The Pittsburgh Penguins ended weeks of speculation by firing Coach Kevin Constantine late Wednesday night. The surprise came this morning when players were told Herb Brooks, a man best remembered for leading Team USA to a stunning gold medal at the 1980 Olympics, was their new coach.
Brooks, 62, has strong ties to Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick--they played together on the U.S. national team and worked together for the New York Rangers from 1981 to 1985, when Brooks was coach and Patrick was general manager. Brooks has spent the last two years scouting for the Penguins, and his most recent coaching experience was with France at the 1998 Olympics. He has not coached in the NHL since 1992-93.
Constantine, who did not attend the team's news conference, has been an annual contender for coach of the year honors (86-68-35 in two-plus seasons here), keeping Pittsburgh in the playoffs despite an ownership fallout, rumors of a possible relocation and financial woes that forced the team to lose stars such as center Ron Francis. However, Patrick looked at the team's 8-14-3 record after a loss Tuesday and decided he had to make an immediate change.
Brooks's first game behind the bench was tonight against the Washington Capitals, along with his new assistants Ed Johnston, who was assistant GM, and Rick Kehoe, who was the pro scout.
"I didn't like the direction we were going," said Patrick, a cousin of Dick Patrick, the Capitals' president and part owner. "I didn't think we were going to make the playoffs, so I turned to a friend of mine for a number of years. . . . I believe he is the perfect fit for what we have on the ice."
Brooks has advocated the values of European hockey and was an innovator with the Rangers, implementing the weaving and curling styles of play used internationally. The Penguins have several talented Europeans, most notably Jaromir Jagr, perhaps the premier player in the world.
"The idea is giving the game back to the players," Brooks said. "It's not to suffocate them, it's not to treat them like a bunch of robots. We're in the entertainment business. Let's face it, the athletes are the most important part of that equation. That's always been my philosophy."
Jagr often bucked Constantine's defensive beliefs, but with limited depth in a low scoring league, Constantine believed a tight system was mandatory. That strained relationship is widely believed to be integral to Constantine's demise.