IN THE FALL of 1980, eight months after he'd orchestrated the Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Olympics, Herb Brooks was in Davos, Switzerland, coaching a semipro team made up of carpenters, electricians, schoolteachers and the like. After pulling off the biggest upset in the history of hockey, leading a group of unheralded U.S. college kids past the mighty Soviets—a feat hailed by this magazine as the most memorable sports moment of the 20th century—Davos wasn't the next stop Brooks had had in mind. But it was the price he paid for being a strong-willed pain in the ass.� I was reminded of that recently after seeing an advance screening of the Disney movie Miracle, which tells the story of the 1980 Olympic team, largely through Brooks's eyes. It's a wonderful film. My 11-year-old son also loved it, leading me to believe that another generation will fall under the team's magical spell. Who could have known that two superlative weeks of play by that group of fresh-faced kids
would keep its hold on the American imagination for so long?
Over the years I've often thought about Brooks's season in Davos because that was where he and I became friends. Not close friends, but ones who went out of our way to have a beer together a few times over the next 20 years. Every once in a while he'd drop me a note about something I'd written, usually on the subject of hockey violence, which we both condemned. He was thoughtful, and his praise meant more to me than I can tell you.
After Brooks's death in an auto accident in August, Dave Silk, a member of the 1980 team, wrote me a note that said, in part, "In addition to his innovative and often contrarian ideas, Herb will be missed for his unrelenting style of challenging the status quo and proving that, given direction, preparation and chemistry, USA Hockey could be a world-beater. In the end Herb was always his own man, incapable of kowtowing to bureaucrats and empty suits."
That's why Brooks ended up in Davos. Before the tears of joy over the Olympic triumph had dried on its board members' cheeks, USA Hockey cut ties with Brooks, fed up with his highhanded ways. NHL teams were loath to hire him, doubtful that the weaving puck-control system that had worked in Lake Placid would succeed in their rough-and-tumble, up-and-down league. Plus, general managers were wary of a coach who thumbed his nose at his bosses. Brooks was intimidating in the steadfastness of his beliefs.
So he became the coach of the Swiss League team in Davos, working with players who held 9-to-5 jobs and then skated for the town club at night. It was a different world from Olympic hockey. When Brooks tried to get his Davos players to do off-ice conditioning and adopt his innovative hybrid style of play, they balked. They told him they weren't trying to beat the Soviets. They wanted to stick to a system they knew.
He went along. He was tired of browbeating guys. A little homesick, a lot bored, and feeling unappreciated and misunderstood by the power brokers of hockey, Brooks was ready to talk when I arrived in Davos, tape recorder and notebook in hand. The members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team were going to be named SI's Sportsmen of the Year, and getting Brooks's perspective was my first task. For the next three weeks I would circle the globe tracking down the players. The resulting story (A Reminder of What We Can Be, Dec. 22-29, 1980) took on a life of its own. People remembered it. They saved it. In many ways, it overshadowed everything else I would ever write.
That reaction gave me a small taste of what the team experienced. The victory over the Soviets in the first round of medal play eclipsed everything Brooks did for the rest of his career. Team captain Mike Eruzione, who retired as a player after the U.S. beat Finland for the gold medal, has made a career out of giving motivational speeches about that squad. Ken Morrow won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders, but he's still remembered as the tall defenseman with the beard in Lake Placid.
And every four years, as another Winter Games approached, the questions would start again: Could there be another miracle? Might this be the year? I wanted to pull out my hair. No, no! There would never, ever be another Miracle on Ice.
IF TRUCK DRIVERS from Alabama and Georgia wanted to feel good about the U.S.'s beating the Soviets in a sport the drivers didn't know much about, that was fine with Brooks. But the success of that team had nothing to do with patriotism. Not to him. It had to do with changing the way hockey was played in the U.S. and with making his guys believe they could do something no one else thought they could do. He'd spent his life playing and coaching the game in Minnesota, leading the University of Minnesota to NCAA championships in 1974, '76 and '79, and he knew that in the closed minds of many NHL executives—Canadian executives, primarily—the U.S. player, especially the U.S. college player, didn't measure up. For that reason Brooks had a chip on his shoulder. He was, at his core, not only a hockey coach but also, more importantly, an American hockey coach.
We met in a quiet tavern off the main street in Davos. It was tidily Swiss in decor, with wide wood floorboards and thick oak tables whose edges had been rounded with age. We drank beer out of liter-sized steins, delivered by a large-boned woman who wore on her waist a leather change purse that rattled heavily with coins. No one recognized Brooks, no one interrupted us, and we talked for more than four hours.