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On The Outside, Looking To Get In
E.M. Swift
December 07, 1981
Coach Herb Brooks, maestro of Lake Placid, is struggling to feel at home on the Rangers
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December 07, 1981

On The Outside, Looking To Get In

Coach Herb Brooks, maestro of Lake Placid, is struggling to feel at home on the Rangers

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"...and this isn't February."

She eventually wishes him luck and departs, chuckling. Brooks exhales deeply. "You see?" he says. "Bang. New York's a 'now' town. Now. That's the pressure of New York City."

Brooks's transition this season from being amateur hockey's most celebrated coach to being coach of the Rangers has been no laughing matter. If his Rangers had been a Broadway show, they would have closed after Brooks's opening night at the helm, a 5-2 loss to the lowly Detroit Red Wings. They were booed before the end of the first act. Mike Eruzione, the 1980 Olympic team captain who now does color commentary for the Rangers' cable TV network, heard fans screaming, "Hey Brooks, go back to the Olympic team!" after one period.

When the Rangers took their show on the road, they fared even worse, losing the next two games by a combined score of 15-3. Since that 0-3 start, New York has gone 8-13-3, including a loss and a tie last weekend against Quebec—but the heat hasn't been on Brooks. What really helped Brooks is that the Washington Capitals dropped 13 games in a row and own the cellar of the Patrick Division. If the Rangers finish ahead of Washington, they will qualify for the playoffs. Still, 8-13-3 hockey isn't exactly what a "now" town that hasn't had a Stanley Cup championship in 41 years is looking for. "They want to know, 'How fast can we do it?' " says Brooks, who last June signed a two-year, $250,000 contract. "And because of the outcome of the Olympics, the pressure is compounded. But until they start giving out the Stanley Cup in October, the playoffs are still the thing."

In the minds of some hockey experts, the very methods that made Brooks successful with the Olympic team and, before that, the University of Minnesota—which won three NCAA championships in his seven seasons there—are likely to be his undoing in the NHL. Conditioning? You can't make the Rangers do Herbies up and back, up and back until they crawl. Innovation? The NHL rinks are too small for all that fancy wheeling and dealing they do in Europe. Motivation? You try that rah-rah college stuff up here and the players will laugh you back to Gopherland.

"I haven't come in here with a Minnesota baseball cap and I'm not leading college cheers," says Brooks. "And I haven't come into this job with a whip or screaming and yelling like a crazy man, as I've been painted. These guys are pros and I respect their abilities. But I asked them not to misinterpret that respect as a sign of weakness. It's not a sign of weakness. I'll do what I have to do to survive."

That, in itself, would be an achievement. No U.S.-born college coach has ever made it in the NHL, a league that doesn't look kindly upon outsiders. Brooks is very much an outsider, having neither played nor coached in the NHL before landing the Ranger job. He'd never even lived outside of Minnesota before coaching last season in Davos, Switzerland. "I guess at times I've felt like Jackie Robinson," Brooks says. "Not with the Rangers, but with certain elements around the league. The first time we were in Toronto, three or four members of the media asked how it felt knowing a lot of people hoped I'd fail. That really floored me. It hurt."

The fact of the matter is that Brooks has done little to ingratiate himself with the NHL. An outspoken critic of violence, he says that fighting should be banned from the game. He says the league's 80-game regular season should be made more meaningful, that it should eliminate from the playoffs more than the five teams—out of 21—it does now. Brooks even miffed his supporters in the NHL by rejecting the Colorado Rockies' coaching offer in the summer of 1980. Who does this guy think he is, turning us down?

But what bothers the Establishment the most, of course, is that Brooks did what the NHL has been unable to do since the 1976 Canada Cup: He put together a team that beat the U.S.S.R. when it meant something. If he fails in the NHL, it would make everyone in the league feel a lot better about the professional product.

Not only is Brooks's background different from that of his fellow NHL coaches, but he also has different ideas about how the game should be played. It's in the nature of things that change meets resistance. Surprisingly, that resistance hasn't come from the Ranger players, who have had to drastically change their style. "People say you can't do this, you can't do that in the NHL," Brooks says, "but I've found the Rangers to be objective, willing and good to work with, by and large."

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