When herb brooks was hired last April as the 14th head coach in the Minnesota North Stars' 20-year history, a joke made the rounds at the club's offices that the press conference should be held on the shores of some nearby lake. That way, the wiseacres said, after the announcement was made Herb could walk on the water.
That only begins to suggest how deeply revered Brooks is in this hockey-mad state. As coach at the University of Minnesota from 1972 to '79, he took the Gophers to three NCAA titles. As coach of the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in 1980, he orchestrated the American gold-medal triumph, otherwise known as the Miracle On Ice.
More recently, following his January 1985 firing after 3½ up-and-down seasons as coach of the New York Rangers, Brooks took a job with Jostens, a ring manufacturer. In the fall of 1986 he became the coach at St. Cloud (Minn.) State. Commuting 70 miles from his lakefront home in the Minneapolis suburb of Shoreview, Brooks turned the Huskies' program around. His one-season tenure was highlighted by a third-place finish in the NCAA Division III tournament—and lowlighted by an ugly regular-season pregame brawl between St. Cloud and Wisconsin-River Falls that made network news programs. After North Stars G.M. Lou Nanne fired Lome Henning with two games left in the '86-87 season, he offered the job to Brooks for the fourth time since 1978. This time proved to be the charm.
Everyone who has played with or against Brooks acknowledges his coaching acumen, although the North Stars, 13-22-5 at midseason, have so far failed to show any great results. "He started out slowly with us, too," says Ron Greschner, the Rangers' veteran defenseman. "Watch him turn that team around. He's amazing."
Says Rangers coach Michel Bergeron, "I know Herb, and he's got a great hockey mind. But that does not matter if you don't got the horses."
Before training camp, Brooks was asked if he felt pressure. "Pressure is equal to stress, anxiety," he said. "This is happiness, euphoria, fun."
But the season has not been that much fun. As of Saturday the North Stars had won only two of their last 12 games, and they had but two players with more than 20 goals; no one else had more than 10. When captain Craig Hartsburg is out with his chronic hip injury, Minnesota's defense borders on the threadbare. During a road game early in the season, Brooks asked assistant coach J.P Parise who were the team's two best defensive defensemen. Parise could think of only one, Bob Rouse.
On the truly bright side—if you want to look at it that way—wingers-instigators Basil McRae and Richard Zemlak between them led all NHL tag teams with 28 major penalties for fighting. Quebec's Terry Carkner and Gord Donnelly were a distant second, with 21.
Even after Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Rangers, the Stars were a mere seven points out of first place in the Norris, where the quality of mercy is not strained, but the quality of competition surely is. In any other division they would be from 12 to 22 points out. But Brooks takes little comfort from that. "So far we haven't had the mental preparation to come out of the chute possessed" he says. "We've got to find tenacious people who'll get knocked on their butts, get up, make it through the maze and persevere."
Brooks is too tactful to come right out and say the North Stars are several bodies away from contending for anything. He simply says, "We'll just have to bend the law of averages," or, "You don't just get well overnight in the NHL."
Despite Brooks's frequent jokes about having a "five-year plan but a two-year contract," he sounds very much like a man aboard for the long haul. He speaks of establishing "a sociological environment similar to the Montreal Canadiens', a solid vehicle to spring from." In the meantime, there is no Herb Brooks radio call-in show, nor is there a slick marketing campaign designed to harness his popularity to sell season tickets. Brooks would not have it.
"All the clichès—'We're so close we can taste it' and 'We're building a dynasty'—are marketed, sold, ingrained without any basis in reality," he says. "Then, when you don't win the Stanley Cup, people ask, 'What the hell's wrong?' "
The Met Center has seen a Miracle Off Ice, of sorts. Brooks, whom his Olympians nicknamed Khomeini, has vented very little of his renowned spleen. "I think I might have mellowed, become a little more philosophical," he says. "If I have to come here and be a wacko every night, hey, who needs the job?"
But Brooks lost his head on Nov. 21 after the visiting Boston Bruins scored three goals in 9½ minutes in the second period. Between periods he threw a chair and damaged a large-screen television set in the team meeting room. And on Dec. 18, Detroit coach Jacques Demers challenged him to a fight on the ice after the new, "mellow" Brooks, angered about something or other, called him a "milk-truck driver" during an 8-3 North Stars loss. (Actually, Demers once drove a Coca-Cola truck.) Recalls Brooks, "I told Jacques, 'Jacques, I'll go, but I don't think you can skate.' " A Detroit player dissolved much of the tension by skating past Brooks and saying out of the corner of his mouth, "I'm taking you in two." The North Stars bench broke up.
Brooks was remarkably upbeat after last Thursday's 4-1 loss at home to the Blackhawks. "We didn't lose because we didn't show up tonight," he said. He gave credit to Bob Mason, the Hawks' goalie. "As long as I see guys leaving their hearts on the ice, I can't be that upset. I will be compassionate but demanding in a reasonable way."
After practice on New Year's Day, Brooks gathered the team around him at center ice for a pep talk, urging it to burn its bridges to the first half of the season, to look ahead, to get things going. As Brooks's oration approached a crescendo, the team cheered, like so many collegians. "I think we've bottomed it out," Brooks said later.
He said it again after Saturday's Ranger victory, bravely adding, "We'll persevere and be determined regardless of the outcome. But we've got to do something about some of these outcomes."