brought about a triumph only he seemed capable of imagining.

As Brooks, Russell nails the character, from the coach's loud, ill-fitting jackets and immovable coiffure to his odd blend of grim determination and unpredictability.

But he also gets across the bigger message of how to chase a dream. He trains attention on the goal, scrutinizing black-and-white film of the unbeatable Russians and breaking down their moves. He escalates pressure in increments, alternates punishment and reward, offers trust at the weirdest moments.

Brooks, who was killed in a minivan accident just before the movie was finished last year, would probably not be surprised to know that his message can still engross an auditorium full of kids. When the U.S. team wins its gold medal all over again, the Owings Mills audience bursts into applause.

The joy of Miracle may be the way it shows us something we see too rarely in the movies: Young people embracing the idea that it's worth making sacrifices to pursue a larger goal.

Most players on sports teams know that ethic, up to a point. David Abramson, an Owings Mills High freshman who started skating before he turned 3, once finished a game on a broken ankle. Lauren, who won 18 medals in 12 years of figure skating, had to quit due to repeated injuries, but says she prefers hockey anyway.

"Something happens every second," she says. "It's an adrenaline rush. But most of all, I like working with other people more than just on my own."

Few athletes in any sport, though, are lucky enough to have a coach like Brooks, who sees more in them than they ever saw in themselves -- and who has the skills to bring it all out.

"You know that story so well," said Lauren after the screening. "Watching the tape is fantastic, but with this movie, you're in the middle of things, right on the ice, right on the bench with those guys. You feel it happen. It feels like even more of a miracle."

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