Fourteen short years ago…
SALT LAKE CITY… It’s hard to believe but fourteen years ago on the 11th the most famous hockey coach in the world met his end in a single car crash near Forest Lake MN. As it is for many fans of this man, it was also for me one of those moments that you would never forget where you were when the news broke of the terrible event. My daughter Chelsey “Chel Dell” and I were visiting my parents outside of Springfield IL. We had just taken in the epic film “Sea Biscuit” at a theater in town and had returned home to have dinner. My dad had turned on the five o’clock news and when it turned over to the National news at the bottom of the hour the accident was the third story mentioned by that evenings anchor.
I think I was reading the newspaper at the time and half-way was listening to the TV. But this grabbed me immediately. What did I just hear? I set the paper down and waited in some seriously harsh anticipation for the anchor to come back to this news and expand on it. My heart was at my feet. A very sudden, sick feeling overcame me. Did I hear this correctly? Perhaps there’s a mistake, maybe I didn’t hear this right. For any hockey fan in the States, player, sports fan, you name it, this was everybody’s guy. He had a common name, an everyman persona, he was a working class, lunch bucket hero. He engineered the greatest sporting event victory of the 20th Century, no questions asked.
In coaching at the University of Minnesota, Team USA. The New York Rangers, Minnesota NorthStars and Pittsburgh Penguins it was pretty clear that Herbie was all hockey all of the time. I became a Gopher hockey fan in the mid sixties when a State Tourney favorite became the Gopher Goalie. When Brooks became the Gopher Coach for the 72-73 season, I had just got out of High School and purchased season tickets. One Friday night after a home game, I had stuck around the old Williams arena for some reason I can’t remember, and happened to be looking at a trophy case in the lobby when I turned around and there he was. Eyeing up the Gophers jacket I had on, he quickly said hello and thanked me for coming to the game that night. We chatted briefly, and then his wife caught up with him and they were off into the night.
Little did I know, or any of us for that matter, what would unfold before us over the next few years. In 1974 the U won the NCAA title out in Boston. In 75’ they went to St. Louis, and I still cannot recall to this day why I wasn’t at that tourney, with such close proximity to family there. They were runners-up to Michigan Tech. The next year in Denver I didn’t miss out, watching the Gophers return the favor to MT. This was the tourney with the infamous brawl in the semi’s versus Boston University that was chronicled in the iconic move “Miracle“. When the gloves were dropped en masse I had a high speed camera with me and quickly moved to a better vantage point. Still have the photos. Almost 100 of them.
1979 and the U of M hospital had saved my life and I was into year two of chemo but going to games when I felt up to it. I was in the middle of a good stretch when the team made the tourney again, this time out in the Motor City. I was there and it was sweet. I got to temporarily forget about my ordeal for a few days. Got to meet some parents that I hadn’t met before. Sitting in the coffee shop of the Cadillac Radisson on game day, a man came by, spotted my Gopher T-shirt and asked if I would mind having company. No, I said, have a seat please. I got to spend the next hour talking hockey with Bob Verchota.
The tourney was a whirlwind, beating North Dakota in the title game. Post game downstairs, we followed the team from the ice back to the locker-room where I spotted Herbie about to go into the room and just out of thin air I asked him if he had any souvenirs on hand, he went inside came back moments later with a stick, and said here ya’ go! He was quickly studying my jacket and said, hey, that jacket looks familiar! I was smiling. Less then a year later we marveled at perhaps the greatest team victory in Olympic history, buoyed by Gophers up and down the roster and a Coach whose drive and desire wouldn’t accept anything other then victory over arguably the best hockey team in the history of the game.
You can argue that that team simply caught an opponent at a time when they may have been ripe for defeat. Right time at right place scenario. Probably Herbie wouldn’t even argue with you on that. But it wouldn’t have happened without his drive, his teaching, and his preparation that demanded a team be ready for that moment just in case. That just in case occurred and a bunch of guys that I just watched grace the college hockey ranks along with a few more that I got to see compete as well, delivered the hockey coup de’ grace. Hockey Nirvana at it’s zenith.
The anchor finally got to the story I had waited for but didn’t want repeated, and the finality of it hit harshly. I got up and went to the guest room, overwhelmed by emotion. Total disbelief was too light of a descriptive here. You know the rest of the story…
What if Herbie was still here with us? What would he think of the state of the pro game today? (I think he would mostly be pleased, he loved the skill and strategy game, but didn’t mind mixing in some muscle) How would he look upon the collegiate game or the amateur and youth hockey programs of today? I think he would be smiling. Many remark what an influence Brooks had on the sport. And he did. When it comes to playing style, preparation and training, his legacy upon the game is immeasurable here, if not throughout the world of hockey. When I think of Brooks today I hear his refrain of; “The common man goes nowhere, you have to be uncommon”. I think that today and know we are all glad that he lived his own advice…. PEACE