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Herb Brooks - 2011 Legend of College Hockey

by John Gilbert

The timing is perfect to recognize Herb Brooks as the JL 2011 Legend of Hockey, on such a potentially pivotal weekend for hockey in Saint Paul, in Minnesota, in North America, and all around the world.

The National Hockey League draft is going to be conducted just a long slap-shot in one direction from this hall, at the magnificent Xcel Energy Center arena, where the future of a lot of teenage hockey prospects from every hockey-playing corner of the world will be determined, barely a week after the 2011 Stanley Cup was won by the Boston Bruins, a team that relied on tenacity and an every-shift work ethic to capture a seven-game final series over the Vancouver Canucks, which were the best team in the NHL from the start of the regular season to the final day of the long playoff series.

This RiverCentre hall also is only a long slap-shot away in a different direction from the old Saint Paul Auditorium, which gave birth to the first Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament — which became the springboard to an entire state's passion for hockey at all levels, from high school to college and on to dreams of playing for Olympic and NHL teams.

Herb Brooks touched all those areas of the game. He won Olympic Gold, he won national championships, and while leaving some lucrative coaching positions because of his unwavering focus on how the game should be played, he has been called the most creative coach in the history of the game. Because of that, he was an icon for young players. He pushed and demanded all-out effort that allowed all of his players to rise to, and beyond, what they thought were their own limits. And despite his tremendous achievements, Herb Brooks always went back to say that his greatest thrill in hockey was playing with his East Side Saint Paul neighborhood buddies to win the Minnesota state title at Johnson High School.

He never forgot his roots, and he never compromised his beliefs with a stubborn and unyielding focus that governed his life. Because of that history, and this weekend, and hockey's future, Herb Brooks is indeed a legend, because he touched hockey at every step from concerns about the structure — and over-structure — of hockey from the first tentative steps of little kids, to the greatest international and professional stars.

His accomplishments are legendary by more than just hyperbole. Everyone recalls the greatest sports achievement of any coach in this or any lifetime — defeating the mighty Soviet Union and winning the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal for the United States, with a bunch of college players he ran, drilled and intimidated into becoming the perfect example of how 20 unknown and unsung young guys could all be coerced into playing at an expanded upper limit of their potential. Herb Brooks was the only person who envisioned what could happen if he was allowed to select and choreograph how they could play.

The whole world knew about Herb Brooks after that accomplishment, and the National Hockey League learned about him shortly after that, when he coached the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Minnesota North Stars during an unfortunate season of upheaval, and later a brief interim stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Herbie got the chance to return as 2002 U.S. Olympic coach, which by then had changed over to NHL All-Stars. Brett Hull, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, and others who hadn't known Brooks became steadfast believers as he led them through an undefeated prelimuidi'y and final round, right up until Canada beat the U.S. in the Gold Medal game at Salt Lake City. That turned out to be the only game Herb Brooks lost in two terms as Team. USA Olympic coach, and a Silver Medal wasn't a bad souvenir.

Brooks might have gone on to win Stanley Cups, too, but he was tragically killed in a car accident in 2003. It is a tragedy that the hockey world still feels, because some be¬lieve the dump-and-chase, rollerball-hitting game of 2011 is farther from the fantastic "sophisticated pond hockey" that Herb Brooks believed in and commanded.