- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
He started at the beginning, when he was a forward who was the last man cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. He recalled how his father had joked, after the U.S. had won the gold medal in Squaw Valley, that they'd obviously cut the right man. The hurt was still in him. It didn't disappear after Brooks made the 1964 Olympic team (which finished fifth in Innsbruck) and then the '68 squad (sixth in Grenoble). He was a man with unfinished business.
Brooks said the players he wanted for the '80 team had to be educated, intelligent and open-minded because he was going to teach them a new style of play. He described his rigorous off-ice conditioning program, featuring anaerobic, flexibility and other exercises that he'd picked up from swimming and track coaches. This was all quite revolutionary to hockey, and he knew he was putting his players through a lot. What surprised me most, though, was his admission that he'd put himself through a lot too. He had deliberately stayed aloof from the young men he'd handpicked. He had acted the role of the bad cop—pushing, pushing, pushing guys to the breaking point in an effort to make them better—yet had known exactly when to stop. They had feared him, maybe even hated him, and that dislike had united them. He had wanted them to be more afraid of him than they were of the Soviets.
It had been a long, lonely year for Brooks. After the Olympics no one seemed to understand that it wasn't the only way he knew to coach—that he'd be different with NHL players (as he would prove when he took over the New York Rangers in June 1981) because he'd have to be different to sell them on his ideas. He wasn't a bad cop by nature. He was an innovator who knew that to motivate and win he had to adapt to each situation as it came.
I thought I had known Herb Brooks. But I hadn't known this Herb Brooks—frank, articulate, engaging. Brooks the salesman. When I covered the hockey competition in Lake Placid, I spent time with a number of the players. I'd met some of them—Morrow, Silk, Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, Jack O'Callahan—when I'd covered the 1978 NCAA hockey championships in Providence. I'd played college hockey, and at 28 I was closer in age to the players, whose average age was 22, than to Brooks, who was 42. So they had told me stories about the coach's mind games, his tantrums and off-the-wall rages. About how for six months he'd patted them on the back with one hand while holding a knife to their chests with the other. They respected him as a coach. None of them had ever had a better bench coach. But he was so cold, so distant, he seemed inhuman.
At Lake Placid it had been easy for me to believe that Brooks was a great coach but a self-absorbed jerk. I'd seen his obstinacy at press conferences, seen flashes of his temper. I'd heard him threaten to shove a hockey stick down the throat of a Czech player. Brooks could be a scary dude.
Yet I'd also seen how he could be unexpectedly good-natured and flexible. During the first week of the Olympics, before the U.S. team attracted the attention of the nation, I figured out a way to get past the security guard in the basement of the hockey arena. It gave me access to the locker room, which was forbidden to the press. Brooks would see me coming, shake his head with an admiring grin and allow me to go in to talk to the players minutes after the end of a game. "I don't know how the hell you're doing it, but if anyone asks, I don't know you're in there," he said. This from the coach who steadfastly refused to allow any of his players to go to the postgame press conferences despite pleas from the media, Olympic officials and Brooks's bosses at USA Hockey. Accused of hogging the limelight, Brooks stopped going to press conferences himself and sent his assistant, Craig Patrick, instead. You couldn't predict his next move. He was a fascinating man.
ALL THESE memories flooded back after I saw Kurt Russell's spot-on portrayal of Brooks in Miracle. It's a role the actor seems to have been born to play, multilayered and hauntingly true to life. Russell is Brooks. He perfectly replicates the coach's clipped speech pattern and flat Minnesota accent; the tight mouth that, with the slightest twitch or downturn, conveys a range of emotions, from stubbornness to anger to regret; the burning intensity of Brooks's eyes; the conviction, the willfulness, the loneliness Brooks felt that season.
The film opens with newsreel footage from the late 1970s that provides a necessary historical backdrop. People younger than 30 have little familiarity with the America of that era. It was a time of long gas lines, high inflation and low national self-esteem. A crisis of confidence, President Jimmy Carter called it in the summer of '79, trying to rally the nation's spirits. The lengthy hostage crisis that followed the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran later that year—an event that came to symbolize America's impotence—is woven into Miracle's script. Otherwise, current events and subplots that might have detracted from die film's central storyline are kept to a minimum. Director Gavin O'Connor (Tumbleweeds) understood that the Olympic hockey saga needed no Hollywood embellishment. The facts were miraculous enough.
Not that the movie doesn't stray from the truth at times. A training camp fight between O'Callahan, a Boston University defenseman, and Rob McClanahan, a Minnesota forward, never happened. But the intense rivalry between players from those schools was real, at least early in the tryouts.
In several scenes Brooks is shown asking players, "What's your name and who do you play for?" Each answers with his name and his college. After weeks of this, Brooks finally gets the answer he's looking for. At the end of a marathon wind-sprint session in the dark after a tie game in Norway, the players are exhausted, puking, and Craig Patrick looks disgusted with Brooks. Then a voice in the dark saves the day. " Mike Eruzione," says the captain, "and I play for the United States of America!" Grimly satisfied, Brooks lets them leave the ice.