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Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooks was miserable but brilliant

Again, again, again

It is a famous line from a formative scene in the Disney movie “Miracle,” which tells the story of the 1980 Olympic men’s hockey team from the United States.

The one consisting of college kids who knocked off the powerful Soviet Union side.

The one that delivered a miracle.

Herb Brooks coached the “Miracle on Ice” team whose 40th anniversary will be celebrated this week by the Golden Knights, a man whose intimidating temperament was clearly displayed by actor Kurt Russell on the big screen.

Or so everyone thought.

“Did you see how they portrayed him in the movie?” Miracle forward Mark Johnson asked. “They made him out to be a nice guy. He was a miserable guy the whole time we were with him.”

More than anything else, Brooks was a pioneer in the areas of conditioning and psychological games, used to motivate and push players beyond their physical and emotional limits.

Example: The Americans had tied the Norwegian national team in a pre-Olympics exhibition when Brooks made his players remain on the ice afterward. Not content with their focus or effort, he began skating them in a series of sprints, one after the other after the other.

Bag skates. Go until your legs fall off, then keep going.

A sort of torture that came to be known by some as “Herbies.”

Brooks kept saying it: Again, again again.

In the movie, assistant coach Craig Patrick would blow a whistle to commence another set.

Not in reality.

It was just the word. Again.

In Hollywood, the madness ended following the rink operator turning off the lights — Brooks continued to skate the team even then — and captain Mike Eruzione yelled out where he was from (Winthrop, Massachusetts) and, most important to Brooks and his desire to instill a feeling of patriotism throughout the roster, that he played for the United States of America.

But in real life …

“We did keep skating (in the dark),” Miracle defenseman Dave Christian said. “I remember it ending when Mark Johnson smashed his stick against the glass and Brooks called us all to center ice. He just made this statement that, ‘If I ever see a lack of discipline like that again, I will skate you till you die.’ That ended it. That’s how I remember it ending. ‘I will skate you till you die. Get out of here!’

“We give (Eruzione) a bad time. We tell him all the time, ‘If that’s all it took to end that skate, why the hell didn’t you say that earlier?’ … I think it was done by design. I think Herb meant to do that. As much as he had a finger on and was aware of the pulse on the team, he knew each player and what made each of us tick, and yet he was very aloof with the whole team.”

Brooks died in a one-car accident in 2003 on Interstate 35 near Forest Lake, Minnesota. He was 66.

He was an innovator on the ice, decades ahead of his time. He coached three NCAA championship teams at Minnesota, four NHL teams, the Miracle side that helped create a massive American stream of youth hockey participation.

He was the right coach at the right time in 1980, but nothing that team accomplished ever seemed enough.

‘Your (bleeping) grave’

It was the day after the historic 4-3 win over the Soviets when the U.S. gathered to prepare for its gold medal game against Finland. Feeling pretty wonderful about themselves, the American players arrived to a more enraged Brooks than at any other time during their Olympic experience.

He tore into them like never before, the idea being that if players weren’t immediately brought back to earth after such a historic victory, all the hard work over the previous seven months could go for naught.

America wasn’t even ensured a medal had it lost to the Finns.

“I had Herb for (a total of) six years in college at Minnesota and the Olympics and then the NHL, and I’m not sure I ever knew him,” Miracle defenseman Bill Baker said. “He was very much a taskmaster. It was not a democracy at all. We had no say in anything (in 1980). But he was good. He was really good. Whatever he thought would give him an advantage, he used.”

One of his parting shots: With the Americans trailing Finland 2-1 after the second period in the gold medal game, Brooks walked into the locker room and offered this message:

“If you lose this game, you will all take it to your (bleeping) graves.”

Then he walked back and forth and said it a second time.

The Americans would win 4-2.

Herb Brooks never offered a compliment.

Never even a “Nice going, boys.”

Even then, he was the same guy.

Again, again, again.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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