"He knew the style of play that was going to work and he knew we all needed to be positive and excited about everything right from the start. I remember how everyone in our locker room said, 'Wow, he is the right guy for this team." -- Brian Leetch, about Herb Brooks coaching the 2002 United States Olympic team
The entire hockey community mourned Brooks' death following a car accident Aug. 11, 2003, but his legacy lives on with all the fans and former players privileged to watch or stand by his side.
Such was the case with Cammi Granato, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, who joined Brooks and 133 other members of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday during an induction dinner at the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver.
Hull, Leetch and Richter won a silver medal under Brooks at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"It was a different team and different Herb than in 1980 since he wasn't dealing with young college kids but a group of professional NHL vets that he would have for two weeks," Richter said. "That's a very difficult position to be in as a coach. How do you gain their attention? How do you get their ear and have them listen to you? I can't always tell you how, but great coaches know the personality of individual players and the dynamics of a locker room - Herb Brooks was that type of coach.''
It was inevitable that Brooks' name would find its way into conversation at some point during the U.S. Hall of Fame ceremony, and this year's inductees were more than willing to share their fondest memories.
"I was amazed at how he stepped into a locker room during the first few practices and seemed to have a feel for each individual's personality without really ever having coached anybody,'' Leetch said. "He watched so much hockey and had been preparing for so long that he knew which players liked to play together and which players needed to be singled out in front of everybody to keep their attention during meetings.
"He knew the style of play that was going to work and he knew we all needed to be positive and excited about everything right from the start. I remember how everyone in our locker room said, 'Wow, he is the right guy for this team.' Nobody quite knew if he was going to incorporate too many complex schemes since it was a short tournament. But he came in, knew the team he had, knew what would be the best way to play and knew that without us being excited and positive, we were going to be a failure at home.''
Hull felt energized playing for Brooks.
"He made you want to come to the rink, practice and play the game," Hull said. "I think coaching is more than just X's and O's, but about communication and being able to get along with your players. Having a chance to play for Herb was something I will never forget.''
Richter was amazed how passionate Brooks remained 22 years after the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid.
"He lived and breathed hockey and was just so competitive,'' Richter said. "We were playing against the Russians and I remember (Chris) Chelios coming over to me and saying, 'Wow, he's really fired up.' It was a motivating thing to see how much he wanted to win after all he'd been through over the years and his desire to field the best team he could, so the guy knows so much and you always felt like you were in good hands. If there's anyone we felt deserved a gold medal for all the right reasons … it would have been sweet to win it for Herb Brooks.''
While Granato never played for Brooks, the first woman inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame was inspired by the coach's success and determination.
Richter never will forget the phone call he received from Brooks one year prior to the start of the 2002 Games.
"I had blown out my knee, but since the Games were a year away it was enough time to recover and play,'' Richter said. "One of the first phone calls I got was from Herb. My wife actually answered the phone and I thought it was Leetchie screwing around, but it was Herb. He told me he knew I was injured and if there was anything I needed to let him know. I hadn't had too much contact with him to that point because I never played for a team he coached, but he's a gentleman and fantastically supportive.
"It was funny because I could sense he was so fired up. He asked me if I would be talking to any other guys on the team, and in particular Leetchie. I can still hear him asking me, 'Yeah, tell Leetchie the legs feed the wolf.' I said OK, and he asked if I knew what he meant. After a brief pause, I told him I had no idea what he was talking about so he told me, 'If you're not in shape, the wolf can't run down his game, so he can't go and get food if he's not in shape. Get these guys to do just a little bit more since we have an opportunity to do something very large here.' I was just so impressed by his emotion and how much he wanted to win.''
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.