As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, it’s especially appropriate to celebrate the miracle’s architect, a man who never really thought it was a miracle.
My obituary for Herb Brooks was originally published on Aug. 13, 2003. Herb was a true American original and hero. I miss him. Hockey misses him.
The first time I met Herb Brooks, I was at a loss for words. For starters, what do you call the architect of the greatest athletic achievement ever? "Coach" would have been easy, except he wasn't actually coaching then. He was hockey royalty, but "Your Highness" would have been a bit much, if apropos. So I settled on "Mr. Brooks."
Turned out even that was too grandiose. It was made exceedingly clear that "Herb" would do just fine. That's who Herb Brooks was. Herb. A regular guy. He made it easy to forget that he once authored a miracle on ice, even though you absolutely could not.
Besides, who says that what happened in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y., was a miracle? I never once heard Herb address it so, that's for sure. Maybe Herb was too busy making miracles to recognize one. Or maybe when you give Herb Brooks the better part of a year to prepare a hockey team for one tournament, miracles are inevitable.
If you watch the game against the Soviets now, 23 years later, one conclusion is inescapable: The United States deserved to win.
That's preparation, execution and inspiration. Not a miracle.
Herb was an innovator, the first to truly marry the European and North American styles of hockey. Herb was a motivator. For a bunch of college kids to beat the Soviets, they first had to believe they could do it. More than anything, Herb was a coach. He loved the teaching and tactics, the molding of a group of individuals into one unit.
Some said Herb should have come with subtitles. Not so. His Brooksisms -- the seemingly eccentric sayings that sprinkled his coaching and conversation -- were designed to make you think. To make you work things out on your own.
"The legs feed the wolf." Herb once said that to me. I let a few moments pass before saying, "Herb ... what does that mean?"
Herb: "What do you think it means?"
Herb helped me figure it out, of course. If the wolf doesn't maximize his speed and work ethic in pursuit of his prey, he goes to sleep hungry. If a hockey player doesn't maximize his speed and work ethic in pursuit of the puck, what good is he?
"The legs feed the wolf." Any hockey player is going to remember that a lot longer than endless shouted cries of "forecheck hard!" Herb knew that. Self-guided application of logic in a learning situation makes any lesson stick better.
Eccentric? No. Try genius. Herb was always right. But he was polite enough to let you draw that conclusion.
Before the United States beat the Soviets in 1980, he told his players they "were meant to be here. This moment is yours." The same applied to Herb. No one else had the patience, coaching technique, motivational skills and emotion to win that gold medal.
It was Herb's defining moment. He never seemed as comfortable in pro hockey. Prima donnas frustrated him.
After the United States won gold in '80, Herb gave the players credit. He was the catalyst, and he had to know it, but he let the players be the heroes.
Herb was always confused by anyone who didn't put the team first. Not angered. Confused. He was totally unfazed by his own status as a legend, so someone playing the star bewildered him.
The U.S. victory in 1980 was, at the time, heralded as a "morality play on ice." Herb sputtered with laughter when I mentioned that phrase once. Sure, the cold war was raging, and the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and Americans were held hostage in Iran. Herb sympathized with all that. But he was just trying to win a hockey tournament.
To Herb, that was the noblest of pursuits.
Herb was the ultimate coach. He coached me, too. I don't think he ever knew how big an influence he was on me.
I will always treasure our conversations, and I will always regret not having had more. Herb liked watching pro wrestling -- true to his roots, his favorites were Minnesota products Ric Flair and the late "Mr. Perfect," Curt Hennig -- and he really got a kick out of my stint as a pro wrestling color commentator. And I really got a kick out of that. The miracle worker usually cheered for the bad guys, by the way. Go figure.
We will all remember Herb throwing a haymaker at the air after beating the Soviets, then quickly disappearing into the locker room to give the moment to the players. We will all remember him telling a Czech who had thrown a cheap shot that he was going to get a stick stuffed down his throat. We will all remember him pacing behind the U.S. bench repeating the phrase "play your game" like the mantra it was.
But I will most remember Herb's eyes glowing like embers when he talked about hockey. He really loved it. Herb wasn't just an American hero, he was a hero and an ambassador for hockey everywhere. He gave the game even more than it gave him.
I will grieve Herb's death forever. I've shed more than a few tears in the past two days. But that needs to stop, and I need to get back to work. So if you want to properly pay tribute to Herb Brooks, think about him as you do whatever it is you do, and make sure to do it with passion, precision, commitment and energy.
The legs feed the wolf, after all.
Courtesy of Getty Images.