Herb Brooks: American Hero
He may be the most influential coach ever to live, yet until a recent movie brought him back into the spotlight, the average American did not even know his name. Although it is easy to take a snapshot in time and appreciate it as just that, the story of Herb Brooks began a long time before 1980, and his legend continued to grow long after the conclusion of those Winter Games.
“The strength of hockey in the United States is a testament to Herb Brooks and the historic Olympic triumph in 1980,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said shortly after Brooks’ recent death. Herb Brooks’ life abruptly ended on August 11, 2003. He fell asleep at the wheel on his way home from scouting players for the Pittsburgh Penguins north of Minneapolis (Kovacevic).
The triumph Bettman refers to, of course, is the incredible run of the 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey team, a group of inexperienced college kids who shocked the world by winning gold against some of the best players in the world. The hockey world will never forget Brooks for the way he led, prodded, and pulled his team to victory. The “Miracle on Ice,” as it is referred to, was no miracle, though. It was a long time coming for a coach who poured his life and soul into the team he coached.
Brooks was born in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, a town near St. Paul. Though Brooks was best known as a coach, as a young man he was an excellent player himself. He tasted success for the first time at a very early age. The Johnson High School hockey team that he played on as a senior won the state championship in 1955. After graduation from Johnson High School, Brooks attended the University of Minnesota until 1959. At the “U,” as he came to know it, Brooks would continue his hockey career, garnering three varsity letters in his time there.
Shortly after completion of college, Brooks became a member of the 1960 US Olympic Ice Hockey team. This experience gave him the drive and desire that paved the way for the rest of Brooks’ career. He sincerely hoped that he would be able to play, but as the Olympic Games drew near, he found that he would not be able to achieve his goal. The coach had to trim the roster down to meet the maximum player allotment for the Games, and Brooks was the very last player cut. That team would go on to win a gold medal, while Herb Brooks could do nothing but observe. He never gave up, though. Four years later Brooks stayed in the lineup, four years after that he was named captain of the team. The 1968 games would essentially spell the end for Brooks as a player, however.
Although he continued playing for several years, Brooks found his real niche in life in 1972. By this time, Brooks was a bit too old to keep playing at a high level. What made him such a great player, though, was his innate ability to lead. This ability, he found, would translate excellently to coaching. A good coach has the ability to gather respect from his players, and use that respect to move everyone toward a common goal. From the very outset of his coaching career, Brooks would prove himself extremely adept in this area.
When the University of Minnesota decided to hire Herb Brooks as their new hockey coach in 1972, they probably thought of him as a work in progress. He was a great player and leader on the ice, but those attributes don’t necessarily translate well to coaching with no previous experience behind the bench. In addition, the team that Brooks was given had finished dead last in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association a year earlier. Two years later, Brooks brought home an NCAA Division-I National Championship for his alma mater. Hockey fans now realize that with Brooks as a coach, it is prudent to expect the unexpected.
“Herb Brooks’ tremendous ability to lead was surpassed only by his brilliance as a hockey strategist,” said Lou Vairo, an assistant coach of Brooks’ during the 2002 Olympic Games.
Although he was a champion already, Brooks was never satisfied. His Minnesota teams would win two more championships in the seven years he coached there. Eventually he compiled a 165-96-18 record as the University’s coach. He still holds the highest all-time NCAA tournament winning percentage with eight wins and 1 loss, and became the only coach to lead an NCAA Division-I team to a National Championship without a single foreign player (Complete Herb Brooks Bio). Eventually he became known for coaching with a “prickly personality and fanatical preparation.” It was not unusual for Brooks to single out a player if he thought it would motivate them to play at a higher level. He would prepare for games incessantly, but not by watching films of other teams. “Those who spent time with him on the ice said he could watch five minutes of a practice and perform a comprehensive evaluation of a player,” (Kovacevic) He liked to believe his players had the innate ability to win. It was just a matter of playing to their potential. His success with the Golden Gophers of the University of Minnesota soon vaulted him into a position coaching the long-shot 1980 US Men’s Olympic Ice Hockey team.
Today, Olympic teams are filled with the biggest stars from around the world, but the team Brooks was hired to coach stands in stark contrast. The team was composed entirely of kids in college or fresh out of it, while European rosters were dotted with experienced professional stars. As a result, Brooks “held numerous tryout camps, which included psychological testing, before selecting a roster from among several hundred prospects” (Fitzpatrick). After tryouts, the team spent about a year and a half under the tutelage of Brooks. Brooks, who knew that the US team had no chance of matching the talent of European players, emphasized conditioning and discipline. Consequently, the time his players spent with him was somewhat grueling both mentally and physically. Several players also still held grudges from past college games, and Brooks often united them against himself. He knew that before his players could play for him, they must first be able to play with each other as a team. He continually asked them if they wanted it enough, and several confrontations ended in shouting matches (Fitzpatrick). At some points it seemed it might be a struggle just to keep his players playing for him.
“He messed with our minds at every opportunity,” said forward Mike Ramsey.
As the 1980 Olympics neared, Brooks’ team was looking competitive. They were fast enough and conditioned enough to skate with anyone, even if the talent wasn’t there. In the opening round the team struggled a bit at first against Sweden, but beat Czechoslovakia 7-3. Consecutive victories against Norway, Romania, and Germany sent the team into a semifinal match-up with the USSR, a favorite to win the gold medal. The Soviet team was made up of veterans in their prime, including Vladislav Tretiak, considered to be the best goaltender in the world. In addition, the whole nation was looking to this team for some kind of hope during a time when everything looked bleak. The Cold War was in full force. Fuel prices were skyrocketing because of supposed shortages. Tensions were high between nations, especially the United States and the Soviet Union. Brooks knew he had to say something before the game to get his players to relax and realize their potential.
“You were meant to be here,” he said. “This moment is yours.”
In sixty minutes, one of the hardest fought hockey games in history was over. The United States came out on top. Two days and one championship game later, the Americans were standing on the winner’s podium with gold medals around their necks. The nation’s youth watched it happen, and a sudden exponential growth in hockey interest developed. Given this sudden surge in interest for hockey, it is no wonder that Brooks and his team would win the 1980 Lester Patrick Award, given for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.
After his incredible success with the Olympic team, Brooks was hired as head coach of the New York Rangers of the NHL. His winning ways didn’t falter. He was named 1982 NHL Coach of the Year by his peers in his first year of coaching, and soon reached 100 wins faster than any coach in franchise history. He continued coaching the Rangers until 1985. His NHL coaching career also took him to Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh.
Partway through the 1999-2000 season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brooks stepped in as head coach. With 29 wins (including his 200th as head coach), Herb guided yet another team into the playoffs (Kovacevic). The Penguins would eventually exit in the second round of playoffs, and Brooks decided to retire permanently. He said he wanted to spend time with his family, but many believe that the players, with their gigantic egos, had driven him away. He remained in a scouting and player development capacity with the Penguins for the rest of his career, even spurning a million dollar deal to coach the Rangers in 2002.
Tragically, Brooks’ life would come to an untimely end shortly after the Penguins named him Director of Player Development in the organization. Disney Studios recently chronicled the inspirational story of his 1980 Olympic hockey team in its’ 2003 movie, Miracle. Brooks was extremely honored to be depicted on screen. In support of the film, he talked several times with movie star Kurt Russell, who portrays Brooks on the big screen. He passed away too soon to see the picture made. The movie, seen by thousands of children who have only heard mention of the great “Miracle on Ice,” will probably inspire still more children to play hockey for the first time.
In regard to his 1980 Hockey team, Brooks once said, “We are the makers of dreams, the dreamers of dreams. We should be dreaming. We grew up as kids having dreams, but now we’re too sophisticated as adults, as a nation. We stopped dreaming. We should always have dreams. I’m a dreamer.” Indeed, it was Brooks’ dream which inspired thousands of kids to lace up their skates for the first time. All great coaches aid the success of their own teams, but it is a select few who aid in the growth of their very sport. His contributions to the growth of hockey make him possibly the most influential coach in history.
“Complete Herb Brooks Bio.” USAHockey.com. 8 Feb. 2006
Fitzpatrick, Jamie. “Miracle on Ice: American Hockey’s Defining Moment.” About.com.
Kovacevic, Dejan. “Brooks Dies in Crash.” Pittsburgh Post Gazette 12 August 2003: A1.