A fountain of youth
Herb Brooks had the uncanny ability to make us feel young
Posted: Monday August 18, 2003 9:29PM; Updated: Monday August 18, 2003 9:31PM
Herb Brooks, as we are reminded by the saddened but appreciative voices that echo today from all reaches of the hockey world, was a remarkable innovator. And we remember in the same thought that he was a motivator of extraordinary and unpredictable methods. As a coach he would gauge the tenor of his men (his boys, really) almost daily. In 1980, before sending out his unheralded U.S. band against the great Soviet Union team in the semifinals of the Olympics he told his squad, "This is your moment. You're meant to be here."
And then, a day later, with that magical era-defining upset behind him, Brooks talked to his team before the gold medal game against Finland. "You can't win this," he said. "You're too young. Too damn young."
The U.S. did win, of course, and that exhortation was classic Brooks: paradoxical, winking and liberating all at once. The words resound too, because Brooks, who was killed in a car accident on Monday at age 66, was about the youngest man I've ever met. By the time I got to know him a bit he was in his 60s, but the way his eyes glittered when he was around a hockey rink belied his age.
I remember sitting with Brooks in his office, in late December 1999, not long after he'd taken over as coach of the Jaromir Jagr-controlled Penguins. It was a job Brooks didn't even want, and when the season ended he would relinquish it. Yet he seized the team with all his gusto. "I want speed, and excitement and I want our players to go out there and have the times of their lives," Brooks said to me that day. "We're not going to be hanging around waiting for something to happen. We're going to make things happen ourselves."
It was a familiar refrain from the wide-open minded Brooks, and it recalled scenes of the 1980 U.S. team, shorthanded yet charging forward into the opponent's zone. The Penguins, rich in skilled forwards, loved the coach's philosophy, too. "Herbie has us skating all the time, all over the ice," Pittsburgh center Robert Lang told me that season. "There's much more movement than before. That's fun for us."
Pittsburgh rallied under Brooks, and came back from a lousy start to close the season 29-23-5 and finish over .500. The Penguins also won their first-round playoff series. It was a welcome NHL success for Brooks, whose career coaching record with the Penguins, North Stars, Devils and Rangers added up to just 219-221-66. He found it was sometimes tough to get rich professionals to respond, but Brooks was unyielding. "If they don't skate hard, they're off the team, no more big paycheck," he would say.
It's hard, however, to cut a Jagr -- or, say, an overpaid Ranger -- and in his later years behind the bench, Brooks had to deal with indifference far more often than he could stand.
In the amateur ranks he was as good and impactful a coach as there was. He won three national titles at the University of Minnesota in the1970s. USA Hockey brought him back to coach the Olympic team in 2002 and during the Salt Lake Games the light in his eyes never dimmed. He was a scout for Pittsburgh then, and as the U.S. prepared to play mighty Canada and its captain, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, Brooks noted: "Well, Mario is my boss, so I'd just like to say I think Canada is a really great team."
You could have closed your eyes at the practice rink in Salt Lake City and recognized that the U.S. squad was a Brooks-coached team. You would have known by the swooshing of the skates, the steady breeze of players gamboling all over the rink. The team was ready and thrilling when the games began, and Brooks' style played well on the wide ice surface of the international game. A 6-0 win over Finland in the opening game sparked America's interest in Olympic hockey the way it hadn't been sparked in decades.
The U.S. won silver in '02, eventually losing to Canada. But you couldn't take your eyes off the American team as it glided to the gold-medal game. Brooks brought us back 22 years to 1980 and made America fall in love with hockey once more. Following the '02 team suddenly made you a little boy again, watching the family TV, clutching your own hockey stick, jumping up and down on springy couch and learning to believe in miracles.
Brooks did it again in Salt Lake City. He bestowed once more the great gift that he gave time and again to hockey fans over the years. Herb Brooks made us feel young. What a sorry day it is now that he is gone.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.