Herb Brooks would have been 80 this month, so a “Herbie story” is in order. As the New York Rangers’ coach in April 1984, he stirred up a hornet’s nest one evening, elevating the playoff rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers while his own team was idle, waiting for the series to start. The Flyers had already clinched the Patrick Division, and Brooks ignited the fire while scouting their last regular season game.
The Broad Street Bullies were so rabid in those days, opponents would call in sick rather than make the trip to Philly. It was known as the “Philadelphia flu.” To make the snake pit even more intimidating, fans at the Spectrum came for blood, and never left feeling cheated out of the price of a ticket.
The Rangers were the smallest team in the league, labeled the “Smurfs” by the media, because they resembled the little play dolls of that name. However, with a roster of Swedes, Finns, Americans and Canadians, the Rangers were the most creative in the league, and maybe the fastest. Breaking the tradition of north-south hockey (staying in your lane), Brooks produced a hybrid style: the best of the European and North American attacks – deceptive passing, regrouping, playmaking and changing lanes.
Making the playoffs and finishing the season with 93 points, fourth place behind the Flyers, Islanders and Capitals was no easy task. It was a division of giants … plus the unconventional Smurfs. The reward for their successful season was a five-game playoff series with the Flyers, three games in the Spectrum. Ugh.
Having finished the season a day earlier, Brooks said, “Cardiac, let’s drive down to watch the Flyers.” By the middle of the first period, he was so sickened by their intimidation hockey, he said, “You know what? Except for Mark Howe, their defensemen are so busy trying to hit people they can’t make plays. They’re big and tough – perfect for this goon style, and we’re going to get them so riled up they’ll forget hockey completely.”
The media would play a role in this “riling-up” process. After the first period, Herb said – mostly to himself, “Lets go get ‘em,” as he walked into the press dining room. Reporters swooped in on the Rangers coach, knowing he was always good for a scoop.
They started with polite questions, “Have you been surprised about Mark Pavelich’s success in a league full of giants?” Mark was the smallest of the Smurfs, yet he had 75 and 76 points in each of his first two seasons. Furthermore, the NHL had always been a league of Canadian players, so his success and that of other Olympians was a major surprise.
Brooks responded, “Surprised? Well, let’s see, Pav is one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen. His vision is so good he even sees players behind him. He makes teammates better, plays solid defense, shoots and passes as well as anyone. But … he lacks size.”
Next question: “What are your plans for the Flyer defensemen?” One could detect a hint of smugness, as if the question was, “How can your Smurfs possibly penetrate our gorillas?”
“I think I’ll throw out some dog bones and distract them,” Brooks said without a smile.
The vultures descended in a flash – pens ready for red meat. A few of them asked simultaneously, “What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s see,” Brooks started as he had before. “First, they can’t skate (his obvious exaggeration had the desired effect, as jaws dropped around the room). They’re not concerned with passing – just hitting. And I haven’t seen them shoot the puck; they have other things on their mind. But, of course … they don’t lack size.”
With that, I grabbed his elbow, and said, “Let’s get outta here.”
As expected, the next morning it was front-page headlines in the Philadelphia papers, and true to form, the riled-up Flyers would eliminate themselves with penalties in three straight games (4-2, 6-2 and 5-1). The Rangers moved on to a great series with the Islanders, but the Isles advanced and won the Stanley Cup – one of four championships in that era.
Herb Brooks never left stones unturned. Preparation meant more than training his team. In 1980, his own Olympic competition began a couple weeks before the teams moved into Lake Placid. He was focused like a laser in the hand-shaking line after a lopsided exhibition loss to the Soviets in Madison Square Garden. He patted each one on the back, and poured on the compliments about this “unstoppable machine.”
Similarly, his own playoff competition in 1984 began while scouting, four days before the first game. It started with his own resolve, “Let’s go get ‘em.”