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The forgotten Olympic gold medal team

Friday, 02.15.2008 / 11:00 AM / Off the Wall

By Evan Weiner - Correspondent

The tale of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team is legendary, but few people know that the United States also won gold at the 1960 Winter Olympics.
It seems every February there are a flurry of stories about the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team. The triumph of the United States Olympic hockey team has spawned two movies, and the tale of those scrappy college kids never gets old.

But lost in the shuffle is the fact that another American squad won gold at the Olympics.

The 1960 American team won the gold in Squaw Valley, Calif., but that group of players has been largely forgotten. Back in 1960, there was no White House visit and no movies. No player who would win the Olympic gold and then four straight Stanley Cups like Ken Morrow. There was no Olympic catchphrase like "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

But the 1960 team has stories, too, including one of international intrigue involving the U.S., Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

The 1960 U.S. team easily swept through their pool, beating Czechoslovakia, Australia, Sweden, and Germany. The next big test was Canada, which was thought to be the best team in the tournament.

"I had played in '56 and we had won a silver medal in '56," said Bill Cleary. "Yeah, it was a bit (of a shock) because most of the media were picking us to finish 12th and there were only eight teams in the finals, so that's I guess what they thought of our chances.

"It wasn't until when we played the Canadians and we beat them, 2-1, and I think after that people starting to say maybe something is going to happen here and everybody started to come in and start to get on the bandwagon and it started giving us confidence."

Outdoor hockey games are a big deal in 2008, but back in 1960, there wasn't too much hype surrounding the US-USSR semifinal game that was played in the open air Blyth Arena.

The Americans trailed the Soviets, 2-1, when Bill Christian scored midway through the second period to tie it. Christian scored the game-winner late in the third period and behind the goaltending of Jack McCartan, the Americans held off the Soviets and advanced to the finals.

The international intrigue came after the next morning when the Americans played Czechoslovakia. The U.S. team trailed 4-3 after two periods. When they got to the dressing room after the period, there was someone waiting for them.

Soviet captain Nikolai Sologubov had a tip that could help beat the Czechoslovakians.

"Nikolai Sologubov was a great friend of ours because we had played against each other for about four or five years before that," Cleary said. "I can remember it was before the third period and we were down by one goal ? and this Russian came in and he couldn't speak English, but we were great in sign language in those days and he kept muffling his mouth and we are saying; ?What does he want?? Finally someone said I think he said oxygen because the altitude (in Squaw Valley) was a little bit higher, so I think one or two guys took it. I always kidded Jack Kirrane, who was our captain and our oldest player, that he needed it.

"But it made a great story. In fact, I can remember getting off the plane in Chicago the next night after we won it and I read this thing in the paper about Russian helps American, I didn't even know what they were talking about."

Cleary thinks there may have been another factor in Sologubov's mind. The Russians and Czechs hated one another on and off the ice as Czechoslovakia was forced to be a Soviet ally after World War II. That growing animosity would fester for years, and in 1968, the Soviets would invade Czechoslovakia to put down what was referred to as the "Prague Spring" which was an attempt to bring democracy to the country.

"Also, he wanted us to win because the Czechs would have finished before them so there was another ulterior motive. But that really was the Olympics was all about, we did become good friends with a lot of those Russian players."

United States-Soviet Union relations were deteriorating since the end of World War II in 1945. In 1957, the Soviets successfully launched a space satellite, Sputnik, and during the Americans? 1958 hockey tour of the Soviet Union, a model of the Sputnik was part of the centerpiece of every table where the Americans dined. The United States was having trouble launching satellites. On July 24, 1959 Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in a public discussion which is commonly known as the ?Kitchen Debate? where both men tried to play can you top this compare the lifestyles of capitalist United States and the communist USSR.

So Sologubov's appearance was surprising.

"It was a bit shocking to see one of the opponents helping but whatever happened, I am glad it happened because we ended up going out and getting six goals that period and ended up winning. Nikolai was a wonderful guy I can still see him with those big gold teeth smiling. I actually think he was right outside, he was talking to our trainer. In those days, you didn't come off the ice if you got a penalty. The guy stayed in the box for the whole two minutes and they got a penalty I can remember and I think we scored two or three goals before that guy got out."

There are some unusual commonalities that both the 1960 and 1980 U.S. teams share. They were still involved in the Cold War. The Soviets in 1979 invaded Afghanistan and that triggered a new round of tensions between Washington and Moscow. Both hockey teams had to beat the Soviets in the semifinals and both teams trailed the Soviets in the second period. Both teams had to win their final game to claim the medal and both teams trailed after two periods in the gold medal game. Neither team was highly regarded although Cleary thinks the 1960 team wasn't as good as the 1980 team.

Cleary witnessed the 1980 US-USSR game in Lake Placid and was asked by Herb Brooks to address the team prior to the contest which provided a strange link between the 1960 and 1980 teams. Brooks was cut by coach Jack Riley to make room for Cleary.

"I think of all the people who were cheering for that team, no one was cheering harder than that 1960 team," Cleary said. "Herbie was the last cut when we joined the team and Herbie was a dear friend and yes my brother and myself joined late."

The 1980 United States hockey team was celebrated and to this day is the best known hockey team in United States popular culture. "Do you believe in miracles?' remains one of the top sports announcer related catch phrases and even though Al Michaels went on to become the announcer for Monday Night Football and now Sunday Night Football, Michaels' top announcing moment was calling the US-USSR game in Lake Placid in February 1980.

The 1960 team is a footnote. Only two players from the U.S. team, Tommy Williams and McCartan, went onto play in the NHL. McCartan finished his career in the WHA with Minnesota and became an NHL scout. The best known Canadian player from the 1960 Olympics never played in the NHL. Harry Sinden ended up coaching the Boston Bruins and coached Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series. Bill Cleary went onto coaching at Harvard University and helped put together college hockey's ECAC. There were no parades for this team.

"Well we went back and it was funny when we were coming back on the plane and we were wondering if anyone would show up from the media," Cleary said. "Actually we did have and I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and we had a fire engine take us through the town. Jack Kirrane did it in Brookline (Massachusetts) and Dick Rodenheiser too.

"The media coverage is so much different. Bud Palmer was doing the play by play (the game was on CBS in the United States) and that was a big crowd on television at the time. There was not (a President Dwight Eisenhower White House reception)."

Cleary got $15 a month as a member of the 1960 Gold Medal Olympic team. But it was an experience of a lifetime.

"We didn't know much after the Russians at that time. I was just awed that here I was with some of the great athletes of the world. Sure we wanted to beat the Russians and we took great pride in wearing the United States uniform."



Quote of the Day

It's cool when you think about how many great American players have played the game and the two players that were at that 18-game point streak and what they've done in their careers. It's pretty cool right now, but it was kind of overshadowed by the loss.

— Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane after breaking the record for longest point streak by an American-born player with a goal and an assist in a 3-2 overtime loss against the Kings
World Cup of Hockey 2016