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A Reminder of What We Can Be
E.M. Swift
February 21, 1994
The stirring upset victory by the 1980 U.S. hockey team, recounted in this SI Classic, made those Olympians our Sportsmen of the Year
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February 21, 1994

A Reminder Of What We Can Be

The stirring upset victory by the 1980 U.S. hockey team, recounted in this SI Classic, made those Olympians our Sportsmen of the Year

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Bull. In the 1979 Challenge Cup the Soviets skated rings around the NHL All-Stars late in the games. The Russians can do Herbies till the cows come home. They skate as hard in the last shift of a game as they do in the first, and it has nothing to do with emotion or adrenaline. They have always been the best-conditioned hockey players in the world.

Peter Stastny, the Czechoslovakian Olympic star who defected last summer to the NHL's Quebec Nordiques, says the one thing that most shocked the international hockey community about the performance of the young Americans (average age: 22) was their conditioning. The Soviets had always been at one level, with everybody else at a level below. Suddenly here are a bunch of Americans, for heaven's sake, whom the Russians are huffing and puffing to keep up with in the third period. Who are those guys? In the seven games played in the Olympics, the U.S. team was outscored nine goals to six in the first period but outscored its opponents 16-3 in the third. What got into them? Steroids?

Herbies.

"It's a selling job," says Brooks. "When you want to push people who are living a good life in an affluent society, you have to do a selling job." The sales pitch went like this: Skate or you're off the team. You're gone. No pro contract. No big money. Gone.

In his own words, Brooks was "smart enough to know I was dumb." How do you get a hockey player in shape the way the Russians were in shape? Nobody knew, not in the hockey world. So Brooks went to coaches of track and swimming—areas in which American athletes have been trained to compete successfully on the international level—and found out about anaerobics, flexibility exercises, underloading, overloading, pulse rates, the works. Then he transferred this information to his players, who, because they were educated, because they were open-minded, were willing to listen. Willing to give it a try. Sure, we'll run up and down that hill to the Holiday Inn after practices. Sure. We'll do another Herbie. Twenty-five minutes of sprints today without pucks? Sure, we'll do it. And for six months they hated Brooks's guts.

There was a moment of truth for this team. A moment when they became one. It was back in September 1979 when they were playing a game in Norway. It ended in a 4-4 tie, and Brooks, to say the least, was dissatisfied. "We're going to skate sometime today," he told them afterward. Then he sent them back onto the ice.

Forward Dave Silk recalls it this way: "There were 30 or 40 people still in the stands. First they thought we were putting on a skating exhibition, and they cheered. After a while they realized the coach was mad at us for not playing hard, and they booed. Then they got bored and left. Then the workers got bored, and they turned off the lights."

Doing Herbies in the dark...it's terrifying. But they did them. Schneider happened to have been thrown out of the game, and he had already changed into his street clothes. He was watching in horror as his teammates went up and back, up and back. Again and again and again. But instead of feeling reprieved, he felt guilty. "Should I get my skates on, Patty?" he asked assistant coach Craig Patrick. "Cool it, Buzz," Patrick replied.

It ended at last, and Brooks had the players coast slowly around the rink so that the lactic acid could work itself out of their muscles. And that was when forward Mark Johnson broke his stick over the boards. Mark Johnson, who made the team go. Mark Johnson, who was its hardest worker, its smartest player. Mark Johnson, whom Brooks never, ever had to yell at. And you know what Brooks said—screamed—after skating those kids within an inch of their lives? "If I ever see a kid hit a stick on the boards again, I'll skate you till you die!" They believed him. And they would have died, just to spite him. Says Silk, "I can remember times when I was so mad at him I tried to skate so hard I'd collapse, so I could say to him, "See what you did?' " But they weren't an all-star team anymore. They were together in this, all for one. And Brooks was the enemy. And don't think he didn't know it. It was a lonely year by design, all right.

"He knew exactly where to quit," says John Harrington, a forward whose place on the team was never secure. "He'd push you right to the limit where you were ready to say, 'I've had it. I'm throwing it in'—and then he'd back off."

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