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The 1980 Miracle on Ice
Sunday, December 23
Updated: January 8, 10:50 AM ET
The First Miracle on Ice
By Kevin Allen
Editor's note: This article originally appeared as a chapter in "USA Hockey: A Celebration of a Great Tradition."
The frosty chill that Bill and Bob Cleary felt as they entered the Denver arena on a February morning in 1960 wasn't emanating from the ice surface. A few days earlier, members of the 1960 Olympic team had learned that coach Jack Riley planned to add the Cleary brothers to the roster. Unhappy with that decision, players agreed upon their own form of protest. The Cleary brothers were going to receive the cold shoulder. To the players, all of whom had been with the team for months, giving the Cleary's the silent treatment seemed justified.
"Hardly anyone would speak to us, and we barely got the puck in warm-up," Bill Cleary said.
After a players meeting was held in Denver prior to the Clearys' arrival, a message delivered to Riley said that the players weren't going to compete if the Clearys were brought in.
"I told [team manager] Jim Claypool, 'To hell with them,'" Riley said. "We'll bring our wives. We've got a nice place in Squaw Valley. We'll have a nice time."
Adding a player late wasn't a novel idea; American and Canadian teams had successfully done so in the past. In 1933, the late addition of Harvard standout John Garrison helped the USA capture the World Championship in Prague, and Riley had watched the Canadians bring in two players just before the 1948 Olympics to help them finish first.
The Clearys had let Riley know, through a message to Riley's brother, that they wanted to play. Everyone knew the Clearys hadn't tried out for the team because they were operating an insurance business and couldn't afford to leave their business for two months. But the Clearys could leave for two weeks, which would give them time to play the tournament.
"I've read that I kissed their butts to get them," Riley said. "That's not what happened. They came to me."
A couple of weeks before the tournament began; Riley spoke with hockey guru Walter Brown.
"Walter," Riley said, "do you want to go into the Olympics with a chance to win or no chance to win?"
"I want a chance to win."
"Then I have to bring in the Clearys."
"Do it," Brown had said.
After the tournament, players said they weren't bothered by the addition of John Mayasich or Bill Cleary, whose arrival had been expected from the beginning. Everyone knew Mayasich and Cleary had been the top scorers on the 1956 team in Cortina. The players were more miffed because they knew the Cleary brothers had come as a package deal. Bill Cleary wouldn't come without Bob. At that time, the players didn't believe Bob Cleary deserved to be on the team. That sentiment changed when they watched Bob Cleary play.
"It was pretty controversial," said Roger Christian, one of the top scorers on the 1960 team. "Everyone agreed not to talk to them."
Before their first game, Bill Cleary addressed the tension with a brief, pointed speech: "I didn't come 3,000 miles to lose. We don't have to hug and kiss. I just want you to pass me the puck."
The Christian brothers were among the first to talk to the Clearys. McCartan would also tell his teammates, "We've worked too hard to let this get in the way." Kirrane, a no-nonsense player, said he planned to play in these Olympics, "Even if I'm the only guy on the ice."
Players backed off their threat not to compete, but neither Riley nor anyone else on the team could be sure how well this team would jell once the Olympic tournament began. "No one gave us a chance," Bill Cleary said. "I think Sports Illustrated picked us last."
Then there was Jack McCartan, on loan from the U.S. Army to play goal for coach Jack Riley's Olympic squad. Those on the U.S. team who didn't know McCartan knew of him. In addition to playing goal for the University of Minnesota's hockey team, McCartan had been an all-American third baseman. His career batting average at Minnesota had been .349. In 1956, he had batted .436 with four doubles, six home runs, and 17 RBI in 13 games.
His career 2.95 goals-against average and .908 save percentage still puts him at the top of the school's goaltending leaders. "We all knew he had a great glove hand," Mayasich said.
The 26-year-old Mayasich was a veteran of several international tournaments. To this day, no American player can match Mayasich's record of playing for eight national teams. During the week, he was an advertising executive for a television station, but on weekends he played for the Green Bay Bobcats in the United States Hockey League.
He had been a high-scoring center in college hockey, netting 144 goals in 111 career games at Minnesota. In his senior season, he had 41 goals and 39 assists in 30 games. Opponents simply had no way to shut him down. His moves were too crafty, his shots too hard. He credits former Chicago Blackhawk player Doc Romnes, his coach for just one year at Minnesota, for refining the puck-handling skills that would serve him well for decades.
Playing center on a line with Bill Cleary and John Matchefts at the 1956 Games in Cortina, Mayasich led the Americans in scoring with six goals and four assists. He had a hat trick in the USA's 4-1 win against Canada.
But the Bobcats liked to use Mayasich on defense, because then he could dominate both ends of the ice. Riley, head coach at West Point, also liked Mayasich as a defenseman and let everyone know from the beginning that Mayasich was going to be added to the team right before the Olympics began. Mayasich didn't meet the team until the day before the games began in Squaw Valley.
Yet another product of Eveleth's hockey factory, Mayasich had his own unique calling card -- a wicked slap shot that would have been the envy of any NHLer except Bobby Hull. "He was way ahead of his time on that slap shot," Cleary said.
Mayasich began experimenting with it during college when Eveleth goaltender Willard Ikola, then playing at the University of Michigan, told him how he had seen another player attempt it. With his skills, Mayasich was able to master the concept just based on Ikola's description.
His slap shot was particularly befuddling to international competitors because it was completely foreign to players outside of North America.
Mayasich remembered when he was playing for the Bobcats in an exhibition game against a Japanese national team, he uncorked a slap shot from center ice that beat the surprised goalkeeper. The goaltender appeared to have pulled a muscle trying to stop the shot. He had fallen in front of the goal and was rolling around on the ice in a fit of hysteria. But when his teammates and the Bobcats moved closer, they saw his hysteria was a fit of laughter, not pain. He had never seen anything like Mayasich's rocket launcher. "It was comical to see them all laughing so hard," Mayasich said.
After the game, Japanese players examined the knob of tape Mayasich had at the top of his stick, thinking that had something to do with the velocity and timing of the shot.
With Mayasich supplying support, the Americans' high-powered offense jelled quickly, in spite of the riff caused by the Cleary brothers' arrival. The team won its first four games in pool play against Czechoslovakia, Australia, Sweden, and Germany. The team was brimming with confidence. The four defensemen -- Mayasich, Kirrane, Bob Owen, and Rodney Paavola were playing well. McCartan was sharp. The offense was clicking.
But the Americans knew they were still the underdog against the vaunted Canadians, whose roster included Harry Sinden, later a coach and general manager in the NHL, and Bobby Rousseau, who would later score 242 NHL goals and win four Stanley Cups as a member of the Montreal Canadians. The backup Canadians goalie was Cesare Maniago, who would end up in the NHL later that season. The Canadians were coached by Bobby Bauer, a member of the NFL's famous "Kraut Line" with Woody Dumart and Milt Schmidt.
"It was shocking to us," said Sinden, now president of the Boston Bruins. "We were probably favored by seven goals against them."
To beat Canada, goaltender Jack McCartan made 38 saves, including 20 in the second period. One wire service report of the game said McCartan seemed to be operating "with radar to smother shots."
"McCartan played well in goal, much like Jim Craig did for the 1980 team," Sinden said.
Team Canada was really the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen, who were Canada's best amateur team. Coming into Squaw Valley, their goal had been to avenge Canada's bronze medal finish at the 1956 Games in Cortina, where they had also lost to the Americans. After being waylaid again by the 1960 U.S. squad, they were bitter. They believed they hadn't played well and blamed McCartan for their undoing.
"Beating the Canadians in hockey," Bill Cleary told the Associated Press immediately after the game, 'would be like Canada beating us in baseball."
Riley was gracious in victory, telling reporters: "If we played the Canadians 10 games, they'd win nine of them."
He may not have believed that, and the American players certainly didn't. Although the Americans had passed an important test, the Soviets were still favored in their match up with the USA two days later.
"Though we had beaten the Canadians," McCartan said, "no one would bet his house on beating the Russians. We had never beaten them, and their power play used to do us in all the time."
It was clear the Soviets planned to dominate the sport. The Americans, who had been playing hockey in some form since the 1890's, had always finished behind the Soviets, who had only been competing internationally since 1955. The Soviets had beaten the Americans 4-0 at the 1956 Olympic Games in Cortina, Italy.
Yet there was cause for optimism: the Soviets had been tied 2-2 by the Swedes, the same Swedes the Americans had whipped 6-1. Roger Christian had netted three goals in that one-sided game, and McCartan had made 36 saves. Ex-Harvard winger Robert McVey, the Clearys' linemate, had also scored for the Americans, who led 4-0 after the first period.
The 1960 game against the Russians drew an overflow crowd to the open-air Blyth Arena at Squaw Valley. The team's trainer, the late Ben Bertini, had to clear the bench to get his players room to sit. Among those thrown out, according to Bill Cleary, was then California governor Pat Brown. "Everyone wanted to carry our skates just to get in," Cleary said.
The Soviets led 2-1 before Bill Christian, assisted by brother Roger, tied the game with a goal of 11:01 of the second period. Russian goaltender Nikolai Puchkov had mistakenly given Bill Christian about two feet of room on the short side, and Christian had ripped a shot about eight inches off the ice. "It was an easy goal," Christian would say later.
For the next twenty-four minutes, the Americans and Soviets fought for every inch of ice, neither side conceding anything.
Perhaps more than anyone else, the Christian brothers wanted this victory against the Soviets. Two years earlier, they had been on the first U.S team to play inside the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the four days they spent in Moscow, they were constantly reminded about the Soviets' successful launch of Sputnik into outer space in the fall of 1957. Their Soviet hosts had made Sputnik centerpieces to place on the tables where the Americans ate.
More than 15,000 Soviet fans had showed up in 1958 to watch the U.S. team lose twice to Soviet teams. The Christians remembered that the hotel, the food, and the conditions were bad. "We hated every minute of it," Bill Christian said.
Now it was 1960, and the games were on American ice. The Christian brothers knew they could pay back the Soviets in grand fashion.
With 5:01 left in the contest, Bill Christian, the U.S. team's smallest player at 5-foot-9, 145 pounds, scored again, set up again by brother Roger and Tommy Williams, his other line mate.
"Tommy had knocked the puck out of the corner and Roger took a shot," Bill remembered. "Puchkov went down. I was getting shoved around in front of the net. The puck came out, and I put it back in, just under Puchkov's head."
A boisterous crowd screamed with delight while the American fought off the Soviets in the closing minutes. The puck was in the Americans' end for many of the final minutes, and McCartan was brilliant preserving his country's first hockey win over "the Bear." "Every face-off seemed to last an eternity," Bill Cleary remembered.
After the game, the teary-eyed Soviet coach, Anatoli Tarasov, entered the American dressing room and kissed Riley on the cheek, and the Russian interpreter Roman Kesserlov gave Bill Cleary a bottle of vodka he had to pay off a bet they had made. The vodka still sits unopened in Cleary's Massachusetts home as a memento of the triumph.
The visit to Cleary's home was in the spring of 1979, and Tarasov had brought along a bottle of vodka. Before he left, he threw the vodka in the bushes and told Cleary not to retrieve it until the American hockey players won another Olympic gold medal. He probably assumed that wasn't going to happen for many years. Less than a year later, he would be wrong.
Aside from Tarasov, the Russians didn't accept the loss in 1960 very well. A bitter Nikolai Romanov, the Soviet minister of sport, told the assembled media: "Perhaps we would have won on a neutral rink, but naturally it is the right of the spectators to cheer their team as much as they can and we just had to bear that handicap."
The Americans had no time to celebrate because they were scheduled to b e on the ice at eight the next morning to face the Czechs for the gold medal. Organizers expected the Canada-Soviet Union game to be for the gold, so the USA-Czech game was scheduled for early Sunday.
The Americans had defeated the Czechs 7-5 in pool play, but they were made uneasy because they had been forced to come from behind to do it. There was no denying they were facing a well-schooled team, quite capable of rendering their victories over Canada and the Soviet Union relatively meaningless.
As if to add some drama to the script, the Americans fell behind 4-3 after two periods. After watching this, Soviet team captain Nikolai Sologubov decided to make a visit to the Americans' dressing room, thereby creating a legend of Olympic competition. He couldn't speak English, and his message was lost until he began using charade like hand gestures.
"When he put his hand over his mouth we realized he was trying to convince us to take oxygen," Bill Cleary said.
Sologubov believed the oxygen would reenergize the Americans at the high altitude of the Squaw Valley, which was a mile above sea level.
But years later, most of the American players weren't so sure how much it really helped the team. Only eight players took the oxygen. "All I know is Roger Christian didn't take oxygen, and he scored three goals in the third period," McCartan said, laughing.
Some question whether Sologubov's gesture was genuinely noble or just an attempt to assure that the archrival Czechs would not finish ahead of the Soviets. If the U.S. won, the Soviets would finish ahead of Czechoslovakia with the bronze or silver medal. On the other hand, Solly, as he was called by the U.S. players, was considered to be friendly toward the Americans.
"I played it up, because I knew it was a good story," Riley recalled. "But it wasn't a big thing in the dressing room."
Bill Cleary, who had played against the Soviets on several occasions, tended to be more idealistic about Sologubov's intentions. "We had played against them so often, I began to see them as friends," Cleary said. "When they sat around and talked, they didn't talk about communism. Like us, they talked about hockey and women."
All the oxygen on mother earth wouldn't have helped the Americans if McCartan hadn't been as brilliant as he was during the tournament. He surrendered just 17 goals in seven games and was clearly the best goaltender in the tournament.
Ironically, McCartan had been cut from the roster three months earlier at the open tryouts. In November, he had tried out in Minneapolis and believed he had played well enough to make the team. When he went down to look at the "cut list" that had been posted by Riley, he whistled to himself over some of the names on the list.
"I thought they were cutting some pretty good guys, and then it hit me," McCartan said. "These were the guys they were keeping, and my name wasn't on the list."
McCartan was devastated. Walter Bush, then general manager of St. Paul Steers senior team, called and stretched the truth to a U.S Army general that McCartan was needed as an emergency backup. He really just wanted McCartan for his team, which turned out to be fortunate because McCartan was in game shape when Riley called him a month later.
"That was my plan all along," Riley insisted thirty-six years later. "He was in the army and I knew I could get him back. He was mad at me, and he played great. Hell, they were all mad at me."
Members of the 1960 team say McCartan was the most valuable player of the tournament, although he prefers to modestly say the Americans' success was a case of every player performing to the best of their ability.
Many players did play key roles in the triumph. Kirrane, a stay-at-home defenseman, had been the perfect complement for Mayasich. "He was black and blue from blocking shots," Bill Cleary said. And the American players had been wrong about Bob Cleary, who was among the team's top scorers. The controversy was forgotten, although the team photo with Bob Cleary's head pasted over Herb Brooks's body is a permanent reminder of the upheaval that was present heading into Squaw Valley. The Christian brothers were the first of the players to talk with the Clearys. "After it was all over, I remember us all standing in the shower and the Clearys thanking us for talking to them," Roger said.
There were no invitations to the White House for this team, nor any notoriety that lasted beyond a week. With the NHL boasting only six teams, opportunities for U.S.-born players weren't there.
McCartan and the late Tommy Williams were the only players to go to the NHL. Williams would be considered a successful American pro hockey pioneer. Although his life would never be quite as sweet as it was the day they won the gold medal, he would become the first American to score 20 goals in a season in 1963. But before his career was finished, he would know much discrimination and heartache.
Bill Cleary, who served as head coach at Harvard for 19 years before taking over as athletic director in 1990, had made the decision not to pursue a pro career even before those games. Proud that he was paid only $15 a month to play with the U.S. team, he laments the Olympics are now dominated by highly paid athletes.
"I wouldn't trade any chance to march in the Olympics parade of athletes for 100 Stanley Cup championships," said Cleary. "When it was over, we all went back to our lives. That's the way we wanted it."
As captain, Kirrane would be the one to greet Brundage at the medal ceremony. "Wasn't that ironic given how the bastard treated us in 1948," Riley said. "He said we were pros in 1948. Why weren't we pros in 1960?"
Cleary said he understood the Olympic dream best when he watched Kirrane receive his medal during the traditional medal-presenting ceremony. Kirrane's decision to join the 1960 Olympic team hadn't been as easy as it was in 1948 when he made the Olympic team as a 17-year-old with no responsibilities and no family. Married, with three children, Kirrane had to take a leave of absence from his job as a fire fighter to join the team. Later in his firefighting career, the seniority time he lost to chase his Olympic dream cost him a promotion.
"This is one of the toughest guys you will ever meet," Cleary said. "But when he went up to the podium to get his medal, his knees were shaking and his hands were a pool of water. Seeing him like that is something I will never forget."
When he returned home, Riley took one of his Olympic pictures and sent it to his former Dartmouth coach, Eddie Jeremiah. The inscription read:
To Jerry: Hockey's Greatest Coach:
Back in Minnesota, Brooks, the last player cut from the 1960 team, watched the gold medal game on television. He was hurt when he had been cut, even though he suspected it was going to happen. He told his roommate, Tommy Williams, that he thought he was in trouble, even though he had been scoring on the pre-Olympic tour. Williams, Brooks, and Bill Christian were the youngest players. "Christian and Williams were better than me," he said later.
When Brooks was cut, he had called home, and his father had told him: "Keep your mouth shut, thank everyone there, and come home." Two weeks later, he and his father were watching the television as his former teammates won the gold medal.
When it became clear that the USA would win, Brooks's father turned to him and said: "It looks like the coach made the right decision."
People less dedicated to their goal might have quit. But Brooks believed he had an Olympic destiny and continued to pursue it with vigor. He would fulfill that destiny twenty years later.
Reprinted from USA Hockey: A Celebration Of A Great Tradition © 1997 with permission of USA Hockey