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The original miracle

07/31/2017, 6:00am MDT
By Elizabeth Boger

1960 U.S. Olympic Team scores first gold for United States

Nearly six decades have passed, but members of the 1960 United States Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team can still clearly recall what would be America’s first true miracle on ice. 

Just as Herb Brooks’ 1980 squad shocked the world by defeating the Soviet Union en route to an eventual gold medal, there were 20 young men—20 years earlier—who captured the hearts of Americans.

Largely touted as underdogs, the amateurs on the United States roster won four games in relative obscurity before shocking Canada 2-1 on Feb. 25. That set the stage for a Feb. 27 collision with the vaunted Soviet Union, a Saturday-afternoon tilt that CBS showed as part of the first Olympic Games to be broadcast on television in the U.S.

Against the Soviets, Bill Cleary (Cambridge, Mass.) struck first, giving Team USA a 1-0 lead at 4:04 of the first period. The Soviets responded by peppering Jack McCartan (St. Paul, Minn.) with 16 first-period shots. Two eluded the U.S. goaltender, but they were the only enemy pucks to elude him all afternoon. 

Midway through the second period, Bill Christian (Warroad, Minn.) scored the equalizer, setting up a third period during which Team USA outshot the Soviets 14-5. Amidst the American surge, Christian netted the eventual game-winning goal, assisted by his brother, Roger, in a 3-2 U.S. triumph.

At 8 a.m. the following morning in Squaw Valley, Calif., the Americans took the ice against Czechoslovakia with a gold medal at stake. Down 4-3 going into the third period, the U.S. rallied with six unanswered goals to clinch country’s first taste of Olympic hockey gold.

“As the years go by now, we realize what it meant,” said forward Bill Christian. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Not many people get that experience. Of course when we were there, we didn’t realize what an opportunity or big thing it was.”

After the game, life went on. It took days, weeks, even years for those 20 men to truly realize the magnitude of their impact on the sport.

“We finished our last game on a Sunday morning, I was back in Green Bay, Wis., later that afternoon, and I was at work on Monday morning,” said U.S. defenseman John Mayasich (Eveleth, Minn.). “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

A different era

The U.S. roster consisted of players from Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan and Connecticut, a few of them with Olympic experience four years prior in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. 

But despite competing on the world’s biggest stage, the games weren’t as highly publicized in 1960. 

“At that time, the Olympics weren’t as big as they are now,” said Bill Cleary, who also competed in the 1956 Olympic Games. “You take Squaw Valley—I don’t think you could hold the Games in those communities, because they’re too small now. Back in 1960, all the athletes lived together and we got to know people from all countries. I realized the wonderful value I got from being there. Not just playing, but being a part of it. I always wanted kids to get that same experience.”

For those 20 amateurs, that experience meant a chance to have some fun.

“We were just a bunch of kids that left our jobs and went to play,” Christian said. “We played for the fun of it and to represent our country.”

Sharing a common language

In the midst of a Cold War and tension throughout the world, the Olympic Games served as a way to foster peace. 

“I think it was more than just playing and winning, it was the ability to interact and meet and become friends with people from all countries throughout the world,” Cleary said. “That, to me, was a great time. The respect that everyone had, no matter where you were from, it was one common denominator, and it was sports. That was the great part of the Olympics—it brought people together. Representing our country was one of the great thrills of my life.”

Athletes from all over the world spent time together as they lived communally in the Olympic Village. 

There was no doubt they’d fiercely compete against each other for a gold medal, but off the ice, they shared common ground. There were language barriers and differences, but they understood each other.

“It’s more than the game,” Cleary said. “It’s about people. I think the thing I got from all those Olympics is I found out there was an international language called sports. It’s something everyone understood and played according to the rules. That’s who we were. We were athletes. We were there to play. We had a great mutual respect for each other.”

Growing the sport

As the years passed, hockey continued to grow. 

The games in Squaw Valley spurred a larger following for the sport, as many decided they, too, wanted to lace up their skates and shoot the puck.

“I think what it did was jumpstart the youth program in the United States,” Mayasich said. “Lots of the young kids watched the games on TV and started training to play the game. Looking back, that achievement was maybe more important than to win it.”

Through their experiences, teammates on the 1960 team grew close. 

In those days, players didn’t get the chance to compete against teams from outside their region as often as they do now. The occasion to play with new players from different parts of the country was a special experience.

“We ended up to be one big family,” Christian said. “We were very close. We don’t get together very often anymore, but when we do, we just pick up where we left off. We all had one goal in mind, and that was to win. We all got along and it was exciting, and it gets more exciting with time.

“That last day, we knew we were soon going to be split up as a team and going separate ways. It was hard because we didn’t know when we’d see each other again.”

For many of them, playing on an Olympic team wasn’t always a part of their plans. Yet, the chance to make a mark on history was a goal they couldn’t help but pursue. 

“I think anyone who’s an athlete wants to achieve the best in the sport, and that was our moment,” Cleary said. “A chance to prove to the rest of the world that we could play the game.”

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