Herb Brooks never swore. His former Team USA players still joke that he really didn’t even know how to do it.
“You know how some guys swear all their life and it sounds normal coming out of their mouths?” remembered one of his former players, defenseman Jack O’Callahan. “It sounded weird coming from him.”
As tough as Brooks was — and tough is a mild word to describe him, former players say — he always made a point of getting his message across without using profanity.
Which is what made his final speech at the 1980 Winter Olympics so impactful.
While most everyone remembers his speech before the game against the Soviet Union — the one immortalized by actor Kurt Russell in the 2004 movie “Miracle” — members of his 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team point to a much shorter speech during the game against Finland as the most memorable.
After pulling off the massive upset over the Soviet Union a couple of days earlier, Team USA came out flat in the opening 40 minutes against Finland, and trailed 2-1 heading into the final period.
“We went from underdogs to favorites (for that game), and that was a different role for us,” defenseman Mike Ramsey said. “I don’t think we felt any pressure until that game.”
Adding to the pressure was the round-robin format at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Not only would Team USA miss out on the gold medal with a loss to Finland, it could theoretically miss out on the podium altogether, thus making the Miracle on Ice nothing more than a footnote.
That pressure seemed to get to everybody on the team.
“I just remember (in the locker room) Jack O’Callahan must have said it a hundred times, ‘There’s no way a bunch of Finns are keeping us from a gold medal,’ ” captain Mike Eruzione recalled. “And I think Herb fed off that emotion.”
As the story goes, Brooks stormed into the locker room during the second intermission, paced back and forth, pointed his finger, and used a certain four-letter word to remind his players that if they lost that game, they would take it to their graves.
“He turned and went to the door,” forward Rob McClanahan recalled. “Then he turned back and said, ‘Your f—ing grave.’ And that’s all he said.”
“He enunciated it,” O’Callahan added, breaking the curse word into two distinct syllables. “When he did use that word, it made us take notice.”
Maybe it’s simply a coincidence that Team USA came out on fire, quickly tying the score before running away with a 4-2 victory to capture the gold medal.
“I think the third period against Finland was the best 20 minutes we played throughout the whole Olympic Games,” Eruzione said. “We dominated them.”
That miraculous run assured that the legend of Herb Brooks will live forever.
Brooks went on to coach in the NHL — including a brief stint with the Minnesota North Stars — and even returned to coach Team USA to a silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Still, the first thing most everyone thinks of when Brooks comes up in casual conversation is the Miracle on Ice and everything surrounding that moment in time.
“He was the right coach at the right time with the right players,” son Danny Brooks said. “And here we are 40 years later still talking about it.”
‘He was the bad guy’
If not for assistant coach Craig Patrick, there’s a good chance the Team USA roster would have imploded into itself before those Olympics even began.
Brooks understood that, and he wanted (needed?) Patrick to be there alongside him as he installed a “good cop, bad cop” system for the ages.
“He actually called me in May 1979 and asked if I was interested in working with him,” Patrick recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, when do I need to be out there?’ He said, ‘Tomorrow.’ I was in Washington D.C. and he was in the Twin Cities, so I jumped in my car and drove out there and met with him.”
At that time, Brooks had already been traveling across the country, and thus, had a good idea of who he wanted on his Olympic roster.
While he knew the 26 players he wanted for the grueling exhibition slate that predated the Olympics, he also knew the preexisting rivalries were going to make it difficult for everyone to work together.
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“That was the first thing he said to me,” Patrick recalled. “He goes, ‘These guys we’re going to have on this team don’t like each other. They just don’t. And the only way I know how to make them a team is for them to be united against me.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘You just need to keep all the pieces together.’ That was my job.”
As talented as the Team USA roster was on paper, the fact that it pulled from so many different college programs made it a potential recipe for disaster.
You had guys like McClanahan, Ramsey, and forward Buzz Schneider from the University of Minnesota; Eruzione, O’Callahan, and goaltender Jim Craig from Boston University; forward Mark Johnson and defenseman Bobby Suter from the University of Wisconsin, and defenseman Ken Morrow and forward Mark Wells from Bowling Green.
Nobody liked each other very much, so Brooks figured it would be best if they could share a common bond.
“He was going to be the bad guy,” Eruzione said. “You had a team full of players that were picked because they were the best players, and he thought it would be best suited if he was the bad guy and everybody hated him.”
There was a method to the madness, and it manifested itself in different ways in the months leading up to the Olympics.
“There were a lot of times we didn’t like Herb,” Eruzione said. “There was never once a time we didn’t respect him.”
“You didn’t always have to agree with what he was doing out there,” Johnson added. “You just had to trust him.”
That got easier over time, especially as Team USA started to see more success during its grueling exhibition schedule.
Along the way, Brooks would try certain things, and depending how everything played out, he would adjust accordingly.
“He had a vision, and it was just a matter of getting everyone to buy in,” Johnson said. “He was always trying to figure out the right buttons to push, how to push them, and most important, when to push them.”
It was when Brooks pushed the wrong buttons that it helped to have Patrick around.
“After six months of the drilling and the demands that he put on us as a team, we needed a little break sometimes,” Eruzione said. “And Craig Patrick was able to bring that to us.”
Asked about coaching alongside Brooks, particular how he navigated his role, Patrick laughed.
“It was easy for me because they united against him real quick,” he said. “I don’t know if there was a better way to do it. And I wasn’t about to question any of that. That was his plan.”
And it worked.
“He was not an easy man to play for,” Ramsey said. “He also brought the best out of us guys. We wouldn’t have gotten where we got without him. That’s for sure.”
‘What did we just do?’
In the moments after the U.S. won the gold medal, with all 20 players celebrating on the ice, Brooks quietly retreated to the locker room to avoid the spotlight.
That was quintessential Brooks, according to Team USA trainer Gary Smith, who worked with him at the University of Minnesota.
As much as his ego would occasionally manifest itself on the ice, Brooks disappeared amid the massive celebration because he wanted to make sure his players got all the credit.
“I went back into the locker room to see where Herbie had gone,” Smith recalled. “I heard something in the back, so I go back there and there is Herbie, back by the urinals and the toilets. He looked at me and said, ‘What did we just do?’ I said, ‘We won it all.’ ”
That feeling of disbelief intensified over the next 24 hours as President Jimmy Carter invited Team USA to the White House. They got picked up by Air Force One and hopped into the limos waiting when they landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington D.C.
If that wasn’t enough, the team’s 30-minute drive to the White House featured thousands of screaming fans lined up on both sides of the road.
“They are on the street waving flags and the whole way the way down we were looking at each other like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ ” Patrick said. “We had no idea how big of a deal it was.”
The fact that Team USA was even in that position in the nation’s capital was a byproduct of the way it played throughout the Olympics: Not like Americans at all.
It’s a style of play Brooks perfected during his time at the University of Minnesota. He wanted his players to possess the puck as much as possible, which might sound simple but actually went against how the game was being played in North America at the time.
While most teams relied on a style of dump-and-chase — the act of shooting the puck into the offensive zone and forechecking, rather than carrying the puck across the blue line — Brooks wanted no part of that.
“He’d say, ‘It’s the dumbest play in hockey I’ve ever seen!’ ” O’Callahan recalled. ” ‘Why skate 50 feet with the puck and give it away again?’ ”
As far as Brooks was concerned, his players could be as creative as possible, and as long as they were following his rules, he could live with the occasional turnover.
He also had no problem with players interchanging positions on the ice, adapting and attacking from anywhere on the ice, instead of staying in their respective lanes.
It was a style of play that most closely resembled how the game was being played overseas, and once Team USA figured it out, they became very difficult to play against.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen it,” Schneider said. “It was never done by an American coach. He was the one who started changing it for the Americans. It was puck control and interchanging positions, and it made it a lot of fun.”
All the while, Brooks encouraged his players not to stray too far from the physical style of play being played in North America.
“We did not lose our identity as tough, competitive North Americans,” O’Callahan said. “He referred to it as a hybrid game.”
Eventually that style of play made its way to the NHL, thanks to the U.S. Olympians showing how effective it could be.
“You could see it evolving in the ’90s, and it really took off after the work stoppage when they took away all the grabbing and hooking,” O’Callahan said. “That really opened it up for what the game is today.”
‘Man of the people’
If anyone seemed immortal, especially here in Minnesota, it was Herb Brooks.
Which is why his sudden, tragic death on Aug. 11, 2003 was so unbelievable at the time. He was 66 years old.
He was driving back from a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame celebrity golf event when his minivan rolled over north of the Twin Cities where Interstate 35 splits toward Minneapolis and St. Paul. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
It wasn’t long before news started to spread across the Twin Cities, and then the rest of the country, as everyone simultaneously mourned the mastermind of the Miracle on Ice.
A proud St. Paul native, Brooks was a solid player who went on to become a once-in-a-lifetime coach.
He played at Johnson High School in St. Paul, then at the University of Minnesota, where he was better known as the coach who led the program to three NCAA championships. He was the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. gold medal team, and 20 years later, returned the nation to glory as coach with another gold medal.
“He just really loved coaching,” said good friend Lou Nanne, who has more Herb Brooks stories than he can count. “There’s a special breed of people that coach. That’s all they want to do is be coach. They don’t want anything else. They just thrive on it. It really gets their adrenaline going. They are consumed by it. That was Herbie. He just was consumed by coaching.”
That’s how most everyone remembers Brooks, especially after the 2004 movie “Miracle” that effectively reintroduced him to the next generation.
“I thought Kurt Russell did a wonderful job portraying my dad,” Danny Brooks said. “That movie has inspired countless people all over the world, and it’s a big reason why his legacy lives on.”
Those closest to Brooks remember him as much more than a coach.
“He helped anybody he could,” Patrick said. “If he bumped into someone on the street and they were needy, he was going to do everything he could to help. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was just a great person.”
He was also a hilarious person, according to Nanne, who loves to tell the story about how Brooks almost burned down his house after trying to use a blow torch to thaw a frozen pipe.
“He did so many (expletive) things that people don’t know about,” Nanne said with a laugh. “He had a good sense of humor.”
He also made sure to stay in contact with some of his former Team USA players in the most Brooks way possible. Asked what he misses most about Brooks, Eruzione joked, “Just him calling and yelling at me.”
“Here I am years later, I’m married, I’ve got three kids, and my phone would ring and my wife would say, it’s Herb,” Eruzione added. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my god. What did I do wrong now?’ “
It was the little things in life that kept Brooks going once he was done coaching.
“He wasn’t a fancy guy,” Danny Brooks said. “He wasn’t a country-club, nice-car, cigar-smoking guy. He was a man of the people. I think people recognized that, especially in Minnesota, and I think that’s why a lot of people around the game still feel connected to him even after his death.”