Call it the continuing education of Herb Brooks. He is sitting in a Long Island restaurant, watching the Ohio State-Michigan football game on TV and talking hockey between mouthfuls of hamburger, when this lady comes up—very possibly a normal lady in real life—and says in a high-pitched, New York accent, "Excuse me, are you Herb Brooks?"
Brooks swallows and says, "Yes, I am."
"What's with the Rangers?"
"What's with the Rangers?" Brooks repeats, taken aback.
December 7, 1981
Inexplicably, the lady begins to laugh in a nasal, lunatic way, and then says, "You come in, O.K.—I'm crazy about the Rangers, you know—and I'm saying to myself that you did so great with the Olympic team...and now you're coach of the Rangers...and...what's WRONG!" She is hysterical now, sounding like one of those laughing boxes just before the tape runs out.
"Uh...this is part of our conversation," Brooks says.
"Conversation! Ahhh-haaa! Ha! Ha!" The lady has completely lost it.
"Besides, the Olympics came in February..."
She's wiping her eyes, trying to compose herself.
"...and this isn't February."
She eventually wishes him luck and departs, chuckling. Brooks exhales deeply. "You see?" he says. "Bang. New York's a 'now' town. Now. That's the pressure of New York City."
Brooks's transition this season from being amateur hockey's most celebrated coach to being coach of the Rangers has been no laughing matter. If his Rangers had been a Broadway show, they would have closed after Brooks's opening night at the helm, a 5-2 loss to the lowly Detroit Red Wings. They were booed before the end of the first act. Mike Eruzione, the 1980 Olympic team captain who now does color commentary for the Rangers' cable TV network, heard fans screaming, "Hey Brooks, go back to the Olympic team!" after one period.
When the Rangers took their show on the road, they fared even worse, losing the next two games by a combined score of 15-3. Since that 0-3 start, New York has gone 8-13-3, including a loss and a tie last weekend against Quebec—but the heat hasn't been on Brooks. What really helped Brooks is that the Washington Capitals dropped 13 games in a row and own the cellar of the Patrick Division. If the Rangers finish ahead of Washington, they will qualify for the playoffs. Still, 8-13-3 hockey isn't exactly what a "now" town that hasn't had a Stanley Cup championship in 41 years is looking for. "They want to know, 'How fast can we do it?' " says Brooks, who last June signed a two-year, $250,000 contract. "And because of the outcome of the Olympics, the pressure is compounded. But until they start giving out the Stanley Cup in October, the playoffs are still the thing."
In the minds of some hockey experts, the very methods that made Brooks successful with the Olympic team and, before that, the University of Minnesota—which won three NCAA championships in his seven seasons there—are likely to be his undoing in the NHL. Conditioning? You can't make the Rangers do Herbies up and back, up and back until they crawl. Innovation? The NHL rinks are too small for all that fancy wheeling and dealing they do in Europe. Motivation? You try that rah-rah college stuff up here and the players will laugh you back to Gopherland.
"I haven't come in here with a Minnesota baseball cap and I'm not leading college cheers," says Brooks. "And I haven't come into this job with a whip or screaming and yelling like a crazy man, as I've been painted. These guys are pros and I respect their abilities. But I asked them not to misinterpret that respect as a sign of weakness. It's not a sign of weakness. I'll do what I have to do to survive."
That, in itself, would be an achievement. No U.S.-born college coach has ever made it in the NHL, a league that doesn't look kindly upon outsiders. Brooks is very much an outsider, having neither played nor coached in the NHL before landing the Ranger job. He'd never even lived outside of Minnesota before coaching last season in Davos, Switzerland. "I guess at times I've felt like Jackie Robinson," Brooks says. "Not with the Rangers, but with certain elements around the league. The first time we were in Toronto, three or four members of the media asked how it felt knowing a lot of people hoped I'd fail. That really floored me. It hurt."
The fact of the matter is that Brooks has done little to ingratiate himself with the NHL. An outspoken critic of violence, he says that fighting should be banned from the game. He says the league's 80-game regular season should be made more meaningful, that it should eliminate from the playoffs more than the five teams—out of 21—it does now. Brooks even miffed his supporters in the NHL by rejecting the Colorado Rockies' coaching offer in the summer of 1980. Who does this guy think he is, turning us down?
But what bothers the Establishment the most, of course, is that Brooks did what the NHL has been unable to do since the 1976 Canada Cup: He put together a team that beat the U.S.S.R. when it meant something. If he fails in the NHL, it would make everyone in the league feel a lot better about the professional product.
Not only is Brooks's background different from that of his fellow NHL coaches, but he also has different ideas about how the game should be played. It's in the nature of things that change meets resistance. Surprisingly, that resistance hasn't come from the Ranger players, who have had to drastically change their style. "People say you can't do this, you can't do that in the NHL," Brooks says, "but I've found the Rangers to be objective, willing and good to work with, by and large."
That "by and large" is important, because at Minnesota and on the Olympic team, Brooks's players were objective, willing and good to work with—period. Or they were gone. "He's a guy who's used to being listened to," says Ranger Defenseman Dave Maloney. "And he's got such a strong personality that we've listened."
During the summer, Brooks sent all prospective Rangers an aerobic and anaerobic conditioning program—The Bible—that was the same one followed by the Olympic team. It called for up to an hour and a half of work a day, of running, flexibility exercises, weight lifting. Most of the Rangers followed it, and as a group they reported to camp in better condition than they ever had. A few didn't. When tests revealed that the body-fat content of those few was at an unacceptable level. Brooks assigned them to the Ranger "fat farm," where they underwent a special conditioning program. All in good fun, you understand. Except that when the season opened, one of the fat-farmers, Chris Kotsopoulos, had been traded; another, Steve Vickers, was in the minors; a third, Carol Vadnais, was sitting in the stands; and a fourth, Mike Allison, was seeing limited playing time. The message was clear: If you want to play, report to training camp in condition. The 36-year-old Vadnais, now down from 215 pounds to 205, his lowest playing weight in years, was inserted into the lineup after four games, and he has since been one of New York's top defensemen. "The times have changed—hockey's an 11-month job now," says one Ranger. "Vadnais was willing to change with the times; Vickers wasn't."
Conditioning is a Brooks trademark. According to Maloney, New York's "practices can be godawful," but Olympians Dave Silk and Mark Pavelich, who are now Rangers, say the workouts are nothing compared to what Brooks put the U.S. team through. Yet. "We're tightening the screws a little bit," Brooks says. He's sensitive about his image as a slave-driver and has, by his standards, gone slowly in that area. Instead, the top priority at the Ranger training camp—much of which was held in Scandinavia—was to install a new offensive system emphasizing puck control and motion. That style is now used by a number of NHL teams, most notably Edmonton, the NHL points leader at week's end, and Brooks feels it will be the wave of the '80s. "It all started with Lake Placid," says Maloney, who likes the new system. "His Olympic team showed the game could be played in different ways."
The style's origins are European. Forwards are asked to think of themselves not as right wings, left wings or centers but as forwards. Rather than staying in lanes up and down the ice—the traditional NHL style—they are encouraged to crisscross, to dart toward open holes. Passes aren't necessarily made directly onto the stick, but are feathered into open areas toward which a teammate is skating, like a spot pass in football. The objective is to keep control of the puck. If the opponent prevents you from breaking through cleanly at the blue line, don't shoot the puck in and chase it. Pass it back to your defensemen and start over. Wheel and deal. Create openings.
Sounds good, right? Well, it is good when it's done right; done wrong and you'll be giving away the puck all night. In recent years the passing and stickhandling skills of North American players have taken a back seat to shooting, checking and skating skills. No coach was more responsible for this trend than Fred Shero, who happened to be the Ranger coach at the start of last season. However, a mucking right wing who excelled in digging the puck out of the corner for Shero has no function under Brooks. Says Eddie Johnstone, a Ranger forward who has had difficulty with the transition, "When you've been going up and down your wing for 20 years, it's tough to make that adjustment. I find myself thinking, 'Maybe I should cut across now.' Then just when I do, the defenseman throws it up the boards where I was, and they intercept and score."
"We had the same sort of problems with the Olympic team," says Brooks. "Some nights it looked like a three-ring circus out there, guys running into each other and everything else. We were going to give the system a try until Christmas and then make an assessment. But up here you've got to win some games to save your neck. We had to make an assessment after three games."
Things went great in the exhibition season, when the Rangers won nine straight. But the season opener was something else. "We were overcoached, thinking too much," Maloney says. "It was system this, system that, the players thinking, 'I should be over there,' instead of just reacting."
That night Detroit used a defense that, ironically, Shero had employed as the Philadelphia coach when the Flyers beat the Soviet Army Club—the U.S.S.R. champions—in 1976. The Red Wings positioned four men at their blue line, challenging the Rangers to break through. The Rangers, under instructions not to shoot the puck in, circled, wheeled and searched for an opening that didn't exist. Meanwhile, they were retreating and frequently coughing up the puck. Silk recalls dropping the puck back at one point, only to discover his defenseman was on the way to the bench. It slid all the way down the ice to a chorus of boos. "When they announced one minute remaining in the first period, everybody cheered," Silk says.
Next, the Rangers faced Winnipeg, a team that had won only nine games in 1980-81. The Jets also stacked the blue line, and New York was blown out 8-3. In the Rangers' third game, against Minnesota, they lost 7-0. "That was tough, to go home to your backyard—the place was sold out—and get drilled seven-zip," Brooks says. "It was so bad that when I called my mother afterwards, she hung up on me."
At that point Craig Patrick, the New York general manager, who was Brooks's assistant coach on the Olympic team, told Brooks the Rangers were mentally and physically tired. So Brooks gave his players two days off and reassessed things. "I went too fast too soon with the motion thing, and it blew up in my face," Brooks says. "I'd tried to build the house from the top down and had taken for granted some fundamentals, like the checking game and play without the puck. So now I had a tired and disillusioned club, and suddenly we were decimated by injuries."
Injuries can be part of any team's problems but fate has been especially unkind to the Rangers. Anders Hedberg, New York's top all-around forward, had knee surgery after four games and is lost for the season. Hedberg, a Swede, had spent most of his life playing the way Brooks was asking the Rangers to play now. Ulf Nilsson, Hedberg's center for the last nine years, has been recovering from knee surgery himself and isn't expected to play until mid-December at the earliest. Laments Brooks, "I'm losing the people who could say, 'I'll show you how to play that game.' I've lost the picture that is worth a thousand words." New York's other injuries have included Defenseman Ron Greschner (back), Goalie John Davidson (back), Dave Maloney (broken thumb), Forward Don Maloney (knee), Defenseman Ed Hospodar (pulled groin) and Goalie Steve Baker (torn groin). Through the first 24 games, the Rangers led the league in man-games lost with 152.
The most effective Ranger line, by far, has been that of Ron Duguay, Pavelich and Silk, put together by Brooks in the second game of the season. Silk and Pavelich, neither of whom expected to make the team, are used to Brooks's system and, according to Assistant Coach Wayne Thomas, "Duguay's played that way his entire life." It's just that until this season no one was playing that way with him. He's off to the best start of his career, leading New York with 13 goals, and has been killing penalties with Pavelich at an excellent 80% success rate.
Pavelich, who is only 5'8" and played last season in Lugano, Switzerland, is one of seven Ranger skaters who weigh 175 pounds or less. "We've got some midgets here," says Dave Maloney. "It's been a long time since I've been in a locker room with guys this size."
In an age when most sports are turning to the big men, the tough little guy with good hands still has a place in Brooks's system. It isn't so much an innovation as a throwback to the glory years of the NHL, when small, highly skilled players (Camille Henry, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard) were commonplace. "They said Pavelich was too small," says Brooks. "I asked, 'Can he skate?' Yeah. 'Can he pass?' Oh, yeah. 'Can he stickhandle?' Damn right he can stickhandle. 'Is he a good playmaker? A good guy? Does he work hard?' You take all those variables, and put them against his height and weight, and he's a player."
Some of the Rangers actually feel that Brooks is prejudiced in favor of undersized players. When the 5'9" Johnstone got off to a slow start, one Ranger remarked, "Good thing he's small or he'd have been sent down by now." There is also some ill-feeling toward the Europeans on the team—five, including Hedberg and Nilsson—and the way Brooks built up his rookie Finnish defenseman, 5'8" Reijo Ruotsalainen, a fantastic skater but an ineffective playmaker, so far, and a defensive liability. Says one Ranger, "There's a rift starting. A few players can do no wrong, and some can't do anything right."
Brooks's habit of pointing out the mistakes of the players on the ice to the players on the bench so annoyed some of the Rangers that a meeting was called to clear the air. The players accused Brooks of embarrassing them behind their backs. Brooks explained that he wasn't trying to embarrass anybody, but was using their mistakes as a teaching tool—as that picture that could save a thousand words. He says he will continue to do so. "In the history of the NHL there hasn't been a lot of teaching," says Thomas. "Herb's dealing now with people much closer to him in age and with much greater egos. Even though he's been less critical than he was with his college team, he's still been more critical than other NHL coaches these guys have played for."
"All good coaches weren't necessarily loved," says Dave Maloney. "You can say what you want about him, but the bottom line is, if we win, we like him."
So far, almost the only way the Rangers have been able to win is to score the first goal of the game. New York, whose offense ranks 18th of 21, is 2-9-1 when the opposition has scored first, and 6-4-2 when it has. "It's a lot easier to play that motion-type game when you're ahead," says Silk. "When you fall behind, the tendency is to push too much and revert to the style you're used to."
Without a proven goal scorer, the Rangers' power play has produced on only 16% of its opportunities. It has been especially ineffective at home (13% vs. 20% on the road). "Shoot!" Ranger fans holler in deafening unison. A "now" town wants a goal now, not two passes from now. Says Silk, "You get so tight when 17,000 people start yelling at you, you can't block it out. On the road guys don't mind taking the time to set up."
Ranger fans have shown patience with Brooks and his system since that first home game. In a recent lopsided loss to the hated Islanders, Pavelich made an inspired passing play after the game was out of hand, and the crowd applauded, even when Duguay's shot was turned aside. Such appreciation, commonplace in a city like Montreal, is relatively new to Madison Square Garden, where the bottom line—winning—seems to be all that ever matters.
And another thing. Fighting. That's something Garden fans can appreciate. But the Rangers had only six major penalties after 24 games and were about 300 penalty minutes behind their pace of last year. None of the fans seems to mind, because the Rangers are so obviously giving their all. "I just don't buy the theory that you're going to win by intimidation," says Brooks. "There can be a kind of reverse intimidation that says you can punch me all night but I'm still going to keep coming, I'm still going to be there. Maybe the fans that like the fighting are going to go, 'Ah!' and walk away. But there are four or five guys waiting in line for those tickets."
Maloney agrees: "Maybe if you change your product, you change your fans."
One hopes that's true. A recent Rangers-Islanders game on Long Island provided some of the best hockey in years. The Islanders won 4-3, but afterwards Brooks was flushed with the excitement of the game. "It's coming," he said. "It takes time, but it's coming."
The next night at the Garden, the Islanders blew the Rangers out 7-2, causing Brooks to shake his head and say, "We're like the little girl in that nursery rhyme—when we're good, we're very, very good, but when we're bad...."
He left a note on the Rangers' blackboard saying the next day's practice was optional. Brooks has talked to a sport physiologist who has convinced him that one day off a week is optimal for an athlete's conditioning, and he tries to adhere to that. Beneath the notice about practice, Brooks had written: "The best things are always the most difficult."