When you read about U.S. Olympic history, Herb Brooks is near the top of any story.
His name represents many things, but most of all, Brooks was a winner. Brooks, who died in an automobile accident on Aug. 11, 2003, was inducted posthumously into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame Thursday at the Harris Theatre in Chicago, Ill.
“I am very happy for Herb,” Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said. “He’s not here, but it makes me happy for his family. It’s certainly well-deserved after what he accomplished as a player in the Olympics and also as a coach in the Olympics.”
With Patrick as his assistant, 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.”
“I think it’s fitting, obviously. Who is more famous for his Olympic achievements than Herb Brooks? His name is synonymous with Olympic greatness the way Jesse Owens was, I think,” Penguins radio play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald said. “There can’t be anybody in the history of the U.S. Olympic program whose name is more prominent or more recognizable than Herb Brooks’.
“The Olympics are a whole different thing because it’s a world stage. At that time because of the Cold War and everything, it even took on more significance,” he continued. “So, he became a national hero in a different sense because of that than just another Olympian might. The political undertones of that event made him even larger than life, I think. He certainly should be a fixture in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.”
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 25 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.”
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 Americans 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. His 1980 U.S. team’s dramatic victory over the Soviet Union inspired an entire generation of American hockey players.
“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 Penguins forward John 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.”
Likewise, Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk drew inspiration from that thrilling victory and subsequent triumph over Finland for the gold medal.
“I was only 12 years old when I was watching and I was lucky enough to try and follow in those footsteps four years later in 1984,” said Olczyk, who played for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team in Sarajevo. “[The win over the Soviets] was something then that no one really expected, but it couldn’t have done more for USA Hockey and for a player like myself to want to be a part of something like that.”
Later, both LeClair and Olczyk had a chance to work personally with Brooks, who joined the Penguins as a scout in 1996 and remained with the organization for the next eight seasons, until his death.
As a member of the Flyers, LeClair played against Brooks when Herb coached the Penguins in 1999-00 and for him while he directed the U.S. team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. LeClair led that tournament with six goals and tied for third with seven points as the U.S. captured the silver medal.
“This honor is well-deserved for him. The little time I got to spend with Coach Brooks, he really touched me,” LeClair said. “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.”
Olczyk played two seasons for the Penguins in 1997 and ’98 and returned to the organization in 2000 as a television broadcaster for FSN Pittsburgh before being appointed head coach in 2003.
“I got a chance to know Herbie over the years. He’s a tremendous ambassador, not only for hockey, but U.S. hockey,” he said. “We miss him a lot, but his name and his legacy will live for a long time. It’s certainly a great honor for him and his family.”
Brooks’ legacy lives on regardless of any special recognition.
“He was such a great teacher/motivator, but I’d emphasize the teacher part because, whether it was hockey or life, he was always trying to teach people new lessons in whatever endeavors they were in,” Patrick said. “He was great at motivating people to follow through with his teachings. He was a really bright human being.”
While he was a disciplinarian, Brooks was willing to bend the rules to keep his players from turning pro before the 1980 Olympics. He amended his no facial hair rule for Morrow, who sported a beard, to no “new” facial hair – a player could keep facial hair if he had it before he came to the U.S. team.
“Yeah. I had just heard that maybe a few years ago. It was something I didn’t know. If he had asked me to shave it back in training camp, I would have certainly shaved it,” Morrow said with a laugh. “I had the beard and it was all these years later that I found out he did have a rule. I had heard him say maybe jokingly, ‘I didn’t want you to turn pro,’ but if he had asked me to shave it, I certainly would have shaved it. I am glad he bent it for me because it kind of became a trademark for me. I had the beard for almost 10 years."
As general manager of the U.S. Olympic team 22 years later, Patrick knew Brooks was the man he wanted to coach the 2002 squad.
“He did a great job in 2002,” he said. “He was very, very involved and instrumental in the U.S. Olympic program throughout his life. Unfortunately for him, he was the last guy cut in 1960 when they won the gold medal, but he played in two Olympics after that.”
The next honor for Brooks, who also coached Team France at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, is enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“The impact he had, not only with the Olympics, but also the USA Hockey program and actually world-wide – I think this should be a stepping stone for him to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame,” said Penguins radio color commentator Phil Bourque, who played against Brooks-coached teams during his NHL career and worked with him when he re-joined the Penguins as a radio personality. “That, to me, is something that should be a high priority for the members of the Hall.
“I am very surprised he is not [already in the Hockey Hall of Fame]. For all that he has done, not only for 1980, but even past that. He continued to impact the hockey world, not only here, but with Team France. He continued to impact hockey players around the world. When you talk about great hockey minds, of course you talk about Scotty Bowman and Toe Blake. You have to throw Herbie in there. He just had a great hockey mind and a unique way of impacting hockey players.”
Steigerwald believes it won’t be long before Brooks is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
“In a hockey sense, he was an innovator. He was a guy who really appreciated a world view for the game,” he said. “I think he will be in there soon enough.”
Hockey fans certainly hope so.