'Miracle' Players Recall Herb Brooks as Gruff, Great
GLENDALE -- Rob McClanahan played for Herb Brooks for seven years - in college at the University of Minnesota, in the NHL with the New York Rangers and for the United States hockey team that shocked the world and won gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
And in all that time, there was one constant in their relationship: fear.
"When he passed away, there were hundreds of players at his funeral and every one of them would tell you they'd play for him tomorrow. He was a winner, and that's what you play sports for," McClanahan said. "But candidly, I was afraid of him.
"But prior to his passing (in a 2003 car accident) we were starting to break down that barrier. He wasn't my coach anymore, he was becoming a friend. We could actually banter back and forth and have a jovial conversation. That part is sad. I wanted more of that relationship. But we can share in his legacy."
McClanahan and nine of his 1980 teammates, including captain Mike Eruzione, will take part in a pre-game Olympic Send-Off Ceremony at Jobing.com Arena before Friday's Coyotes vs. Blackhawks game.
In the 23 years between the Miracle on Ice and Brooks' passing, the connection between the players and their "my way or the highway" coach didn't soften. But their respect for him continues to grow.
"He was the right guy at the right time to coach that team. I don't think we would have won with anyone else," said Ken Morrow, a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the New York Islanders and a key defenseman on that 1980 team. "To me he goes down with Vince Lombardi and John Wooden and all the great coaches from other sports. He was innovative, 20-30 years ahead of his time. Everything he did could have backfired, but he knew it was the way you had to play to beat those teams."
Part of the method was to keep his distance from the players, and to be seen as an adversary.
"I still think to this day he would have loved to hang around us and be part of us. But he wasn't going to do that," Eruzione said. "Until the day he died, he stayed away from us, by choice. He didn't enjoy it but that was how it had to be.
"I got calls from him once in a while. When he called the house I would panic and think, ‘Uh oh, he's gonna yell at me.' I'm married with three kids and he'd call and I'd say, ‘Oh God, what did I do wrong now?'"
The players agree actor Kurt Russell did a brilliant job portraying Brooks in the movie "Miracle." One critique?
"He was a little friendlier and softer than Herb really was," Eruzione said. "There is a scene where one of the players skates up to Herb and gives him a snow shower, and he smiles. That would never happen. And if it did there would be no smiles."
All the players remember the night in Norway when the U.S. tied the Norwegian team with a lackluster effort and Brooks was so incensed he ordered the team on the ice for an hour of "Herbies," an exhausting conditioning drill. Even after the arena manager turned off the lights, the team kept skating to Brooks' commands.
"But for the record, none of us threw up like those kids in the movie," Morrow said. "And we beat Norway 8-0 the next day."
Eruzione recalls the famous speech Brooks gave before the 4-3 semifinal win against the Soviet Union, in which Eruzione scored the game-winning goal.
"But it was a lot shorter than in the movie," he said. "And when that game was over, he never said a word to us. He never even came into the dressing room. After we won the gold medal against Finland (two days later), he never came into the room and said, ‘Nice goin' boys."
But Morrow remembers he had something to say the day after the Friday win over the Soviets.
"We came in for practice Saturday feeling pretty good about ourselves," Morrow said. "We had just pulled off this monumental upset. The guys were signing some sticks for people and stuff. Herb came in and he just flipped out. He put the hammer down real quick. We had one of the hardest practices of the year that day. He skated our butts off. So much for ‘The Miracle.'"
But that team handled the extra skating with no problem.
"We were in the best condition of our lives. He made sure of it," Morrow said. "I never felt the same way in the NHL that I did during that tournament. We were so ready.
"We outscored teams 16-3 in the third period -- 2-0 against the Soviet Union and 3-0 against Finland. And that's why we won. We wore teams down."
Brooks did give the team rope in some areas. After every goal in the Olympic games, the U.S. bench would empty and the entire team would pile on the goal scorer in celebration.
"We were young and enthusiastic and we just did it. No one else did it, and it wasn't ever planned," Morrow said. "We were just so tight as a team by that time that it was a genuine expression of joy."
Fans flock to reunions of Morrow's old Islander teams in New York. He's seen the same kind of response for the "Miracle" 1969 New York Mets. But the Miracle on Ice team will always be different.
"There have been teams that have captured certain cities or regions," he said. "But when you sit down and think about what we accomplished, it resonated with the whole country, and even for people beyond our borders. The response and the reaction to that tournament is beyond everything I've ever seen."
For McClanahan, the connection is still strong with the Brooks family. He's gotten to know his son Danny very well through the Herb Brooks foundation, and he coached a youth team in Lake Placid with his daughter and two of Brooks' grandchildren.
"I benched the two grandkids," McClanahan said with a laugh. "Payback."