Legendary Brooks was truly one of a kind
Exactly 30 years ago this week, 'Miracle' coach brought his game to Garden
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
The magnitude of some sports moments can easily become exaggerated as years go by and various myths grow up around them, but the "Miracle on Ice" -- Team USA's run to the 1980 Olympic hockey gold medal at Lake Placid, N.Y. -- will never fall into that category.
In the game of hockey, at least, a moment with the combination of drama and improbability equal to Lake Placid’s can almost certainly never happen again. The world has changed; the Olympics have changed; and hockey itself has changed enough to make it almost impossible to imagine a more unexpected champion at any current professional or amateur level.
If somehow an equivalent "Miracle" ever does occur, it's safe to assume that a head coach capable of authoring such a championship run would find countless job opportunities in its wake.
|Herb Brooks, then 43, speaks to reporters at the June 4, 1981, press conference to announce his hiring as the Rangers' head coach. Standing beside him that day was his new boss -- and former U.S. Olympic assistant -- Craig Patrick, who had taken over as the Rangers' general manager less than a year earlier. (From the lens of George Kalinsky)
The Brooks hiring was not official until a June 4, 1981, press conference at MSG, but he had unofficially become the Rangers' head coach as far back as November of 1980, following the dismissal of another famous hockey personality in Fred Shero.
Craig Patrick, the Rangers’ director of operations took over Shero’s duties as both head coach and general manager. Patrick had been Brooks' assistant coach at the Olympics, and the grandson of Rangers pioneer Lester Patrick wanted Brooks as his coach. Unfortunately, Patrick and the Rangers needed to wait for Brooks to complete his one-year contractual obligation to HC Davos in the Swiss league.
Excitement built over the 1980-81 season as the New York media and Rangers fans eagerly anticipated Brooks' arrival. It wasn’t until June 1, 1981, that a deal was finally completed and three more days before Brooks stood face-to-face with the New York media. At his introductory press conference, Brooks said he was excited about the opportunity to end a long Stanley Cup drought at The Garden, just as he had embraced the challenge of beating the Soviets.
The new season was more than four months away in early June of 1981, but hockey fans throughout the U.S. were already buzzing about the magic Brooks might be able to work behind an NHL bench.
Life Beyond Lake Placid
|Herb Brooks posed for this photo during the lead-up to the 1980 Olympics, which included a game against the Soviets at The Garden. Roughly 18 months after that night, Brooks was back at MSG to take over as the New York Rangers' head coach.|
After Lake Placid, Brooks would work for nearly 15 seasons in the NHL as either a head coach, scout or front-office executive. He would also return to the college coaching ranks and coach at two more Olympic Games, including an almost surreal stint with Team France at Nagano, Japan, in 1998, and the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where he led Team USA to a silver medal.
Brooks was a complex personality, but his love for hockey was pure and simple. He wanted nothing more than to see the game grow in the United States, and it is almost poetic that his greatest personal coaching success helped give hockey the biggest popularity boost it has ever enjoyed in this country.
His love for the game is also why those working daily to preserve Brooks’ legacy have built the Minnesota-based Herb Brooks Foundation as an organization focused on grassroots programs that make hockey available to the widest range of youngsters, particularly those who can't otherwise afford the ice time or equipment necessary to play.
"We wanted to keep my dad's passions alive," said 44-year-old Dan Brooks, the coach's only son, who helped to start the Herb Brooks Foundation within a year of his father’s death. "He was very, very passionate about the game of hockey at a grassroots level. Everybody obviously remembers him as the 1980 coach and coaching the New York Rangers, but there were a lot of years in between then until when he passed. And he did a lot of great things."
Thirty years after he was welcomed to MSG as hockey royalty, Herb Brooks’ dreams are still helping to shape the game he loved. The Foundation currently owns and operates the Herb Brooks Training Center in Blaine, Minn., and roughly 3,000 children from Minnesota and Wisconsin skate at the facility each year. The youngsters who can’t afford it receive free equipment and instruction, and the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team has also used the Brooks rink as its practice facility.
In early April, Dan Brooks returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in more than 25 years to watch the Rangers defeat the Devils in their regular-season finale. The purpose of his visit was to raise awareness of the Herb Brooks Foundation, which is hoping to branch out into other parts of the country. Just as his father took his own coaching methods developed in Minnesota to a broader hockey stage with the Rangers, Dan Brooks and his colleagues want to bring their living memorial to more children who can benefit from it.
"We would like to expand,” said Dan Brooks. “There is a tremendous opportunity in the state of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but we would like to move into other areas, specifically here (New York).”
Brooks’ Rangers Years
|Herb Brooks stands behind the Blueshirts' bench at MSG during the 1981-82 season -- his first as head coach. His first team went 39-27-14 for an 18-point performance over the previous season. Seated in front of Brooks is former Ranger Mike Allison.|
Brooks’ overall Rangers record of 131-113-41 with two playoff series victories did not match the level of his previous coaching achievements at the University of Minnesota and the Olympics. Nevertheless, there were some great moments. His 1982-83 team upset the division champion Flyers with an opening-round playoff sweep, and he nearly authored another miracle one year later when his 1983-84 team took the four-time defending champion Islanders to a decisive fifth game in the first round of the 1984 playoffs before falling in overtime on a goal by Islanders defenseman Ken Morrow, one of Brooks’ players at the 1980 Olympics.
Brooks brought a hybrid North American and European system to New York, which was something the NHL had never really seen in those days. He also stressed opportunities for Americans – using his influence to bring roughly a dozen U.S.-born players into the Rangers organization under his watch.
During his nearly four-season run that ended on Jan. 21, 1985, Brooks coached former 1980 Olympians Mark Pavelich, Rob McClanahan, and Bill Baker as Rangers. The Brooks/Patrick era also saw the team draft 17 Americans, including John Vanbiesbrouck, Tony Granato, and Kelly and Kevin Miller.
Dave Maloney, a Rangers captain under Shero, said he will never forget the sense of energy that gripped the entire organization with Brooks in charge. Just before training camp started, Maloney and his younger brother, Don, were unexpectedly invited to have a personal meeting with their new coach.
"This was in the middle or end of August," recalled Maloney, now a Rangers analyst for MSG and for the team's radio broadcasts. "We went down to meet with him and spent 45 minutes or an hour with him. I still remember walking out of that meeting, because he was so enthusiastic about what he wanted to do and how he thought how the game was going to be played.”
Maloney was there for all but the final six weeks of Brooks’ years behind the Rangers’ bench, and the longtime NHL defenseman vividly remembers him as one of the hardest-working coaches he has ever encountered.
"It was his first go-around in the NHL, and for him it was 24/7 and basically 11 and a half months of the year," Maloney said. "I remember he had such a plan for the team. He expected and demanded that you do what you could to be the best you could be. There was never a question about who the boss was. That on its own required a commitment and passion.
“He had it all laid out as far as how practices are going to work. If it was the morning skate or first day of camp or the last week, he was one serious coach. ... He represented passion and commitment and integrity."
Micheletti’s unique perpective
|A young Herb Brooks starred as a defenseman for the University of Minnesota in the 1950s. Famously cut from the 1960 Olympic team, he went on to play for Team USA in the 1964 and 1968 Games.|
Brooks was like a second father to Micheletti, who was part of the coach’s first full recruiting class. More than seven years after the release of Miracle, Micheletti said he had yet to watch Kurt Russell’s film portrayal of Brooks, preferring to limit his memories of the coach to the man he actually knew.
"Hockey was his life," Micheletti said of Brooks, who was only 35 when the two first met. "I remember when I was in high school up in Northern Minnesota and Herbie used to do all his own recruiting. If you know anything about the winters in Minnesota and how that can be -- it didn't matter to him. He'd drive up. What was really important to Herb, too, was to almost become a member of your family. And that's what happened to me."
As someone who befriended Brooks long before he became an American sports icon, Micheletti remembers the coach for his relentless dedication to the game and his desire to grow hockey in the U.S. He said he wasn't even surprised when Brooks orchestrated the "Miracle on Ice", because he knew just how much work the coach must have put in to make that happen.
Micheletti also suspects that the main reason Brooks began his NHL career with the Rangers was his strong working relationship with Patrick. Rather than jump right to the NHL from the Olympic team, Brooks went to Switzerland and bide his time until the right offer came to him – an offer that would give him the environment he felt he needed to succeed.
"He probably wanted to make sure that he had the type of control that he wanted to have before taking an NHL job," said Micheletti. "That's tough to get. With Craig Patrick, they had the same thought process. For Craig, it was great for him that he knew Herb as well as he did, so that they could work together."
|Those who were fortunate enough to have the experience of playing for Herb Brooks remember him for his relentless work-ethic, intense dedication to the game of hockey, and belief in his own vision of all the steps necessary for building a great team. (From the lens of George Kalinsky)
"I never thought it (coaching in the NHL) would be a problem because Herb was a very smart guy," said Micheletti, who recalls the series of mind games Brooks played with Minnesota players to help them reach their own potential. "I think he needed to go through the pro thing (after the Olympics). I think he needed to do that for him, to see what kind of success he would have coaching on that level."
As the movie "Miracle" shows repeatedly, total control was a big issue for Brooks throughout his coaching career, and it even led to personal disputes with U.S. hockey officials during the run-up to the Olympics. Micheletti knows this is also the reason Brooks did not return to the Olympic program after his Rangers tenure ended in 1985.
"He was a very determined person to do things the way he wanted to do them -- in everything," said Micheletti. "If he didn't respect somebody among the people above him in authority, that was a problem because he was very steadfast on what he thought was correct. When USA Hockey wanted him to coach again several years later, he really wanted to do it, but he wanted to take over the whole program. He just said ‘Give me the Olympic hockey program.’ But they turned him down, because they didn't want to give up all of their power to him. And I think it was crazy for them to do that."
Dan Brooks, who was drafted by St. Louis in 1985 and went on to play at the University of Denver, can't help but echo Micheletti’s recollection of his father’s personality.
"I think deep down he was somewhat shy, but he loved to battle," said Dan Brooks. “When he was out of hockey for a few years there, he created battles. Sometimes even with me. He needed to be behind the bench. He would have been a great trial lawyer or wartime general."
An enduring passion for hockey
|Dan Brooks, the only son of the late Herb Brooks, was a between-periods guest on MSG during the Rangers' April 9 regular-season finale. At the time of this appearance, Dan was the same age his dad had been on the day he became an NHL coach.
• VIDEO: DAN BROOKS INTERVIEW
"I told Gary Bettman that my dad was very opinionated and passionate," said Dan Brooks. "When he heard me say that, he kind of rolled his eyes and chuckled, because I think my dad wrote Bettman a letter at least once a month for the last five years of his life."
During those final years as an amateur scout and executive with Pittsburgh, Brooks was still spreading his hockey gospel. Just over a year before his death, he even considered a return to the NHL bench. Shortly after Brooks guided a team of American NHL stars to the silver medal at Salt Lake City in what would be his final experience behind a bench, the Penguins allowed him to interview for a possible second term as the Blueshirts’ head coach in the spring of 2002.
"He was very opinionated and very passionate," said Dan Brooks. "He loved the NHL and some of his best friends in the world were in the NHL, but I think what really inspired him was not chasing that almighty dollar and applying for every NHL job that opened up. It was making the game better. He always said there's another Gretzky out there or there's another Michael Jordan out there -- we've just got to find him and get him on skates."
His father’s words are part of what keep Dan Brooks, whose career has been in the financial management industry, working so hard alongside his sister, Kelly, and his cousin, Bill Weller, to grow the foundation. When he returned to The Garden during his visit to New York, he felt like a kid all over again as memories of his father came rushing back.
"The Rangers played their home games on Wednesdays and Sundays," Brooks recalled of his years around the team. "I did not miss a home game. I stood right against the glass -- right where the Rangers walk out next to their bench. I remember on Wednesdays when we lived in Greenwich., I'd get off the bus and he'd be waiting for me in the car. I'd step right off the bus and into his car. We'd go pick up Craig Patrick and then drive into the city together. And then Craig would get his own ride home or whatever, and my fondest memories would be driving back to Greenwich at 1 in the morning, listening to him ranting and raving about something -- a referee or whatever."
Like Brooks himself, Rangers fans are strong in their opinions, and some might only remember the Brooks years for falling short of the championship hopes that came with his NHL arrival. But they will likely never forget the playoff upset of Philadelphia, the near upset of the Islanders, the influx of American players, and the addition of two prominent European stars -- Reijo Ruotsalainen and Mikko Leinonen, who was on the Finnish Olympic team that lost to Brooks' Americans at the Lake Placid finale. When it came to hockey, Brooks was never afraid to experiment.
"He told me one time when he was the interim head coach in Pittsburgh that if he had felt (coaching there) was a long-term thing, he probably would have put (Alex) Kovalev back on defense," said Micheletti. "And he said Kovalev would have been his best defenseman. He loved Kovalev. He loved him because he could talk to him. He loved people that he could talk to about things other than just hockey."
Hockey, however, was always the No. 1 topic, and the Herb Brooks Foundation was a natural way to honor Brooks’ memory. Dan Brooks said his father often leveraged his fame and popularity in the state of Minnesota to do precisely the sorts of things the foundation strives to do today.
Herb Brooks' success in fashioning the "Miracle" will remain his principle legacy for those who look only at the surface, and it was certainly the cause of buzz in New York hockey circles 30 years ago this week. But the starring role Brooks holds in hockey history doesn't paint the whole picture, and Hollywood images that focus on this one year of his life leave so much else on the cutting-room floor.
Asked what people should know about his father apart from anything that involves the "Miracle" that made him so famous, Dan Brooks stops to think. It’s a question he does not often get, but one that truy shapes the work he and others are doing to keep Herb Brooks’ spirit a part of hockey today.
"I think people need to remember him as someone that really cared for the grassroots level," said Dan Brooks. "He cared for the little person in the game. He wanted the game to be better. He wanted the game of hockey to make people's lives better."