Brooks picks up Riley's Olympic torch

SALT LAKE CITY --- He changed Herb Brooks life. This was Jack Riley's gift to him. The 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey coach had too much talent tested on the international ice to bring that skinny kid out of the University of Minnesota to Squaw Valley on his tight 17-man roster, so let him loose, let him watch the Olympics in his living room with his old man.

So, Herb Sr., and Herb Jr., watched the original Miracle on Ice, the college kids responsible for losing to the Warroad Lakers of Warroad, Minn., three weeks prior to the Games, made history as improbable 1980: They beat the Canadians, the Czechs and the Russians on the way to gold. And when it happened, Brooks Sr., turned to his son and blurted: "I guess they cut the right man."

His father's words to the heart, a cruel, cutting lesson of honesty that transformed Herb. Riley did lose the right forward, turning to Bob and Bill Cleary, Billy and Roger Christian, to have a magnificent 1960 Games by scoring goals for the U.S. All these years later, Brooks still returns to the moment, still understands this is where his life's vision galvanized, where he made a stand to never refuse to work and sacrifice too little for what he wanted most out of life.

It moved him to make the '64 and '68 teams. It drove him toward 1980, toward the coaching job of the century.

"Nobody told me he was going to be the Olympic coach someday," Riley said. "If I knew that, there's no damn way I would've cut him. I invited the two fellas I dropped, Herb and a kid from Boston University, to tour with us. I wanted to take them to Squaw Valley. You know, Herb said something like he wanted to bring [alternate] players to [Lake Placid] unlike 'that 1960 coach.' I had invited those guys, but they told me to shaft it. They didn't want to go."

"Hey, Bobby Orr couldn't have done more for our team. I met a goalie in Boston once who told me what he could've done for us. What could he have done? We were undefeated!"

They're still undefeated. Believe that? It isn't just Brooks' unbeaten streak on American soil, but a streak of 19-0-3 returning back to 1932. Yet, Brooks has turned into the personification of U.S. Olympic hockey. If he gets a gold medal this time, he'll have done it completely different than 22 years ago with those college whiz kids. This time, his captain isn't a 22-year-old Boston University grad Mike Eruzione, but a 40-year-old Chris Chelios, whom Brooks has passed on the responsibility of so much of the U.S.'s leadership. Different team, different delivery. This is the coach's genius. This is the man's test of time.

What he had worried could be troublesome for the U.S., has turned out to be a blessing: It's age. After beating Finland and Belarus, and playing to a stirring 2-2 tie with Russia, the U.S. turned to the elimination round with a gathering momentum of great defense and good goaltending. It's strange. Five months ago, Riley visited Brooks at the pre-Olympic camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Brooks played his patented part of the angry, aggravated coach sure they'll never win anything with these players.

"He told me his two defensemen are 40-years-old and he was worried about the goaltenders," Riley said. "[Mike] Richter had just had his knee operation and everything going at Richter went in. He was there, and Jesus, he couldn't stop anything. He couldn't stop a balloon. When they got together, the NHL wouldn't let them scrimmage. They could just skate. It was a crazy situation. Herb couldn't believe it."

The U.S. still has a long way to go with this team, this tournament, but there's something happening in the Salt Lake City E Center. There's a little noise, a little life and little possibility.

"The people are starting to believe, and so are we," Chelios said.

Twenty-two years later, Brooks still peers over the Olympic ice with those steely eyes, that icy determination. Forty-two years later, his father's words still stay in his mind. Only now, Herb Brooks understands: This time, the U.S. brought the right man to the Olympics.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (Northern N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.