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HERB BROOKS: 1937-2003

Hockey Legend Dies

Architect of 'Miracle on Ice' U.S. Olympic victory is killed in crash.

August 12, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Hockey Hall of Fame coaching legend Herb Brooks, the innovative architect of the 1980 U.S. Olympic "Miracle on Ice" victory against the Soviet Union at Lake Placid, was killed Monday in a traffic accident near Forest Lake, Minn. He was 66.

His minivan flipped at a highway intersection, according to an Associated Press report.

Brooks, who last season was the Pittsburgh Penguins' director of player development, had been returning from a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame charity golf tournament in northern Minnesota, apparently heading toward the airport to catch a flight to Chicago, when the one-car accident occurred just north of the Twin Cities.

Brooks was considered a man ahead of his time in hockey circles, having paved the way for Americans to succeed in the NHL behind the bench and on the ice, in what had largely been a Canadian game.

Before the 1980 Olympics, when Brooks guided a group of unheralded amateur players past a Soviet powerhouse en route to the gold medal, American hockey was rarely taken seriously on the international stage.

"At all levels of the game, including college hockey, Olympic hockey and the National Hockey League, Herb Brooks was a consummate teacher, an unparalleled motivator and an unquestioned innovator," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

"The strength of hockey in the United States is a testament to Herb Brooks and the historic Olympic triumph in 1980. However, there was so much more to him than that glorious moment at Lake Placid. Herb was a tireless supporter of USA Hockey players and programs, a relentless advocate of the speed and beauty of our game."

Brooks spent the last day of his life among lifelong friends from the hockey community. Minnesota Wild radio broadcaster Tom Reid had breakfast with Brooks on Monday morning before the golf tournament.

Reid said that NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Hull stood up the night before and talked about the Miracle on Ice moment, having heard the famous Al Michaels call ("Do you believe in miracles? Yes!") at the Hall of Fame, and the night turned into something of a tribute to Brooks.

Reid, a former defenseman for the Minnesota North Stars, happened to drive by the crash site with Wild scout Glen Sonmor, who had known Brooks for 47 years, less than two hours after the accident.

"I can't describe how I felt," Reid said. "I can't tell you how big a loss this is, not only for the state, but the hockey community. He was a very innovative individual with strong beliefs and that's why we were able to win the gold medal in 1980."

Said Sonmor: "I still think he's the greatest hockey coach I've ever come across."

Though he gained international fame after the stunning Olympic semifinal upset of the Soviets and subsequent gold medal in 1980, and went on to coach four NHL teams, the St. Paul-born Brooks remained a symbol of Minnesota pride.

"My gut reaction is Minnesota lost its head coach today. Herb Brooks was a Minnesota legend, a Minnesota treasure," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said.

The defining moment of Brooks' career almost never happened. The former Olympian who coached at the University of Minnesota, leading the Gophers to three titles in the 1970s, wasn't even the first choice to lead the U.S. team in 1980. But USA Hockey President Walter Bush was impressed with Brooks' attention to detail.

Brooks cleverly pressed all the right buttons with his Olympians, uniting the collegiate players. They banded together -- against him -- and became a tight unit in the days leading up to Lake Placid. The country, suffering through a difficult economic time, rallied behind them in a moment of national pride.

Their 4-3 victory over the Soviets was a genuine shock since the Soviets had defeated the U.S., 10-3, in the final tuneup before the Olympics.

"The whole thing was at the time, our socioeconomic climate," Brooks told The Times in an interview in 2000. "It's been said anyway that we were all a little frustrated. The economy was in a funk. The Afghanistan situation, one or two other variables. The country was not feeling too good about themselves and this was kind of a catalyst....

"The whole thing was a reminder given to us by a bunch of college kids that it's not a quick-fix mentality."

Brooks inspired his players before the semifinal against the Soviets with these words: "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here."

The players responded and then some. Incredibly, the Soviets pulled famed goaltender Vladislav Tretiak after the second period.

Captain Mike Eruzione's third-period goal gave the Americans a 4-3 lead, and they clung to it for the final agonizing 10 minutes. The game was not shown live on national TV, and sports fans in certain parts of the country had to rely on friends holding the phone up to the radio.

Brooks briefly let his guard down with his team, and then got back to business.

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