That memorable moment was immortalized Monday when Herb Brooks was inducted posthumously into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Brooks, who died in an automobile accident on Aug. 11, 2003, left his mark on all levels of hockey. He guided the University of Minnesota to three NCAA titles and enjoyed a successful NHL head coaching career. However, his biggest impact came on the international scene as Brooks coached the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s ice hockey team to a gold medal in addition to a 4-3 win over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid, N.Y., in what has been called the “Miracle on Ice” and was immortalized in the 2004 movie “Miracle.”
“That is the epitome of what complete team effort will do. There wasn’t one individual on that team,” Penguins defenseman Noah Welch said. “There were a couple huge plays by individuals, but every one of those plays was a team effort. As a team, you can take a page out of that team’s book any day and use it. They just went out did their jobs, knew what their roles were and won the gold medal.”
Welch, who was born in 1982, wasn’t around to watch the victory on television, but he grew up in Massachusetts inspired by the Americans’ triumph.
“It’s arguably the greatest underdog win in the history of the game. To say the U.S. did that and how they did that – with a bunch of college guys – it’s special,” he said. “That win happened two years before I was born, but I obviously grew up knowing that whole story – reading about it, watching all the documentaries and the movies on it. It was a huge win. Anytime you have a big win like that internationally, it just gives you confidence. It just makes you proud, to be honest with you.
“I was actually fortunate enough to meet Mr. Brooks when I was drafted [in 2001]. He seemed like a great guy and it was an honor for me to meet him. To meet him was an honor.”
Penguins forward John LeClair was around to watch the memorable Olympic tournament on TV and will never forget the U.S. team’s magical run.
“Growing up watching hockey, watching the 1980 Olympic hockey team was obviously one of the biggest highlights I have ever had. It was truly amazing and something you never forget,” said LeClair, who watched the game as an 11-year-old. “I was pretty into hockey already, but it definitely gave you a little kick-start to get you even more enthused about it. It brought on rivalries. You kind of played up rivalries that weren’t even there just because of what was going on between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.”
The win over the Soviets on Feb. 22, 1980, seemed almost as improbable as it was dramatic. The U.S.S.R. beat the U.S. team, 10-3, in an exhibition game one week before the Olympics.
“Well, it’s 26 years later and people are still talking about it, so that kind of speaks for itself,” said New York Islanders director of pro scouting Ken Morrow, a defenseman on the 1980 U.S. team. “We have certainly received more than enough recognition for what happened. It was really not just a great moment for hockey, but a great sporting moment.”
Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar grew up in the Soviet Union. He remembers the shock his country felt when the U.S. prevailed.
“I was so young. I was only 6 at the time. I remember there was a great sadness because we were going into the Olympics as a big favorite,” he said. “At that time, we were beating everybody. There was nobody who could beat us – that was how it went with the Soviet machine. They were playing so well and all of a sudden they lost.
“It was a great game. Probably the best day for the history of USA Hockey and it still is the best day,” he continued. “It was really hard to swallow, especially when you’re cheering for your country and they’re beating everyone and it seemed so easy for them and then they lost.
“You have to give all the credit to Brooks. He did such a great job inspiring people and making sure they played well as a team and as a system. They did a great job. He was the guy who was able to build this team and he was the guy who was able to bring the guys together. So, all the respect and credit to him.”
Despite beating the Soviet Union, the U.S. team wasn’t done. The Americans still had to get past Finland to win the gold medal two days later.
“Well, truthfully, I think Herb did his greatest coaching job the day after the Soviet Union game because here you had this team that just pulled off this monumental upset – it was a young group of players and obviously the guys were soaking it all in,” Morrow said. “Herb had to turn around and get us ready for the game, which was actually on a Sunday morning (Feb. 24). He put us in our place right away. He let us know where we stood and we needed that. We needed a jolt back to reality.”
Brooks was a stickler for well-conditioned hockey teams. It paid off in the gold-medal game as, just like in the match against the U.S.S.R., the Americans needed to rally in the third period for a 4-2 win over the Finns. Overall, the U.S. trailed and came back in six of their seven Olympic victories.
“Here again, we’re down 2-1 going into the third period against Finland, which was a good team. In true fashion as we had done all through the Olympics, we came back in the third period – a testament to Herb,” Morrow said. “With the conditioning we had, we outscored teams 13-3 in the third period [during the Olympic tournament]. We had at least two or three games where we came back in the third period and won. Even the Soviets said that a team had never been able to skate with them in the third period and we were able to do that.”
Morrow knows that incredible run wasn’t possible without the leadership and creativity of Brooks.
“I give him most of the credit for what we did out in Lake Placid in 1980,” he said. “He was such an innovator. The guy was 10 years ahead of his time with his thinking about the way the game should be played. All of a sudden, you saw the game going to that style of hockey [in the 1990s]. We’re really going to miss him in USA Hockey.
“It’s a shame. Since his passing, it seems like he’s finally getting the recognition he probably deserved all those years,” he continued. “Herb was not one to sit back and rest on his laurels. He was always out there. He was the ultimate coach and that’s what he loved to do. It didn’t matter whether he was coaching Olympic hockey or coaching anywhere, he just wanted to be behind the bench.”
In addition, Morrow credits Brooks with building the foundation of the former blue-liner’s 550-game NHL career in New York. He joined the Islanders on March 1, 1980, and helped guide them to four-straight Stanley Cup championships.
“It was one year with him, but I have said that it was the best year of hockey for me, as far as learning the game, as far as being in shape – I was never in better shape than that year, in 1980,” he said. “It really allowed me to step up and stay in the NHL. If I hadn’t had that year with Herb, I don’t know if I would have been able to do that.”
Brooks’ impact wasn’t limited to just Morrow. The 1980 U.S. team’s dramatic victory over the Soviet Union inspired an entire generation of American hockey players. Brooks continued to have an impact as coach of Team France at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and he guided Team USA to a silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Brooks also coached the Penguins for one season and served as a scout in the organization for many years.
“This honor is well-deserved for him. The little time I got to spend with Coach Brooks, he really touched me,” said LeClair, who played for Brooks at the 2002 Winter Olympics. “He was one of those guys who made a difference. I feel really honored that I had the chance to play for him and the chance to get to know him a little bit.”