The gaze is colored an icy blue, and never wavers. Herb Brooks locks his listeners in eye contact, addresses each by name and shares his frustration.
Brooks, coach of the New York Rangers, was visibly upset after his club had lost, 5-0, to the New York Islanders Friday, and not just by the outcome of the game or the fact that his team was down, 2-0, in the best-of-seven series.
With perhaps 36 seconds remaining in the final period, the loudspeakers at Nassau Coliseum sent Frank Sinatra's version of "New York, New York" floating through the place, to the delight of the pro-Islander crowd, which sang along.
But Old Blue Eyes plainly made Brooks see red.
"I think that's the only thing that was a classless act here tonight," he said. "It was in poor taste. If I were (Islanders General Manager) Bill Torrey, I'd have the guy who did that on the carpet. I'd have his behind out of here."
Brooks went on nearly five minutes about the building's electricians who had started the music.
Some who heard Brooks' outburst shook their heads. Poor Herbie. His team played poorly and he's scrambling for an excuse, any excuse. "Like they were gonna score five or six goals in 36 seconds," said one Islander.
But Brooks doesn't go in for sour grapes. The man's every move is calculated to motivate and if talk about the incident would fire up his players, get them determined to skate circles around these Islanders Sunday and Monday night at Madison Square Garden, then Brooks would do it. He could probably envision a headline reading: "Rangers Must Face the Music."
And after Brooks was sure that every microphone holder and notebook carrier would spew out something about the incident, he moved on to hockey.
"If people are going to point fingers at somebody, then point 'em at me," he said as he repeatedly answered questions about the Rangers' breakdown. "I take the responsibility. It's a coach's job."
Brooks, who coached the U.S. team to its stunning Olympic victory at Lake Placid in 1980, has just gone through his second season as coach of the Rangers. The 35-35-10 record in 1983 was disappointing, but Brooks brushes aside excuses.
"If is a big word," he said. "We started out well and then went through about 3 1/2 weeks where we slumped a bit. You can say, 'If we'd just been a .500 hockey club.' Well, at one point, I think I had a tactical error by playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win."
He threw up his hands. "It got away from us."
The season was not the easiest for Brooks. Since November, there have been rumors that he would leave New York to become coach of the Minnesota North Stars. Every time he denied it, he said, "People looked at me funny, as if they were saying 'yeah, sure.' All I could do was tell the truth and I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't.
"It didn't get to me as much as it was an embarrassment," he said. "It was embarrassing for the people in Minnesota, Lou Nanne (the general manager) and Glen Sonmor (who coached the team at that time). It was embarrassing for my boss here, (Rangers General Manager) Craig Patrick, for everybody involved with the Rangers. It bothered me to the extent that I was embarrassed and there wasn't anything to it."
Brooks, whose treatment of the media is usually cordial, sometimes actually gracious, said he was most annoyed by the fact that the reporter who wrote the Minnesota story "didn't call me to refute it, confirm it or explain anything. It was an unprofessional thing to do.
"Then later, I was asked to deny that I would ever be coach of the North Stars. Put the question like that, how can I answer? How can I say I will never again coach the University of Minnesota?"
The story apparently was fueled in part because Brooks had discussed the possiblity of the North Stars position long before he ever came to New York ("I had been offered the job prior to the Olympics") and because his family moved back home to Minnesota before last Thanksgiving.
Brooks' teen-aged son Danny had been unhappy in New York and Brooks and his wife Patti decided it would be better for the boy to return to a familiar place.
"When a kid is 13, 14, 15, he's not dictating family policy," Brooks said. "But the kid had been in four schools in two years, and it was the feeling of the school pyschologist that this would be best. And my wife and I realized it would be better for him to have his mother there with him."
The Brooks family gave up its home in Connecticut. Brooks moved to a New York hotel and snatched visits with Patti and his two children whenever the schedule allowed.
"It's no big deal," he said. "I was home at Christmas, my son spent a week with me and my wife comes out when she can. It's a sacrifice, yes, but it happens to lots of professional coaches who spend the season away from their families. (Knicks Coach) Hubie Brown's family is back in Atlanta," he said. "Hey, it's part of the job."
"The rumors were hard on him," said Patrick. "I think at one point, he just wouldn't even talk about it anymore. It's been a difficult year for him."
Patrick, who has known Brooks nearly 13 years, said he sees no letup in the intensity of the man. "He's coached me, I worked with him during the Olympics and now, and Herb is as intense, as much a student of the game as ever."
Patrick remembered the night when Brooks' U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Soviets in Lake Placid, the most stunning upset in Olympic hockey history.
"We went to sleep around 1 o'clock," Patrick said. "And at about 2, Herb woke me to tell me about a basketball play that he thought would work in hockey. He very seldom sleeps. When we roomed together, I'd wake up in the middle of the night, and the light would be on, because he was working away. Herb is always open to new things, always finding interesting ways to get the right results."
Brooks is a big basketball man, but looks to other sports as well in search of something extra that might add a dimension to hockey. "I do watch basketball and there are some things that can carry over," he said. "I believe we can all learn something from other sports."
Brooks' own team plays what he calls a "hybrid style," with overtones of the Eurpoean game. A circling, weaving brand of hockey, with plenty of freedom for the players, Brooks' system allows players to "ad lib and have fun."
"Herb's way opens it up so you can utilize all the things you've learned," said Dave Maloney. "You need the ability to react to situations and, hopefully, it's ingrained enough that you have the right reaction."
"When it works, it's great," Brooks said. "It's open to creativity. The guys are thinking and they're not confined to an up-and-down game. Everything is timing, though, and when the timing is off . . . " Brooks just shook his head, knowing his club would have to synchronize that timing to avoid the kind of exit the Rangers gave Philadelphia in the opening round of the playoffs, sweeping three straight.
"At this time of year, you don't want to introduce anything new," Brooks said. "The only thing we can do is take a deep breath, swallow hard and prove to the world we're a better hockey club than we showed tonight."