In the fall of 1980, eight months after he'd orchestrated the
Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Olympics, Herb Brooks was in
Davos, Switzerland, coaching a semipro team made up of
carpenters, electricians, schoolteachers and the like. After
pulling off the biggest upset in the history of hockey, leading a
group of unheralded U.S. college kids past the mighty Soviets--a
feat hailed by this magazine as the most memorable sports moment
of the 20th century--Davos wasn't the next stop Brooks had had in
mind. But it was the price he paid for being a strong-willed pain
in the ass. ¬∂ I was reminded of that recently after seeing an
advance screening of the Disney movie Miracle, which tells the
story of the 1980 Olympic team, largely through Brooks's eyes.
It's a wonderful film. My 11-year-old son also loved it,
leading me to believe that another generation will fall under
the team's magical spell. Who could have known that two
superlative weeks of play by that group of fresh-faced kids
would keep its hold on the American imagination for so long?
Over the years I've often thought about Brooks's season in Davos
because that was where he and I became friends. Not close
friends, but ones who went out of our way to have a beer together
a few times over the next 20 years. Every once in a while he'd
drop me a note about something I'd written, usually on the
subject of hockey violence, which we both condemned. He was
thoughtful, and his praise meant more to me than I can tell you.
After Brooks's death in an auto accident in August, Dave Silk, a
member of the 1980 team, wrote me a note that said, in part, "In
addition to his innovative and often contrarian ideas, Herb will
be missed for his unrelenting style of challenging the status quo
and proving that, given direction, preparation and chemistry, USA
Hockey could be a world-beater. In the end Herb was always his
own man, incapable of kowtowing to bureaucrats and empty suits."
That's why Brooks ended up in Davos. Before the tears of joy over
the Olympic triumph had dried on its board members' cheeks, USA
Hockey cut ties with Brooks, fed up with his high-handed ways.
NHL teams were loath to hire him, doubtful that the weaving
puck-control system that had worked in Lake Placid would succeed
in their rough-and-tumble, up-and-down league. Plus, general
managers were wary of a coach who thumbed his nose at his bosses.
Brooks was intimidating in the steadfastness of his beliefs.
February 9, 2004
So he became the coach of the Swiss League team in Davos, working
with players who held 9-to-5 jobs and then skated for the town
club at night. It was a different world from Olympic hockey. When
Brooks tried to get his Davos players to do off-ice conditioning
and adopt his innovative hybrid style of play, they balked. They
told him they weren't trying to beat the Soviets. They wanted to
stick to a system they knew.
He went along. He was tired of browbeating guys. A little
homesick, a lot bored, and feeling unappreciated and
misunderstood by the power brokers of hockey, Brooks was ready to
talk when I arrived in Davos, tape recorder and notebook in hand.
The members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team were going to be named
SI's Sportsmen of the Year, and getting Brooks's perspective was
my first task. For the next three weeks I would circle the globe
tracking down the players. The resulting story (A Reminder of
What We Can Be, Dec. 22-29, 1980) took on a life of its own.
People remembered it. They saved it. In many ways, it
overshadowed everything else I would ever write.
That reaction gave me a small taste of what the team experienced.
The victory over the Soviets in the first round of medal play
eclipsed everything Brooks did for the rest of his career. Team
captain Mike Eruzione, who retired as a player after the U.S.
beat Finland for the gold medal, has made a career out of giving
motivational speeches about that squad. Ken Morrow won four
Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders, but he's still
remembered as the tall defenseman with the beard in Lake Placid.
And every four years, as another Winter Games approached, the
questions would start again: Could there be another miracle?
Might this be the year? I wanted to pull out my hair. No, no!
There would never, ever be another Miracle on Ice.
If truck drivers from Alabama and Georgia wanted to feel good
about the U.S.'s beating the Soviets in a sport the drivers
didn't know much about, that was fine with Brooks. But the
success of that team had nothing to do with patriotism. Not to
him. It had to do with changing the way hockey was played in the
U.S. and with making his guys believe they could do something no
one else thought they could do. He'd spent his life playing and
coaching the game in Minnesota, leading the University of
Minnesota to NCAA championships in 1974, '76 and '79, and he knew
that in the closed minds of many NHL executives--Canadian
executives, primarily--the U.S. player, especially the U.S.
college player, didn't measure up. For that reason Brooks had a
chip on his shoulder. He was, at his core, not only a hockey
coach but also, more importantly, an American hockey coach.
We met in a quiet tavern off the main street in Davos. It was
tidily Swiss in decor, with wide wood floorboards and thick oak
tables whose edges had been rounded with age. We drank beer out
of liter-sized steins, delivered by a large-boned woman who wore
on her waist a leather change purse that rattled heavily with
coins. No one recognized Brooks, no one interrupted us, and we
talked for more than four hours.
He started at the beginning, when he was a forward who was the
last man cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. He recalled how his
father had joked, after the U.S. had won the gold medal in Squaw
Valley, that they'd obviously cut the right man. The hurt was
still in him. It didn't disappear after Brooks made the 1964
Olympic team (which finished fifth in Innsbruck) and then the '68
squad (sixth in Grenoble). He was a man with unfinished business.
Brooks said the players he wanted for the '80 team had to be
educated, intelligent and open-minded because he was going to
teach them a new style of play. He described his rigorous off-ice
conditioning program, featuring anaerobic, flexibility and other
exercises that he'd picked up from swimming and track coaches.
This was all quite revolutionary to hockey, and he knew he was
putting his players through a lot. What surprised me most,
though, was his admission that he'd put himself through a lot
too. He had deliberately stayed aloof from the young men he'd
handpicked. He had acted the role of the bad cop--pushing,
pushing, pushing guys to the breaking point in an effort to make
them better--yet had known exactly when to stop. They had feared
him, maybe even hated him, and that dislike had united them. He
had wanted them to be more afraid of him than they were of the
It had been a long, lonely year for Brooks. After the Olympics no
one seemed to understand that it wasn't the only way he knew to
coach--that he'd be different with NHL players (as he would prove
when he took over the New York Rangers in June 1981) because he'd
have to be different to sell them on his ideas. He wasn't a bad
cop by nature. He was an innovator who knew that to motivate and
win he had to adapt to each situation as it came.
I thought I had known Herb Brooks. But I hadn't known this Herb
Brooks--frank, articulate, engaging. Brooks the salesman. When I
covered the hockey competition in Lake Placid, I spent time with
a number of the players. I'd met some of them--Morrow, Silk, Jim
Craig, Mark Johnson, Jack O'Callahan--when I'd covered the 1978
NCAA hockey championships in Providence. I'd played college
hockey, and at 28 I was closer in age to the players, whose
average age was 22, than to Brooks, who was 42. So they had told
me stories about the coach's mind games, his tantrums and
off-the-wall rages. About how for six months he'd patted them on
the back with one hand while holding a knife to their chests with
the other. They respected him as a coach. None of them had ever
had a better bench coach. But he was so cold, so distant, he
At Lake Placid it had been easy for me to believe that Brooks was
a great coach but a self-absorbed jerk. I'd seen his obstinacy at
press conferences, seen flashes of his temper. I'd heard him
threaten to shove a hockey stick down the throat of a Czech
player. Brooks could be a scary dude.
Yet I'd also seen how he could be unexpectedly good-natured and
flexible. During the first week of the Olympics, before the U.S.
team attracted the attention of the nation, I figured out a way
to get past the security guard in the basement of the hockey
arena. It gave me access to the locker room, which was forbidden
to the press. Brooks would see me coming, shake his head with an
admiring grin and allow me to go in to talk to the players
minutes after the end of a game. "I don't know how the hell
you're doing it, but if anyone asks, I don't know you're in
there," he said. This from the coach who steadfastly refused to
allow any of his players to go to the postgame press conferences
despite pleas from the media, Olympic officials and Brooks's
bosses at USA Hockey. Accused of hogging the limelight, Brooks
stopped going to press conferences himself and sent his
assistant, Craig Patrick, instead. You couldn't predict his next
move. He was a fascinating man.
All these memories flooded back after I saw Kurt Russell's spot-on
portrayal of Brooks in Miracle. It's a role the actor seems to
have been born to play, multilayered and hauntingly true to life.
Russell is Brooks. He perfectly replicates the coach's clipped
speech pattern and flat Minnesota accent; the tight mouth that,
with the slightest twitch or downturn, conveys a range of
emotions, from stubbornness to anger to regret; the burning
intensity of Brooks's eyes; the conviction, the willfulness, the
loneliness Brooks felt that season.
The film opens with newsreel footage from the late 1970s that
provides a necessary historical backdrop. People younger than 30
have little familiarity with the America of that era. It was a
time of long gas lines, high inflation and low national
self-esteem. A crisis of confidence, President Jimmy Carter
called it in the summer of '79, trying to rally the nation's
spirits. The lengthy hostage crisis that followed the takeover of
the U.S. embassy in Tehran later that year--an event that came to
symbolize America's impotence--is woven into Miracle's script.
Otherwise, current events and subplots that might have detracted
from the film's central storyline are kept to a minimum. Director
Gavin O'Connor (Tumbleweeds) understood that the Olympic hockey
saga needed no Hollywood embellishment. The facts were miraculous
Not that the movie doesn't stray from the truth at times. A
training camp fight between O'Callahan, a Boston University
defenseman, and Rob McClanahan, a Minnesota forward, never
happened. But the intense rivalry between players from those
schools was real, at least early in the tryouts.
In several scenes Brooks is shown asking players, "What's your
name and who do you play for?" Each answers with his name and his
college. After weeks of this, Brooks finally gets the answer he's
looking for. At the end of a marathon wind-sprint session in the
dark after a tie game in Norway, the players are exhausted,
puking, and Craig Patrick looks disgusted with Brooks. Then a
voice in the dark saves the day. "Mike Eruzione," says the
captain, "and I play for the United States of America!" Grimly
satisfied, Brooks lets them leave the ice.
It's an interesting moment, and it's featured in the trailer of
Miracle. But it's fiction. Brooks never asked players, "What's
your name and who do you play for?" These were smart guys. They'd
have answered correctly the first time. But the wind sprints in
the dark after a tie in Norway were true. That was Brooks in a
cold rage. I remember hearing that story while reporting the
Sportsmen of the Year article in 1980, first from Silk, then from
Buzz Schneider, then from Johnson. And the sprint session ended
not with Eruzione galvanizing the troops but with Johnson, the
soft-spoken offensive star, breaking his stick against the boards
in anger--which set off Brooks again. "If I ever see a kid hit a
stick on the boards again," he screamed, "I'll skate you till you
But if Miracle isn't always a slave to the literal truth of the
team's experience, it's refreshingly faithful to its spirit.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the game action, which is
sensational. O'Connor wisely chose to cast hockey players--minor
leaguers and collegians--instead of actors who could skate.
(Schneider, who scored the first goal against the Soviets, is
played by his son Billy.) The results are by far the best hockey
scenes ever filmed--maybe the best sports scenes, period. The
bodychecks are brutal. The passing and scoring sing with
authenticity, having been carefully choreographed from actual
footage of the U.S. team's games. The Soviet players appear
smoother and more polished than the youthful Americans, which of
course they were. Craig's goaltending (the masked Craig is played
by former NHL goalie Bill Ranford) is perfectly rendered,
including the stand-up, kick-save style that is no longer in
vogue. The low camera angles capture, for the first time on film,
hockey's dizzying speed.
It makes for compelling viewing. It doesn't matter that everyone
in the audience knows how the story will end. People will cheer,
maybe even jump up, after the U.S. beats the Soviet Union. The
film will transport you, whether you were in Lake Placid the
first time around, watching and praying and not believing your
eyes, or you are of a younger generation that has only heard
about this inspiriting team. At the end of the game against the
Soviets, which is nearly the end of the film as well, you will be
counting down the seconds, heart rate elevated, repressing an
urge to hug the person beside you.
What's sad, of course, is that Brooks isn't here to enjoy it, to
bask again in the glory of that remarkable victory. He went on to
coach four NHL teams over the next 20 years but never won a
Stanley Cup. Never had the horses. So the game didn't move in the
direction he had hoped, to his beloved weaving, flowing, open
style of play. Not even the Russians play that way anymore. What
we're left with in hockey--a horrible clutch-and-grab,
left-wing-lock, neutral-zone-trap mess--used to make Brooks sick.
He never stopped trying to improve the game. His last stint
behind the bench was in 2002, at the Salt Lake City Olympics, at
which his U.S. team, made up of top professionals, won the silver
medal. It was wonderful hockey, the best that fans had seen in
The players on the 1980 team are now older than Brooks was when
he coached them. To a man they speak of him fondly. With age,
they've grown to appreciate his methods, his commitment to their
improvement. Publicly he treated them all the same: like dogs. It
was a standing joke among them. But privately he treated them all
differently. The praise was meted out man to man, almost
secretly. "Every player on that team thought Herb liked him
best," Jim Craig recently told me.
The guys reunited at Brooks's wake last summer. Every one of
them--even Mark Pavelich, who'd avoided all but one reunion in 23
years. Seeing the group together would have made Brooks proud,
might even have surprised him. The coach was never able to fully
close the distance he'd put between himself and his players that
Olympic year. But all of them readily acknowledge that he brought
out in them qualities they didn't know they had. And together, as
a team, they did the same for us. For Americans.
I've always believed that was the miracle--that a hockey team
could do such a thing.
For more on the Miracle on Ice, including E.M. Swift's original
story on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team's heroics, go to
The film's passing and scoring SING WITH AUTHENTICITY, having
been carefully choreographed from actual footage of the Games.
It had been easy for me to believe that Brooks was a great coach
but a SELF-ABSORBED JERK. I'd seen his obstinacy, seen flashes of
Brooks meted out praise man to man, almost secretly. "EVERY
PLAYER ON THAT TEAM THOUGHT HERB LIKED HIM BEST," Craig said.