Herb Brooks, Individualist
Herb Brooks, a 3-time NCAA title winner at the University of Minnesota, coached the US Olympic hockey team to the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, and indeed, it was one of the most masterful achievements in all of sports history.
This is not a piece about feverish nationalism, though every American cheers on our nation’s own athletes in Olympic competition. Rather, it is about a man who, in his job, so defined what we libertarians maintain is the glory of the human spirit: rugged individualism, commitment, and leadership, combined with a supreme work ethic.
Hockey is a team sport, yes, but it is made up of individuals who come together to work toward a common goal, and it takes an extraordinary leader to pilot that team toward its defined ends. Brooks was a demanding man, a disciplinarian, and yes, a one-man show, but he was the right man to do that job with the 1980 US Olympic team.
Unlike what this New York Press writer, Matt Zoller Seitz, seems to believe, Brooks did not possess a “Soviet-style collectivist thinking” at all. In fact, the film consistently played up his inability to mesh with the collective-nationalist thought process that typically is inherent in the Olympics itself.
Early on in the film, there are some great scenes when a member of the advisory committee to the hockey program makes it clear that his committee is somehow a part of the “collective leadership” of the US hockey team, and implies that they will be in on all major decisions involving team strategy. Brooks quietly shoves any notion of that aside, and goes about his own means planning and building a hockey team. Barely two hours into the first day of week-long tryouts, Brooks gives to his assistant coach the list of players that are going to make the grade, at least before final cuts a few months later. The stammering and shocked assistant coach is getting a taste of what this man is about.
Shortly thereafter, the leading committee member is livid that this decision can be made before the week is out, let alone without the “assistance” and input of the advisory committee, made up mostly of appointed, administrative pencil pushers. Kurt Russell, in an impeccable performance as Herb Brooks, replies to the committee member (to paraphrase): “I know everything about every one of these kids, and I knew it all before they got here. I’ve coached many of them, and the ones I didn’t coach, I talked to their coaches. And I talked with all of these kids’ parents, siblings, teammates, opposing coaches, and opposing players, and I know everything they can do, are capable of doing, and will do. This here is my team of 26 players, because I don’t need to see any more of them than I already know.”
The movie, by this time, has already established Brooks as an uncompromising individualist who takes ownership of his job and his objectives, and we see a script that plays out the clashing of wills between Brooks and the background collective throughout the movie. Unquestionably, it is the movie’s overriding theme.
Brook’s stratagem was to beat the Soviets at their own game, and to do that, he had to assemble a group of essential team players, meaning guys that were willing to sacrifice personal glory for a shot at the big prize. North American-style, swashbuckling hockey wasn’t going to accomplish that, but teaching his boys to stay with and play the European-Soviet open-skating style might accomplish the unthinkable. Subsequently, rather than looking for superstar skill sets from his players, Brooks looked for kids that could adapt to new roles, and learn to polish those new-fangled skills quickly. Brooks knew that to beat the best at their own game would involve substantial amounts of mental toughness, and superb conditioning to boot. That involved taking these players to a much higher level of competition than they were used to, and that was where Herb Brooks was at his best.
Before I am charged with any Herb Brooks-worshipping, do sports fans and non-sports fans alike understand how impracticable this aspiration for a gold medal was? That is, to assemble a team of mostly 21-year-old, college rag-tags, practice for a mere 7-8 months, and defeat the mighty Soviets, a seasoned team of veterans who played together, every day, all year long, for close to ten years. This State-sponsored, Soviet team, with the nearly unbeatable Vladislav Tretiak in goal, was the top sports organization in the world at that time, having won the Olympic hockey gold medals in 64, 68, 72, and 76.
Upon viewing the movie, I wondered, does Disney know what kind of movie they made? Do they have any clue as to what kind of message they sent? My gut feeling is that the film wouldn’t have been made in its current format if Herb Brooks had not had some sense of control over the movie’s direction and subject matter. Sadly, Herb Brooks died in August of 2003, in a car accident, and I understand this was right after they wrapped up shooting the film’s photography.
All in all, I was delighted to see that the movie was not made up of a hodgepodge of rah-rah, pseudo-patriotic features strung together, but instead, the end product was about Herb Brooks and his hockey genius, and his methodology for accomplishing a goal that was considered to be nearly unattainable in his time.
The Plastic Patriots, though, have been quite dissatisfied with the movie, because it was not political enough in a pro-Cold War sense, nor was Brooks portrayed as the ultimate, flag-waving “patriot.” That’s because the movie’s central focus was on one man, an individualist, and how he did his job, and how he obtained voluntary cooperation from an assemblage of young men that came to respect his ethic, and share his principles for one of humankind’s fundamental glories: winning. And beating the best, whoever the best happened to be. And nowhere is that mindset more prevalent than in a rugged American nonconformist like Herb Brooks.
Announcer Al Michaels, in one of the most recognized calls in all of sports broadcasting history, exclaimed to his audience during the last seconds of the game: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!!” The other miracle is that in this day and age of acute political correctness, equality before winning, sharing before personal glory, and fairness before leadership, this movie was even made at all, let alone by a studio as equalitarian as Disney.
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Jonathan Dresner - 3/3/2004
Ms. DeCoster (I don't remember being formally introduced, and I don't think we're going to be pals in the near future),
Actually, I find women to be, generally, at least as interested as men in real intellectual and social issues, but much less impressed by pseudo-intellectualism, of which I find a great deal in libertarian circles.
You're right, on review there was much less direct reference to libertarianism than I thought, though the introduction and its presence on this blog do suggest a stronger link.
"one man's accomplishment." At some point I might be interested in debating the individual or group nature of achievement in team sports, but not now. I'll just say that it's a little unsophisticated to equate individualistic personality with individual achievement.
Karen DeCoster - 3/2/2004
Your link between "rugged" and libertarian women is lost upon me. Women are - generally speaking - not interested in intellectual issues, which, quite obviously, accounts for the "lack of libertarian women." But then again, I thought we all knew the difference between men and women, their general interests, etc.
Using your logic, every great coach and every great entrepreneur is "a model of a Stalinist," guilty of "groupthink" because he assembles a team of individuals that willingly work toward a goal -- whether that goal is profit or winning.
This movie is "different" because it eschewed the normal, rah-rah egalitarianism, and it focused on *one man's* accomplishment and ethic. Or maybe you didn't read that part -- all 450 words of it.
By the way, Jonathan, who said Herb brooks was a "libertarian?" I said "individualist" (in the American tradition, not the Stalinist tradition (difference, eh?), so, "libertarian" must be YOUR word.....because it surely isn't mine.
Jonathan Dresner - 3/2/2004
I have a question. Why is libertarian individualism always "rugged" and does this have something to do with the paucity of libertarian women?
And I think the argument could easily be made that Brooks is a model of Stalinist: an unquestioned supreme leader (Stalin didn't brook a lot of second-guessing or oversight, but that didn't make him libertarian), using psychological warfare tactics to create a groupthink team....
Come on, it's a sports movie, and it's just like a thousand other sports movies except that it's mostly true. How is this all that different from "Mighty Ducks", another Disney, hockey, teambuilding for unlikely winners movie?
Keith Halderman - 3/2/2004
I am much more motivated to see this film then I was before I read your post. Perhaps, Herb Brooks had some help from Kurt Russell in taking the movie in the direction you describe. I recall a picture of Russell attending a posh anniversary event put on by the Cato Institute.