Before Herb Brooks became a legend, he was the odd man out - the last man cut from the 1960 Olympic team that went on to stun the Soviet Union and win a gold medal in what has been called "the forgotten miracle."
He was a national team lifer, hanging on to his hockey dream by making the '64 and '68 teams - both of which failed to medal. From there, he went on to sell insurance - a job that fit neither his talent nor his disposition. He needed to get back in the game.
Brooks was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was a lifelong hockey player. He won a high school state championship, played for the University of Minnesota, and then doggedly pursued an Olympic dream. Through the 1960s Brooks bounced between semi-pro teams and the national team, playing in two Olympics and numerous other international competitions. As a hockey player he was fast, intense, and a capable goal scorer.
When his career ended he headed to an office to sell insurance. It was not a good fit, to say the least. Miserable, he soon got a job coaching the freshmen at the University of Minnesota. Soon he took over the varsity team. In 1974 he guided the Gophers to an NCAA championship, the first of three he would win with Minnesota.
While Brooks was establishing himself as an elite college coach, Lou Nanne, his friend and former teammate at Minnesota and on the national team, had risen to become the GM of the Minnesota North Stars. Nanne wanted Brooks to coach in the NHL. Brooks had other ideas. With Nanne's help he won the job he coveted, guiding the Olympic program.
His personality changed as a coach. He became more intense. He became more driven. He became almost a different guy. .... I tell the players that Herbie coached about how he was as a player, they don't believe the stories. Herbie was a guy that enjoyed life as a player ... He was always pulling practical jokes. ...
I was with him for 21 years before the Olympic games, so I saw both sides of Herb Brooks. ... The side that I saw when we played together was really fun.
When we were in the Olympics, We were playing in Grenoble and he and I were rooming together. and he says, ‘C'mon, we're going to go downtown and get something to eat.' I say, ‘We can't get out of here. Coach says we're not to leave. They'll see us.'
‘No no,' he says, ‘I found a way out over a fence.' So we snuck over a fence. Those were the things his players would have never have dreamed about.
- Lou Nanne
He worked his players relentlessly, wearing on them, making them hate him. It was simply his identity as a coach, and one that he would embrace at all his coaching stops. It's no surprise that Brooks was good friends with Bobby Knight. Like Knight, Brooks was a military-style leader. Players had to do things his way. All the time.
"I was fortunate to play for Herb in New York as a pro. Herb's real ability ... was being able to push people beyond where they thought they could go. ... He was not a fun guy to play for, but you had to respect his understanding of the game and what he was trying to accomplish."
- George McPhee, Washington Capitals General Manager
In one famous incident, he was unhappy with the way his team played during an exhibition against the Norwegian national team. He warned his players that if they didn't work during the game they would work after it. Still unhappy after the final period, Brooks marched the young men onto the ice and forced them to skate suicides as the arena slowly emptied. Finally, as the players were on the brink of collapse, he let them off the ice. His message was clear. Work or go home.
In part, he would tell people later, he wanted the players from the East and the players from the Midwest to hate him more than they hated each other. There was a natural rivalry between the two groups. Fourteen of the players were from either Minnesota or Wisconsin, and 9 of those had played at the University of Minnesota. Four of the players were from in and around the Boston area and had played at Boston University.
In 1976 a vicious fight had broken out between Minnesota and Boston University during the semifinals of the NCAA hockey championship. The fight was so heated that it stopped the game for 30 minutes. Five of the players on that 1980 squad had been on the ice that day, throwing punches at each other.
It wasn't easy melding that team together. We were all young and enthusiastic guys. All of us had big egos ... the guys from the East, the guys from the West, they had this culture clash. ... He had a way of bringing us together.
- Ralph Cox
Brooks had another reason for riding his players, for constantly pushing them to the brink of throwing down their sticks and leaving the team for good. The Soviet team was in awesome physical condition, one of the reasons the Soviets seemed almost super-human to hockey fans. Brooks would drive, exhort and punish his young collegians until they could skate with the Soviets for three periods. The Americans' conditioning would be their secret weapon.
"It wasn't fun for the guys doing it, but it was enjoyable to watch how hard he drove those kids. The kind of condition he got them in. They really worked. People don't understand how hard they worked. It was something to see."
- Lou Nanne
Brooks the hard-driving disciplinarian had another side. After the Miracle, he left the bench as soon as he could so that his players could have the spotlight to themselves. TV cameras captured only the back of his brown sport coat as he left the bench. "No words necessary, just pictures," Al Michaels intoned as the camera quickly cut back to shots of the players' jubilation on the ice.
Brooks would later call the year he spent coaching the 1980 Olympic team his loneliest in hockey. He put on the mask of a ruthless tyrant because that was what the team needed. As Mike Eruzione later said, "I firmly believe that he loved our hockey team, but we didn't know it."
"My dad was so stoic. I remember when the countdown took place, the play was in the other end, I go, ‘I want to see what he does.' So 4-3-2-1: I'm looking at him. I remember he jumped in the air ... and boom he went down and boom he just hightailed it off the bench and into the bowels of the building. ... He just went crazy for that one split second moment."
- Dan Brooks
After the winter of 1980, Brooks bounced around. He coached for four different NHL teams, compiling a .500 record. He coached in Switzerland, in the AHL, and at St. Cloud University. He worked in the front office for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I had a lot of good talks with him. He was a great dad, he was a great husband, he had a lot of great friends."
- Ralph Cox, the last man cut from the 1980 Olympic team and a former scout alongside Brooks with the Pittsburgh Penguins
He coached the French team at the 1998 Olympics and then was named the head coach of the 2002 USA Olympic team. The move was criticized as pure nostalgia, but Brooks guided the squad to the first American hockey medal since 1980.
In 2003, Brooks was working as the director of player development for the Pittsburgh Penguins when he overturned his car returning home from a fundraiser for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. He was 66 years old. All 20 players on the 1980 team attended the ceremonies.
Mike Eruzione spoke at the funeral. ''Here I am, 48 years old,'' he said, ''and whenever Herb called the house, I was afraid I'd done something wrong.
''I can just imagine what's going on upstairs. Herbie's talking to God: 'I don't like the style of your team. We're going to make a few changes.' ''