The reminders, encountered innocently, knife through him like spasms. A line scrawled long ago across the pages of his calendar or the glimpse of a familiar face on the nightly news will rekindle the pain for Herb Brooks, shaking the remarkable resolve he has maintained since the words "former coach" were festooned around his neck six weeks ago.
Brooks claims to be as much at peace with himself now as he was when he was fired by the New York Rangers, sure that he was right to demand a voice in personnel decisions that he claimed was denied by General Manager Craig Patrick. That may satisfy his rational nature, but the emotional, competitive side of him is burning with frustration and longing.
"My stand was a philosophical stand and when you make a philosophical stand or your reasons are philosophical, there's some strength in that," Brooks said from his home outside St. Paul, Minn. "That keeps you on the right course. Not that it's totally foolproof, but it's comfort and something to hang onto. I have my beliefs and philosophy and you hang on. But that doesn't mean that I don't hurt. I hurt. I miss it, there's no question about it.
"My watch is still on eastern time and so are my mind and body. I'd rather be fighting the battle, and I'm bleeding a little bit. You're with a club 3 1/2 years and you don't walk away and forget. I kept a notebook, a desk-diary type of thing. I looked a few days ago at the entry for one day and it said, 'By this time, the team should be healthy.' I watched a game on cable and saw guys I hadn't seen in a long time. Now is the fun time for them."
Brooks, who coached the United States team to a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, has deliberately kept busy and upon his return home plunged into the task of arranging a ceremony honoring an old friend who is ill. John Mariucci, the assistant general manager of the North Stars and the father of Minnesota's state high school hockey system, was Brooks' coach at the University of Minnesota. Brooks engineered the campaigning and back-patting necessary to get the university's arena renamed for Mariucci.
"It's been a long, laborious thing, but the doctor says he doesn't know if John's going to be around this fall so we had to get it together bang, bang, bang," Brooks said. "It's given me something to do. It's made time go fast instead of me sitting around moping and reflecting."
He paused. "What's going to happen when it's over," he said, "I don't know."
Brooks didn't know what to expect from his friends and relatives after he was fired and he hadn't a clue as to how to act himself. "I'd never been through it before," he said. "I received a few little notes, but there's really no etiquette on how to deal with a coach who's gone through hell. There's probably a market there for some kind of greeting card."
His most welcome consolation came from some improbable sources, such as former Flyers coach Bob McCammon and Tom McVie, formerly of the Devils. The life preserver to which Brooks clung most eagerly, though, was thrown by his most obvious competitor, Islanders coach Al Arbour.
"Al's call really picked me up. Al got through when I was pacing and banging into walls," Brooks said. "I made a note in my diary, 'This is a day I won't forget,' and I told him I hope I never have to repay the favor. He just said he'd been fired in St. Louis and that we had a good, tough rivalry and that I shouldn't get down. He gave me something to put my teeth into."
As to getting back into coaching, Brooks said he is unsure. He acknowledged he has spoken with Minnesota General Manager Lou Nanne, who three weeks ago said of Brooks, "I want him with us" next season. This time, Brooks said, he would do many things differently.
"I know that in coaching you're always going to be pushed and pulled," he said. "I'd be interested in going back, definitely, but the situation would have to be right. The coaching job description would have to include input--and not a perfunctory type of input--into decisions. I like to be somewhat in control of my own destiny a little bit."
Clearly, that destiny would most happily be fulfilled with the North Stars. But there are the matters of his longstanding friendships with Nanne and Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor to be sorted out, and the dangers assessed of so many strong wills clashing. Nanne said three weeks ago that he would allow Sonmor to choose between coaching and an administrative job, leaving Brooks the position Sonmor does not choose.
"It would be best on all fronts," said Brooks, who was torn by his family's decision to remain in Minnesota while he coached the Rangers. "Glen is a good friend of mine. He got me started in coaching. He wants to continue and I hope he can as long as he wants. I guess they'll analyze their status at the end of the season. Louie and Glen are close friends of mine. If they talk to me, and they haven't really yet, I'd have to think about it.
"There's also a couple of real interesting business opportunities for me, in sales and PR. I could be happy in the business world. I don't think I'd walk away from hockey. Maybe I could get into coaching minor hockey. But I know that I would never be apart from my family again. That's out. Patti's been at the breaking point, too. My son, Danny, will be in his senior year in high school next year, and a year from now he's gone, too. He's more mature than during the family's short-lived attempt at living in Connecticut during Brooks' first Rangers season so maybe he could live with another family. But I'd never do it alone."