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Outdoor Game

NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe connects with 1960 U.S. Olympic champion

McCartan helped Americans win hockey gold in nearby Squaw Valley

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

STATELINE, Nev. -- One of the greatest moments in United States hockey history happened near Lake Tahoe.

It was in Squaw Valley, California -- just northwest of the lake, a 40-mile drive from where the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe will be held on the south shore this weekend -- where the United States won its first gold medal in hockey at the 1960 Olympics. It was the miracle before the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid, New York, 20 years later.

The United States didn't play outdoors like the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights will in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS) and the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers will in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS).

But the United States played at Blyth Arena, which was open to the air on its south side, and the team practiced outdoors.

"It was fun," said goalie Jack McCartan, now 85 and living in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. "It's was exhilarating, actually, to practice out there in the open air."

The NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe is meant to celebrate the game's roots. Pond hockey, specifically. But we'd be remiss if we didn't use this opportunity to remember what happened at Squaw Valley or recognize how far hockey has come in the United States since 1960. 

The NHL had four teams based in the United States then; it will have four teams based in the United States playing here this weekend. The League has grown from six to 31 teams, including 24 in the United States stretching from, well, Philadelphia to Colorado to Las Vegas. The Seattle Kraken will become the 32nd team next season.

The NHL has reached the point where it can pack stadiums with tens of thousands of fans for outdoor games or, amid a pandemic limiting crowds, stage outdoor games on a golf course just for a TV audience.

"Well, I think that's great," McCartan said. "It's too bad they couldn't have fans, but it's a great place. It's great country, I know that. It's beautiful."

When the players practiced outdoors at Squaw Valley in 1960, they felt much like the players will feel when they practice and play at Lake Tahoe this weekend, recalling their childhood.

"It kind of comes back to you," McCartan said. "You remember the days when you did play outdoors."

McCartan said he considered Blyth Arena enclosed for all intents and purposes. Still, they could see the mountains, and they had to battle the elements to some extent.

"They had a problem with the sun shining in from that open spot, and it would melt the ice about two or three feet from the boards [on the opposite side]," McCartan said. "So they hung big three-quarter-inch ropes to kind of shade it."

The United States wasn't supposed to stand a chance in 1960. The favorites were Canada, the two-time defending world champion, and the Soviet Union, the defending Olympic gold medalist.

But in the final round, which determined the winner based on record, the United States defeated Sweden 6-3, Germany 9-1 and Canada 2-1. The United States trailed the Soviet Union 2-1 after the first period but rallied for a 3-2 win, setting up a chance to clinch gold with a win against Czechoslovakia.

The game was at 8 a.m. Apparently, it was expected to be a consolation match. Canada and the Soviet Union were scheduled for prime time at 3 p.m. The United States trailed 4-3 after two periods but woke up in the third and won 9-4.

The Soviet Union would win gold at each Olympics afterward until Lake Placid, when the United States was coached by a man who was cut as a player 10 days before the 1960 Games: Herb Brooks.

"I think we had a better team than people gave us credit for," McCartan said.

McCartan was the key, going 7-0 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.43 goals-against average.

He went on to play 12 games for the New York Rangers, four in 1959-60, eight in 1960-61, during a 16-year professional career. He served as a part-time amateur scout for the Vancouver Canucks for four or five years before working for the Canucks as a full-time amateur scout from 1983-2006.

He has been back to Squaw Valley, but …

"Of course, it's not the same," he said. "The rink has been torn down. It's a parking lot now. We were walking around out there, a few of my teammates, and trying to figure out where things were, and it's hard to do."

The NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe will not be the same, either.

But McCartan follows a lot of hockey, especially the Canucks and Minnesota Wild, and has seen TV coverage of the American Century Championship, the annual golf tournament at Edgewood Tahoe Resort, where the NHL has built the rink on the 18th fairway.

"That should be interesting to watch," McCartan said. "I'm looking forward to it."

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