In life, and in death, Herbie defied logic
It's a hot
summer afternoon in the State of Hockey, and nothing coming out
of the TV's tinny speaker makes sense.
The news flashes
tell us that Herb Brooks is gone. A one-car accident on the freeway
just south of Forest Lake has claimed his life at the age of 66.
clear, warm, sunny day. In mid-afternoon, on dry pavement. Somehow,
his Toyota mini-van left the road, rolled several times, and ejected
his corpse onto the grassy median. And just like that he was gone.
It doesn't make sense.
But if you
knew Herbie even a little bit, as so much of the Minnesota hockey
community did, not a lot of who he was and what he was made sense.
And that's what made his life so wonderful.
At a time
when American kids from the inner city weren't in vogue in the
hockey world, he excelled at the college game. It just didn't
was the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. A few
weeks later, he followed from the family's living room in St.
Paul as his former teammates shocked the world and won the gold
medal. And when he turned to his father for comforting words,
the elder Brooks shot back, "Well, it looks like they cut
the right guy."
on two Olympic teams, but, as a player, didn't find the gold that
had been mined in Squaw Valley.
Brooks behind the Minnesota bench at old Mariucci Arena (photo
courtesy University of Minnesota).
As a rookie
coach, he took over the last-place University of Minnesota program.
(Even that sentence doesn't seem to make sense.) By the end of
the 1970s, he'd led his alma mater to three NCAA titles, and nearly
a fourth. The Gophers were close to a three-peat, but were tripped
up in the 1975 title game by Michigan Tech. (Tell me THAT sentence
makes any sense!)
to lead Team USA into the 1980 Olympics, Brooks threw logic out
the window all together. He motivated his team to win for him
by getting them to hate him. He inspired them to play their best
by telling them they were worthless on the ice. Long before his
famous, "You were born to be a player" speech, he greeted
his team with inspirational nuggets like, "You don't have
enough talent to win on talent alone." And just a few weeks
before they took the ice in Lake Placid, Brooks told his charges,
"You guys are playing worse every week. And right now you're
playing like the middle of next month."
In the days
leading up to the Olympics, he offered another inspirational tactic,
publicly discussing the very real possibility that he would cut
Eruzione from the team.
assessment of his own squad rang true when, just days before heading
to Upstate New York, Team USA was humiliated by the powerful Soviets
on the ice of Madison Square Garden. In few weeks, the scrappy
Americans had beaten the Red Tide in the most memorable moment
in the history of American hockey. Herbie celebrated the miracle
win by quietly leaving the bench and heading for the team's locker
room alone. When later asked why he didn't join in the on-ice
pandemonium, he quipped, "I had to use the bathroom."
It didn't make any sense.
the heroics versus the USSR, Team USA still needed one victory
– over Finland – to win any medal. With 60 minutes
remaining in their time
together as a team, Herbie served up one more heartfelt inspirational
nugget to his team of ex-collegians from Massachusetts, Wisconsin,
Michigan and Minnesota. Eruzione reports that before they headed
out to face Finland, Herbie poked his head in the locker room
door and said, "If you blow this game, you'll take it to
your f---ing graves!"
– coming from behind for a 4-2 win and the next day Team
USA left Lake Placid on Air Force One with gold medals around
their necks. It didn't make any sense.
So with the
entire world at his feet and NHL coaching offers pouring in, Herbie
– as usual – did something that made no sense, and
went to Switzerland to coach. He eventually made his way to the
NHL ranks for stints behind the bench with the New York Rangers,
Minnesota North Stars, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins.
But in the
midst of those big-time jobs was the time he turned down big NHL
money to instead coach St. Cloud State (then a Division III team)
for a season
and lay the groundwork for the Huskies' jump to D-I.
With his coaching
talents again in high demand in 1998, he turned down lucrative
and prestigious pro and college offers to lead Team France in
the Nagano Olympics, despite admitting that he spoke very little
French. It didn't make any sense.
And in 2002,
despite being on the outs with some at USA Hockey for years, and
despite being an outspoken critic of the Olympic decision to allow
NHLers in the games, he agreed to lead Team USA once again. Despite
having just days to come together as a team and despite being
overmatched by other nations in the talent department, Herbie
led Team USA within one
icebound Loonie of another gold medal. It didn't make any sense.
But again, that was
the beauty of Herbie.
It never made
sense that you could watch a SportsCenter story about American
hockey's miracle worker, and 45 minutes later bump into the man
himself at a high school rink in suburban Minneapolis. It never
made sense that the home arenas of archrivals Minnesota and St.
Cloud State both feature tributes to the same coach for his contributions
to their respective programs. It never made sense that this man
who could be so gruff and so callous with his players was their
most beloved coach. It never made sense that a man renowned for
his temper and sour humor could be such a soft-spoken, thoughtful
and humble man away from the ice.
A few months
ago, while walking in the monstrous Mall of America with my sister
and my two sons one evening, I crossed paths with Herbie outside
of a clothier. We talked hockey for a few minutes, and he shook
hands with my boys. I ended the conversation by saying that I'd
see him at a rink somewhere soon.
But now the
TV is on and the talking heads tell us that although he'll be
remembered in hockey rinks from coast to coast, we'll never see
Herbie at a rink again. It just doesn't make any sense.
And if you
knew Herbie or admired his work, that's just the way you'd expect
it to be.