Jack Blatherwick

Preparing for miracles

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

We call it a miracle – those pyramids in Egypt or the first step on the moon – or whenever an American team pulls off a major upset in Olympic hockey. I wonder if the participants really believe their work “defies all known laws of science?”

So I decided to travel back 4,600 years to a typical day on the job, just to see what the Egyptian workers were saying about miracles. There were 20,000 or so, and some had permanently twisted anatomies, because they had been hauling rocks for most of the 80 years it took to complete the project.

There was some grumbling we can’t repeat when I asked if this should be called “a miracle.” They had heard those rumors, and one of the group of 40 carrying a large boulder gasped, “As if someone just waves a bleeping wand and … voila … a pyramid!”

These were the ‘carriers.’ There were also the higher paid ‘carvers’ and, of course, the educated-elite site managers who used the latest technology to make sure the slant was up to the Pharaoh’s expectations. No twisted bodies in this group. They weren’t even sweating.

Hundreds of bakers made sure others had food to keep up the pace; physicians attended the injured; and in case the carriers were crushed beneath a boulder, there were undertakers to ensure that bones, found thousands of years later, would be properly attired.

Astronauts at the Apollo 11 landing site had basically the same response as the Egyptians. As Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon, I asked if they agreed with everyone that this was a miracle.

“What? Get back out of sight quick, before TV picks you up! Now we have to do this scene all over again. Stand over there behind the ship. (pause) One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind. (pause) Ok, what were you talking about … miracle? A miracle defies all known laws of science. No way. This IS science. Thousands of intelligent people have been working as a team, 24/7 for this moment to happen. Don’t insult their efforts.”

“Sorry … maybe I’d better head back.  I think I’ll try the 1980 Olympic hockey team. They’ll be having their tryouts for the Games in Lake Placid in … uh … exactly 10 years.” 

“Well,” said Armstrong, “they have a tough test with those Soviets. Some have said it’s easier to land a man on the moon.”

July 1979, Colorado Springs: 90 of the best college hockey players are competing to make the Olympic team. Some, like John Harrington, knew the altitude (6,000 feet) would be a factor, so they moved to the mountains several weeks in advance to accelerate their training.

“I’m leaving nothing to chance,” John said. “This is too important. I’ve been sprinting up hills, skating every hour available, lifting weights, shooting pucks and I’m in the best shape of my life. If someone beats me out, that will be a miracle.”

“Miracle? What are the chances of beating the Soviets?” I asked, but Harrington was already starting up Pike’s Peak and ignored the question. Actually, he didn’t ignore my question; he answered it by running. Most candidates came to tryouts in great shape, and we tested speed and stamina on the ice – not in an irrelevant laboratory that measures qualities written about in textbooks.

Coach Herb Brooks wasn’t into Ivory Tower irrelevancy. He wanted speed and “hockey endurance like those damn Soviets” that Brooks competed against in two prior Olympic games.

When the team was picked, players were warned they’d be tested again on the ice, and that failing to prepare would mean they’d probably be cut when they returned for camp in a few weeks. This would be the major philosophy for the next seven months: Execute skills and make decisions at the highest possible tempo. Repeat and repeat relentlessly, with timed intervals for two hours or more – and, “You’d better not slow down … ever.”

There was much planning. Brooks’ over-riding philosophy was, “Always be better prepared than any of your athletes. But it will not be a six month vacation for them. You have my promise on that.”

He noted that others had tried to beat the Soviets by simply emphasizing great defense. “You can’t be on defense all day against them,” he growled. “You’ll take penalties, and that’s it. Game over. You have to beat them at their own game – puck possession and speed.

“How can you practice any other way?  What good is a SLOW conditioning drill on-ice or off? We have to shock them when they realize that another team in the Olympics can operate at their pace.”

So I brought my recorder to some of the practices in the next months. Mark Pavelich was recovering for a few seconds between shifts in which his line flew up the ice and back – then up again – making decisions on the fly, trying to pass perfectly without hesitation, and doing this while skating faster than ever before.

“Pav,” Brooks hollered. “You look like you’re portaging your canoe. Get your line moving.”

“He’s crazy,” Pavelich muttered under his breath. “It’ll be a miracle if we survive these practices for five more months.” 

That word “miracle” came up often in reference to surviving Brooks’ practices. I don’t recall anyone using it in reference to winning. That was more like “preparation.”

“Silk!” Brooks shouted at Dave, but really at the whole team. “You’ve got million-dollar legs and a nickel brain. But we’ll change that in a hurry. Everyone! Start thinking out here! Your mind must be quicker than your feet!”

So it went – repetition of skill, speed and decision-making, stopping only for short timed rest intervals. The pace was never comfortable. Other teams had practiced at comfortable speeds, and when they played the Soviets, they were on edge the entire night. With the 1980 team, speed of execution was one factor the coaching staff could control by training.

In many practices, Brooks would communicate to the whole team by picking on his favorite target (and one of his favorite players), “McClanahan, you think you’re fast? Remember this: The puck moves faster when you pass it.”

Nagy, the good doctor was wearing his familiar frown, “It’ll be a miracle if they all survive. I don’t think Herbie can keep this up. We won’t have any players left.”

“Yeah; he’s crazy,” I responded – but not quietly enough.

“I heard that, Cardiac,” Brooks snapped. “You’re an ivory-tower scientist; not a coach. We have to beat the Czechs, the Swedes and Soviets. You can afford to theorize. We have to train athletes to execute at a tempo that will shock those guys in red uniforms. If we don’t train with that intensity, we’ll be relying on miracles.”


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.