Herb Brooks is looking forward to Christmas for a different reason than everyone else. That's the time by which he expects the New York Rangers to have assimilated his unusual system for playing hockey and become winners.
Brooks coached the United States to its dramatically won gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics with a tactical approach that synthesized the best of the European and North American methods.
Now he's trying to bring his innovative ways to the National Hockey League, never known for progressive thinking. And to the Rangers, never known for giving coaches their best efforts. They haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1940, and they've gone through eight coaches in the past eight seasons.
The Rangers are exceptionally well paid, and play in the world's most interesting and diverting metropolis. Neither situation makes them as coachable as they should be, and Brooks faces a challenge quite unlike the one he surmounted with the Olympic squad.
''Idealistically, the goal is to win the Stanley Cup,'' he says, looking and sounding as smooth as a television news personality. ''Realistically, it is to improve throughout the season. The New York fan is looking for consistency of effort, and has a right to it.
''New York is a fast track, with a lot of bright lights. It might be the toughest place to be a pro athlete, but it might be the best place to win. It probably takes more discipline, composure, and patience, but it can be done. The Yankees have done it in baseball. I like the struggle - that's why I'm here.''
What exactly is the system Brooks brings from the Olympics to the Rangers?
''It's a compromise between the imaginative concepts of the European offense and the toughness of North American defense. My feeling is that you need both.
''Some European teams are good offensively, but may overlook strong defense. The best part of the Russians' defense is their ability to counterattack so quickly. They make your offense nervous, because you know that if they stop your rush, they'll turn it into a scoring threat at the other end so fast.
''That makes your defense want to hang back, even when your forwards are moving up with the puck. When you do that, you leave a gap between your forwards and defense, and when the Russians get the puck, they have room to make plays in that gap. You play into their hands.
''At Lake Placid, we moved our defense up, eliminating that gap and taking away some of the room for their intuitiveness. They didn't adjust well, and we won.
''My teams have always been tenacious without the puck. That's the inglorious but absolutely essential part. They get the freedom to be creative with the puck by justifying it with a ready transition to a hard-nosed checking game. If the checking obligations aren't fulfilled, then we back off a little offensively until we reach a balance that gives us a more disciplined defense.''
The Brooks offense features circling, interchanging of positions up front, and skating toward the puck when receiving a pass. It is at the other end of the spectrum from the traditional NHL style of skating in lanes, up and back. The watchword, says Brooks, is ''motion.''
At times so far this season, the Rangers, whose record is under .500, have moved without evident purpose and looked as though they might never adjust to the system. At other times they have made five effective passes in a row and scored impressively.
The most consistent line to date has included former Olympians Dave Silk and Mark Pavelich, along with the much-improved Ron Duguay, who is an inventive skater. That is no coincidence.
''It will take time to establish, the same as it did with the Olympic team,'' says Pavelich, ''but it's a hard offense to defend against, because the wings move around. With more motion and someone always breaking for the opening, we'll get more scoring chances.''
The Ranger offense has been slowed by the loss to injury of talented Swedes Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, who would be comfortable with the new system, among others. ''We've got 100 goals sitting in the stands,'' says Brooks without rancor.
If his system remains basically the same in the NHL, his handling of players is anything but. Where he was a fire-breathing dictator with the young Olympians , he is proving a master of the soft sell with the Rangers. He did not major in psychology in college for nothing.
''I've been a bad guy before and I can be a bad guy again,'' he says, ''but at this point I want to teach and look for positive signs. I don't want them reacting out of fear. I know I have a reputation for ranting and raving, but it would be foolish to do that when we're playing an 80-game schedule. I'm learning something every night. Maybe it's easy to say, but they're not giving out Stanley Cups in December. The Olympic team wasn't impressing anybody at that point, but by March we were a real good hockey team. I'd like to think that by March the New York Rangers will be too.''
In the meantime, his crucial checkpoint is Christmas. Santa knows what he wants.