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- March 10, 1980
- Vol. 13
- No. 10
A Solitary Soul on Ice, Coach Herb Brooks Drove His Young Olympians to Glory
It was a coldly logical reaction, and Herb Brooks brought the same unemotional approach to his task as U.S. Olympic hockey coach last month in Lake Placid. TV viewers marveled at his poker face as his young team came from behind in game after game. But when they won the gold medal, setting off a surge of almost manic euphoria among Americans desperate for triumphs, Coach Brooks melted, if only briefly. "Fathers and mothers love their children," he said, "as I love this hockey team."
He could have fooled most of his players during their astonishing drive to the Olympic championship. His affection was neither evident nor reciprocated.
The players, in fact, made fun (behind his back) of Brooks' penchant for florid—and not always coherent—metaphors. One example was his locker room advice: "A really good hunter will go up to a tiger and spit in his eye before he shoots him. A unique athlete will also walk up to the tiger, spit in his eye and then shoot him."
A do-it-my-way disciplinarian, Brooks was coolly paternalistic about the team, an attitude that was criticized by players and reporters alike when he refused to let them get together until after the fifth game. "I preach the family concept," he explained testily. "It's a rule—it's been a rule from Day One and will be from Day Two. You can't have a star system." The grumbling came from the prospective pros among his players, who knew their careers could benefit from Olympic image-building.
One was goalie Jim Craig, of North Easton, Mass., a hero of the upset victory over the Soviet Union. "I've played for him for six months," said Craig of Brooks, "and I still don't understand him. He drives me crazy." Team captain Mike Eruzione from Winthrop, Mass. was more understanding: "He keeps to himself off the ice, but he's the best coach I've ever had."
Brooks nearly walked out of one press conference when a reporter suggested he was monopolizing the spotlight. The coach stopped only when someone loudly asked him about his temper tantrum: "Are you going to do this when you're in the National Hockey League?" Still, Brooks never explained nor defended his sometimes hard-headed coaching methods. "I'd cut my own brother to make a better hockey club," he said.
Born in St. Paul, Minn., the son of an insurance underwriter, Brooks was the oldest of three children. He started playing hockey "when I was 4 or 5 on ponds near my home." A standout player in high school, he attended the University of Minnesota partially on an athletic scholarship and graduated in 1962 with a degree in psychology.
"It's been useful," he says now. "I've got to be able to put myself in my players' shoes and feel what they're feeling. At the same time, I don't want to get too close to them, to get to know one if I can't know them all."
After failing to make the 1960 Olympics ("I sat in a bar and watched it on television, yelling like Archie Bunker"), Brooks did play on the 1964 and 1968 teams, neither of which won a medal. In 1969 he began looking ahead to another Olympics. "I was playing, raising a family and trying to sell insurance," he recalls. "My boss took me aside and said he thought I was biting off more than I could chew. He said that even if I made the team, I'd just be repeating myself."
That same year Brooks was offered a job as assistant hockey coach at Minnesota, and in 1972 he became head coach. In seven years Brooks' hockey teams—combining the rugged, "play the body" style of North American pros with the Europeans' fluid movement—have won three national championships. That record helps explain why eight of the 20 players on the Olympic squad were from Minnesota, a ratio that miffed some Eastern colleges. Among those players not selected was the top 1979 U.S. college scorer, Ralph Cox, of the University of New Hampshire.
"Herb picked the kind of player who would go along with his system," says a colleague. Adds Brooks, who knew he would have to return to his Minnesota players after Lake Placid, "I'm not going to cut my own throat."
After assembling the Olympic team in tryouts last summer, Brooks put his young players through a 60-game schedule in the five months leading up to Lake Placid. When they were ravaged 10-3 by the Soviets at Madison Square Garden the week before the Olympics, he was hardly encouraged. "We were in awe of them," he says. "When they came out on the ice, our players were applauding. I knew we were in trouble."
Against the Russians in Lake Placid, though, it was a different story. The day before the game goalie Craig said, "Coach, you just wait. You haven't seen it yet." In the locker room minutes before the opening face-off, Brooks delivered a Knute Rockne-like message: "You are born to be a player," he said, reading from notes he had scribbled. "You are meant to be here at this time. This is your moment."
While it's unlikely anyone believed that pep talk—including Brooks himself—he was spectacularly prescient. As the U.S. defeated the Soviets 4-3, Brooks' brother David, 39, himself an ex-Olympic hockey player, stood up in the stands and screamed, "Twenty years! It's been 20 years! Enjoy it—it may be 20 more!"
Even America's almost forgotten hero, Eric Heiden, winner of five gold medals in speed skating and a prospective hockey player himself, said it was the greatest victory in the history of sports. Brooks replied: "I just hope he doesn't pick up a stick and play for the University of Wisconsin." (Heiden is from Madison, Wis.)
If anyone agonized as much at Lake Placid as Brooks and his players, it was the coach's wife, Patti, 38, and their two children, Dan, 12, and Kelly, 8. "My wife doesn't understand hockey," Herb jokes, "because she's from South Dakota." But Patti sat in a special section across from the U.S. bench every game, following the action intently. Patti was a nurse at a St. Paul hospital in 1964 when Herb came in with a broken arm suffered in a rough hockey game. "When you see something that's fairly young and male," Patti recalls, "you immediately check his chart for marital status." They began going out and were married within a year. He has had some difficulty remembering the date. He once woke up to wish his wife happy anniversary—only to discover it was her birthday. "If I can put up with him for 15 years," she says lovingly, "I can put up with anything."
Though Brooks has devoted his adult years to hockey, he does not confuse life with sport. He is, for instance, outspokenly in favor of boycotting the Summer Olympics in Moscow—"If the winter games were there, we wouldn't have reported," he says. But then he adds, "I think our way of life is best. But we don't have to prove it's better through a hockey game. I think the players realize that and keep things in perspective. I've told them that athletics is a very small part of the world."
Brooks, who earns $30,000 a year at Minnesota, has been offered several pro coaching jobs at probably double the salary. He turned down the Minnesota North Stars in 1978 because he wanted a three-year contract but recently has talked coaching with five teams from the NHL. Brooks explains his desire to move into the pros with typical logic. "How'd you like to put your wife and children's future into the hands of 18-year-olds?" he asks.
One former hockey executive who is also a friend of Brooks wonders about his decision. "He's got tremendous confidence in himself," says the friend, "but he's so intense. How would he get along with pros who aren't intimidated by him like those kids seemed to be?"
For now, Brooks says he will head home to Turtle Lake, 20 minutes from downtown St. Paul. "I've got to pull some things together," he says. "The bank is getting nervous. I'm like the average guy on the street. I've got bills to pay." He also wants to spend more time with his family, who have seen little of him since last summer. "The first thing I'm going to do when I get home," he vowed at Lake Placid, "is take a big run at my wife."
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