Long Forgotten, The First "Miracle On Ice"
Two decades before “Miracle On Ice” at Lake Placid swept the country into euphoria, an earlier generation of young amateurs took gold at Squaw Valley, California. It was America's first Olympic gold medal in ice hockey, yet the event remains largely forgotten and overshadowed by the memories of Lake Placid.
‘Sports Illustrated’ named “Miracle On Ice” the top sports moment of the 20th century. The International Ice Hockey Federation called it the best story of the past 100 years. But 1980 wasn’t the first time Americans rose from underdog status to beat the mighty Soviets in their own game.
The 1960 team was the only U.S. squad to grind through an Olympic tournament without a single loss or tie. At the final round, the stars and stripes defeated favorites Canada, USSR, Czechoslovakia and Sweden to capture their first gold.
In the months leading up to the 1960 Winter Games, the reigning champions of amateur hockey in the U.S., the Brockton “Wetzells” of Massachusetts, were invited to play 5 friendlies against the Russians in Moscow. Performing miserably, they lost every match and gave up 62 goals while landing only 7 in the net.
The “slaughter on ice” was a wake-up call at the height of the Cold War when the United States and Soviet Union were vying for global influence and supremacy. Fingers pointed in all directions and even the U.S. government weighed in to make sure that the team going into the upcoming Olympics would emerge dignified, if not victorious.
Army coach Jack Riley had been selected to fashion the U.S. national team. Tough, focused and driven, the Boston native won the Spencer Penrose Award in 1957 as the most outstanding coach in NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey.
25 players started drilling at the Army ice rink in West Point, the country’s largest at the time. They were whittled down to 17 and then hit the road for exhibition matches. But the collection of puck and stick athletes representing the U.S. were losing as many games as they were winning. With just weeks remaining to the Olympic start date, Riley decided to adjust his roster.
He cut three players and replaced them with John Mayasich and brothers Bill and Bob Cleary. The last player to be cut was Herb Brooks, future coach of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” team. Mayasich and Bill Cleary were part of the U.S. group that won silver four years earlier in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. The others on the squad were Dick Meredith, Dick Rodenhiser, and Weldon Olson.
Along with goalie Jack McCarten and 1948 Olympics veteran John Kirrane, the team was loaded with 30 years of international experience. Nevertheless, they were still dismissed as “carpenters and insurance men” and ranked fifth in a field of nine.
Squaw Valley was the 9th edition of the Winter Olympics and it ushered in the modern age. In addition to a new $3.5 million rink, it featured the first Zamboni and electronic scoreboard. The village also hosted the first nationally televised ice hockey competition at the Olympics.
Placed in Group C at the opening, the U.S. dispatched Czechoslovakia and Australia to advance to the medals round. After taking out Sweden 6-3 and crushing West Germany 9-1, the stage was set for back-to-back showdowns against perennial masters Canada and a new rising hockey power, the Soviet Union.
Undefeated now in 4 straight matches, Riley and his squad grew confident but had no illusions about their indomitable foes north of the border. The Canadians were undisputed contenders, having won 6 of the last 7 gold medals at the quadrennial tournament.
Disciplined and organized, the Soviets skated to a different strategy. Unlike their North American rivals, they emphasized a strong passing game over individual shots. Their national team made its international debut only six years earlier in 1954, but they still managed to reach the top of the podium at the 1956 Olympics.
Against all expectations, the U.S. vanquished them both. The first to score against the Canadians was Bob Cleary, who only two weeks earlier wasn't even on the team register. Leading 2-0, the Americans survived an unrelenting assault in the third period to win the match 2-1. Two days later, they took on the defending champions, a tight group of Red Army hockey 'professionals'. Overcoming a first period deficit, they ultimately prevailed 3-2.
After routing the Czechs 9-4 the following morning, the squad made history by going undefeated and winning America’s first Olympic gold in ice hockey. 1960 at Squaw Valley was truly the first “Miracle On Ice”.
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