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Finder: 'Miracle on Ice' tears turn sad with loss of Brooks

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

It’s a grim day for hockey. A grieving day. From inside the Penguins organization, across America and all over the puck planet, Herb Brooks is mourned.

“Never did we think something like this would happen to Coach,” captain Mike Eruzione was saying late last night from suburban Boston. “Not this way. Not so suddenly. It’s shocking to everybody. Just ... , you know, devastating.”

He was Minnesota’s own coaching Paul Bunyan with a sharp tongue instead of an ax. He was a legend of the game who loved it so deeply, anybody who stopped him would get an earful of hockey talk. He was such the stuff of American folklore, Hollywood was working on its second movie about him and his daring 1980 U.S. Olympic team, this time with Kurt Russell offering a far more handsome and hockey-knowledgable alternative to Karl Malden. “Somebody with a better nose,” Eruzione joked.

Do you believe in miracle workers? We lost one yesterday.

Herb Brooks died yesterday at the ominous age of 66 and six days. He was apparently driving home from a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame celebrity charity outing at Giants Ridge Golf Resort in northern Minnesota. His minivan veered into the grass off Interstate 35 north of his native Twin Cities. As the van rolled over, he was ejected and killed.

“Buzz Schneider was with him at the golf tournament,” Eruzione said in disbelief of fellow 1980 team members. “Neal Broten was there.”

Now, they all await a telephone call from fellow teammate Rob McClanahan informing them of the funeral arrangements.

For the Penguins, it was the loss of their critical director of player development, not to mention a scout for much of the eight previous years and an interim coach for most of one season -- 1999-2000 -- that nearly

ended in storybook fashion before a quintuple-overtime defeat a spelled second-round playoff end against Philadelphia.

For the country, it was the loss of the stern-faced taskmaster who shoved a bunch of college kids and minor-league bums (such as Eruzione) to the Miracle on Ice triumph over hockey’s feared Big Red Machine and a glittering gold medal -- all at a time when a fuel crisis gripped the land, Americans were held hostage in Iran, and the Soviet Army was invading Afghanistan.

For hockey, it was the loss of a coach who not only succeeded on many levels of the game, but planted plentiful seeds in Lake Placid, N.Y., ice.

Sports Illustrated dubbed the miracle as the greatest sports moment of the 20th century. Folks of that generation remembered where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot, when man walked on the moon and when Eruzione and the boys took the medal stand as one. American kids named Hull and Modano and Hatcher and Roenick and Olczyk grew to become hockey players thanks to Brooks and the boys.

“Look at what he did. He orchestrated the greatest sports moment of the century. That’s pretty good right there,” Eruzione said. “You look at Herb ... , every place he coached, he was successful.

“He was The Man. He was the guy who was so creative, so innovative ... He was a guy who had a passion, a love of the sport, a love of U.S.A. hockey.”

Since those Olympics, the number of American-based NHL teams swelled by one-third, from 15 to 22. Their rosters went from the occasional U.S.-born oddity to entire American lines. And these red, white and blue bloods come from half of the states.

Division I college hockey has grown by 25 percent, to include such places as Mercyhurst and possibly soon Robert Morris. High school hockey has doubled and junior hockey tripled. Girls’ hockey has multiplied by 25 times in size. He was Johnny Appleseed and John Wayne and John Wooden all in one bespectacled, bemused person.

“He was a true, legendary American character,” Penguins announcer Paul Steigerwald said. “He loved to talk about hockey and tell you his philosophy. It was like he was spreading the gospel, trying to convert you to his way of thinking.”

“And he loved being involved with Pittsburgh,” Eruzione added. They talked occasionally, Brooks actively working on the movie entitled “Miracle” and several ex-team members flying to British Columbia to watch filming. They planned to try to hold another reunion Oct. 18, in Eveleth, Minn., where the entire 1980 team will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall that welcomed Coach long before, in 1990. “That was going to be the next time I saw him,” Eruzione said softly.

Bow your heads and bang your stick blades and get misty, boys and girls. There is crying in hockey today, and for several more days. Tears won’t melt a miracle, just a layer of the ice he helped to pour.


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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