As a player, Herb Brooks won a Minnesota high school ice hockey state championship and played for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. He then tried out for the Squaw Valley 1960 Winter Olympic Games, but was the final player cut from the team that would go on to be the first American hockey team to win an Olympic gold medal.
Brooks, though, was not dissuaded. He made the American Olympic squad for both the Innsbruck 1964 Winter Olympic Games and Grenoble 1968 Winter Olympic Games. Brooks then went into coaching, taking over at his alma mater and leading the Golden Gophers to three NCAA championships.
Little did he know then, that was just the start of his coaching career.
Known as a motivator, Brooks was selected to coach the American team at the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympic Games. It was there that a team full of minor leaguers and college players pulled off perhaps the biggest upset ever in sports. In the locker room prior to the Medal Round game against the powerful Soviet Union, Brooks told his players, “You were born to be here.” They went out that shocked and shocked the Soviets, 4-3, then returned to the ice a few days later to beat Finland, 4-2, to win the gold medal.
“He didn’t just make us better hockey players,” said Jim Craig, the goalie on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. “He made us better men, better husbands, better fathers. He just cared. The biggest compliment I would give Herb … if someone were to ask every one of us who his favorite was, we all would’ve said ourselves. That’s a hard thing to do.”
Ken Morrow, a defenseman on the 1980 Olympic team who went on to a successful NHL career, said, “All of his teams overachieved because Herbie knew how to get the best out of each player and make him part of a team.”
Brooks went on to coach in the NHL with the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars, New Jersey Devils Pittsburgh Penguins and coached St. Cloud State University for one season. He returned to the Olympics at the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympic Games with the French team and then was back behind the American bench for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic Games, guiding the team to a silver medal.
Brooks then returned to the NHL, working in the Penguins front office. He died in a car crash in 2003 at age 66. The arena in Lake Placid was renamed Herb Brooks Arena in his honor.
“The strength of hockey in the United States is a testament to Herb Brooks and the historic Olympic triumph in 1980,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “It is devastating to all of us that his passion for the game, his insight, his foresight, have been taken away.”