Starkey: Brooks, Bylsma and U.S. Hockey's search for gold
Thirty-four years later, some of us still can't get enough of the Miracle on Ice. It's a story that never grows old.
Every angle of it fascinates me, including one that springs to mind less than two weeks before the Opening Ceremonies in Sochi: What must it have been like to write the game story?
Talk about pressure. I think I'd rather have been assigned a deadline piece from the Gettysburg Address. Or maybe a sidebar from The Garden of Eden.
Curiosity led me to the Washington Post's front page from Feb. 23, 1980, and to Dave Kindred's masterful recount.
It read in part like this:
“Who might imagine that the United States, beaten by the Soviets, 10-3, in an exhibition 13 days ago, would set a thousand Old Glories waving in celebration? Only a fevered zealot could imagine that after this game the U.S. players would rock their locker room with repeated renditions of “God Bless America.”
Herb Brooks imagined it.
He held up his envelope and read from it. “I told the players, ‘You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here at this moment. You were meant to be here at this game. Let's have the poise and possession of the puck.'”
I'm not sure the “possession of the puck” line ever made it into the movies, but that passage got me thinking way past Dave Kindred, all the way to Herb Brooks.
What would it be like to step into his shoes?
Dan Bylsma will find out when the Americans take the ice Feb. 13 against Slovakia. It'll be a long way from Lake Placid, obviously. The “fresh-faced college kids” have long since been replaced by NHL veterans. Every country sends professional players now, the way the old Soviet Union always did. There can never be another Miracle. But a gold medal would be nice. It's been 34 years since the U.S. hockey team captured one of those.
Don't expect Bylsma to try to conjure any Brooks magic. He already passed on that chance. Back in 2009, on the day of the Penguins' Game 7 showdown in Detroit, television crews wondered if they could film Bylsma giving his “Herb Brooks speech” to players before the game.
Horrified at the thought, Bylsma secretly delivered his pep talk after the morning skate, instead, sans cameras.
“Nobody can fill those shoes,” Bylsma said Wednesday. “I shudder at trying to fill them or trying to be like Herb.”
He laughed and added: “I considered trying to get (for Sochi) a similar sport coat to the one he wore in 1980 — my Herb Brooks imitation. But that's something I'm not going to try. Just be myself and hopefully, 30 years from now, they'll be doing a movie, and me and my wife can be in the kitchen having an argument (the way Brooks and his wife, Patti, were depicted during a memorable scene in the film ‘Miracle').”
Bylsma said he never met Brooks, who was the Penguins' director of player development when he died at age 66 in a one-car crash 11 years ago. He's heard all the stories, though, many from those who played and coached in Wilkes-Barre when Brooks was a frequent visitor.
The rough edges smoothed as Brooks grew older. When he was coaching the Penguins in 2000, for example, I remember sitting on the team plane after a blowout loss at Ottawa and wondering if I'd finally get to see the “I'll shove that Koho right down your throat” Herbie. Instead, he walked up to me — a reporter — with the USA Today's financial page in his hand and proceeded to deliver a stock-market lesson. He was concerned that I hadn't yet opened a retirement account.
For more stories like that, one need only cast a glance around the Penguins locker room and offices. Whether by coincidence or experience, several men within those walls are connected to Brooks. His spirit will be alive and well when the U.S. visits Sochi:
• Bill Guerin played for Brooks at three stops, including the 2002 Olympics, and now holds his old job as Penguins director of player development.
• Like Brooks, Penguins GM Ray Shero was born in St. Paul, Minn., where you can find a larger-than-life bronze statue of Brooks near the hockey arena.
• Pro scout Don Waddell was among the final cuts of the 1980 Olympic team because of a broken leg.
• Assistant coach Tony Granato — who will be one of Bylsma's assistants in Sochi — was drafted by the Rangers when Brooks was the coach.
• Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who along with Paul Martin will represent the U.S. in Sochi, was named for Brooks.
That's the story, anyway. I asked Orpik if it was truth or myth.
“That's the truth,” he said. “That was my dad's idea. He's from the east coast. My mom's from southern California, so she really didn't know much about hockey. She agreed to it, and she just told my dad, ‘We can name him Brooks, but there's no way we can name him Herb.'”
I asked Martin, another Minnesota native, what the name Herb Brooks means to Minnesotans.
“As far as tales go, it's like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox,” Martin said. “It's big.”
Guerin considered Brooks a hugely important mentor. Brooks was coaching the New Jersey Devils' farm team in Utica, N.Y., in 1991 when Guerin — the fifth overall pick in the draft — joined the organization. He'd been cut from the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Brooks could relate. He was the last cut of the 1960 Olympic team — a slight that lit a Paul Bunyan-sized fire in his belly.
“Herb was very protective of me,” Guerin said. “He chased all the media away from me. I was 10 years old when the Miracle happened, so I just felt so fortunate and feel so fortunate to have played for him, especially at that time. To have something in common with him and have him protect me like that was pretty special.”
Granato never had the chance to play for Brooks but ran into him several times through their connections to U.S. hockey.
“Every time I saw him, he'd say how proud he was of American hockey and how happy he was that I was carrying on what American hockey was supposed to be,” Granato said. “That meant a lot to me.”
So did the Miracle on Ice, an inspiration to Bylsma, Granato, Guerin and so many other American boys who would make their careers in hockey. And that leads us back to Dave Kindred's story, the part where the final 10 minutes took forever as the U.S. protected a one-goal lead …
From his spot on the bench, Brooks saw in his charges the thing he worried most about. He had seen it in every team that managed to get ahead of the Soviets in this tournament.
He saw a retreat.
“Play your game,” Brooks shouted time and again. He saw panic. He saw h is college kids trying to win without playing. He saw them ahead of the Soviets and not believing it.
Thirty-four years later, some of us still can't.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.