I was eight years old when the U.S. Olympic hockey team won the
gold medal in Squaw Valley in 1960. Even at that age I
understood that something extraordinary had happened, an earlier
generation's Miracle on Ice. Nearly 40 years later people still
come up to Billy Cleary, the team's leading scorer and now
Harvard's athletic director, to say they remember where they
were when the U.S. beat the heavily favored Soviets to give
themselves a shot at the gold. When I recently asked my father
that question, he didn't hesitate. He said he was skiing in
Aspen with a half-dozen friends. They had left the slopes early
to watch the game, which was televised nationally--a rarity for
any hockey game in 1960. When the U.S. won, they all smashed
their glasses on the floor, which is not exactly my father's
style. But if you were an American and had ever played hockey
(as my father had), Squaw Valley was a seminal event.
Canada dominated hockey in North America at the time. The
six-team NHL was made up almost exclusively of Canadian-born
players. The sport was played in pockets of the U.S., but few
American players were considered outstanding. Although the U.S.
had won the 1933 world championship, the Yanks had since become
perennial also-rans in international play. From 1920 through
1959 the U.S. national teams were 2-15-2 in world championship
and Olympic play against Canada, and during that period the
Canadians won six Olympic gold medals while the U.S. took five
silvers. Even the top American colleges did most of their
recruiting north of the border.
The emergence of the Soviet Union as a hockey power knocked the
U.S. down another peg. In 1954 the Soviets, who had never before
taken part in international competition, won the first world
championship they entered and two years later breezed to the
gold in their first Olympics. The Soviets were called amateurs,
but they were essentially full-time pros, well-conditioned,
tough as boot soles and skilled. From 1955 through '59 the
Soviet Union was 5-0 against the U.S. in world championship and
Olympic play, outscoring the Americans 21-5.
So it wasn't as if that 1960 U.S. team, made up mostly of former
college players who held full-time jobs, carried the hopes of
the nation into Squaw Valley. Bill Cleary and his brother Bob,
who had started an insurance business in Cambridge, Mass.,
didn't join the team until two weeks before the Games. Jack
Kirrane, the 31-year-old captain from Brookline, Mass., was a
fireman with two kids. Goalie Jack McCartan was on loan from the
Army. This group was expected to lose to Canada and the Soviet
Union. The question among hockey fans was whether the U.S.,
which was coached by Jack Riley of West Point, could upset
Sweden and Czechoslovakia to earn the bronze.
The U.S. advanced through the preliminary round, rallying to
beat Czechoslovakia 7-5 and routing Australia 12-1, then knocked
off Sweden and Germany in the first two games of the
championship round-robin. A terrific start, but the Americans
would now face Canada and the U.S.S.R. back-to-back.
Against a Canadian team led by several future NHL players, the
U.S. took the early lead on a power-play goal by Bob Cleary. In
the second period Canada took control and fired 20 shots at
McCartan, who stopped every one. After center Paul Johnson put
the U.S. up 2-0 late in the second period, the Americans held on
for a shocking 2-1 upset. Suddenly, the country at large took
notice. Was it possible for the U.S. to beat the mighty Soviets?
A crowd estimated at 10,000 jammed Blythe Arena, which was open
along one side and held only 8,500, and they were treated to one
of the most exciting games ever played. "It was an up-and-down
game," says Billy Cleary, a powerful skater and stickhandler who
had learned the game on frozen ponds and rivers around Boston.
He'd never worn a uniform until he was 15. "It was a game of
skill, not bullying. If you threw a bodycheck, it was at center
ice. Nobody tried to run anyone through the boards the way
players do today."
Billy Cleary scored the first goal off a feed from his brother
Bob, but the Soviets scored twice on McCartan before the first
period ended. In the second session another U.S. brother act
took over, as 21-year-old Billy Christian, the smallest player
on the team at 5'9" and 145 pounds, tied the match on a pass
from his brother Roger. The Christians had grown up in Warroad,
Minn., a town known for producing brilliant skaters. The
Olympic-sized ice, 20% larger than NHL surfaces, played to their
The two teams exchanged scoring chances throughout the third
period, but McCartan and his counterpart in goal, Nikolai
Pushkov, were up to the challenge. As the clock wound down, it
became clear to everyone in the arena and the millions watching
on TV that the next goal would decide the game and probably the
gold medal. With 5:01 left Billy Christian became the hero when
he tucked the puck past Pushkov. McCartan, who finished with 27
saves, made the goal hold up.
The win sparked an amazing celebration, but the Americans still
needed one more for the gold, and they nearly didn't get it. The
next day they trailed Czechoslovakia 4-3 going into the third
period. A Czech victory would mean a gold medal for Canada, a
silver for the U.S. and a bronze for Czechoslovakia. A U.S. win
would give the Russians the bronze--which helps explain why the
Americans got help from an unlikely source. Between the second
and third periods the U.S.S.R.'s superb defenseman, Nikolai
Sologubov, came into the American dressing room and, by means of
sign language, suggested the players take oxygen to replenish
their energy. A lot of the U.S. guys knew him from previous
tournaments, and some of them followed his advice. It made for a
wonderful story in the next day's papers, but the kindness of
the gesture probably had more value than the suggestion itself.
Neither the Christians nor the Clearys took oxygen, and among
them they scored all six third-period goals as the Americans
trounced the Czechs 9-4.
It is no exaggeration to say that the repercussions of that
tournament were still felt 20 years later, when the 1980 U.S.
Olympic hockey team galvanized the nation by duplicating the
feat. The connections between those two teams were strong. The
coach in 1980, Herb Brooks, had been the last man cut from the
1960 squad. Brooks asked Billy Cleary to address the '80 team
before its epic game against the Soviets. Among the players
listening was Dave Christian, the oldest son of Billy Christian.
Cleary's message? You will beat them because we beat them and
you're a better team than we were.
Maybe, maybe not. But the most important message Cleary and his
teammates sent had been delivered 20 years earlier.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVEN BRODNER The ragtag squad of U.S. skaters, who had no business beating the world's hockey powers, erupted in giddy celebration. Sound familiar?
Suddenly the country at large took notice. Was it possible for
the U.S. to beat the mighty Soviets?