Last week, I started a weekly Q&A with some type of sports or entertainment “personality.” I’m cheating a little, perhaps, because the first two weeks are with the same person. So, here is the second of two parts with Kansas Citian Ken Morrow, who was a defenseman on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team that beat the Soviet Union and then subsequent gold medal against Finland two days later. (You can read the first part here.)
Besides the game itself, Morrow and I talked about coach Herb Brooks and his influence on the team. Although the movie “Miracle” brought Brooks to light more a few years ago, he isn’t considered one of the greatest coaches of all-time. He should be.
Ken Morrow: For me, it was coming out of that first period, tied 2-2. For those who don’t remember, we had been down 2-1 in the first period, and with a few seconds to go before the buzzer, our guy dumps it into their goal, it comes out, Mark Johnson rebounds, splits two defensemen and scores at the buzzer. So we went into the locker room with a 2-2 tie. At that point, not that we knew we were going to beat them, but we knew we’d be in the game. We felt good about ourselves, having gone through that first game at Madison Square Garden, to come out of the first period tied 2-2 was huge for us.
MF: I’m guessing you guys were a handful for Herb after you beat the Russians, and were getting set to play for the gold medal two days later. You guys, mathematically, still could’ve ended without a medal after the game with Finland. What was the feeling like the next day?
KM: You’re right; I won’t go into the mathematics of it, but there was a chance that if we’d lost to Finland, we could’ve finished outside the medals. So, Herb Brooks did his greatest coaching job on Saturday morning (after beating the Soviet Union). Here’s this young group of kids who’d pulled off this monumental upset, so we came into practice feeling pretty good about ourselves, and he has to get our attention on the next game. He put the hammer down real quick and real hard. We needed that. We had to get ourselves ready for the next game, which was Sunday morning. Sure enough, as we’d done all Olympics, we were trailing going into the third period against a very good Finland team. We had come from behind all Olympics long, and we put together another one against Finland.
MF: As we talk about Herb Brooks, one of my favorite things about him are all of his quotes, some of which, as you’ve told me before, you guys didn’t really understand.
KM: He had a bunch of them. [Laughs.] He was a great psychologist. He knew exactly which buttons to push on the players. Everything he did worked. We didn’t realize this at the time, but we found out years later. Throughout the year, he was constantly digging at the Soviet team, saying things like “these guys aren’t that good.” Well, their captain was a dead ringer for Stan Laurel (of “Laurel and Hardy” fame). He was one of the all-time best hockey players, but he looked like Stan Laurel. Herb would make comments like, “You guys are playing Stan Laurel out there. You can’t beat Stan Laurel?” There was always a motive behind everything that Herb Brooks did and said, and it all worked.
I do believe that for anyone thinking about going into coaching in any sport, it should be mandatory to study Herb Brooks. This guy was ahead of his time. He was innovative, and, as I said, he’s the sole reason we won a gold medal at Lake Placid.
MF: At that moment, during the entire Olympic experience from tryouts to the end, what were your feelings toward Herb?
KM: I never had a problem with him. Again, he knew what made every player tic. We actually did a psychological test, which was unheard of at the time. Now, being a part of the New York Islanders, we do a psychological test with all of the kids we’re considering drafting. I think Herb’s was a 300-question psychological test. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. There’s no doubt in my mind that he took those, looked at them, and figured out how he could get the best out of each one of those players, whether it was riding a guy hard, backing off, when to kick them in the pants and when not to. He did that throughout the year, and it always seemed to work. When you’re talking about 20 players, you’re talking about 20 different ways to motivate. He was a master of that.
MF: As we look at hockey in the Olympics now, what are your thoughts on NHL guys playing?
KM: I’m really torn. As a hockey fan, I like seeing the best players in the world out there, but I also understand there won’t be another “miracle on ice” with that. I doubt that you can have the stuff going on around the world that made our “miracle on ice” bigger than it was, but I also understand that I was given a chance to play in the Olympics because NHL players weren’t playing in the Olympics at that time — not that there were a lot of great American NHL players at that time. It gave us our chance. Eventually I’d like to see it go back, but I’m going to enjoy watching these best players of the world out there.
MF: I’ve asked a few guys this over the years, and since you won four Stanley Cups and a gold medal, which would you rather win: a Stanley Cup or a gold medal, although, of course, your gold medal experience was different than most people’s because of everything surrounding it?
KM: If I had to choose, I’d take the gold medal simply because it’s playing for your country. It’s a unique experience, a unique moment. Not many people get to do that. A lot of people have won professional championships, but to think the Olympics come around once every four years, and then to be fortunate enough to say you’re a gold medal winner, that’s tops.
MF: As I say to you every time we talk, it’s been a thrill reliving 1980 with you. Thanks for your time.
KM: Great talking with you and I appreciate you letting me tell my story.