McCartan was named the West All-America goalie in 1958 as he finished his career at the University of Minnesota. In 1959, he was the goalie of the United States team that finished fourth at the World Championships.
In 1960, he helped lead the U.S. to the hockey gold medal at Squaw Valley, Calif., and a few weeks later he was in net for the New York Rangers.
What a wild ride for a young man from St. Paul, Minn., who hadn't seen more than a handful of NHL games before he played in one.
"There were only six National Hockey League teams in those days so we never had much exposure to the NHL in Minnesota," McCartan recalled. "It wasn't on television in the 1950s. I read a little about it in the papers. That was about it. In college, when we played in Michigan we sometimes stopped on the way back at Chicago Stadium and saw the Blackhawks.
"I might have seen three NHL games before I played in a Rangers game," McCartan said. "To play in Madison Square Garden, that was really something. It was exciting and I really enjoyed it. I just wished I was good enough to stay there."
Right wing Tommy Williams, who played 15 NHL and WHA seasons, was the only other member of the 1960 American gold-medal team to play in the NHL.
McCartan was also an excellent baseball player and was one of three University of Minnesota players invited to a Washington Senators tryout.
"It was clear it wouldn't work out," said the former hard-hitting third baseman. "At 23, I was too old to be starting out in baseball. Besides, I wasn't a very fast runner."
But McCartan could stop pucks. He hoped his national team exposure would help him land an Olympic spot, but he was one of coach Jack Riley's early cuts.
Then, Riley's early choices disappointed during the pre-Olympic tour and a group of Minnesota players urged Riley to bring back McCartan. He joined the team after Christmas, one of four major changes that were crucial to the American victory.
University of Minnesota star John Mayasich, then a radio executive in Duluth, and brothers Bill and Bob Cleary, launching an insurance business in Boston, turned down early offers to join the national team but were persuaded to come aboard in the final weeks before the games.
"For my money, John Mayasich was the best American hockey player that I've ever seen," said McCartan, who has been scouting for the Vancouver Canucks since 1979. "He teamed with Jack Kirrane as our No. 1 defense. Rod Paavola and Bob Owen were the other defensive unit and Bob McVey could play forward and defense."
The Clearys contributed clutch scoring. Mayasich, formerly a center, switched positions to help anchor the defense and McCartan refused to be beat, winning every game at the Olympics.
"We were still jelling as a team when we played two games against the Czechs in Los Angeles before the Games," McCartan said. "When we tied them and beat them, I started to get a good feeling."
"The Swedes and Czechs had excellent teams; the Russians were defending the gold and the Canadians were the best of them all," McCartan recalled. "We beat the Czechs (7-5) and the Australians (12-1) in the preliminary round. Then we beat the Swedes (6-3) to open the medal round. Beating the Canadians (2-1) next gave us the impetus to go on and win the whole thing."
The Americans also downed Germany, 9-1, between the Sweden and Canada games. Roger Christian had three goals in the win over the Swedes while Bill Cleary popped four goals and Bob Cleary had one in the win over the Germans.
McCartan made 39 saves in the Americans' 2-1 victory over their northern neighbors, 20 in the second period alone, in what remains one of the most impressive goaltending performances in Olympic history. Bob Cleary and Paul Johnson scored for the Americans.
McCartan again was a stalwart in the U.S.'s 3-2 win over the Soviets in a Saturday afternoon game seen on black-and-white television. Bill Cleary and Bill and Roger Christian scored for the Americans. The following morning, the U.S. rallied in the third period for a 9-4 win over the Czechoslovakians to capture the gold medal. Roger Christian had three goals.
McCartan was quickly signed by the struggling Rangers and played four games near the end of the 1959-60 season. He played eight more games the following year, then was sent down to the minors.
"I wasn't disappointed," McCartan said. "The NHL was great. I wasn't good enough to play in the six-team league where they had only one goalie on each team. You had to beat out Jacques Plante, Johnny Bower, Glenn Hall, Gump Worsley, Terry Sawchuk or Don Simmons. I wasn't in that class. They were the six toughest jobs to get in the whole world."
There isn't a tinge of disappointment, envy or anger in his voice when he says it. McCartan is a man who is very comfortable with himself and proud of what he has accomplished.
He continued to play professionally until the 1974-75 season when he became an assistant to Harry Neale, then head coach of the WHA's Minnesota Fighting Saints.
McCartan's career after his NHL exposure contained several highlights.
In different seasons, he would lead the Central, Eastern Professional and old Western leagues in games played and victories. He played four seasons in net for the San Diego Gulls where his teammate was Willie O'Ree, the first black player in the NHL.
He split the 1972-73 Fighting Saints netminding duties with Mike "Lefty" Curran, the hero of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. The Fighting Saints were most likely the only professional team to ever boast a gold-medal winner and a silver-medal winner in net.
"When the Saints folded, Neale went to the New England Whalers of the WHA," McCartan recalled. "I had a business here in Minnesota so he asked me if I'd be interested in scouting part-time and I said yes. A few years later, he went to the Vancouver Canucks of the NHL and got me a part-time job with them. Later, I sold the business and joined the Canucks fulltime."
McCartan, 67, reduced his workload a few years ago but continues to scout the top American Midwest junior league as well as the Western Collegiate Athletic Association and high schools. He's proud of the work he's done for the Canucks, particularly in the years they evaluated and selected Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden.
McCartan said the Olympic triumph has opened doors for him and brought pride to his family.
"It pops up every so often, like now," he said. "You'd be amazed at the number of people who still know my name. It's kind of neat. For my family, my children, it meant something to them to have some identity with the name."
McCartan wouldn't trade a minute of the life that hockey made possible.
"I love hockey," he said. "I played a lot of baseball and my dad was a pretty good amateur ball player but in the winters, I fell in love with hockey. It's the greatest game in the world and I've been lucky to make a living in hockey. When you can make a living doing something that you love, that's everything right there."