(Originally Published January 2004)
By Harry Thompson
Kurt Russell has played a variety of interesting characters over the course of his 30-year acting career. He's been a "Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes," a fireman, boat captain, used car salesman and even Elvis.
Perhaps there's no role that brings a bigger smile to the face of the former professional baseball player from Springfield, Mass., than his everyday role as the father of three sons. All three have tried their hand in hockey, and his youngest son, Wyatt, is currently playing goal for the Richmond Sockeyes, a Junior B hockey team in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Russell was able to tie his love of hockey with his career by teaming up with Disney, a company that gave him his start in the film business, to take on the role of legendary U.S. coach Herb Brooks in the upcoming Disney movie, "Miracle."
A long-time reader of USA Hockey Magazine, Russell talked about his role in recreating the greatest moment in USA Hockey history.
When were you approached to get involved with the movie "Miracle"?
We bought a house in Vancouver because our son, Wyatt, was going to play Junior hockey here. We'd been here for about six months when the script came my way. I read it and thought it could be interesting.
I thought [director] Gavin [O'Connor] was going about it in the right way. He tried to make the best hockey movie that's ever been made and tell the story of how a man took an idea, which was ahead of its time, and put together 20 [young men] from very different backgrounds and make them play as a team in a new way. I thought it was a really good tale and a great time for America.
Efforts to cast hockey players in the movie took the crew across the United States and Canada. Why was that so important?
The producers of the movie wanted the credibility of the hockey to be so strong that the audience could make that "Rocky" connection. I think that was one of the things that "Rocky" had going for it when it first hit the screen. People were asking, 'Who was this boxer who could act?'
A lot of these guys were very talented in many different ways, but their hockey credentials were impeccable. What we've got, at least for the hockey fan, will be probably the hockey scenes that have ever been seen.
It's easier to work with someone with their own given talent. The guys from Boston, they sound right. The guys from Minnesota are from Minnesota. And their styles of playing hockey are recognizably different. So these were important things to the script.
So is it easier to teach a hockey player to act rather than teach an actor to play hockey?
No question about it. It's easier to work with someone's own given talent. Gavin made the right choice of finding [hockey players] who were comfortable in front of the camera. And boy, did they get comfortable in front of the camera. As actors they got very knowledgeable very fast. And as hockey players they excelled.
Hockey is such a read-and-react game. It has a certain flow and tempo to it. How difficult was it to recreate these great hockey moments without making them look staged and the players mechanical?
That was the only thing that worried me about the project. I didn't want to do it if the hockey was going to be very mediocre, quote, sort of Hollywood style. Gavin assured me that it was going to be a whole different thing.
It was a combination of efforts. Once they learned the play we'd say, 'OK, you know what's supposed to happen. Now just let it happen. If it doesn't happen, don't force it. Just play.' Sometimes the play evolved just as it happened, and other times it was choreographed. Then you take all the different scenarios and pick what you think looks the best.
It took us many different takes. We were on the ice for a long, long time. It wasn't easy. It was very tough on the players. A lot of guys got hurt but they're hockey players so they just soldier on.
What was it like to work with Herb Brooks?
It was really fulfilling. Our first meeting was really funny because when we met he looked at me and said, 'You don't have a son who is a goaltender, do you?' I said 'Yeah.' He said, 'I'm coming up to scout him this summer.' So we spent the first two hours talking about Wyatt. And the group was standing around waiting while we were having this real hockey conversation. And we said we better get to work here.
So Herb and I had a relationship on two levels. The first was what about this player, who happened to be my son. Secondly, it was about Herb and how did he do what he did and what he was thinking. I was beginning to watch him to try to grasp who Herb was, and I discovered that the way he'd been written was very, very accurate.
I really enjoyed Herb. I thought, obviously, that he was a brilliant hockey mind. If you're going to play a coach, I got to tell you, there's nobody more fun to play than Herb Brooks.
Were there a lot of conversations about the X's and O's of the victory?
That took place more with the guys who were doing the hockey playing and the guys who were staging the choreography. Mine was more osmotic. I wanted to get the feel of who Herb Brooks was. What tickled his fancy? What made him mad? What irked him? What fascinated him? What interested him? How he felt? How he behaved? That was what I was more interested in capturing.
The most interesting thing about Herb was what I would call his psychological approach to the game and his players. He very definitely had instinct and a knack to read who somebody was, read what their strengths were, read what their insecurities were and bring out the best in them.
He knew what buttons to push, and the thing about it was he knew what buttons to not push. I think that's the big difference between Herb Brooks and many other coaches who also coach in a disciplinary fashion. Unfortunately, they may know X's and O's, they may know how to approach a player, but it's very difficult to read correctly what is really making somebody tick. Herb did, and he did that very subtly. At times he did it very grossly, but it always worked. He never questioned himself. He just knew.
You worked on your skating so that you could copy Coach Brooks' style. Why was that?
I saw some film of him skating. He had that coach's glide. And he sort of had his head down a lot of the time and just was very relaxed. I worked on that and tried to get that feeling of that unhurried, preoccupied coaching style. You know, always thinking, always observing; never thinking about his skating. All coaches sort of have it. Herb had his own style, I hope I grabbed a little bit of that.
How about capturing some of Coach Brooks' mannerisms behind the bench?
The most fun for me in playing Herb was behind the bench. There were times when guys would come flying out from behind the monitor laughing and say, 'God! That was just like Herb!' It was fun when some of the guys from the 1980 Team came and watched and said that I looked just like Herb back there. Obviously, that made me feel good because I felt like I was doing my job correctly.
I felt the thing to do was to capture the essence of the man. Now that Herb is no longer with us I more than ever hope I've done a real good job with it.
Were you a hockey fan back then and do you remember watching the Olympics?
I started watching the Kings in 1967 in Los Angeles. By the time that came around I was out of baseball and looking for new games to play. I played soccer and rugby and I think it was about 1976 I moved to Colorado and started playing hockey. Because I was a poor skater, I played goaltender. I wasn't much of a puck handler but my glove hand was spectacular. That's all I had. I was very weak to my stick side and everybody knew it.
When the Olympics came around I was playing in a Van Nuys [Calif.] men's league and having a ball. I remember watching the United States hockey team. It was so much fun to have anything to do with hockey at that point. We were just so thrilled when they won, going outside and banging pots. It was just a memorable time.
You've been around hockey long enough to know that "Slapshot" has become a cult classic among hockey players of all ages. Do you see "Miracle" having the same effect?
My hope is that "Miracle" will be the best hockey movie ever made. I would be disappointed if it wasn't. This is real hockey. We're not parodying the sport. This is about the seriousness of the game and the brilliance of the human spirit. And it's about the psychological warfare between a man and his team, and taking a nation that was down on itself and lifting it up and saying wait a minute, we are a great nation. And it's amazing how the harder you work the more the miracle will appear. To me the miracle is what went into it. It's not just what happened on the ice.
Herb Brooks passed away before his time and before he had an opportunity to see this movie. Do you think he would've been proud of this film?
I was very, very stunned when I found out that Herb had been killed in a car accident. I know that Herb was proud of the way we were going about it. He realized the mentality of those who were trying to make this movie were of like mind with him. He knew that he and I were of like mind. So he knew that every effort was being made to do this right.
I honestly believe that there are people who change the world during their time on earth. They touch down, they're here for a while, they change the world and they move on. They leave behind a lot of good. Herb Brooks was one of those people. He was a pioneer of the sport who changed hockey for the better.