Sunday, August 11, 2013

Herb Brooks' Inspiring Life

"You're looking for players whose name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back. I look for these players to play hard, to play smart and to represent their country."

Herb Brooks (1937–2003)

Yesterday, I was surfing my cable channels, and I landed on an airing of "Miracle," the re–creation of the U.S. hockey team's triumph over the mighty Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

It is one of my favorite sports movies of the last 25 years — along with "Eight Men Out" and "Secretariat." I'm not a hockey fan, but I do remember watching that game when it happened. My heart was beating as if I had been a hockey fan all my life.

Trust me, whatever one was the rest of the time, on Feb. 22, 1980, every American was a hockey fan. I recall Al Michaels saying that most observers probably "don't know the difference between a blue line and a clothesline." There was a lot of truth in that.

Many of us — myself included — couldn't explain any of hockey's rules, but we were all chanting "U–S–A! U–S–A!" before that game ended.

I know I was.

If you ask people who watched that game on TV what their most memorable moment was, you'd probably get a variety of responses. Some would say it was Michaels' astonished comment in the final seconds, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

For me, the most memorable moment came at the end, when the U.S. players were celebrating on the ice, and the Russians stood in a silent line, some leaning on their sticks, and watched the celebration. Some seemed genuinely bemused by the scene. And why not? That Soviet hockey team didn't lose very often.

That game came at the right time in America's history, a time when Americans were feeling helpless and knocked around by the rest of the world. Brooks and his hockey team gave the whole country a shot in the arm. It was a different place in the days after the United States beat the Soviet Union than it had been for weeks, months, even years before.

Many people mistakenly believe the Americans won the gold medal when they beat the Soviet Union that day. But the fact is that they still had to play the gold–medal game a couple of days later against Finland. The Americans, who were given virtually no chance to earn a medal before the Games began, did go on to defeat Finland, of course. It wasn't like boxing, where you win the title if you beat the champ. It was a tournament, and beating the defending champ only meant that you advanced to the next round — unless you beat the champ in the final round, and that was not what happened in 1980.

It seemed rather anticlimactic to most Americans, I guess, but it was still a shared national experience that Americans were reluctant to see end.

And they didn't have to, at least not at first.

Coach Herb Brooks made the obligatory appearance on The Tonight Show, of course. He was an instant celebrity, as was Mike Eruzione, the team captain who may have been the most recognizable player for ordinary viewers who knew little about hockey and next to nothing about the members of the team. At the time, everyone knew Eruzione had scored what proved to be the winning goal against the Russians.

A few of the other players were sort of minor celebrities, I guess, and the entire team was commemorated on Wheaties boxes.

(It is still possible to buy those boxes, too, but if you get one and it has any Wheaties in it, I would not recommend consuming the contents. Nothing against Wheaties, but 33–year–old Wheaties can't possibly have the radioactive half life of, say, a Twinkie ...)

I don't recall if the Olympic hockey team paid a visit to the White House the way Super Bowl champs and World Series champs do now. President Carter was kind of busy in those days.

Anyway, the movie brought all those memories back. It was so vivid that, even though I knew how the game ended, I was on the edge of my seat hoping the Americans could hold on to their one–goal lead for 10 more minutes.

They did, of course, and the photo of their celebration became the only cover in Sports Illustrated's history that had no text with it — other than the magazine's nameplate, the date of publication and similar stuff.

But no headline. None was needed.

When the movie's final credits rolled, viewers were informed that it was dedicated to the memory of Brooks. He was killed in a car accident 10 years ago today, after the conclusion of filming but before the final product made its debut in theaters.

"He never saw it," the screen message said. "He lived it."

His life story was certainly compelling. As a young hockey player, he had been a member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1960, but he was cut a week before the Games started.

The Americans went on to win the gold medal that year. The Soviets won the gold in every Olympics after that and didn't lose to the Americans again — until 1980, when Brooks guided the U.S. to the gold medal, finally winning the gold that had been denied to him 20 years earlier.

The year before he died, Brooks coached another U.S. Olympic hockey team, this time to a silver–medal finish. On the 22nd anniversary of the miracle on ice, the Americans defeated the Russians in Salt Lake City.

Talk about a storybook ending to a storybook life — a life that was filled, as most are, with disappointment and sadness but also a life that experienced joy and redemption.

It made me reflect, as I often do, about lives that are more inspiring than anything any fiction writer could make up.

Herb Brooks' was such a life.

He never saw "Miracle." He lived it.

And, because he lived it, the rest of us did as well.

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