Certain problems arise when one sets about the job of putting together an amateur ice hockey team to represent the United States in the Olympic Games. The word "amateur" is one. The Olympics are for amateurs, of course, and athletes who accept money for their sporting efforts are not amateurs—though this indictment depends more or less on arbitrary definition, since some amateurs are more amateur than others. Whatever the definition, the act of taking pay for playing has caused assorted runners, boxers, soccer players, figure skaters, swimmers, shotputters, skiers and others to be tossed from time to time on the athletic rubbish heap as sacrifices to the Olympic ideal that sport is for fun, not financial gain.
Ice hockey players are as subject to official disapproval as any other athletes, and perhaps even more so, since money and ice seem inextricably frozen together. The National Hockey League, the major professional organization in the sport, maintains farm clubs of amateur players—which appears to be a contradiction in terms. A young hockey player can pass back and forth between amateur and professional leagues with a facility and lack of censure that would be impossible in other sports. There is little hypocrisy involved in this, if you can accept amateur hockey's beautifully pragmatic definition of an amateur. An amateur, according to a prominent hockey official, is simply one who does not play in a recognized professional league.
That definition is generally accepted in hockey in non-Olympic years. In one famous instance, it permitted Grant Warwick, who had starred professionally with the New York Rangers before retiring to private business and amateur hockey, to lead Canada to a world amateur championship. When Olympic time rolls around, the definition necessarily gets stricter but, even so, the Olympic fathers show a remarkable tolerance of the easygoing way amateur hockey operates. It is a good thing, too, for otherwise there would be no Olympic hockey. An Olympic definition of an amateur is a person who is not now, never was and has no intention of ever becoming moneyed by virtue of his athletic skills or the fame generated by such skills. There are few topflight amateurs in any sport who would qualify under a strict construction of that definition, and hockey players would not have a chance.
For example, one amateur league in the U.S. makes no great secret of the fact that it guarantees some of its players an income of $125 a week. The player is given a job but technically is paid nothing for playing hockey. If, however, a $125-a-week job cannot be found, the amateur team may get him one at $90 and make up the balance itself.
It sounds cynical, but in practice it is a logical and admirable arrangement. The cities in the amateur leagues are generally not large enough to support professional hockey, and games usually are played only on weekends. Yet the cities are able to get excellent hockey players to man their teams. The player finds himself with a good job that he can develop into something permanent. Some players eventually become well-established local citizens for whom hockey is a sideline. They continue to play hockey anyway, for the same reason that other men golf or go bowling. They like it. In other words, they have changed from pseudo-amateurs into pure amateurs—those who participate in sport for the love of it. The paradox must give Avery Brundage pause.
It also gives organizers of teams to represent the U.S. in international hockey competition a staggering headache. They have already been denied the use of the good amateur players who have become officially tarred by the professional brush. A case in point is that of John Mayasich, the superb defenseman who was one of the most valuable if not the most publicized members of the victorious 1960 U.S. Olympic team, which upset Canada and Russia in successive games to win the ice hockey gold medal. He is still one of the best amateur hockey players in the world, but the fact that he coaches as well as plays makes his status as an amateur so open to challenge under Olympic rules that he was not even considered for the U.S. squad this time—which is a shame. The organizers turn to the other good amateur players, but those who are in college or who have become settled in jobs regretfully decline the honor, particularly in non-Olympic years. As a result, inexperienced teams of lesser players go abroad and get clobbered, and the organizing committee is criticized.
In Olympic years the recruitment problem is eased somewhat, even though the amateur definition gets stiffer. The glory and prestige of the Olympics are enough of a carrot to tempt most of the eligible top amateurs. In the last 10 world championship tournaments held in non-Olympic years the U.S. has finished better than fourth only once and three times did not even enter a team. But in the last three Winter Olympics—1952, 1956, 1960—our hockey team finished second, second and first.
Bill Reichart, captain of the 1964 Olympic squad, is a classic example of the career amateur whose head has been turned, whose imagination has been stimulated, whose ambition has been fired by the Olympics. In previous years Reichart never had to make the choice of playing or not playing because, Canadian-born, he did not become an American citizen until September of 1963. He did not play on Canadian national teams, because Canada's custom before this year was to select entire teams to represent the country, rather than groups of individuals, and Reichart has played principally on American teams—both college and amateur—during his adult career.
"I don't think I would have tried out for the U.S. team if this had not been an Olympic year," Reichart admitted recently. "It takes too much time. I couldn't afford it. But the Olympics are different. They're worth the sacrifice and the effort."
At 28, Reichart has been playing competitive hockey winter after winter for almost 20 years. He grew up in Winnipeg, where he was constantly in an environment of first-class Hockey. One of his close friends, an older boy who coached a kid team that Reichart played on, was Andy Bathgate, now captain of the New York Rangers and one of the superstars of the National Hockey League.