- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY — Herb Brooks just couldn't resist. Someone asked him what five players he would use if his American team got into an overtime shootout, and Brooks gave what was hardly the diplomatic answer.

"I know if I had Mr. Gretzky …" he joked, referring to the 1998 debacle by the Canadians, who decided not to use Wayne Gretzky as one of their shooters against Dominik Hasek in their loss to the Czech Republic in the Nagano Games.

Nothing like rubbing salt in some old Canadian wounds.

Brooks is approaching his role as the coach of the U.S. men's hockey team, which opens play today against Finland, as a man with nothing to lose, and rightly so. His Olympic legacy is safe forever as the coach of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team.

He posted a 165-96-18 record as coach of the University of Minnesota hockey squad, and won three NCAA championships. He has gone on to have successful coaching stints with four NHL teams. But with all that, he'll be remembered primarily as the taskmaster coach of the squad that upset the mighty Russians on their way to the gold medal.

That's why he jumped at the chance to come back and coach the 2002 men's team. Win or lose, Herb Brooks can't lose particularly compared to the disappointing and embarrassing performance by the Americans in Nagano, when they were eliminated quickly after losses to Sweden and the Czech Republic and some players were involved in a well-publicized trashing of a dorm room in the Olympic Village there.

If Brooks can get the men's team in and out of Salt Lake City without any crimes being committed, he will have been a success. He has already promised to do that much.

"I think we will be able to carry ourselves with class and be able to sleep at night," Brooks said when asked about the American players' rowdy behavior in Nagano and their lackluster play on the ice. "We will play smart and play hard."

That may be Brooks' biggest challenge, because these guys are not like the bunch of young college kids that he spent months teaching, molding and harassing into a gold medal unit. These are pros, already tired and stressed from the trials and tribulations of an NHL season, with no time to really come together as a team, and still carrying the burden of the Nagano embarrassment.

He welcomes the challenge, because, at the age of 65, while he was happy living in semi-retirement back in Minnesota and working as a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins, he wasn't ready to let this opportunity pass by.

"I didn't want to tranquilize my life, shelter myself or limit myself in terms of taking another step into a competitive environment," Brooks said. "Some people do those sorts of things and create a comfort zone, and I don't want to do that. I didn't want to stand by the wayside and watch."

It's not 1980, though, and Brooks knows enough not to use the heavy hand he employed on that young squad.

"It really is a different environment," he said. "The challenges are a little different. This time I'm not going to be telling these players anything they don't know. It will be a reminder thing. It will be more trying to pull it out of them instead of putting it in."

Describing his approach, Brooks said he will "ask a question and listen. I don't think it should be a dictatorship type of thing. But I have expectations of these players."

And those players have expectations of Brooks to help them come up with a strategy for the wide-open international game that presents a different style of play than the NHL game the American players struggled with in Nagano.

"There is nobody better than Coach Brooks to give everybody a system and responsibility," said New York Ranger Brian Leetch, who will be playing on his third Olympic team.

Brooks is certainly familiar with the Olympic style of play. In Nagano, he wanted to coach in the Olympic tournament so badly that he coached the French national team. And he recognizes that the adjustment to the Olympic style is his biggest challenge.

"For the Canadians and Americans, when we get on the bigger ice surface, we play a little different game, and we have the adjustment to make," he said. "We will have to make that adjustment real quick."

Of course, if it were up to Brooks, they wouldn't be playing with NHL players in the Olympic tournament. He thinks it is a mistake and that everyone the NHL and Olympic hockey would be better off if each country developed its own squad of young players.

"That way we could give young players a chance to develop more and become known to the public, and then they could go on to become stars in the NHL," he said.

That was hardly a diplomatic answer in a tournament dominated by NHL players. But then Herb Brooks has nothing to lose, and that may be America's best chance at winning in Salt Lake City.

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