Gordon Bombay, Grady Little and the Ghosts of the Minnesota Miracle Men (on Ice)

Canon Fodder: The Mighty Ducks
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What if Guy had taken the shot?

It’s a moment that eventually made one coach a genius, one plucky underdog insufferable, and one country’s diplomatic relations with the US extremely ... Icy. And it should never have happened.

Today, though, it’s a tale as old as time (or at least -- we will all die someday-- 21 years): Charlie Conway triple dekes and redeems every soul in Minnesota. The grittiest victory for intangibles and heart over ruthless order since Thermopylae. A wrister, topshelf, fired straight into the logic center of statheads everywhere. But, let’s be real, Gordon Bombay ignored the pre-shot phone call from his heart. Coach was thinking with another body part. And, given the circumstances, it was the only option he had.

Bombay’s motives, rooted in arrested development and lustful self-interest are merely hinted at, this is still a Disney movie. So we’re sold a universal underdog story: “All Charlie really needed was a chance. All any of us really need is a chance”. Disney dictates this explicitly, but, on another level, the movie shows how willing we all are to ignore the non-sports related circumstances surrounding some of the most important sports-related decisions since the dawn of ESPN and 24 hour (or so) sports coverage.

So much is thrown at us by this narrative machine: human interest stories that never happened; manufactured debates; stats and stats and stats; we start to lose sight of what makes sports this crazy little thing we love. Sometimes its nice to look at our favorite sports figures in human terms.

The Mighty Ducks endures because it offers a simple series of binary moments woven together into a narrative. It’s essentially the tale of one’s man’s redemption, told to us through newspaper stories, radio play-by-play and TV style shots, framed within the story of a peewee hockey season. We don’t know every variable, but it's a Disney version of sports that's still more complete than the version of sports we get from Disney’s version of a sports company today. It’s provided a background for an entire generation of sports fans to think about fate, fair play and figure skating hockey players.

***

Back in The Old Days, the bars stayed open. A man piled his money in front of his chair, chugged a few pints, and screamed at the guy next to him until he passed out. This is why the best public houses have strong barbacks and tiny beds in the rafters. Today those beds are wasted. The pubs close early. Everyone’s bored and sober. Smart phones and advanced analytics have killed the bar argument.

Which is why questions like “what if” and “do you think” now make the best barroom debate topics. These are the debates that will save the drinking industry, those which can’t be won by spinning around three times while shouting “Nate Silver”. These moments exist in an alternate timeline that Silver has not (yet) managed to access data from, as, despite what the dude at the bar rocking the vintage Gordon Bombay Hawks jersey tells you, nothing in The Mighty Ducks ever actually happened.

So no one has (yet) taken the time to chart the home/road splits of the Oreo Line, to discover whether Fulton Reed’s 1-out-of-5 shooting percentage continued in power play situations, or calculated how many win shares a full season of Russ Tyler disguised as Goldberg would have produced. The debates rage on:

What if Frankie Boy didn’t go for the ‘W’?” “What if Reilly's collar didn't pop?” “What if Gunnar Stahl had gone blocker side?

Again, because these are movies, the fates of all these people were sealed long before any of these things happened. Bombay took a drunken joyride toward redemption. The Hawks were going to look stylish doing anything it takes to win no matter what. Gunnar Stahl’s hubris was typical of the imperialistic Icelandic society he grew up in.

But, if we look hard enough, the factors leading to Conway’s fateful shot play out on screen. To the winners go the narrative control (especially when the game’s a Disney movie). The inordinate amount of media covering the Ducks heaped extra praise on friendly-neighborhood-drunk Bombay, while subtly ignoring that Gordo’s choice was centered around the time-honored strategy of giving the deciding shot to the spazzy kid because you’re banging his mom.

Bombay’s coaching-as-courtship strategy reveals a truth about executive decisions. The men in charge are humans, capable of love and superstition and fear. Sometimes they appear to ignore their brains; often they’re thinking beyond the moment. And so the stories are written, but we’ll always ask, what if?

***

While the machinations behind a choice can be as simple as trying appease Charlie’s mom, the same type of decisions can occur under greater pressure, such as that applied from Mother Russia during the Cold War.

Now, Gordon Bombay is no Viktor Tikhonov and, despite the more fitting name, Greg Goldberg is no Vladislav Tretiak. Tretiak was the best goalie in the world. Goldberg was serviceable, but no one seemed overly concerned that he was perpetually threatening to move back to Philly. Yet, like Goldberg, Tretiak sat on the bench in an iconic international moment. Tikhonov pulled Tretiak for Vladimir Myshkin, after Mark Johnson’s end-of-the-first period goal tied the Miracle on Ice at two.

The Americans rallied in the third period, won 4-3 and wrote history. Tikhonov confessed in Wayne Coffey’s enjoyable book, “Boys of Winter,” that benching Tretiak was the biggest mistake of his life, one rooted in emotions. But, again, this was the Cold War. As the old saying goes, “In Soviet Russia, silver medal wear you.”

When the Reds returned home without the gold, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev reportedly acted as if the loss never happened. Pravda didn’t report on the game at all. This being the Soviet Union, this fingers-in-the ear, “I can’t hear you” denial was likely more lenient than any scenario kicking around Tikhonov's mind on the flight back to Moscow.

But, maybe, if he leaves Tretiak in - or Myshkin shuts the door like he did against the NHL All-Stars, a year earlier at Madison Square Garden - there are statues to Tikhonov in Red Square, the Russians win the Cold War and you’re reading this column over a bowl of borscht, comrade.

***

The funny thing is, if Adam Banks wasn’t completely immobilized, Bombay wouldn’t have had a chance at transcendence. If Banks wins the game, it’s the story of this gerrymandered Gretzky, a cake eater who taught the unwashed peewee proletariat how to win. In this timeline, Bombay’s no miracle man, he just rode the rich kid.

When Coach Reilly did what any good youth coach would do and sent a loyal, prematurely-developed goon to cripple the other team’s best player, he took fate out of the equation. He made Bombay choose. Without Banks, left to his own stunted devices, Bombay would choke.

You’re not just letting me down...

The Hawks didn’t earn all those banners by being lucky. Reilly made the right call. With Banks out, Bombay wilted in front of his childhood tormentor and reverted back to the scared failure who clanged the post and ruined his life.

You’re letting the whole team down.

Bombay was stuck thinking like the hormonal teenager he never evolved past. There remained a logical choice.

You’re not even a has-been,

Guy Germaine was the sweet creme at the center of the Oreo Line, with a name just French Canadian enough to relish the gravity of the moment. He was the first, and only, choice of every player on the bench, including Charlie Conway.

You’re a never-was.

But Charlie Conway took the shot and Charlie Conway won the game. Gordon Bombay, disgraced lawyer/failure, is reborn as the The Minnesota Miracle Man. Had he spent hours in the film room, until finally discovering an exploitable weakness in the Hawks’ black-and-blue Mike Richter that only Conway’s fall-on-your face grit could exploit? No. The only thing he had in common with great coaches in that great moment was an affinity for MILFs.

If Charlie takes the shot and misses, Bombay’s still a never-was. District 5 lives to lose another day. But Coach is still coming over Charlie’s house that night for spaghetti.

***

After his hockey career ended, rumors flew that Bombay had turned farmer. Grady Little actually was a cotton farmer before his managerial career took off. I am not certain what this means, but in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, Little, with the chains of 86 Octobers dragging behind every decision, Little clanged the post on his own Charlie Conway moment. In the failure’s aftermath, he revealed how much he understood what that meant.

“Just add one more ghost to the list if I’m not there,” he said. “Because there are ghosts. That’s certainly evident when you’re a player in that uniform.”

And Pedro Martinez, the man he left in the game with 120 pitches to face Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada, didn’t believe in curses. On the off chance a ghost did show up, he’d appreciate the opportunity to throw a baseball at its ass. He was a guy you trust with everything on the line, Peter Venkman with a changeup.

Forget playing the percentages, forget pitch counts. Logic doesn’t apply when we’re dealing with the undead. Of course, the Yankees rallied and the ghosts lived for another year. Legacies were etched in stone for Aaron Boone and Grady Little. But what if Little had been crushing on Alan Embree’s mom? What if he didn’t believe in the Ghosts of Playoffs Past? What is Little’s legacy? Is Little the one selling a book about his Red Sox Years today?

Like Grady’s Sox, Bombay’s Mighty Ducks didn’t skate in a sandlot. They played in a microcosm of our media-saturated sports society; in District 5 of a Minneapolis whose peewee hockey results were front page news; a Hunger Games in print, where lives were ruined before puberty. Remember, Mike Modano, from Michigan, a whole state away, was aware of Bombay’s rumored second career.

***

But Bombay isn’t remembered as a farmer, a lawyer, or even a MILF Hunter. And the key decision that exorcised his demons, affirmed his career and (eventually) led to some vaguely lucrative position with the Goodwill Games, was shrouded in personal motives. His legacy is written, but the debates rage on.

Some of us believe in voodoo. Some believe in love. Some even believe in their government. Some of these people are coaching our favorite teams. There are games played in people’s heads while the games are played on the fields. Questions are asked. Questions that can’t be answered with reason, because people aren’t always reasonable.

Was it was an off day for Tretiak or off to the gulag for Tekhonov? What if Grady Little didn’t fear ghosts? Was Bombay really just trying to bang our moms? What if Guy took the shot? The doors stay open. Everyone wins. Tip your bartenders.


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