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Brooks architect of a miracle by design

Monday, 11.13.2006 / 12:00 AM ET / News
New Jersey Devils
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Brooks architect of a miracle by design

Phil Coffey | Editorial Director

Former Devils’ head coach Herb Brooks doesn't need a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame to validate one of the legendary careers in coaching. But no one will argue that enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame tonight isn't the icing on the cake.

Unfortunately for the hockey world, Brooks will not be on hand to accept his place among the game's greats with the rest of the Class of 2006, having passed away far too soon in an automobile accident Aug. 11, 2003. He was just 66.

Brooks, who spent seemingly every waking moment of his professional life behind the bench at a hockey rink, remains an American icon. His legendary status stems from the 1980 Winter Olympics, when Team USA upset the mighty Soviet Union on the way to the gold medal.

The triumph, labeled "The Miracle on Ice," has been memorialized in photos, words and film throughout the years, with Hollywood heavy-hitter Kurt Russell playing Brooks in the movie Miracle.

The "Miracle on Ice" was the result of a lot of hard work and planning by Brooks, his staff and players. Brooks put a lot into the player selection for that Olympic team and was a tough, stern taskmaster who succeeded in getting his players to think a game against the vaunted Soviets was easier than another session of "Herbies" on the practice rink.

In the weeks leading up to the 1980 Games, Brooks’ team had been crushed by the same Soviet squad in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, 10-3, and Team USA was given precious little chance when it came up against a seasoned group of Russian players led by Vladislav Tretiak, Alexander Maltsev, Vladimir Petrov, Vasili Vasiliev, Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Slava Fetisov on Feb. 22, 1980.

But Brooks inspired his players with tough love and fiery oratory. The unexpected win against the Soviets that followed produced a frenzy of patriotic fervor in the United States, which had been wracked by inflation, plus foreign and domestic woes at the time.

The performance of the 1980 U.S. squad, virtual unknowns at the time, gave the country a needed shot in the arm.

But as Brooks often pointed out, beating the Soviets didn’t earn Team USA an Olympic medal. That came a couple days later when Brooks got his squad regrouped and led them to a win against Finland that brought home the improbable gold medal.

Al Michaels' call on ABC Sports in the waning seconds of the win against the Soviets – “Do you believe in miracles? … Yes!” – helped cement the “Miracle on Ice” nickname and made the 1980 squad a legend and its coach an icon for the powers of tough love and innovation.

"He was very single-minded -- a person who looked right down the tunnel and knew exactly what he had to do," Michaels told the Associated Press after Brooks died. "He was never caught up in the afterglow. Here's a guy that helped do something that galvanized the entire country, and he wasn't interested in parades or any attention. Just a few weeks after this, he decides to go and coach in Switzerland."

Glib and articulate in public, Brooks carried a much sterner reputation as a coach, especially with the 1980 Olympians, where he was regarded as a dictator who kept his players honed to a fine edge.

A favorite Brooks’ phrase was "You're playing worse and worse every day and right now you're playing like it's next month."

He had several memorable confrontations with his players, confrontations that served to bring the team closer together at the cost of pushing Brooks to the outside. In Brooks’ mind, if the players viewed him as the enemy, that was fine and dandy.

Brooks had correctly judged his players in 1980, knowing they had the talent and mental toughness to succeed.

"The players had big egos, but they didn't have ego problems,” Brooks said years after the win. “That's why all-star teams traditionally seem to self-destruct. We didn't."

"When it came to hockey, he was ahead of his time," said Ken Morrow, a stalwart defenseman for the 1980 team who went on to a successful NHL career with the New York Islanders. "All of his teams overachieved because Herbie understood how to get the best out of each player and make him part of a team. And like everyone who played for him, I became a better person because I played for Herb Brooks."

During his career, Brooks proved to be wise enough to change tactics with the times. When he coached the 2002 U.S. team to a silver medal at the Salt Lake City Games, Brooks’ players -- all NHL stars -- lauded his coaching and approach, one that was a marked difference from 1980.

In a departure from the mainstream that also marked Brooks’ career, he coached France in the 1998 Winter Olympics.

“At all levels of the game, including college hockey, Olympic hockey and the National Hockey League, Herb Brooks was a consummate teacher, an unparalleled motivator and an unquestioned innovator,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “The strength of hockey in the United States is a testament to Herb Brooks and the historic Olympic triumph in 1980. However, there was so much more to him than that glorious moment at Lake Placid. Herb was a tireless supporter of USA Hockey players and programs, a relentless advocate of the speed and beauty of our game."

Brooks was a fixture for USA Hockey and was involved as a player and coach throughout his life. He was the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in Squaw Valley, but played for the 1964 and 1968 U.S. teams.

Brooks also played for five U.S. national teams (1961, ‘62, ‘65, ‘67, ‘70) and was the team coach in 1979.

Brooks began his NHL coaching career with the New York Rangers in 1981, where he reached the 100-victory plateau faster than any coach in team history. He remained behind the Rangers’ bench until Jan. 21, 1985. He left the Rangers with a 131-113-41 record and a 12-12 record in 24 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Brooks also coached the Minnesota North Stars in 1987-88, posting a 19-48-13 record. In 1992-93, Brooks coached the New Jersey Devils to a 40-37-7 record.  The Devils fell to the Penguins in five games in the first round of the playoffs that year.  Brooks coached the Utica Devils (AHL) during the 1991-92 season.

He returned to the NHL with Pittsburgh for the 1999-2000 season, taking over for Kevin Constantine on Dec. 9, 1999 and posting a 29-23-5 mark. In the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Brooks led the Penguins to a series win against Washington before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round.

Perhaps no one in hockey knew Brooks better than former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Craig Patrick, who assisted Brooks in 1980 and then was his GM when he coached the Rangers and Penguins.

"I knew him for 30 years -- we played together, we coached together, we worked together," Patrick said. "Herbie lived the game and he loved the game. Herb Brooks was synonymous with American hockey, and those of us lucky enough to be around him learned something from him every day."

Brooks also achieved great success at the college level.

He led the University of Minnesota -- where he earned three letters as a player -- to three NCAA Division I titles (1974, ‘76 and ’79) during his seven seasons as head coach. In fact, he is the only college coach to lead a team comprised of only U.S.-born players to the NCAA title.

In NCAA tournament play, Brooks compiled an 8-1 record with the Golden Gophers, an .889 winning percentage that is the highest in NCAA history.

Among his many personal honors, Brooks was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990 and the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1999. He also won the Lester Patrick Award for service to hockey in the United States as both a member of the 1980 Olympic squad and as an individual.

"He orchestrated the greatest sports moment of the century, that's enough right there," said Mike Eruzione, captain of the '80 Olympic team. "In my opinion, he should go down as one of the greatest coaches we have ever had."