Disney's 'Miracle' Men

Hollywood unknowns shine as director eyes authenticity

Sports Illustrated (2/8/2004)

Brion's comments:
'The stunning upset of the seemingly invincible Soviet Union hockey team by the United States at the 1980 Olympic Games was one of the seminal moments in sports. More than 20 years later, Disney execs sought to capture the moment with a "Miracle" of their own. By most accounts, the movie succeeds.'

Feature article:

Athletes have to believe in miracles. That's why they show up. Just ask Mike Eruzione, captain of the unheralded 1980 Olympic hockey team that grabbed gold in stunning fashion at Lake Placid. Better yet, ask three Boston guys plucked from obscurity to play key roles in "Miracle," the soon-to-be-released Disney flick based on Eruzione's team.

A short 16 months ago, Patrick "Paddy" O'Brien Demsey, Michael Mantenuto and Bobby Hanson were Hollywood unknowns, as faceless as Herb Brooks' band of college students from the Cold War winter of 1980. No acting experience, no national recognition. That's going to change on Feb. 6, when "Miracle" opens.

"I told Paddy, 'Hold you breath, man, because we're about to go from zero to 4,000 miles an hour,'" says Mantenuto.

No doubt, life is going to change in a big way for these three former college hockey players. Backed by Disney's promotional machine and a "can't miss" storyline, "Miracle" had to be considered a hit coming out of the gate. Kurt Russell gave the movie star power as Coach Brooks, while Eddie Cahill (Jennifer Anniston's boyfriend on "Friends") was tagged as goaltender Jim Craig. But director Gavin O'Connor wanted authenticity above anything else. That meant taking risks, starting with casting hockey players who could act, not actors trying to play hockey.

"I wanted a dramatization of the sport, and I didn't think that could be executed at the level I wanted with actors," says O'Connor. "Using stunt men and body doubles wouldn't give the audience the visceral feeling of what it's like to be on the ice. I wanted everything to smell real and raw and truthful.

"The challenge was to find kids who could play the sport at a very high level and who were born with the acting gene but didn't know it. It was a very long process. We saw almost 4,000 kids."

Casting calls went out in Minnesota and in Boston in October, 2002. Mantenuto was working on a fishing boat in Gloucester when he learned about the auditions. After playing a season and a half for the University of Maine, the 22-year-old was taking a break from school, reassessing his priorities. So he answered the casting call, auditioning in Boston, where he met Demsey, a high-energy 23-year-old, and Hanson, a quiet, 26-year-old part-time coach with superb hockey pedigree four years at Boston University and brief stints in Europe and the East Coast Hockey League. Demsey grew up skating on a backyard pond built by his dad, picked up organized hockey in high school, and played two years at Fitchburg State College. A communications major, he was interning at a graphic arts firm when he found an ad for the auditions. It didn't matter that he had never acted before ("I had no idea what I was doing.") Demsey showed up the next day in Boston, one of thousands of Hollywood wannabes. He had the look, the accent, and the mannerisms that pegged him for Eruzione ("I swear, he's the Irish Eruzione," says Hanson), and the novice actor says he never had a doubt.

"I know Disney wasn't interested in me, because I had never done anything before, and Eruzione is such a huge part of this story. But Gavin told me that from the time he met me, he knew I was the guy."

At a subsequent Los Angeles audition, Demsey further impressed Hollywood scouts during a scrimmage between Miracle candidates, scoring two goals ("That equaled my college output."). But it was Mantenuto, eyed for rock-solid, wisecracking defenseman Jack O'Callahan, who secured his spot at the Tinseltown try-out. Told beforehand that he'd be reading for the O'Callahan role "a tough, Boston kid, the first guy in a hockey fight to stand up for his boys" Mantenuto was goaded by another recruit. "He was a big kid, played at Harvard. He's out there picking on these actor-type kids, who weren't sticking up for themselves, and I have a problem with that."

Mantenuto stepped on the ice, got hacked, and his hockey instincts took over. "This kid says, 'What are you gonna do, pretty boy?' So I drop my gloves," says Mantenuto. "I end up getting in a fight, and kicking his ass pretty badly. And, in slow motion, I look over at Gavin and I think, 'Oh, s**t, they're gonna throw me out of here.' And Gavin has this huge smile on his face. I came off the ice and apologized, and Gavin said, 'No that was great.'"

Mantenuto scored the O'Callahan role. Hanson was cast as winger Dave Silk. "Were their audition tapes good? No," says O'Connor. "No one would look at audition tapes and say these guys are actors. I had to bring Paddy Demsey back to the studio three times, because they kept saying 'No' to me. They didn't see what I saw in this kid."

"I usually operate on an intuitive level. I just saw something in this kid's eyes. It's an intangible thing. But there was a spark there, something I just responded to."

By February, O'Connor had his team. Everyone plus a collection of ex-NHL and other professionals brought on to play the Soviets and other opponents was ensconced in Vancouver, B.C., for five months of filming. Russell, determined to capture Brooks accurately, remained aloof, recreating the same tension that brought the 1980 team together "The first night, the first shoot, he walked up to me, looked me right in the eye, and just sucked me into his head," says Demsey. "I really had no clue it was Kurt Russell standing in front of me. It was like a hypnotic state. He was Herb Brooks."

Russell laughs at Demsey's recollection. "It was a little manipulative, but it was also for a specific reason," he says of his approach. "We were working with guys who had never been in front of the camera before. I had to establish as quickly a feeling of honest respect from them, like Herb had from his players."

O'Connor took a different tact, embracing his young charges. "What's interesting is that these guys became actors in the best sense of the word," says Russell. "They were absolutely committed to each scene. The players didn't have to act they discovered that they just had to be themselves."

Former NHLer Ryan Walter and choreographer Mark Ellis ("A great guy, but a drill sergeant," says Mantenuto) were brought in to put the players through near-constant rehearsal to make sure the finished product was convincing. Scenes where players were forced to do a brutal wind sprints "Herbies," according to Eruzione feature retching too real to be feigned. O'Connor broke with Hollywood tradition and ask his pseudo-actors to review daily footage with him to ensure veracity. Mantenuto, who felt he could deliver body checks better than any stunt double, steamrolled one extra so often that "by the end of the day he looked like Jay Leno."

"These poor guys are skating with their head down, and we got to run them over. How often is someone going to give you a free pass like that? Any frustration I had with the movie I think you'll see in my hits. Those are real."

So was the blood drawn between Mantenuto and Nathan West during a scene where O'Callahan and Minnesotan Rob McClanahan duke it out, and so were the dozen facial stitches collected by Stanley Cup-winning goalie Bill Ranford, who signed on late to play Cahill's double as Craig, compliments of an errant shot from Hanson.

"Billy was the best," says O'Connor. "When the kids were getting tired, and the intensity wasn't there, Bill would get in their faces and say 'Look, bring your A game.' He lit a fire under people."

The proof, says Russell, is in the finished product. "The hockey will never be done better, because we took the chance" with hockey players, not actors, he says. "And sometimes they did end up in fights. At one point there were four fights going on, and Ryan Walter just threw his hands up and said 'I can't stop them.' "

"We had high-contact, high-spirited hockey," says Walter. "The problem was you couldn't fake that. You can't fake the game. So the key piece was that our guys came to play, played hard, and we all took risks. We were very professional as a group, but there were times when guys weren't getting along on the ice. You have to show that. So much of the game comes from passion, and if the passion's not there, it doesn't work."

According to Eruzione and O'Callahan, "Miracle" works. "The hockey is great, intense, high-speed," says O'Callahan. "These guys are probably better athletes than we were at the time. Let's face it if you're making a hockey movie, and you can't sell the hockey, you can't sell any of it."

Eruzione also reserves special praise for Russell's portrayal of Brooks, saying it was almost unnerving. "I thought Kurt was spectacular," says Eruzione. "This guy nailed Herb Brooks right on."

Brooks, who was killed in a single-car accident last August while the film was in the editing stages, would have enjoyed the final version, says Eruzione. And that makes O'Connor beam. In many ways, he says, Miracle is "The Herb Brooks Story." Brooks, the last man cut from the 1960 Olympic team that shocked the Soviets and the Canadians at Squaw Valley, reinvented himself as one of the game's great hockey minds and a brilliant if unconventional motivator of younger players.

"After meeting Herb," says Russell, "I said to him, almost offhandedly, '1980 must have been such a blast, this must have been such a great year in your life.' And he said, 'Well, no, it was the loneliest year of my life.' I snapped to at that point. Out of the ensuing conversation came the reality of what Herb's year was, and the amount of sacrifice that took place, not just from him, but his family, mainly his wife Patty. And I understood it was important to explain that within the framework of this tremendous event, it was a very tough year for Herb."

In the third week of filming, O'Connor introduced the team to the real Herb Brooks. "Coach Brooks asked us how we were doing, and everyone was just silent," says Demsey. "So I said 'We're a little bit rusty.' And he looks at me and says, 'You must be Eruzione. He was always a little bit rusty.' That was definitely a highlight, when he pegged me as Eruzione in half a second."

Another highlight was Eruzione's game-winning goal against the Soviets in the Olympic semi-finals. Demsey admits that, when he played, he "wasn't much of a scorer. I liked to play really physical. I never did anything fancy. There was a lot of pressure on me to score that goal, and I actually got it on the third take. It was just one of those magic moments I'm getting chills just talking about it. Everything just fell into place, and it felt like it just had to happen. Just like Eruzione's goal it had to happen."

"My college coach is going to look at it and say 'How come I didn't play that kid?'" says Demsey, laughing. "I look like Wayne Gretzky out there."

The 1980 team might be best remember for its youthful exuberance, best captured in the raucous celebration following the 4-3 semi-final win over the Soviets. And while O'Connor needed to take some dramatic license, focusing on fewer players to tell the story in two hours, Eruzione and O'Callahan say the depiction rings true. "The movie will absolutely do our team justice," says Eruzione. "These guys could play."

Meanwhile, the young guns that Disney uncovered say they have a renewed appreciation for the team, Herb Brooks, and the enduring legacy of their accomplishment. "It's like folklore," says Demsey, a 14-month-old during the 1980 Games. "This team helped get USA hockey going. And this film is going to bring their story to a whole new generation of people, which I hope will create another hockey boom."

If it happens, the charge will be led by a group of fledgling actors who, at their core, are hockey-loving Hollywood greenhorns. Nice symmetry, but no miracle.

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