In his later years, Herb Brooks applied his brilliant hockey mind to make sure that young players of all abilities developed their skills properly. Unfortunately, he was fighting an increasingly difficult battle. Youth leagues in North America often focus way too much on playing and winning games, rather than practicing and skill development. He spent years turning the tide toward a more sensible approach to the game and a reemphasis on fundamentals—and away from “system hockey.”
In many youth hockey circles, however, Herb was swimming against the tide: The ratio of games to practices had long since gone off the rails. Children on many travel teams, for instance, play as many as three games for every practice, just about the opposite of what Herb recommended. He believed youth players should practice for four hours for every game.
His rationale was that the most important skills for kids under 15—skating, edge control, stickhandling, passing, puck control at speed, starts, quickness, etc.—are not absorbed effectively in game environments. They take practice, and lots of it. Games, of course, are great fun, but Herb recognized that youngsters needed much more instruction.
In Europe, the approach is vastly different, and in many ways, better. Coaches there stress fundamentals in skating, puck control with speed, and passing—an approach similar to Herb’s. They also run dynamic, fast-moving, fun practices. Rather than waiting in line to skate around a cone and shoot on a goalie, Europeans often play small games—2-on-2 or 3-on-3. There is very little stationary time—the entire ice surface is used for the entire hour—and the results are impressive.
Herb embraced these ideas and sought to combine them with the best elements of North American hockey. When he died in a tragic car accident in August 2004, there was concern his cause would lose steam.
Herb had inspired many people, and not just through his extraordinary coaching success. His emphasis on keeping hockey fun for everyone who wants to play resonated.
Not long after his death, Herb’s family, his son, Dan, his daughter, Kelly Brooks Paradise, and his cousin, Bill Weller, took up the mantle and created the Herb Brooks Foundation. They commissioned a small board of directors, and then got to work. The first step was a “market analysis.” Was there enough demand for a back-to-basics approach, such as the one Herb championed?
The answer, not surprisingly, was an emphatic “yes,” and Herb’s survivors had their mandate. They also discovered that many people in the hockey community were more than willing to donate their time and expertise to help, while others gave money. In 2007, they helped develop the Herb Brooks Training Center as part of the Schwan Super Rink expansion project at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., about 12 miles north of the Twin Cities. The Schwan Super Rink opened in 1998 with four sheets of ice and expanded in 2007 to not only include the Herb Brooks Training Center but an additional four sheets of ice as well, making it the largest ice complex on earth.
With the Herb Brooks Training Center up and running, the Herb Brooks Foundation is able to focus on its mission: to grow hockey; to give kids a positive experience in the game; and to learn life lessons.
Board members spend time partnering with the business community, soliciting donations and commitments, all the while teaching the game the right way. The partners work to develop skilled players and strong, confident, healthy young people who respect the game and each other.
Reinvigorating Urban Hockey
The Rink Rat Program is a shining star for the Herb Brooks Foundation. It provides inner-city children the opportunity to learn to skate and play hockey. Over the past two decades, while high school hockey flourished in suburban, and even rural Minnesota communities, it waned dramatically within city schools. At one point, only two urban programs “fielded” teams. The Rink Rat program plus other youth hockey organizations slowly but steadily are reinvigorating the sport within The Cities. 10 urban middle schools now have youth hockey programs. It also sponsors programs at four community parks and in several junior high schools.
In addition to learning the game, these youngsters are gaining important life lessons, just as Herb envisioned. They’re also benefiting from tips they receive from Twin Cities-area university teams, such as Augsburg College. The Auggies skate with a group of youngsters in the spring, helping them with a broad range of skills, and of course, serving as mentors.
Butch Johnson, a northern Wisconsin businessman and former HBF board member and friend of Herb’s, played an integral role in the Rink Rat Program. He sponsored over 100 city kids each summer at a hockey camp at his rink in Spooner, Wisc. In addition to hockey, the urban youngsters get a taste of some of the Northern Midwest’s most beautiful countryside and woodlands.
Children of military families also had a special camp. The Herbie’s Heroes Program offered free hockey camp (also at Spooner) for these youngsters. And, because one parent may be overseas in the service, the program provides camp scholarships, financial assistance, equipment, rides and other help, when needed.
As the Herb Brooks Foundation continues to grow it manages numerous additional programs—golf tournaments, used equipment drives, sponsorship opportunities, etc. All are designed with Herb’s ideas in mind: Improve the game; improve the players; increase their opportunities to play. Herb believed that these methods would develop excellent people. The results are bearing that out.