Master motivator Brooks recalls U.S. victory

Updated: August 11, 2003, 6:05 PM ET
Associated Press

Editor's note: This story was originally written in 2000 by The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Millions of Americans who otherwise wouldn't watch hockey if it were played in their backyards sat transfixed before their TVs, holding their breath, counting the seconds, anguishing with every shot, every save, every Soviet flurry.

They were watching something special, something momentous inside a tiny, partly empty arena in Lake Placid, N.Y. But most understood a cold, hard blast of Russian-delivered reality could unravel the magic at any second.

U.S. coach Herb Brooks, the maestro of the Miracle On Ice, doesn't recall his exact thoughts 20 years ago when his unknown collegians didn't squander their moment of moments, but seized it with one of the greatest upsets in sports.

What he remembers is this: When destiny knocked, an entire country answered.

"I don't know if I ever fully understood the magnitude of the Olympics, the historical significance until December, when they said it was the top sports moment of the century," Brooks said. "I just said, 'Wow.' I don't know if we'll ever see anything like it again."

United States 4, Soviet Union 3.

As the game ended, ABC broadcaster Al Michaels gave his exuberant, memorable call:

"Do you believe in miracles?"

"Yes!"

A miracle? It was more than that; it was the miracle of miracles.

Even today, the score stirs memories and rekindles a patriotism in those who remember when a beaten-down nation momentarily forgot a hostage crises in Iran, an invasion in Afghanistan and the choking grip of inflation at the gas pump and was proud again for one gold medal-shiny instant.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, whom Brooks now coaches, recognized next week's 20th anniversary of the U.S. Olympic hockey team's gold medal with a ceremony Wednesday night. The Soviet game was played on Feb. 22, 1980, with the gold medal-clinching victory over Finland coming two days later.

Two decades later, Brooks is still coaching, at least until Penguins coach-in-waiting Ivan Hlinka takes over. Only now, Brooks' players are the likes of Jaromir Jagr, not a bunch of college kids thrown together a few months before the Olympics to attempt the unimaginable.

In 1980, NHL participation in the Olympics was years away and many top players were hidden behind the Iron Curtain, emerging only to play for the pride of their countries. The Soviets, led by Hall of Fame goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, were widely considered the world's best team and regularly defeated top NHL teams during exhibition tours.

The United States had one of the few teams still composed of amateurs -- half from a single state, Minnesota, where Brooks coached. America's kids looked badly overmatched, losing to the Soviets 10-3 in Madison Square Garden two weeks before the games began.

Miracle on Ice? This had the makings of a disaster on ice.

The exhibition reinforced the facade of Soviet invincibility, but as U.S. forward Neal Broten said, "I think they underestimated the U.S. We were smart with a lot of hockey sense, and we got on a bit of a roll."

Given no hope of winning a medal, the U.S. amateurs gained confidence and momentum with a come-from-behind tie with Sweden and subsequent victories over Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania and West Germany.

To this day, Brooks' motivational tactics are recalled by his players as the single biggest reason for their success. Many didn't realize it, but Brooks had hand-picked each one, discarding many prospects after administering a 300-question personality test that didn't mention hockey.

None had a national identity before the Olympics, but the talent was there: Broten, Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, Dave Silk, Phil Verchota, Mike Ramsey, Ken Morrow. But most didn't fully understand how good they were until Brooks told them during his oft-quoted pep talk before the Soviet game: "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here."

He shifted gears psychologically for Finland, reminding they had never played in such a game and lacked the experience to win. Which, of course, they did.

"He was and is a master motivator," said Craig Patrick, the Penguins general manager and Brooks' assistant coach in 1980.

America rejoiced in the upset for weeks, or about how long it took some players to reach the NHL. Brooks made it there a year later, reaching 100 wins faster than any coach in New York Rangers' history but losing three successive playoff series to the powerful New York Islanders.

He later coached the Minnesota North Stars and, after several years as a sportscaster and salesman, the New Jersey Devils. He was a Penguins scout for five years until replacing the fired Kevin Constantine in December, though it was clear this appointment was only temporary.

Brooks was ahead of his time in 1980, not only understanding the then-foreign, fluid, never-waste-energy European style but introducing it to his own team. Now, one-third of all NHL players are European, and the league will soon get its first European coach.

It is uncertain if the 62-year-old Brooks will ever coach again, or wants to, once Hlinka takes over. What is indisputable is that unforgettable fortnight 20 Februarys ago will live on as long as sports plays an integral role in society.

"I don't know if we'll ever see anything like it again," Brooks said.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press