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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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For Brooks, the trick was knowing where that limit was for every player. They may have been a team, but they were still 20 different personalities. The first time Brooks saw Silk skate at the Colorado Springs training camp, he took him aside and said, "I don't know if you can't skate or you won't skate, but I intend to find out." Silk had been an All-America at Boston University and had the reputation of playing his best in the biggest games. Brooks wanted him on the Olympic team, but he knew that Silk needed more speed. So he promised to ride him, to embarrass him, to rant and rave at him all season. And even then, Brooks implied, he'd probably be too slow. For three months Brooks gave Silk not one single word of encouragement. Silk, you're too damn slow! Then one day in practice the team was warming up, skating around the rink, when Silk heard, "Keep at it, your skating's getting better." He looked around and saw Brooks. "He never even looked at me," Silk says. "He kind of whispered it on the way by. It made me feel so good I wanted to skate around and holler."

When Brooks was at Minnesota, he had an unofficial rule against facial hair. He would have liked a clean-shaven Olympic team too. Trouble was, Ken Morrow, the team's steadiest defenseman, a gentle giant who minded his own business, happened to have a beard already. He'd had one in college, and he rather liked it. And the New York Islanders rather liked Morrow. So rather than risk pushing Morrow too far, rather than risk having the little matter of a beard be the straw that sent Morrow to the big money six months ahead of his teammates, Brooks came up with a rule custom-made to keep Morrow around. Anyone who had had a beard before training camp could keep it. It was new growth that was a no-no.

Brooks treated Johnson differently too. Johnson is a competitor, one of those rare players who finds the puck on his stick all night. He is absolutely dedicated to hockey and was dedicated to the team—a leader by example. Yet until September, Johnson had no idea where he stood. No one did—Brooks had an ax over everyone's head. But Brooks took Johnson aside shortly after the Skate Till You Die episode and told him, "You're the guy who's going to make or break us. When you're really playing, our whole team gets better."

"It was a real shocker," Johnson recalls. "I was just worried about making the club, and he throws a curve like that at you. What can you say? You take a big gulp and swallow it down."

Craig knew he was the man who would be in goal. He had played brilliantly in the 1979 World Cup championship tournament for Brooks, and by waiting a year to turn professional, he had been all but assured of being the starting goalie for the Olympics. But while the personalities of the rest of the team fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, Craig's cockiness and penchant for yapping kept him apart. He wore on people. For Christmas his teammates gave him a giant jawbreaker, hoping to shut him up. But what the heck, he was the goalie, and goalies are kind of flaky anyway, right? But the psyche of a team is a fragile thing, and when Brooks saw he had a goaltender who wasn't going to fit in, he made sure that he wasn't going to start messing things up. So he told Craig to keep his trap shut about whose fault the goals were, to shoulder the blame himself and to buy the beer after the game. Don't muddy the waters. It was funny; Craig and Brooks struck up a friendship during the year. They were voluntary outcasts who worked, played and thought very much as one.

There was a player on the team who had Brooks's ear—the captain, Eruzione. Brooks had wanted him to be captain practically from the start. He was a leader; he was sensitive; he was a catalyst. But the captain had to be elected by the team. So Brooks campaigned. He confided in Eruzione in front of the other players, assigned him responsibilities, showed him respect. He was even prepared to miscount the ballots, but he didn't have to. The players liked Mike too. But even Eruzione wasn't spared Brooks's menacing knife. With three games remaining in their exhibition schedule and the first Olympic game less than two weeks away, Brooks called Eruzione aside and told him he wasn't playing well. Uh-huh. Mike, you're a great captain and a great guy, but you've got to start pulling your oar. Uh-huh. Or else I'll have to tell the press you've hurt your back and are coming to Lake Placid as an assistant coach. SAY WHAT?

He was going to cut his own captain! After 57 games he was going to say, "Come along and be my assistant—you aren't good enough!" Well, the hell with you. And Eruzione went out and scored five goals in those last three games. Not only that, when word got out that the coach was prepared to cut the captain—holy cow, I'd better work my little behind off. And Brooks did the same thing to Craig, telling him it was too bad, but obviously he had worked him too hard, played him in too many games, and now the goalie was fighting the puck and the only thing to do was to get Steve Janaszak, his backup, ready.... SAY WHAT? You're not giving my job away now, not now, not after six months of this crud.... But you're fighting the puck, Jimmy.... I'll fight you, you cur.... I'll show you who's ready and who's not.

So they went to Lake Placid united as ever against their coach. They would show him! Twenty players, the ones who had survived all the cuts, still hungry to prove themselves. Six who had traveled with the team all year were dropped just before Lake Placid. The last forward to be cut from the team was a young man named Ralph Cox. Brooks himself had been the last forward cut from the gold-medal-winning 1960 U.S. hockey team, and the one time all year that his callous front came down was when he cut Cox. "He was such a gentleman that I cried on it," says Brooks. "I had a little flashback of myself at the time. And you know what he told me? True story. He said, 'That's all right, coach. I understand. You guys are going to win the gold medal.' Ralph Cox said that. And when we won it, that's who I thought of. Ralph Cox."

At the time, though, Brooks was thinking, What have you been smoking, Coxy? The U.S. team was seeded No. 7 in the eight-team field and had the toughest draw in the tournament, facing Sweden and Czechoslovakia—the second and third seeds—in the first two games. Further, in the final exhibition game, the Soviets, almost exactly the same team that had whipped the NHL All-Stars a year earlier, had routed the U.S. 10-3. Welcome to the big time, Yanks. The Americans were hoping for a bronze.

They hoped to get two points in those first two games, one win or two ties. If they didn't, they could pack it in, because there'd be no chance for a medal. The scouting report on Sweden said that technically the Swedes were as good as any team in the world at skating, passing and shooting, but in tough games their spirit could be broken. But you couldn't let them get a lead on you. Stay close.

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