Brooks remembered as great innovator

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2003

MINNEAPOLIS Playing hockey for Herb Brooks usually brought a bounty of rewards, even though few of his protges realized that right away.

''My head was spinning, trying to figure out what this maniac was doing with us,'' recalled Mark Johnson, a forward on Brooks' ragtag 1980 U.S. Olympic team that upset the Soviet Union in the ''Miracle on Ice'' and got the gold at Lake Placid that winter.

''Looking back, it made a lot of sense,'' Johnson said.

Brooks died at age 66 on Monday when his minivan veered off the interstate and rolled several times. As friends and family arranged his funeral for Saturday, fans set up a makeshift memorial along the highway.

Hockey players at St. Cloud State, where Brooks coached during the 1986-87 season, said they will put his initials on their helmets this season.

Investigators were still trying to piece together details of the crash. The coroner's office said Tuesday that Brooks wasn't wearing a seat belt and died of multiple blunt-force chest and abdominal injuries when he was ejected.

The report is preliminary, but the State Patrol said there are no indications that Brooks suffered any health problems or that he was traveling above the 70 mph speed limit before the crash.

Several of Brooks' former players and colleagues talked Tuesday about his impact.

''Any player who played with him, from the start of the year to the end of the year, was a better hockey player and a better individual,'' said Jack O'Callahan, a defenseman on the 1980 team.

Brooks was one of the game's greatest coaches, equal parts innovator and intimidator. The collection of mostly college players he assembled six months before they pulled off that improbable feat quickly found that out.

''We got a sense it was a very different style of game we were going to play,'' said Mike Eruzione, who scored the game-winning goal in the Americans' 4-3 win over the Soviets that set up the chance for the gold medal.

''It became something we could kind of laugh about,'' Eruzione said, remembering standing in line during practice behind some of the 10 who had previously played for Brooks at the University of Minnesota and asking them what to do.

''It was like, 'Jee, where's he going with this drill?'' Eruzione said.

As that tight-knit bunch of twentysomethings learned, it was all part of Brooks' plan. The only way the United States could compete with the other world powers and their professional-caliber players was to adapt.

''He understood the European style it was a little more free-flowing,'' said John Harrington, a forward on the 1980 team. ''He knew he would have to combine that if he was going to be successful in the Olympic game. He had a belief, a conviction, that this could be done. He could teach it, and he could explain it. He was willing to take those chances with the ability he had.''

The American game, at the time, was based on power. Brooks taught his players to control the puck, encouraging them to hang on to it as long as possible and attempt high-percentage passes as they cycled across the ice.

''When we played, hockey was a north-and-south game,'' Eruzione said. ''You stayed on your wing. Once you got over the red line, you'd dump it in the zone. Herb would say, 'You worked so hard to get the puck. Why would you give it back to him?'''

Offseason training, back then, was also unheard of.

''He had a sense of respect for way the Europeans played and the way they trained,'' O'Callahan said. ''Now, it's pretty much become a 12-month sport. Herbie sensed that athleticism was a big component of success. It wasn't just talent or how fast you could skate or how well you could handle the puck or how well you could shoot it. He took the European training environment and sort of melded it into the North American way of doing things."

''He was the first guy who really started making that connection. It just reverberated and really affected generations of American hockey players.''

O'Callahan recalled that in his final NHL season, in 1989 with New Jersey, players weren't even allowed to chew gum that wasn't sugarless.

''They were even micromanaging our diet and exercise,'' O'Callahan said. ''In 1979, the way pro hockey players prepared for training camp was by playing three or four rounds of golf and maybe going fishing.''

Brooks was also remembered as a master motivator, one who knew how to get the most out of his players by being as negative as he possibly could without pushing them over the edge.

Harrington remembered a day when he got to the rink early and Brooks sat down beside him.

''I'm tying my skates, and all of a sudden it's, 'Harrington, you're the worst defensive player I've ever seen.' He went on for what seemed like 15 minutes. 'You think you're going to play pro hockey? You're going to get run out of town wherever you go.' He just shrugged his shoulders, and I shrugged my shoulders and went on the ice.

''That was his way of saying you needed to work on your defense. I got the message.''

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