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Beating the Odds

Could Herb Brooks coach the same way today?

Thirty-five ago, the U.S. Olympic hockey team was creating what came to be known as the Miracle on Ice.

Under the stern leadership of coach Herb Brooks, the Americans upset the then-Soviet Union and capped a sports story for the ages with a victory over Finland.

Brooks, whose tough style involved insults and at least one late-night skate in a darkened arena, wound up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In view of today’s coaching climate, a YouTube world where game and practice behavior come under scrutiny, the question arises: Could Brooks coach today the way he did then?

“It’s a lot harder to be a coach today than it was in the ’70s,” said Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 gold-medal winners who now works for his alma mater, Boston University.

“I looked at it this way,” said Eruzione, who scored the game-winning goal midway through the third period of the Soviet game. “He was the coach, this is how you do it. Today maybe coaches have to coach differently.”

They sure do. Former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice lost his job for yelling obscenities and homophobic slurs. Indiana sacked longtime coach Bobby Knight, in part for choking player Neil Reed.

No one is saying Brooks did any of those things. But no one is saying that playing for Brooks was paradise, either. One night during the long exhibition season preceding the Olympics, the Americans tied Norway 3-3. It was well below their capabilities, and Brooks order them back on the ice for “Herbies” — grueling sprints.

I asked Eruzione what people would think if that happened today, and went viral on YouTube.

“I think a lot of people would have watched and seen how we skated,” Eruzione said. “It was part of our training.”

In the next game, the U.S. rebounded by crushing Norway 9-0, so if Brooks was trying to motivate the team, it worked.

Does Eruzione recall Brooks as an abusive coach or, to use a hot button word, a bully?

“Not at all,” said Eruzione. “That’s how coaches coached. Herb was not different from my high school coaches. Discipline, strictness. My high school football coach would grab my helmet. That was the era. If I went home and told my parents they would have killed me.”

Clearly the climate has changed.

“Everybody gets trophy,” Eruzione said. “That wasn’t happening (back then). If you weren’t good enough you didn’t play.”

The message would be, “They’re better players than you. That’s why you’re on the bench.”

“You had a choice,” he said. “You either took it or you quit. No way was I going to quit.”

Two generations of hockey fans are glad he didn’t.

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