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Monday, August 11, 2003
Updated: August 19, 7:59 PM ET
Coach known best for 1980 hockey gold

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. hockey team to the "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics, died Monday in a car wreck. He was 66.

The Hall of Famer was killed when his minivan rolled over north of the Twin Cities near where Interstate 35 splits toward Minneapolis and St. Paul, police said. The weather didn't appear to be a factor.

Herb Brooks
Herb Brooks won Olympic gold and silver, three NCAA titles and 219 NHL games.

State Patrol Lt. Chuck Walerius said the minivan veered to the right onto the grassy area, then it appeared as if Brooks overcorrected his steering, causing his van to roll. He apparently wasn't wearing a seat belt and was found about 40 yards from the vehicle, dead at the scene, Walerius said.

Police weren't aware of any pre-existing health problems and said there were no signs to indicate that alcohol was a factor in the crash.

Officials said they hope to know within a couple of weeks what caused the crash. Investigators began interviewing at least four witnesses Tuesday and experts in accident reconstruction were starting to piece together details, Department of Public Safety spokesman Kevin Smith said.

Brooks attended a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame celebrity golf event in northern Minnesota but left around noon to catch a flight from Minneapolis to Chicago, USA Hockey spokesman Chuck Menke said.

Tom Sersha, executive director at the Hall of Fame, which is based in Eveleth, attended the golf event.

"He was in perfect health as far as I know," said Sersha, referring to a television report that the accident may have been health-related.

"It seems like all the great innovators die young," said Ken Morrow, a defenseman on the 1980 team and now a scout for the New York Islanders. "Coach may have been the greatest innovator the sport has ever had."

Brooks was behind the bench when the Americans pulled off one of the greatest upsets ever, beating the mighty Soviets with a squad of mostly college players.

That shocking victory, plus beating Finland for the gold medal, assured the team a place in sports immortality.

The young U.S. team was given no chance against a veteran Soviet squad that had dominated international hockey for years and had routed the Americans 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden the week before the Olympics.

On Feb. 22, 1980, the U.S. team scored with 10 minutes to play to take a 4-3 lead against the Soviets and then held on. As the final seconds ticked away, announcer Al Michaels exclaimed, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

It remains one of the most famous calls in sports broadcasting history.

"He was very single-minded -- a person who looked right down the tunnel and knew exactly what he had to do," Michaels said Monday night. "He was never caught up in the afterglow. Here's a guy that helped do something that galvanized the entire country, and he wasn't interested in parades or any attention. Just a few weeks after this, he decides to go and coach in Switzerland."

Brooks' leadership helped turn a ragtag team into champions. He had hand-picked each player.

"You're looking for players whose name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back," Brooks once said. "I look for these players to play hard, to play smart and to represent their country."

Interviewed years later on why he headed to the locker room shortly after the Miracle on Ice, he said he wanted to leave the ice to his players, who deserved it.

"It was not my spot. I always say sort of flippantly, 'I had to go to the bathroom.' Or, 'If I'd have went on the ice when this thing happened, someone would have speared me or something.' It's a great feeling of accomplishment and pride. They had to do it; it was their moment."

Mark Johnson, who played on the 1980 Olympic team and now coaches the University of Wisconsin women's hockey team, said he was stunned by the news.

"It's certainly a sad day for American hockey in the United States, which lost one of its finest coaches," Johnson said. "On a very sad note, we lose not only a great coach and an innovator of the game, but a real good friend."

Players kept a notebook of "Brooksisms," sayings the coach used for motivation, such as: "You're playing worse and worse every day and right now you're playing like it's next month."

Before playing the Soviets, Brooks told his players: "You're meant to be here. This moment is yours. You're meant to be here at this time."

"When it came to hockey, he was ahead of his time," Morrow said. "All of his teams overachieved because Herbie understood how to get the best out of each player and make him part of a team. And like everyone who played for him, I became a better person because I played for Herb Brooks."

It's a great loss for USA hockey. He was a master motivator, a great
thinker.
Bob Allen

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said making one of Brooks' teams was an "extraordinary accomplishment."

"It is devastating to all of us in the hockey world that his passion for the game, his insight, his foresight, have been taken away," Bettman said.

Brooks returned to lead the 2002 U.S. Olympic hockey team to a silver medal. Players from the 1980 team, led by Mike Eruzione, lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony in Salt Lake City.

After the Lake Placid Games, Brooks coached the New York Rangers (1981-85), where he reached the 100-victory mark faster than any other coach in franchise history. He coached the Minnesota North Stars (1987-88), the New Jersey Devils (1992-93) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (1999-00). He also led the French Olympic team at the 1998 Nagano Games.

He had an NHL career coaching record of 219-222-66, including a 29-24-5 record with Pittsburgh.

Born in St. Paul, Brooks played hockey at the University of Minnesota, where he later coached from 1972 to 1979, winning three national titles. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990.

"My gut reaction is Minnesota lost its head coach today," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a well-known hockey fanatic. "Herb Brooks was a Minnesota legend, a Minnesota treasure."

When Brooks decided to coach the U.S. team at Salt Lake City, he was asked why he would return after writing the most improbable story in hockey.

"Maybe I'm sort of like the players -- there's still a lot of little boy in me," Brooks said. "And maybe I'm a little smarter now than I was before for all the stupid things I've done."

Brooks was the last player cut on the 1960 U.S. gold medal team, but he played in 1964 and 1968.

Last season, Brooks was the director of player development for the Penguins. He rejected a multimillion-dollar offer to coach Rangers last summer, saying he didn't want to be away from his wife and family in Minnesota.

"I knew him for 30 years -- we played together; we coached together; we worked together," Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said. "Herbie lived the game, and he loved the game."

"It's a great loss for USA Hockey," said Bob Allen, who operated the Olympic Center during the 1980 Winter Games. "He was a master motivator, a great thinker."

In a recent interview at his White Bear Lake home, Brooks described to the Minneapolis Star Tribune about watching one of his favorite movies, "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

"You know, Willie Wonka said it best: We are the makers of dreams, the dreamers of dreams," Brooks said. "We should be dreaming. We grew up as kids having dreams, but now we're too sophisticated as adults, as a nation. We stopped dreaming. We should always have dreams.

"I'm a dreamer."

Brooks is survived by his wife, Patti; his son, Dan; and his daughter, Kelly.