The Exceptionalism of Herb Brooks

21 Feb

I’ve just started into a three-week stretch of wall-to-wall hockey. The U.S.-Canada hockey duels over the past two days kicked it off; the U.S. women just lost a heartbreaker to the Canadians in the gold medal match in Sochi, while the men were decidedly less impressive in a 1-0 loss that was much more lopsided than the score makes it look. But, time to move on: it’s nonstop high school sections now, with 7AA’s excellent semifinal Saturday in Duluth, the section finals next week, and the State Tournament the week after.  Fittingly enough, the book that turned up on my reading list this past week was about a man who knew both Olympic and high school hockey glory: Herb Brooks.

Herb Brooks: The Inside Story of a Hockey Mastermind is a collection of memories by John Gilbert, a Duluthian who covered Brooks’ teams as a journalist for over thirty years and built a tight bond with the coach. They met during Brooks’ seven-year stint at the University of Minnesota, during which he won the school’s first three NCAA titles, and Brooks went so far as to ask Gilbert to be his PR man for the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Gilbert declined, but wound up being the only writer with direct access to Brooks during the Miracle on Ice run after Brooks walked out of an early press conference in disgust. They remained close friends as Brooks crisscrossed the world for various coaching jobs over the next twenty years, with Brooks frequently spilling out his thoughts to Gilbert. It may not be the most crisply written book about Brooks, but it is certainly the most intimate.

Brooks was a larger-than-life figure, one whose legend came to overshadow reality. He’s best remembered for his mind games, inspirational speeches, and the brutal conditioning drills immortalized in the film Miracle. No doubt he was a master motivator, and his individualized approach had a way of bringing out the best in everyone; the most poignant moment in the book comes in Gilbert’s account of an incident during the 197-76 Gopher season, when Minnesota was swept by Michigan in Ann Arbor. The team usually had some freedom on Saturday nights after series, but this time, Brooks ordered the entire team to meet in the captains’ room at midnight. Brooks waited in the hallway, hands on hips, ordering players into the room…where they discovered a few beers and a lot of pizza. Once the team was all inside, Brooks left, leaving Gilbert to explain his methods to team captain Moose Younghans. “I suppose he’s really a hell of a guy, if you could ever get close enough to know him,” said Younghans, and that wistful comment stuck with Gilbert. Brooks created his authority from a sense of distance, and while no one can deny his success or doubt that he did genuinely care about his players, there was a sort of sad loneliness to his actions.

But while Brooks could tug at his players’ emotions and sense of destiny, he was so much more than a fiery, demanding coach. He was one of those few coaches who combine that charisma with a brilliant tactical mind, and that combination put him in a league of his own, and he made sure those tactics were very much his own. Sure, he borrowed some from the open, “progressive” brand of hockey played in Europe and always tried to bring some of its elements to his teams, but it was always a hybrid system, Brooks to the core. He attacked North American hockey orthodoxy wherever he went, disdaining dump-and-chase and the use of lanes and instead insisting on puck possession and circling. His tactics didn’t always take as easily as they did with the Olympic team, but they left lasting impressions, and Brooks was long ahead of his time in advocating for rule changes to open up play in the NHL.

Brooks is also well-known for his wars with USA Hockey and its predecessor, AHAUS. He scoffed at its efforts to naturalize Canadians so as to beef up U.S. Olympic rosters (a trick AHAUS successfully pulled off with Lou Nanne), and later blasted its waste of resources on a single National Training and Development Program when it could instead spread its efforts across the entire country. “The broader the base of the pyramid, the higher the peak,” he said time and time again, and as coach at Minnesota, he practiced what he preached, following in John Mariucci’s tradition of only recruiting Minnesotans.

There were to be no shortcuts in building a great program, no poaching of top players from elsewhere: Brooks understood that hockey’s long term success depended on grassroots recruiting and creating a broad pool of quality talent rather than identifying talent at a young age and focusing only on the best. He later proved instrumental in St. Cloud State’s move to Division-I hockey, again expanding opportunities for Minnesotans to play high-level hockey past high school. Toward the end of his life, he supported the creation of the high school Elite League and took shots at junior leagues for poaching top high school players when they should, in his mind, have focused on older players still looking for college scholarships. There was an ideological consistency to all of his actions, and while his views still have plenty of loyalists in Minnesota, one suspects his side of the argument lost a crucial spokesman when Brooks died. Understanding Brooks’s project helps explain the famous moment when Brooks corrected an unsuspecting reporter to say that winning the Minnesota State Tournament, not the gold medal, was his greatest hockey memory. He truly believed that, given enough time, he could take any talent pool and built it into a successful program from the ground up, whatever the level. In that timeless title run, he saw hockey in its purest form.

It’s impossible for me not to read a book about Brooks without also thinking of Duluth East’s Mike Randolph. A few similarities make it an easy comparison, despite their very different career paths; both were the last men cut from a U.S. Olympic team, and both are noted for their intensity and their supremely high expectations, a rigid certainly that can at times seem imperious. Gilbert arranged for a conversation between the two of them in the mid-90s, one that Randolph recalled fondly when I interviewed him for Minnesota Hockey Hub last summer. (Indeed, Brooks was the second name Randolph cited when I asked him for the biggest influences on his coaching style, coming in only after—true to form—his own high school coach, Del Genereau. This was despite the fact that Randolph never played for nor coached under Brooks.) Gilbert saw some elements of Brooks in Randolph’s tactics, and after the meeting, Brooks, despite his general disdain for Duluth, adopted the Hounds, at one point traveling with Gilbert to Grand Rapids to watch a memorable East-Rapids game in which East prevailed in the final minute.

Plenty of things separate the two men as well. Brooks was always seeking out new frontiers, while Randolph was content to settle and leave a legacy in one place. Brooks pulled one of the greatest upsets in sports history; though Randolph has scored some upsets over the years, his teams have never exactly been lacking in talent, and usually play the role of favorite. There are noticeable tactical differences, with Randolph being more willing to resort to dump-and-chase if need be. People also change over thirty-year coaching careers, and both drifted into different personas over the years. But in the end, their singular senses of authority make them iconic names in their respective milieus, and this Hounds fan can only hope Randolph channels a bit of his old friend tomorrow afternoon.

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