Great moments ... are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. … This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”
—Kurt Russell, as Herb Brooks, in the motion picture ‘Miracle’
The goose bumps begin to form as Herb Brooks gives one last inspirational speech before one of the greatest moments in Olympic history. You want to leap out of your theater seat, grab a hockey stick and pound anyone wearing red.
Thanks to “Miracle,” that speech ranks up there with “Win one for the Gipper” in American sports lore. And it also illustrates how a well-crafted speech can motivate or lighten the mood in the dressing room before a big game.
“The ones in the movies – like ‘Any Given Sunday,’ ‘Friday Night Lights’ or ‘Miracle’ – are the best speeches, because the coaches in Hollywood can do it as many times as possible in order to get it just right,” said Frank Serratore, the head coach at the United States Air Force Academy.
“A coach needs to enter the room with a message in mind, then he or she lets the speech flow, speaking from the heart. In reality, few speeches are perfect and most are flawed. However, if the message is delivered from the heart with emotion, it will reach the players and motivate them to perform at their highest level.”
Mark Johnson, the leading scorer on the 1980 Olympic Team, believes Brooks actually gave the team a more lasting speech between periods of the final game against Finland. Two days after beating the Russians, the Americans fell behind and faced the possibility of not medaling at all.
“Because of the magnitude of the game against the Russians, everybody was ready to go,” said Johnson, now the head coach of the University of Wisconsin women’s team.
“The speech I remember more was the Finland game, where he basically told us, if you [mess] up here, it will be with you for the rest of your life. It really put into perspective how far we’d come, and we didn’t want to [mess] it up.”
Over the course of a long season, coaches must learn to pick their spots for inspirational speeches or they will lose their effectiveness. In a playoff or tournament setting, when emotions already run high, coaches also need to be on the top of their game.
“I always tell young coaches, ‘Be yourself and be consistent.’ You have to be consistent because that is what players are comfortable with,” said Lou Vairo, USA Hockey’s director of special projects and a veteran coach of countless international tournaments.
“There are so many variables that go into a pre-game talk, like the mood of the team, when the game is being played, what’s on the line. There’s a big difference between the first exhibition game of the season and the last game of the playoffs.
“Preparation isn’t something that happens right before a game. It’s something that has to take place over several days before the game, and it’s important to have leaders in your dressing room who help you make sure your team is prepared.”
Mark Kumpel, a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team, would have gone through the wall for his coach at Lakefield High School in Massachusetts after hearing a passionate speech late in the 1978 season. Charlie Driscoll, under fire from parents and fans for what they considered to be an underachieving team, brought his W4 tax form to the rink and showed it to his players before a key game.
“He was making just about six figures in his real job, and he was getting something like 800 or a thousand bucks to coach us,” Kumpel remembers. “He said, ‘This isn’t how I’m supporting my family. I’m out here because I love the game, and I love being around you guys.’
“After hearing him say that, I really wanted to go out and thumb my nose at the naysayers who were calling for his head. Sure enough, he was back coaching the next year.”
Jim Johannson works with most of the U.S. National Teams in his role as USA Hockey’s Assistant Executive Director in charge of Hockey Operations. He has seen how coaches have evolved in the subject matter of their speeches.
“It used to be, ‘We’re going to go out and play the game like so-and-so did,’ and the players got the message,” said Johannson, a two-time Olympian. “But, more and more, the modern coaches are getting away from hockey [themes] when they’re delivering their speeches. They’ll talk about Lance Armstrong or Michael Jordan or use a military theme.
“The military themes are very effective, especially when you’re at an international tournament, because now it’s not just us against another team, it’s our country against theirs. There are some real touching, motivational stories out there that show the sacrifice and commitment it takes to be successful.”
Kumpel, a 10-year professional player, spent a dozen years coaching in the East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League. Now, he’s working in the real world – “Which is way overrated, by the way,” Kumpel says – where motivational speeches take on a different tone.
“You can’t use locker room speeches or call somebody out in front of their peers in the business world,” Kumpel said. “People want to be treated with respect, so you really have to pull them aside and deliver a message instead of calling them out.”
Whether it’s in business or ice hockey, the intention is basically the same – to get everyone pulling in the same direction. Whether it’s a shipping clerk or a center iceman, the most effective means of getting one’s point across is in a direct line, from heart to heart.
“I do not write or type up speeches. I am a coach, not a politician. I need to sell my message to everyone, not just the majority,” says Serratore.
“As a coach, you are speaking to your extended family; a father does not write up a speech in delivering an emotional message to his children, nor should a coach. I generally enter the room with a couple of bullet points or a message in mind and then let the speech flow, speaking to my players emotionally from the heart.”
Illustrations by Mike Curti