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Forest Lake, Minn. — Herb Brooks stood behind the bench during one of the most famous sporting events in American history. It was 1980. The United States was in the midst of the Cold War. There was an energy crisis and daily updates about the hostage situation in Iran. And Brooks convinced a rag tag group of college hockey players that they could beat the powerful Soviets. It was the kind of event where people remember exactly where they were when they heard the news of the upset.
"I was standing at a blue line at Munn Arena in East Lansing, Michigan when I was at Notre Dame. We were playing Michigan State. It was a Friday Night," recalls University of Minnesota men's hockey coach Don Lucia. "Right before the national anthem they made the announcement that the United States had beaten Russia. It was total disbelief from everybody including my teammates because nobody gave the U.S. a chance. That was, without question, the greatest upset in the history of sport. It's something that has never been duplicated since and will never be duplicated again."
He was Minnesota's head coach and we're going to miss him.
"Well, I was there with him. In fact, he tells the story that I was the first guy he sees when he comes out of the locker room was me and I say 'Can you believe that?'" said Lou Nanne, a longtime friend of Brooks. He's also a former coach and executive for the Minnesota North Stars.
"He did a phenomenal job of conditioning those players, getting them ready, getting them to believe in themselves and getting them to win that one big game and he had to get them to believe in themselves and play well. That was a team that could beat you nine out of 10 times but when it counted, they won. The U.S. won and Herbie did an unbelievable job with them," said Nanne.
Brooks spent his life around hockey. He played for the University of Minnesota. He was the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team but later played on the 1964 and '68 teams. He then went behind the boards to coach. Under his tenure, the U of M won three national championships in the seventies.
Gophers coach Lucia says he and others who followed Brooks are building on his legacy.
"When you think of Gopher hockey, the first person you think of is Herb Brooks in the 1970s. The three national titles and all of those players who went on to play for him in that 1980 Olympic team. The first national titles for the University of Minnesota. That's the legend, that's when really got Gopher hockey off and running," he said.
Brooks also made an impact on the professional level. He coached the North Stars, the New York Rangers, the New Jersey Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also coached several professionals during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. That team won a silver medal.
He told MPR sports commentator Jay Weiner in a 2002 interview that he most enjoyed the Olympic experience.
"I grew up with the Olympic teams and the Olympic athletes are my heroes so to speak in all sports. As much as I admire the professional athletes the Olympic games for me always transcended the role of sports. It's not ho-hum business as usual. It's national pride, it's the legacy and the history of those things. The games going back the Greeks. I think the most sophisticated professional athlete feels that way. I think Michael Jordan will say, 'yeah, it's something special when you pull on the sweater for your country. It takes on additional meanings,'" he said.
It seems that people involved on every level of Minnesota hockey have some sort of personal relationship with Brooks. Larry Hendrickson broke away from a youth hockey clinic at the Parade Ice Garden in Minneaplis to remember Brooks. Hendrickson is the father of Minnesota Wild center Darby Hendrickson. He also worked for Brooks as strength and conditioning coach for the North Stars and on several youth hockey programs. Hendrickson says Brooks made an impact on hockey in Minnesota because he got his teams to overachieve.
"He's done every level and he's done every level well. But if you ask anybody who's played for him, I think they might have been a little afraid of him. But I think they all love him. We'd sit around with old players and tell Herbie stories and he made a lot of people successful. For Minnesota kids, if you played for him, you got better. And you were a champion," according to Hendrickson.
Chuck Grillo and Brooks created the Minnesota Hockey Camp in Nisswa about 30 years ago. He also worked with Brooks when Brooks coached the New York Rangers and Minnesota North Stars. Grillo says he considers Brooks one of the sports great innovators.
"None of us in hockey, especially Americans, would be where we are today without the Olympic team where he engineered an Olympic gold medal. It changed all of our lives, those of us in hockey. There's no way I can be in the National Hockey League for 21 years or doing what I'm doing here in Brainerd with kids," Grillo said.
Gov. Pawlenty said Brooks will be remembered as more than a guy who laced up his skates and blew a whistle. He said Brooks and the rest of the 1980 Olympic team were instrumental in lifting the nation's psyche. Pawlenty called Brooks "Minnesota's head coach."
"His legacy won't just be the standing and cheering the hockey greatness. It will be the leadership and the values and the principals he instilled in the nation and in Minnesota and certainly in the thousands of thousands of people that he coached. He was Minnesota's head coach and we're going to miss him," Pawlenty said.
Brooks spent his last day working to help the sport he loved. He attended a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame celebrity golf event in Biwabik. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. Tom Sersha, executive director of the Hockey Hall of Fame, says Brooks left the event at noon because he had to attend an event in Chicago.
"He was a tremendous supporter of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and hockey programs in Minnesota and all around the country. He was here to lend his support and to be part of the hockey family and to provide his support for these various programs," he said.
In recent years, Brooks resisted calls to become a head coach again. The New York Rangers offered him a multi-million dollar contract last summer which Brooks turned down. He said at the time that it would take away too much time from his family.
His last coaching job was one he didn't really want at first; coach of the 2002 Men's U.S. Olympic team. Brooks said at first that he wasn't crazy about coaching professionals in the Olympics. He said in his 2002 interview with MPR, that he warmed up to the idea once he realized that he could get the team to remember why they play the game.
"Even the most sophisticated professional athlete, they all have a little boy in them. They all have a little boy in them so the thing is to bring that little boy out and that little boy becomes the motivation, the catalyst for their play. And to be honest with you, that really excited me. I just went 'wow!'"
Herb Brooks is survived by his wife, Patti, son Dan and daughter Kelly.