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MIRACLE MEMORIES

Herb BrooksBy Brian Coe

It’s one of those “Where were you when…” questions that every American hockey fan over the age of 40 probably remembers:  Where were you when the Miracle on Ice happened?

It’s a question Dan Bylsma has been asked in numerous interviews this year due to his part-time job - head coach of the United States Men’s Olympic Team at the Sochi Olympics.

“I’m not entirely sure of the factual information that I have,” cautioned Bylsma, who was a nine year old kid in Grand Haven, Michigan on February 22, 1980.  “It had to be a Friday night, because I was watching Joker’s Wild, I’m pretty sure.  The banner came across the bottom of the screen alerting that the USA had just beaten the Russians in the fabled game at Lake Placid there on the big rink.”

The reason that Bylsma learned about the win via a crawl on the bottom of a TV screen and not from watching the game?  The game wasn’t broadcast live in the United States.  With a start time of 5:00pm, it was shown on tape delay by ABC in prime time.

Although he didn’t get to experience the game as it happened, Bylsma can still recall all of the key moments today.

“I’ve certainly seen the replay over and over and over now,” he said.  “I certainly have vivid memories of Mark Johnson’s goal at the end of the period, and Mike Eruzione scoring the goal in the third period with, I think, 13 minutes left, and having to play the rest of that game out.

“The last dying minutes of that game seeming to take forever, and the Americans doing everything they possibly can to secure and hold onto that victory in the final seconds…guys taking off and throwing their gear.  I’ve seen that replay many times.”

Billy Guerin is another Penguin who has red, white and blue in his blood, and whose path was set by the events at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

“I was a young kid, I do remember it though,” recalled Guerin.  “I remember watching the game in my family room, and that was it for me.  From that moment on I wanted to not just be a hockey player, but I wanted to play in the Olympics.  And it was very important to me.

“That 1980 team set the stage, and I really think they set the stage for one of the greater generations in USA hockey.”

Of course, the head coach of the 1980 team was Herb Brooks, who guided the team to its first gold medal in 20 years.  And both Bylsma and Guerin have connections to the architect of the team.

Bylsma’s parallels are a little more apparent – both he and Brooks served as coaches of the Olympic team and of the Pittsburgh Penguins, although in opposite orders (Brooks coached Pittsburgh during the 1999-2000 season).

“I don’t think I’m looking to try to be Herb Brooks.  What he did with that team, and what they accomplished as a group is nothing short of a miracle,” said the current American coach.  “I’m just going to be Dan Bylsma.”

Guerin’s ties to the fabled coach are a little more personal. 

As anyone who’s seen the movie “Miracle” knows, Brooks was the final player cut from the 1960 USA squad, which went on to capture the gold medal at the Squaw Valley Games. 

Guerin suffered the same fate in 1992, missing out on the chance to play for Team USA in Albertville, France. 

“When I was cut from the 1992 team I signed with the [New Jersey] Devils, and they sent me to Utica [of the American Hockey League].  Herb was our coach there,” Guerin said. “Herb had the same experience in 1960.  And for that, he protected me.  He wouldn’t let any of the media near me; he made sure that I was all right.  It was a tough situation and he really helped me through.”

Brooks was promoted to New Jersey the following year, and Guerin played 65 games for the sometime demanding, always cerebral coach.

“He was a tough guy to figure out.  He used a lot of big words that hockey players didn’t understand,” Guerin said with a laugh.  “And he thought outside the box.  In a lot of ways Herb was ahead of his time, the way he wanted guys to practice, the way he wanted guys to train.  He had a very different delivery.”

Brooks spent just one season behind the Devils’ bench, guiding the team to a 40-37-7 record, the club’s best record up to that point in history.  New Jersey was bounced from the postseason by the Penguins in five games, and Brooks resigned from his position following the playoff defeat.

But that wasn’t the end of the Brooks-Guerin story. 

The two were reunited in 2002, when Brooks once again took the Team USA reins at the Salt Lake City Games, and Guerin was included on his roster. 

“He was a much different guy,” said Guerin, who won a silver medal with the 2002 team, and also played for the 1998 and 2006 Olympic squads.  “He learned to laugh a lot more I think, take things in stride.  He was still very demanding, but he definitely laughed a lot more. 

“It was nice. I was fortunate to spend some time with him.”

(Special thanks to Tim Kelchner and Rich Charneski of Eyewitness News for their assistance with the Dan Bylsma interview used in this article)

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