Before we get started today, I need to mention that today is the 11th anniversary of Herb Brooks' death. While this series is about the players, there's no denying that Herb was the person that made it all possible. He was an absolute genius of a coach, and pretty much everything that ever came out of his mouth makes me want to get out there and kick some ass. It's truly a shame that he was taken from us so early.
Today being what it is, this week's spotlight couldn't have been more well-timed. We're going to avoid getting too sad, because I've been looking forward to writing about Neal Broten since the first minute I came up with the idea for this series! Not only is he a little ball of wonderful (seriously, just wait!), but he also had a pretty special relationship with Herb. So I think Herb would be as pleased with this arrangement as I am. :)
+ Neal here was a household name in Minnesota starting from his high school days. He was kind of a hockey prodigy. As a high school freshman, Herb said Neal was the best high school player he'd ever seen, and one of his assistant coaches at the University of Minnesota drove up north to watch Neal play every single week for three years. THREE. YEARS. This kid was a big deal at 15 years old and is arguably the greatest player ever to come out of Minnesota (which is seriously saying something).
+ All that recruiting worked, and Neal attended the University of Minnesota, where in his freshman year he broke the Gophers' assist record and scored the winning goal in the 1979 NCAA championship. Herb said that Neal was the best player he ever coached at Minnesota. Neal was drafted into the NHL by the Minnesota North Stars in 1979, at which point he didn't even know what the draft was. :)
+ Just like his Gopher and Olympic teammate Mike Ramsey, Neal had just finished his freshman year of college when he made the Olympic team. He was 20 in Lake Placid, but would you scroll up a little bit and take a look at that baby face of his?! Teammates say that he was the ultimate team prankster, and between that and his voice -- which would get high-pitched and Mickey Mouse-like when he got excited -- he both looked and acted like a 12-year-old. You'd think a little pipsqueak like that might get annoying to his teammates, but Neal was incredibly well-liked. He liked to pass as much as he liked to score himself and made everyone around him better. He never got on teammates that were less gifted, and his demeanor never changed whether he scored a ton of goals or got shut out. He was generous without thinking about it and his teammates liked him so much that they wanted to make him happy. Miracle showed Herb bring in a player named Tim Harrer for a mid-season tryout (remember that drama?), but in reality, Herb brought in Tim Harrer and Aaron Broten, Neal's younger brother. The team was obviously furious with Herb for toying with them like that, and despite Neal's awkward spot (torn between wanting his brother to play with him, and not wanting a teammate to get screwed), nobody ever got weird with him about it. Neal kept his head down and just kept playing, and his teammates loved him for it. Even Herb loved Neal, and was rarely ever on him, simply because he didn't have to be. (And Neal kind of revered Herb. He'd get goosebumps when he saw him even two-plus decades after Lake Placid.) Neal was kind of like the team little brother, in the best way possible.
+ After the Olympics (where he scored a goal and had one assist), Neal returned to college and got Minnesota back to the NCAA championship finals, though they lost to the University of Wisconsin. Neal also won the inaugural Hobey Baker Award, which is annually given to the best college hockey player in the nation. And his first comment after winning it was that it should've gone to his brother Aaron, who had a better season. (Is that adorable, or is that adorable?) So, get this: Neal is the only hockey player ever (ever!) to have won an NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal, a Hobey Baker Award, and a Stanley Cup. Whoops, spoiler alert?
+ Neal joined the North Stars in 1981 and wasted no time becoming a big deal in the NHL. He scored 98 points as a rookie and later became the first American-born player to score more than 100 points in a season. He was traded to the New Jersey Devils in 1994 and finally got his name on the Stanley cup in 1995 (and became the first American-born player to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal). Oh, and his brother Aaron? Also an NHL legend. Oh, and his other brother Paul? Also an NHL legend. They're arguably the most important siblings in American hockey history, NO BIG DEAL. All three Brotens are in the U.S. hockey hall of fame. Neal retired in 1997 and has been entirely out of the spotlight ever since, preferring to work with his wife raising and selling horses. But he's absolutely beloved by American hockey fans. He's basically Minnesota's prodigal son, but I got to witness some of New Jersey's love firsthand! :)
So, I know I mentioned Neal's 1980 adorableness several times, but I cannot post this in good faith without including some visuals.
Alright, I'll force myself to shut up now, because if I really start gushing about Neal I could go on for days. (Seriously, the fact that Miracle all but acted like this guy didn't exist is one of my greatest complaints about the movie.) So just watch this interview -- complete with a clip from 1979 in which his voice does that high-pitched squeaky thing! -- and gush about him yourself. ;)