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U.S. had help catching its breath in 1960 Olympics

by Evan Weiner
The North Lake Tahoe Olympic Heritage Celebration of the 1960 Winter Games ended on Jan. 17 but there was no answer found to an Olympics mystery that remains unsolved after nearly a half-century.

Did the American hockey team that won the gold medal at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games succeed because a Russian made a suggestion that the U.S. players take hits of oxygen in the final game of the tournament? Or did the Americans prevail over Czechoslovakia because they were just a better team?
There is no definite answer to that question but this much can be said -- the 1960 Squaw Games were vastly different from today's Games. The 1960 Winter Olympics was one of the last events staged before Roone Arledge and his American TV network employer -- the American Broadcasting Company -- began a partnership with the International Olympic Committee that would change the entire dynamic of the Olympics and would eventually replace amateur performers with professional athletes in most of the major sports.
It is a bygone era.
In 1960, the American hockey team was made up of players who thought the Olympics were both the highlight and the end of their careers. The same could be said about the teams from Canada, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Japan and Australia. Very few of the players in the tournament would ever skate in the then six-team NHL, so for many players this was the ultimate experience, although some of them would continue playing for national teams and subsequent Olympics and World Championships and for teams in their native countries.
The NHL in that time period was pretty much a closed shop that was open to only Canadians, though not by design -- it just happened that way. The last American to play a substantial amount of games was goaltender Frank Brimsek who retired in 1950. (Brimsek was the first American elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966).
"It was a good team," said Jack McCartan, the American goaltender. "Probably if they said we will give you a bronze medal before the competition started, we would have settled for it. But things kind of snowballed and with each passing game, the crowd got behind you and we got publicity and I think that helped.
"We weren't given much of a chance but as we beat some of the better teams. We beat the Swedes twice and we played the Canadians which I thought had the best team in the tournament (the U.S. team beat Canada 2-1, and that Canadian team included goaltender Don Head who played with Boston, Cliff Pennington who played 101 games with Montreal and Boston, and Darryl Sly, a member of Vancouver, Toronto and Minnesota), and then we played against the Russians.
"We played the Russians on a Saturday afternoon and we had to play the Czechs at 8:00 on Sunday morning which is not a great time to play a championship hockey game but they had seeded the teams, the Canadians were supposed to play the Russians in the afternoon for the championship, it just kind of snowballed for us."
The Soviet Union hockey program was still young in terms of how long the game was being played in the country in 1960, but they were good. The Soviets won the gold medal at the 1954 World Championships and won the silver medal in 1955, 1957, 1958 and 1959 in that tournament. The Soviets won the 1956 Olympic Gold Medal. The Americans were a collection of college players who worked in other jobs. A couple of players were firemen, another sold cable TV advertising in the earliest days of cable TV when there were not a lot of homes wired for cable and there were a few players who had some minor-league experience.
The American team was not looked upon with a great deal of respect.
"In the first period, we were down two men and the rules in those days, if you iced the puck when you were short, they would blow the whistle like it was an icing and they would bring it right back," McCartan said. "I think us surviving the first period only being down 2-1 provided us with the impetus to win the game."
The Americans beat the Soviets 3-2, setting up the final game with Czechoslovakia. During that game there a visitor to the American dressing room that caught the team off-guard.
"Well, the Russian captain was named (Nikolai) Sologubov and we were losing the Czech game, Sunday morning, 4-3 after two," McCartan recalled. "He came into our dressing room which was really unusual. He had known some of our players from previous World Championships and suggested that we take the oxygen. Some guys did, some guys didn't. We went onto win the game 9-4."
Just why Sologubov showed up is open to speculation, but one theory has it that the Soviet players would be in for a load of problems if Czechoslovakia won, so Sologubov wanted to make sure that the players on the American team were using everything at their disposal, including taking hits on oxygen in the high altitude of Squaw Valley.
The Soviets controlled Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovakians had no love for the Soviet Union making them a Soviet satellite. The Americans were not viewed as an enemy.
"The Russians and the Czechs at that time didn't get along to put it mildly," said McCartan. "So they would rather see us beat the Czechs, I think. The captain Sologubov came in and suggested to our coach Jack Riley that we take the oxygen. They brought the oxygen, some of the guys took it, some of the guys didn't. I think Roger Christian scored three or four goals in the final period. He didn't take the oxygen so take it for what it is worth.
'When you are playing in that kind of competition against the Russians, Czechs, the Canadians, the Swedes, it is not easy to win that Olympic gold medal."

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