Brooks of Olympics would shuck Captain Bligh image
Herb Brooks, coach of the gold medal winning 1980 US Olympic hockey team, has a couple of pet peeves these days. One is the "Captain Bligh" image he acquired in Lake Placid; the other is the notion that somehow the methods which worked for him there wouldn't be so successful in the pro game.
"At the Olympics I was portrayed as a tough ogre, but this was all blown out of proportion," Brooks says now.
"The players I had were quality players," he adds. "My plan was to bring out this talent --as anybody in the world. That meant giving them a work environment."
But didn't he go a bit overboard? Wasn't he so strict and demanding that many players came to actively dislike him?
"I didn't want their love," he said during a recent visit to Boston. "This wasn't a dance. I wanted respect, and I think I had that. Sometimes they got upset, but I think they knew my reasons for the things I did.
"Sure it's tough to get in shape. Sure I pushed them toward a height I thought they could reach. I don't mean beating the Russians necessarily -- I mean to be a world class hockey team capable of competing at the top level. If I didn't think they could achieve that, I might have been a 'nice guy.' But I wouldn't want to live with the knowledge that they had such potential and I didn't extract it."
"You ask me were they mad at the way they were pushed? I think they'd have been madder if they hadn't been pushed."
Brooks, who has been mentioned prominently as a National Hockey League coaching candidate ever since the Olympics but is still waiting, also laughs at the idea that his methods wouldn't go over with pro players.
"You mean skating, passing, shooting, being in shape, playing with enthusiasm?" he asked rhetorically.
"If comradeship, emotion, and togetherness don't work, I guess I am in trouble!
"In the NHL, I wouldn't change a thing tactically or in conditioning. The only difference is that I wouldn't be as distant. I was distant with the Olympic team because I wanted to be objective; I didn't want the subjectivity I'd seen sometimes in the past.
"But I'm flexible," he said. "With the pros, I'd have the same program, but I'd sell it a little differently. I'd find a way to measure certain things, show them certain standards, and I think they'd go along when they saw things spelled out. I think pros want fruitful and rewarding careers."
In other words, they'd need a push to bring out their potential and make them do their best just as the Olympians did?
"We all need that," Herb said.
It took the Olympic victory for Brooks to become a household name, but he's been well known in hockey circles ever since the late 1950s, when he was hailed as one of the University of Minnesota's all-time finest players.
Herb was the last player cut, in fact, from the 1960 Olympic team that won the gold medal at Squaw Valley.
"They must have cut the right guy," he jokes now, but of course he was a disappointed young man at the time. He continued playing amateur hockey, however, and competed for virtually every US Olympic or national team from 1961 through 1970, serving as captain in 1965, '67, '68, and '70.
"When I was cut, I called my Dad," Brooks recalled. "He said, 'Keep your mouth shut, thank everybody, and come home.'"
And did he follow his father's advice?
"To a T," he said. "It was a disappointment, sure, but as my Dad said, there would be other Olympic teams -- and there were. Of course we didn't win any medals in '64 or '68, but it was still a great experience."
Brooks coached at his alma mater for seven years, leading the Gophers to three NCAA championships, then left to take over the Olympic squad.
"At our first meeting, I said to the players, 'Don't beat yourselves,'" he recalled, "and this became our slogan. We used it all the time. We put it on the walls in locker rooms all over Europe and everywhere we played.
"It's so common on All-Star teams for people to try to be bigger than the team,." he explained. "We had to avoid that.
"Here we had guys from different walks of life, with different backgrounds, different philosophies, different objectives. I felt this could be one of our strengths if used properly --selves in the locker rooms, in social situations, or on the ice. We lost sometimes, but we could be proud that we didn't beat ourselves."
After the Olympics, Brooks took a coaching job in Davos, Switzerland, where, as he likes to point out, he showed that he isn't always the taskmaster of Lake Placid fame.
"Some of these guys worked at other jobs and came to play," he recalled. "They said, 'Hey, we're not trying to beat the Russians.' It was a different situation, and I didn't push 'em too hard. I'm very flexible."
Almost as soon as he had signed with Davos, Colorado of the NHL sought him, but Brooks stayed with the Switzerland job. Then early this year a potential deal with the New York Rangers failed to materialize.
As Brooks explains it, the Rangers called him in January, whereupon he negotiated his way out of his two-year contract with Davos. Meanwhile, however, Craig Patrick, New York's director of operations, took over as coach, leaving Brooks empty-handed. Since then Herb has bought an interest in a resort in Minnesota and has awaited developments.
The Rangers situation is ironic, since Patrick was Brook's assistant with the Olympic team. But Herb is still hopeful that something will work out for him in New York.
"It was a question of timing," he said. "I don't know what happened. I was there and they were here. I'm not blaming anybody.
"As for what happens next year, I don't know. Craig Patrick hasn't encouraged me or discouraged me. As far as I'm concerned, he's the coach."
And if Patrick should move back upstairs and hire Brooks, wouldn't it be awkward working under his former assistant?
"No, I'd love that," he said. "Craig Patrick is a tremendous human being. I have all the confidence in the world in him."
Brooks made it clear, though, that any coaching opportunity would have to be weighed in the context of his overall situation.
"Let's face it, I'd like to coach. I'm not going to say anything less than that. But there are a lot of variables, and you have to explore all your options at any particular time."