Herb Brooks was hurrying from one charity event, where he stayed longer than he had committed, to the airport to catch a flight to another charity event when he died Aug. 11, in an automobile accident on a highway near his native St. Paul, Minn. The coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team -- the "Miracle on Ice" squad -- lost his life helping others.
Brooks, as an American college and national team coach, had a tremendous influence on the development of American players over the past 35 years. He won NCAA titles with the University of Minnesota in 1974, 1976 and 1979 but it was the 1980 Olympic gold medal that energized a new generation of Americans like Jeremy Roenick, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Gary Suter, Phil Housley and Mike Modano.
Hockey has boomed in the United States since the 1980 victory. After Brooks' death, a Lake Placid spokesman credited him for the town's continuing prosperity.
"At all levels of the game, including college hockey, Olympic hockey and the National Hockey League, Herb Brooks was a consummate teacher, an unparalleled motivator and an unquestioned innovator," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The strength of hockey in the United States is a testament to Herb Brooks and the historic Olympic triumph in 1980. However, there was so much more to him than that glorious moment at Lake Placid. Herb was a tireless supporter of USA Hockey players and programs, a relentless advocate of the speed and beauty of our game. Making one of Herb Brooks' teams was an extraordinary accomplishment. It is devastating to all of us in the hockey world that his passion for the game, his insight, his foresight, have been taken away."
Brooks was a very good hockey player who became a great coach. He led his St. Paul Johnson squad to the Minnesota High School title in 1955 and went on to play at the University of Minnesota for coach John Mariucci. He was a member of the 1964 and 1968 U.S. Olympic hockey teams.
Brooks also coached four NHL teams -- the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins -- to a 219-222-66 record in seven seasons and a 19-21 record in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tim Taylor, the longtime Yale coach who directed the 1994 U.S. Olympic team, was Brooks' teammate on the 1965 U.S. National team. Just as Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960 American Olympic team, Taylor was the last cut from the 1964 team.
Taylor said Brooks combined the best American coaching influences, Mariucci, Jack Riley, Eddie Jeremiah, Murray Williamson and others and melded their ideas with the on-ice strategies and off-ice conditioning methods of the Soviets and European programs to be the "first to put together the true U.S. style of hockey and he did it at the right moment in 1980 with those great players who fit that mode."
"I have great memories of Herb from that time with him," Taylor said of the 1965 U.S. captain. "He was the picture of grace when he played, a marvelous skater with tremendous body rhythm. He could play forward and defense and was a hugely effective player because he was so together out there. I remember the challenges in 1965 when we played the Russians, a real David-and-Goliath matchup. Herb, as captain, went around the locker room telling us it was fun to play the Russians. He told us to enjoy the moment. He knew we were a little too in awe of the Russians. We knew how good they were.
"The world didn't yet know it in the 1960s," Taylor continued. "Most hockey people thought the Russians were good in their element but not of NHL quality. It wasn't until the 1970s that others came to the belief that we had from playing against them."
Not only did Brooks realize how good the Russians were, he also understood that North American hockey had to adopt many elements of the Soviet game. He knew they were changing hockey for all time.
"Herb had that vision early," Taylor said. "His coaching style became an amalgamation of all the experiences he had and, like so many of us aspiring to coach, he was inspired by the fabulous 1972 Summit series between the Russians and the NHL All-Stars. The Brooks style that evolved was a true merging of the best European influences and the heart and soul of the American game that he got from his St. Paul roots. The players on the 1980 Olympic team combined the skill of the Europeans and the grit of North American hockey. The ones that tell you how hard it was to play for Herb Brooks, those are the ones in which he was instilling that grit. He taught the skills to the gritty players. That team didn't have one player with one element and not the other."
Taylor and Brooks went on to be successful college coaches, but meetings between their teams were rare. One visit took place shortly before the 1980 Olympics.
"We coached a lot of USA Hockey teams together and separately," Taylor said. "I took the Yale team out there in the late 1970s to play Minnesota and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, when Mark Pavelich, who played so well for Herb at the Olympics (and with the New York Rangers) was starring at UMD. They were better than we were but Herb was a great host. We had a mutual respect that made our relationship special. He always had time for everybody. His reputation for always being argumentative and at odds with USA Hockey, well, that was real but he always believed he was speaking his mind to make things better and he always had time for the people who played the game. I can't tell you how many times I heard that in the days after his death. A lot of people said he was a better friend to them than they were to him."
Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 team, captured Brooks' feisty ways perfectly in his eulogy. "Right now, he is saying to God, 'I don't like the style of your team. We should change it,' " Eruzione said.
"It's clear to all of us here, he was a special man. He had a passion to coach, a passion to teach," Eruzione continued. "It was hard for him to show his emotions. He's like your dad. You love your dad, but sometimes you don't like your dad because he makes you do things you don't want to do. We've lost a great man."