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On The Outside, Looking To Get In
E.M. Swift
December 07, 1981
Coach Herb Brooks, maestro of Lake Placid, is struggling to feel at home on the Rangers
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December 07, 1981

On The Outside, Looking To Get In

Coach Herb Brooks, maestro of Lake Placid, is struggling to feel at home on the Rangers

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That "by and large" is important, because at Minnesota and on the Olympic team, Brooks's players were objective, willing and good to work with—period. Or they were gone. "He's a guy who's used to being listened to," says Ranger Defenseman Dave Maloney. "And he's got such a strong personality that we've listened."

During the summer, Brooks sent all prospective Rangers an aerobic and anaerobic conditioning program—The Bible—that was the same one followed by the Olympic team. It called for up to an hour and a half of work a day, of running, flexibility exercises, weight lifting. Most of the Rangers followed it, and as a group they reported to camp in better condition than they ever had. A few didn't. When tests revealed that the body-fat content of those few was at an unacceptable level. Brooks assigned them to the Ranger "fat farm," where they underwent a special conditioning program. All in good fun, you understand. Except that when the season opened, one of the fat-farmers, Chris Kotsopoulos, had been traded; another, Steve Vickers, was in the minors; a third, Carol Vadnais, was sitting in the stands; and a fourth, Mike Allison, was seeing limited playing time. The message was clear: If you want to play, report to training camp in condition. The 36-year-old Vadnais, now down from 215 pounds to 205, his lowest playing weight in years, was inserted into the lineup after four games, and he has since been one of New York's top defensemen. "The times have changed—hockey's an 11-month job now," says one Ranger. "Vadnais was willing to change with the times; Vickers wasn't."

Conditioning is a Brooks trademark. According to Maloney, New York's "practices can be godawful," but Olympians Dave Silk and Mark Pavelich, who are now Rangers, say the workouts are nothing compared to what Brooks put the U.S. team through. Yet. "We're tightening the screws a little bit," Brooks says. He's sensitive about his image as a slave-driver and has, by his standards, gone slowly in that area. Instead, the top priority at the Ranger training camp—much of which was held in Scandinavia—was to install a new offensive system emphasizing puck control and motion. That style is now used by a number of NHL teams, most notably Edmonton, the NHL points leader at week's end, and Brooks feels it will be the wave of the '80s. "It all started with Lake Placid," says Maloney, who likes the new system. "His Olympic team showed the game could be played in different ways."

The style's origins are European. Forwards are asked to think of themselves not as right wings, left wings or centers but as forwards. Rather than staying in lanes up and down the ice—the traditional NHL style—they are encouraged to crisscross, to dart toward open holes. Passes aren't necessarily made directly onto the stick, but are feathered into open areas toward which a teammate is skating, like a spot pass in football. The objective is to keep control of the puck. If the opponent prevents you from breaking through cleanly at the blue line, don't shoot the puck in and chase it. Pass it back to your defensemen and start over. Wheel and deal. Create openings.

Sounds good, right? Well, it is good when it's done right; done wrong and you'll be giving away the puck all night. In recent years the passing and stickhandling skills of North American players have taken a back seat to shooting, checking and skating skills. No coach was more responsible for this trend than Fred Shero, who happened to be the Ranger coach at the start of last season. However, a mucking right wing who excelled in digging the puck out of the corner for Shero has no function under Brooks. Says Eddie Johnstone, a Ranger forward who has had difficulty with the transition, "When you've been going up and down your wing for 20 years, it's tough to make that adjustment. I find myself thinking, 'Maybe I should cut across now.' Then just when I do, the defenseman throws it up the boards where I was, and they intercept and score."

"We had the same sort of problems with the Olympic team," says Brooks. "Some nights it looked like a three-ring circus out there, guys running into each other and everything else. We were going to give the system a try until Christmas and then make an assessment. But up here you've got to win some games to save your neck. We had to make an assessment after three games."

Things went great in the exhibition season, when the Rangers won nine straight. But the season opener was something else. "We were overcoached, thinking too much," Maloney says. "It was system this, system that, the players thinking, 'I should be over there,' instead of just reacting."

That night Detroit used a defense that, ironically, Shero had employed as the Philadelphia coach when the Flyers beat the Soviet Army Club—the U.S.S.R. champions—in 1976. The Red Wings positioned four men at their blue line, challenging the Rangers to break through. The Rangers, under instructions not to shoot the puck in, circled, wheeled and searched for an opening that didn't exist. Meanwhile, they were retreating and frequently coughing up the puck. Silk recalls dropping the puck back at one point, only to discover his defenseman was on the way to the bench. It slid all the way down the ice to a chorus of boos. "When they announced one minute remaining in the first period, everybody cheered," Silk says.

Next, the Rangers faced Winnipeg, a team that had won only nine games in 1980-81. The Jets also stacked the blue line, and New York was blown out 8-3. In the Rangers' third game, against Minnesota, they lost 7-0. "That was tough, to go home to your backyard—the place was sold out—and get drilled seven-zip," Brooks says. "It was so bad that when I called my mother afterwards, she hung up on me."

At that point Craig Patrick, the New York general manager, who was Brooks's assistant coach on the Olympic team, told Brooks the Rangers were mentally and physically tired. So Brooks gave his players two days off and reassessed things. "I went too fast too soon with the motion thing, and it blew up in my face," Brooks says. "I'd tried to build the house from the top down and had taken for granted some fundamentals, like the checking game and play without the puck. So now I had a tired and disillusioned club, and suddenly we were decimated by injuries."

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