The surprising United States Olympic men’s hockey team will play Finland today in the semi-finals, inspiring some to compare them to the last U.S. men’s team to win the gold 30 years ago, Lake Placid’s “Miracle on Ice.” Sorry, even if the U.S. wins it all, it will not qualify as a miracle. We are not likely to see anything quite like it again. And there will never be another coach like Herb Brooks.
I will never forget the impact the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team had on our country – or the impact the coach, Herb Brooks, had on me.
On Dec. 13, 1979, my best friend was heading home from hockey practice up north, when he was killed in a car accident. I found out the next morning, seconds before my Huron High School hockey teammates and I walked out onto the basketball court for our first pep rally. What started out as one of the happiest days of my life, had suddenly become the saddest.
I didn’t come out of it for months. But when the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament started, I watched every second of every game – I was transfixed by this team and their coach – and that’s what brought me back.
Fifteen years later, as a sports reporter for The Detroit News, I decided to write a story about Mike Ramsey and Slava Fetisov, who were bitter rivals in Lake Placid Games, before becoming great friends playing together with the Red Wings. To round out the piece I knew I had to call Herb Brooks, who was famously impatient with sports writers.
When I reached Brooks at his home in Minnesota, he spent the first ten minutes chewing out my entire profession, from our lack of credentials to our lack of accountability, before he answered any of my questions. I stayed calm throughout, but after I hung up the phone, I looked down, and saw that my hands were shaking.
When the story came out, I sent Brooks a copy, then nervously called him a week later to get his response. I talked to his wife, Patty – a warm and generous soul – who told me, “Well, he didn’t throw it against the wall, like he usually does. So that’s a good sign.”
A year later, I called Brooks for a story on Russian hockey, and when that one came out, he asked if they could reprint it in a hockey magazine in Minnesota. After that, we talked every few months, and we would occasionally meet up in rinks from Ann Arbor to Nagano.
Our relationship deepened in 2000, when I took over my old high school hockey team, which had not won a game in a year-and-a-half. Making matters tougher, I was the worst player in school history. (I am not bragging. These are facts.)
But I had the best group of assistants in the state, plus a secret weapon: a world-class mentor in Herb Brooks. I stole from him shamelessly – and it worked.
In our second year, we got to the regional finals – but we had to face our Soviet Union, Trenton High School, which has won 12 state titles. Three weeks before the regional finals, they had smoked us, 10-1.
I knew we were better than that, but I also knew we needed a boost. So, the day before the game, I called Herb Brooks. He said, “Johnny, just tell ‘em this: Above all, you have to believe. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance. But if you do, anything is possible.”
I passed on Herb’s words to our players, who had heard me talk about Brooks many times. Our guys played like they were on fire, without any fear whatsoever, but we fell short, 3-2. Still, their fans gave our players a standing ovation. Back in the locker room, I told them, “We might have lost, but you did something more important: You dared to believe you could do it.”
The next year, Herb and I started working on his autobiography. But three months later, Herb died in a car accident.
The next season, my last in coaching, we traveled to Trenton and we beat them in their building, 4-3.
On the bus ride home I wanted to call Herb Brooks in the worst way, just to tell him: We believed.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.