Late last week, I met with 15 young men and an administrator who is working to make a difference. Dr. Jeffrey Carroll designed his own book group for guys starting with a great carrot. Those who finish the book and attend the meetings get to take a field trip to a Norfolk Admirals hockey practice, followed by some face time with the players in the weight room. The incentive, along with selective recruiting by Dr. Carroll and other instructors resulted in the quick sign-up of high school freshmen and sophomores who don’t do badly in school but rarely pick up a book. While the incentive is great, the book and the discussions are winning fans.
Dr. Carroll’s group is reading The Boys of Winter by Wayne Coffey. It’s a close recount of the 1980 U.S. Hockey team’s improbable path to the gold. In particular, the book focuses on the game against the Soviets, an international powerhouse that would have been competitive in the NHL, a team that hadn’t lost a game in a long time before the Lake Placid Olympics and wouldn’t lose afterwards until rule changes brought NHL professionals onto most national teams. That semi-final game is described painstakingly, play by play, but as each player or coach has his shining moment in the game, Coffey breaks away to profile the player’s rise to the Olympic team and life in the thirty years after the games.
The boys slowly found the groove of a book group, starting with questions about the rules of the game (many of them are student athletes, but few in warm weather Virginia know much about ice hockey), but moving on to analyzing characters, discussing the merits of Coffey’s choice of structure for the book, and asking questions about the Cold War, amateurism in the Olympics, and other historical events that they are too young to remember. Some read the required chapters before the meeting, while others had not, but unlike a typical group of boys, where nonreaders might tease those who spent time on books, this group clearly worked the other way around, with those who had not kept up feeling left out and vowing to do better. As the meeting ended, they asked Dr. Carroll to make the assignment three chapters instead of two for next week’s meeting: they wanted to know what happened next in the story.
The book itself would make a fine selection for adult groups, many of whom will remember those events thirty years ago as if they had happened much more recently. Two things about the book stood out to me. First, I was shocked in reading the book about how much the Olympics, particularly the Winter Olympics, have changed since 1980. Huge amounts of money, professional athletes, larger competitive fields, ever-expanding media attention, terror threats, and great expectations for opening and closing ceremonies have made them into something that little Lake Placid (with less than 3000 permanent residents at the time) could now handle. Second, the standout character is Herb Brooks, the American coach who used every kind of manipulation in the book to get the most out of his characters. Readers could debate for hours about whether or not his ends justify the means or not.