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The Quiet American
E.M. Swift
December 13, 1999
John Mayasich was a wizard on ice but never got a shot to prove it in the NHL
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December 13, 1999

The Quiet American

John Mayasich was a wizard on ice but never got a shot to prove it in the NHL

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But Mayasich got no offers to pursue an NHL career after college. The league was made up of only six teams, all with Canadian general managers. College players—especially U.S. college players—were not considered NHL material. Mayasich, who was in ROTC, also faced a two-year military obligation. "It wasn't a source of bitterness, since no college players were being given a chance," Mayasich says now. "But there's still regret, even to this day, not knowing if I could have done it."

Instead, Mayasich set his sights on the Olympics. The 1956 Games were held in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and Mayasich helped lead the U.S. to the silver medal. The team's biggest win came against Canada, which the U.S. had never beaten in Olympic competition. "It was the best I ever played," Mayasich remembers of the 4-1 victory. He had a hat trick, and in the closing minutes he had a breakaway attempt for a fourth goal, but his backhand clanged off both posts before bouncing out. The lone U.S. loss was to the Soviet Union, 4-0, though it was 1-0 with just five minutes left. "But I got my revenge," Mayasich says.

That, of course, came in 1960. Mayasich was 26 then, the father of four (a fifth child would soon follow), working in sales for a Green Bay television station. He was playing defense for a topflight amateur team called the Green Bay Bobcats, and he told Jack Riley, the U.S. Olympic coach, that he would join Riley's squad in Squaw Valley after the Bobcats' season ended. Mayasich had only one practice with the U.S. team before the tournament, but he had a hat trick in the first game, against Czechoslovakia, on three unassisted slap shots. The team went on to upset the powerful Soviets, 3-2, in the championship round, the first time the U.S. had ever beaten the Soviet Union in international play.

The 1960 Olympic team went 7-0 in Squaw Valley, winning America's first hockey gold medal. It would be nice to write that the victory opened doors for U.S. hockey players of Mayasich's caliber into the closed world of the NHL, but it was another 20 years and several expansions before that became a reality. Hours after receiving his gold medal, Mayasich flew home to Green Bay and the following morning showed up for work at the television station. He continued to play for love with the Bobcats until 1970.

The U.S. Olympic win was passed off as a historical oddity: a blip of achievement brought about by a unique combination of great goaltending and home-ice advantage. Perhaps some skill, too. That such blips of achievement followed Mayasich his entire hockey career was not acknowledged at the highest level of the game until 1998, when, correcting a long-overdue omission, the finest American hockey player of his time received the NHL's Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the U.S.

Not that Mayasich particularly minded the delay. Greatness is its own reward.

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