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Penguins Herb Brooks dies in crash

Inspirational coach led 1980 U.S. Olympic team to 'Miracle on Ice' victory

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Herb Brooks, the inspirational coach who guided the U.S. Olympic hockey team to the "Miracle on Ice" triumph in 1980 and a coach and scout with the Penguins for the past eight years, died in a car wreck yesterday afternoon north of Minneapolis. He was 66.

Herb Brooks yells to Penguins players on Dec. 11, 1999, during his first game as Pittsburgh's coach. The Penguins won, 3-0, over the Washington Capitals. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
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'Miracle on Ice' tears turn sad with loss of Brooks

Mr. Brooks was killed when his minivan rolled over at an intersection in Forest Lake, Minn. The Minnesota State Patrol said that his vehicle swerved to the right and left before crashing into the median strip. Officials said he was not wearing a seatbelt and that his body was found some 120 feet from the vehicle. Emergency workers arrived within minutes but were unable to resuscitate him.

News of Mr. Brooks' death shook the world of hockey, where no American has made a greater impact.

"The strength of hockey in the United States is a testament to Herb Brooks and the historic Olympic triumph in 1980," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "It is devastating to all of us that his passion for the game, his insight, his foresight, have been taken away."

Craig Patrick, the Penguins' general manager and a long-time friend, hired Mr. Brooks as his Minnesota scout in 1995, then made him head coach in December 1999. Mr. Brooks led the Penguins to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, then stepped down to have more time with his wife, Patty, at home in Shoreview, Minn. Last summer, the Penguins promoted Mr. Brooks to director of player development, a position in which he was responsible for working with the youngest prospects throughout the organization.

But by far the greatest impact of the combined work of Patrick and Mr. Brooks came in the winter of 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

That was where Mr. Brooks, with Patrick as his assistant coach, led a ragtag group of collegians and minor-leaguers to a remarkable 4-3 upset of the more experienced and much more talented Soviet Union in the semifinal.

"You're meant to be here," he told his players before the game. "This moment is yours."

The final seconds of that game, etched in the minds of the millions of Americans who watched it on television, were marked by the call of broadcaster Al Michaels: "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" The victory was ranked by Sports Illustrated as the greatest sporting achievement of the century and has been the subject of two movies and countless books.

Two days later, the U.S. beat Finland for the gold medal.

Patrick and Mr. Brooks remained close.

"Herb Brooks is synonymous with American hockey, and those of us lucky enough to be around him learned something from him every day," Patrick said. "I knew him for more than 30 years. We played together, we coached together, and we worked together. Herbie loved the game, he lived the game, and his contributions to the Penguins over the past eight years have been immeasurable. He will be sorely missed."

"This is a great loss for the Penguins and for the entire hockey world," Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said.

Although Mr. Brooks played nearly every role in hockey, including a collegiate playing career, his work as a coach stood out.

He won three NCAA Division I championships at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s before molding the 1980 Olympic team. He coached in the NHL for the New York Rangers (1981-85), Minnesota North Stars (1987-88), New Jersey Devils (1992-93) and Penguins. In 2002, when Patrick was general manager of the U.S. Olympic team for the Salt Lake City Games, he chose Mr. Brooks as coach. The Americans settled for the silver medal after falling to Lemieux and the Canadian team.

The Rangers offered Mr. Brooks a multimillion-dollar contract to become their coach last summer, but he turned it down, mostly to stay with his wife but partly out of loyalty to Patrick.

Mr. Brooks was hailed as an innovator in the early 1980s, when he was the first NHL coach to implement offensive strategies he had watched and learned in Europe. He taught his players to control the puck, even if that meant briefly retreating when they saw a defensive formation they did not like.

He was known, too, for his long-standing disdain of the passive, defense-first systems which many believe have robbed the game of its excitement in recent years.

The day Patrick named Mr. Brooks the Penguins' head coach, he was outspoken in his criticism of fired predecessor Kevin Constantine, who taught exactly the kind of system Mr. Brooks disliked.

"The idea is to give the game to the players," Mr. Brooks said. "Not to suffocate them. Not to treat them like a bunch of robots and say, 'You do this and you do this.' We want to try to provide an environment that brings out their talents."

That night at the Civic Arena, the Penguins skated with a passion not seen that season and shut out the Washington Capitals, 3-0.

"That's not blacktop out there, boys," Mr. Brooks was fond of saying. "It's ice."

He had several other one-liners -- those close to the team would refer to them as Herbie-isms -- that he would share again and again at the rink:

"You need to have the puck. You don't punt on first down, do you? You don't take three strikes so you can go back in the field, do you?"

"Having Pierre Larouche check is like having Picasso paint a garage."

"Go up to the tiger, spit in his eye, then shoot him."

Mr. Brooks had little use for computers or videotapes as methods for analyzing the game. Those who spent time with him on the ice said he could watch five minutes of a practice and perform a comprehensive evaluation of a player.

"He would never ask you normal questions, stuff everybody else asked," Penguins goaltender Johan Hedberg said. "He would bring up something little but something that made you think. Later, I would go home that night and think to myself, 'Wait a minute ... how did he know that?' "

Even though most of Mr. Brooks' life was spent at hockey rinks, he never allowed the sport to consume him. He was an avid reader of business journals and enjoyed doling out investment advice. He relished his fishing and boating opportunities at home. And, most obvious to those who knew him best, he treated those he encountered on a daily basis, from doormen to Hall of Famers, with a genuine, unrelenting warmth.

Last night, employees of the Penguins remained in the team's Mellon Arena offices hours after quitting time to swap stories about Mr. Brooks.

"Here was this great man, this legend of hockey, and he always wanted to know what you were doing," said Keith Wehner, the team's manager of media relations. "In June at the draft, we talked for 20 minutes, and all he wanted to know about was me and to share with me advice for how to be the best person I can be."

Funeral arrangements were unavailable last night.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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