We look back at U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks who pulled off the “miracle on ice.”
On the 15th anniversary of his death, we’re taking a look back at U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks (1937 – 2003) who helped pull off one of the most miraculous upsets in American sports history.
Brooks was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up playing youth hockey. A standout at the University of Minnesota (where he later coached), Brooks was the last person cut from the 1960 Olympic roster. When that team went on to win the gold medal, his father quipped, “Looks like the coach made the right choice.” Driven by this disappointment, Brooks made both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic teams, but a medal eluded him.
Brooks began his coaching career in 1972 and guided his alma mater U. of M. Gophers to three NCAA national titles. Nonetheless, when USA Hockey began interviewing coaches to head the 1980 Olympics squad, he was not a candidate high on their list. At 42, he was considered too young. He also made it known that he would be forcing his players to adapt to a new style of play, an untested hybrid of his own devising that combined the Soviets’ constant, fluid, weaving attack with the more physical defensive style of the NHL. After being hired, he further ruffled USA Hockey feathers when he chose his final roster after only one day of summer tryouts.
Those who made the cut, primarily players from rivals Boston University and the University of Minnesota, would be put to the test over the months ahead. Brooks demanded a longer preparation schedule than in previous Olympic cycles, and he would take his team through a grueling four-month exhibition tour of Europe and North America. He became infamous for conditioning drills and promised if his charges would not be the best team at Lake Placid, they would at least be the best-conditioned. He was gruff, confrontational, and motivated his players largely by using fear. Players who’d hated each other over collegiate rivalries found instead a common enemy in their coach. “If Herb came into my house today,” said team captain Mike Eruzione years later, “it would still be uncomfortable.”
When the 1980 Winter Games finally got underway, most analysts felt that if the U.S. played to the best of their abilities, with luck a bronze medal might not be out of reach. In their opening match, they salvaged a last-minute tie with Sweden after pulling their goalie. They then won a huge 7-3 victory over Czechoslovakia, a team most viewed as second only to the Soviet Union. They went on to beat Norway, Romania, and West Germany. This meant Team USA would start the medal round by facing the Russians.
U.S.-Soviet tensions were running high in 1980. The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan in a move President Jimmy Carter called “the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War.” The U.S. had withdrawn from nuclear arms talks, imposed embargoes and upped military spending. The U.S. had also made known it was planning to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. Thus the USA vs. USSR game became not just a contest between opposing hockey players, but one between Capitalism and Communism, Democracy and Totalitarianism — it became the Cold War in miniature, to be played out on a 30-by-60-meter slab of ice.
There likely will never again be a “Miracle on Ice” in part because it’s hard to imagine there will ever be an international sports team as dominant as the “Big Red Machine.” Hockey had only taken root in the Soviet Union after WWII, but starting in 1954 the Soviets had won nearly every competition they’d entered. Going into Lake Placid, they’d won five of the last seven world championships. They’d won eight of the last nine Olympic golds (including the last four in a row) and hadn’t lost a single Olympic match since 1968. The Soviets were largely able to circumvent IOC rules by claiming most members of its team were not professional hockey players but conscripted soldiers who skated for the amateur Central Army hockey club. While the U.S. team’s average age was 22 and the players had been together only for a matter of months, the core of the 1980 Soviet team had been intact for a decade and were seasoned veterans who benefited from top-class coaching and training facilities. A year earlier, they’d beaten the NHL All-Stars in a 6-0 drubbing — this with their backup goalie in net. “C.C.C.P.” were far and away the most feared letters in hockey.
The events of the game itself are now the stuff of legend. The Russians went up early, but the U.S. tied the score in the last second of the first period. In a surprise move, the Soviet Union pulled its starting goalie Vladislav Tretiak — considered the best in world — but soon recaptured their lead, going up 3-2 in the second period. In the third period, the U.S. again pulled even behind Mark Johnson’s second goal. And with exactly 10 minutes left to play, Mike Eruzione — whose last name meant ‘eruption’ in Italian — put the U.S. ahead 4-3. The Russians launched wave after wave of attacks (the U.S. was outshot 39-16) but couldn’t get the puck past goaltender Jim Craig and the lead held.
The next week, Sports Illustrated ran a cover featuring only a photo of the American players celebrating on the ice, unaccompanied by headline or caption. No words were necessary. When a reporter asked Mike Eruzione — who would retire after the Olympics as he was deemed to small and slow for the NHL — if “ecstasy” was a fitting word to describe their feelings, he balked.
“That’s not strong enough,” he said. “We beat the Russians. We beat the Russians.”
Today, most people don’t remember that the U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. encounter wasn’t actually the gold medal game. When the U.S. went on to win against Finland and secure the gold, it was almost an inevitability, an afterthought.
In a sense, so was the rest of Brooks’ career. Weeks after the Olympics ended, he surprised everyone by going to coach a pro team in Switzerland. Then he returned to the U.S., and after a four-year run with the New York Rangers, bounced around the NHL, having short stints with the Minnesota North Stars, the New Jersey Devils, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also coached France in the Nagano Olympics, before returning to coach the U.S. team to a silver medal in 2002. Once again his team beat the Russians, but it wasn’t the same. The world had changed. There would be no second miracle.
Brooks died in a car crash Aug. 11, 2003. For those who knew and loved him, for those he helped inspire and unite if only for the span of a hockey game, there will never be a second Herb Brooks, either.
Originally published August 2010