St. Cloud State was Brooks’ other ‘Miracle on Ice’
ST. CLOUD -- He came along at practically the last minute and left after one school year.When someone does that at a university, there typically is not a long-term effect, let alone one that goes beyond the university or the state that it resides in.
ST. CLOUD - He came along at practically the last minute and left after one school year.
When someone does that at a university, there typically is not a long-term effect, let alone one that goes beyond the university or the state that it resides in.
But Herb Brooks was not typical.
After initially turning the job down in May 1986, Brooks decided to accept an offer from St. Cloud State University to be the team’s next men’s head hockey coach. One of his caveats was that he wanted the team to elevate itself from NCAA Division III to the Division I level and to begin work to build a new arena for the team.
Thirty years later, St. Cloud enjoys the fruit of his efforts. That Brooks was even here is surprising.
John Mariucci had been Brooks’ head coach when he played for the University of Minnesota from 1956-59. Mariucci died on March 23, 1987, but not before he helped convince Brooks to take the St. Cloud State job.
Dan Brooks, Herb’s son, was on campus in 2013 when St. Cloud State’s arena was renamed the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
“He really answered John Mariucci’s dying wish to bring more Division I hockey to Minnesota,” Dan said at the time of the renaming. “My dad wasn’t a flashy guy. He wasn’t a materialistic guy. It wasn’t about the money for him.
“He was a grassroots, build-the-game-from-the-ground guy. He looked at the opportunity at St. Cloud to turn that into a Division I hockey program. Mariucci thought that it was ridiculous that Michigan had seven Division I college teams and Minnesota had two (Minnesota Duluth was the other). ... My dad knew that by bringing St. Cloud to Division I that Bemidji State would probably follow and he had an idea that (Minnesota State) Mankato would be there. That’s where he wanted to take college hockey.
“I think it all started with him, literally, knocking on doors in St. Cloud to get that program to Division I.”
Division I expansion
Brooks led the team to a 25-10-1 record and third place in the NCAA Division III tournament in his one season. But he also planted seeds, helping secure state funding for an arena with two Olympic-sized sheets of ice and for the move up to Division I.
After Brooks left, the Huskies played a Division I independent schedule for three seasons beginning in 1987-88, moved into the on-campus arena in 1989 and first played in the WCHA in 1990-91.
With St. Cloud State setting an example, 11 schools added Division I men’s hockey.
“Hockey in Minnesota is like basketball in Indiana or football in Texas, and Herb felt that we needed more Division I programs and that’s why he wanted to get things going” at St. Cloud State, said Craig Dahl, who was Brooks’ assistant coach in 1986-87 and the team’s head coach from 1987-2005.
“To see the success that we had and the building was full, the athletic directors at Bemidji and Mankato said, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?’ “
It surprised many that Brooks took the job. From 1972-79, he led the University of Minnesota to three national titles. He went on to lead the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team - the “Miracle on Ice” team - to the 1980 gold medal.
He spent one season coaching professionally in Switzerland and then coached the NHL’s New York Rangers from 1981-85 before getting fired. He was working for Jostens in 1986 and was mentioned as a candidate back at Minnesota and with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets before deciding to take the St. Cloud State job ... for a reported salary of $21,300.
“I don’t think Herb Brooks and doing what was expected went hand-in-hand,” said Mike Snee, the executive director of College Hockey Inc., the marketing and informational arm of Division I men’s hockey. “He was kind of like the (Wayne) Gretzky of coaches. Gretzky knew where the puck was going before it got to where it was going to be.
“He put the game first and the game in Minnesota first. Now, when you look back on it, it makes perfect sense with how Bemidji and Mankato followed and there are five thriving Division I programs in the state. The number of men’s and women’s Division I programs are a large reason why Minnesota has somewhat separated itself from other states in terms of overall number of kids playing hockey and people playing at the highest professional level in the country.”
Minnesota Hockey set a record for 8-and-under players in the country with 17,651 in 2015-16. That’s the third straight season of growth and the first time a state has had more than 17,000 8-and-under players. Minnesota also leads the country in total number of players, with 57,107.
Twenty percent of all Division I men’s hockey players are from Minnesota, and there are 43 active players from the state in the NHL - the most from any state. St. Cloud State had two alumni who grew up in Minnesota in the NHL in 2015-16 (Matt Cullen with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Matt Hendricks of the Edmonton Oilers).
Legacy at SCSU
One of the concerns when Brooks took the job was that he would not be at practice regularly or around the team and campus often.
Instead, Brooks was a mentor for two young coaches in Dahl and student assistant coach Bob Motzko - who began his reign as SCSU’s head coach in 2005.
“We were treated like coaches from day one,” said Motzko, who had finished his playing career at the university the season before. “His personality was he was just so driven and there was no way anybody could copy that. But it teaches you how he was always thinking ahead.”
On game night, Brooks was first to arrive and last to leave, Motzko said. “He was all-in.”
Besides setting the example for his staff and players, Brooks lobbied the Legislature to help fund the arena.
“He used to stay overnight at my apartment and one morning during the season, he got a call from (SCSU) President (Brendan) McDonald at 6:30 in the morning,” Dahl said. “I got the phone and Brendan McDonald wanted him to go with him down to Minneapolis to a meeting with a (legislative) committee.
“Herbie took off from the apartment and lobbied for the money for the rink.”
Virginia native John Harrington, a former UMD player, was on the 1980 Olympic team, an assistant coach for Dahl from 1990-93, the head coach at St. John’s University from 1993-2008 and will start his second season as Mankato’s head women’s hockey coach in the fall. Harrington said that Brooks was the right person to lobby for the arena.
“He was a good politician and, at the time, there was not much Herb could do or say that was not considered the way it should be,” Harrington said. “He had that ability to rally the troops and the university and the Legislature to get it done. ‘Don’t fail’ was the attitude that he took.”
“He was really great with a lot of people, but he couldn’t stand mediocrity,” Dahl said.
Staying in contact
Brooks left St. Cloud State to become Minnesota North Stars head coach. He also coached the New Jersey Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins and then was a scout for Pittsburgh and the Penguins’ director for player personnel when he died in a one-vehicle accident on Interstate 35 in 2003.
But after he left St. Cloud State, he remained in contact with the university, Dahl and Motzko.
“He used to come by when he was scouting and one night after we got beat by (Colorado College), he kept me into the office until after midnight: ‘You’re defensive coverage wasn’t good enough,’ “ Dahl said. “Herbie could get on a rant and go for a while.
“Having coached with him, I knew how to take everything with him. He wasn’t criticizing. He was giving you constructive coaching. He wanted you to be better.”
Motzko made several coaching stops before returning to St. Cloud State. One of his last jobs before taking over the Huskies was to as head coach and general manager of the Sioux Falls Stampede from 1998-2000.
“Any time there was growth in the game, he loved that,” Motzko said. “I had taken over the expansion program in Sioux Falls and he came down to speak at a big event. ... He was supportive of what we were doing down there and thought it was great for the state of South Dakota and to introduce hockey to it.
“When I was coaching in Sioux Falls, he came to a game. We’d had a 5-on-3 power play and hadn’t scored and we had this curtain in the hallway to our locker room. So between periods, there was this head sticking out through the curtain with his arm waving me to come out. I saw that it was Herb, so I came sprinting out.
“When I got there, he had a sheet of paper and said, ‘What the hell are you doing on your power play?’ He started diagramming what I was doing wrong and then he said, ‘Now go change it,’ threw his pen down and walked away.
“That’s when I knew he liked me.”
While Brooks was known for his rough exterior, Dahl said that he would let people know if they had done something well. And Brooks enjoyed seeing what he had started take off at St. Cloud State.
“Herb wasn’t one to express a lot of feelings, but he knew that without his input, this wouldn’t have happened,” Dahl said. “He was very proud of the success that we had and he was at our NCAA (tournament) games in Michigan. He wouldn’t have missed it.
“He was proud of the way our program was in the upper half of the league and the attendance was booming. That was what he had envisioned.”