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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 Geary. 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 Geary, 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 Geary 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 strength.
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.