"Due to…our country's inability to recall anything we cannot view on instant replay, people are under the impression that the medal-winning effort of 1980 hockey team at Lake Placid was the consummate American victory. There is no doubt it was a terrific win. However, it pales in comparison to 1960." -- Mike Barnicle: Boston Globe, winter of '98
"That wasn't the first miracle, fer chrissakes. WE were the real miracle, fer chrissakes." -- 1960 Olympic Hockey Coach Jack Riley summer of 2008, on the porch of a very exclusive Cape Cod country club, reminiscing, and pissed as hell.
There'll be no medal game between Us and Them. In a way, this is a good thing because we'll be spared more flashbacks to 1980, and NBC won't have to unearth Eruzione and Craig for endless rehashes embellished with requisite slow-motion clips and that shopworn "Do You Believe in Whatever" call by that announcer whose hair dye is getting weirder every year. But it's unfortunate, too, because an Olympics without a Russian-U.S. medal game is like a blues festival without B.B. and Clapton.
So in the public interest, here's a quick fix: a revisit to Blyth Arena, Squaw Valley, February 27, 1960; The United States of America 3, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics 2.
The Miracle on Ice.
It's been buried by history, not surprisingly, having occurred in an era when, to the media, sport was nothing more than sport (CBS often limited its coverage to 15-minute post-late-news highlight wrap-ups), and the only meaningful competition between the USSR and the US of A was the Ballistic Missile Race, where The Evil Empire outnumbered us, nuke-missile-wise, by a 3-1 margin. The year before, Nikita Khrushchev's rocket guys had hit the moon, planting a hammer and sickle-emblem on the piece of rock that now mocked from our night sky. More recently, the Soviets' had test-launched a nuclear missile test: 8,000 miles in flight, which landed within one mile of its target. They were accurate with their warheads.
Would they use them? Well, we were ducking-and-covering our asses off in first grade, and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller was urging that fallout shelters be mandatory for every home in the state (an economy model could run a family as little as $105!) And the big boys' rhetoric was growing red hot. "Our socialist steed is full of energy," Khrushchev said on a visit to India: the capitalist steed was "worn out and limping." President Eisenhower, citing the "Red Threat," likened Khrushchev's regime to Hitler's.
How ready was our military to enter a nuclear Texas Death Cage match? Well, in the week before the Olympics, a war game called "Exercise Winter Shield," staged by 65,000 American troops over 5,400 square miles of West Germany, should Soviet soldiers pour into Europe, the Good Guys would win -- although they would have to deploy no fewer than two dozen atomic bombs in the field of battle.
The chill and fear had seeped out west. A large part of the East German delegation never made it to the Reno Airport, the closest to Squaw Valley; The State Department had denied visas to 45 East German writers, trainers and coaches because they "did not welcome foreign Communists" to the United States of America. Those foreigners lucky enough to make it to Reno's airport were welcomed by a distinctly American greeting party as they descended the moveable stairs from their prop planes: local citizens, dressed like cowboys, shooting off six-shooters.
The Games began on the 18th of February. The cover of the Times magazine on February 21? A photo of an Atlas missile, with a nuclear warhead, poised against a darkening sky. It was pretty clear to everyone that mushroom clouds had no silver lining.
Back in the mountains, the only significant war between East and West was strictly intra-familial, an entirely domestic affair within the team: a near mutiny between warring factions. With a week to go before the games, the American team, symbolized by the perfectly named Minnesotans Roger and Billy Christian, who'd grown up using magazines as shin guards, was coming off a desultory 8-4-2 exhibition tour against colleges, amateur teams and minor-league pro teams. At that point USA coach Jack Riley, a West Point martinet cut in the Lombard mold, told his team that he was adding a few men to the roster: Bill and Bob Cleary. The Hahvahd boys, by way of Belmont Hill Prep. Even though they hadn't tried out, hadn't been selected, and hadn't been through a minute of Riley's stalag-condition training camp.
At the news, more than half the team vowed to quit. So Riley sent a message to his squad: "Don't bother quitting: you're all fired." Then he told his trainer -- a mail clerk from Lexington, Massachusetts -- to buy everyone tickets home; he was disbanding the team. The bluff worked. Defenseman Jack Kirrane, the best of the Americans' four defenders, and a proud member of Ladder 2, Group 2, Brookline, Ma. Fire Department seized the day. Jack was on a four-month unpaid leave. He couldn't afford to fly his wife and two kids to Squaw Valley. Damned if he was going home now. "I'll take on any asshole who wants to leave," Kirrane said, probably apocryphally, but whatever he said swayed the day. The team decided to accept the Clearys into the fold.
But the boil still had to be lanced. On the first day of practice in Squaw Valley, for a workout open to coaches of all of his upcoming rivals, Riley told his team to stage a fake fight to give the impression that the U.S. squad was nothing but a bunch of cowboys. If he couldn't beat the Soviets and Canadians in skill, he figured, maybe he could beat them psychologically.
But the fight quickly evolved from a mock battle to a real one. Riley, a military dude who knew how to pick a battle to win a war, let the fight go on for several minutes -- long enough to convince enemy observers that the States team were undisciplined madmen. Tempers would not flare again. Riley had himself a hockey team, even if others didn't. A Minnesota sportswriter had called the Squaw Valley guys the worst US Olympic hockey team in history. The most recent USSR-US game had gone the Soviets' way by ... 18-1.
The favorites were the Canadians, still bristling at losing the gold to the Soviets in 1956. The Czechs were considered likely to win the bronze. In the weeks leading up the Games, if you read the New York media, the U.S. hadn't even sent a hockey team to Squaw Valley. In the week before the Olympics, Dartmouth College's Winter carnival got as much ink in The Times as The Games, whose sports section the day before the opening ceremony featured the Knicks' win over the Syracuse Nationals (they held Dolph Schayes to 15).
But, as been known to happen in Olympic sport, in Squaw Valley the gut appeal of games played between really good athletes overruled geopolitical agendas. The international hockey community? The most nonpartisan of all. "We've been playing these Russian guys so many times the last several years that we know them all," Bob Cleary said. "They're real friends. Sitting around talking, they don't talk about Communism. Likes us, they talk about hockey -- and girls."
"They were terrific guys," his brother said some years later. "Instead of ogres, they were like anyone else. We'd be sitting in a hotel room, talking … then when we'd get down in the lobby, it was as if they didn't know us. (But) they had to do that."
American writers exploited the nationalist storyline, or course. After the opening ceremonies, with the Soviets in dark gray belted winter overcoats and dark gray fedora hats, one Times scribe wrote, "They looked like a well-drilled group of Communist functionaries reporting to a Moscow party congress." The ceremony itself, choreographed by Uncle Walt, was highlighted by the release of two thousand white "doves of Peace" from their cages. 1,999 of them immediately took off down the valley in the general direction of Reno. One flew straight into the Blyth Arena scoreboard. Dazed and confused, the bird dropped into the seats before regaining consciousness, we can only hope, and followed its feathered brethren toward the slots.
The Russians played as they'd been taught: diagrammatically, playing the probabilities, executing plays they'd rehearsed thousands of times before. They didn't freelance; if a defenseman began a power play, rushing up the ice, and saw that the play wasn't going to work, the whole team would mechanically turn around, circle back to its own end, and start over again. They trusted the system, not the self.
The Americans? The best conditioned team on ice -- at West Point, Riley's practice regimens were extreme, to the point of sadism; after grueling workouts, he would let the team retreat, exhausted, to the locker room -- then call them back out for another hour of sprints and practice. This polyglot? He worked them until the fell. He might lose on talent. He wouldn't lose on tired.
On the day of the game 10,000 spectators jammed the place, many standing for the whole affair. The crowd was reportedly louder than any crowd either team had ever played for. The players were ready for international hockey. The fans were ready for a chance to tell Nikita where he could put his missiles. In the end, the Russians would admit, the hometown shouters swung the day.
Bill Cleary opened the scoring, assisted by his brother, at 4:04 of the first. But it took the Russians 59 seconds to answer: Veniamin Alexandrov assisted by Nikolai Sologubov. Five minutes later, Mikhail Bychkov put the Russians ahead, 2-1. The Russians outplayed the Americans in the first period -- partly, no doubt, because of the oxygen tank they employed in their locker room: purely legal, but a tactic that Riley hadn't considered, or knew about.
But the rest of the game belonged to the Americans -- and to goalie Jack McCartan, a Minnesotan playing the game of his life (he played seven and a half games for the Rangers, then vanished into the frozen swap of the minors). Billy Christian tied it halfway through the second period, assisted by his brother.
And then, fifteen minutes into the final period, Roger Christian's wrist shot was saved by Nikolai Puchkov, but he couldn't control the rebound; Bill punched it in. Harvard and Minnesota had come through. McCartan stood tall the rest of the way, and the final buzzer sent the arena into a frenzy. Fans hugged and danced. The Soviets slumped to the boards in a daze. Then, one lone Soviet skated across the ice to congratulate the Americans. And then, one by one, the Russian players skated to center ice, and the two teams went through their handshakes. They were real, not perfunctory. American players reached out and ruffled the hair of Russian counterparts.
The American locker room rang with shouts, none louder than Riley's exultations: "We did it! We beat the Russians! We beat the Russians!" Said Bill Cleary: "It was the greatest win of my life." The Russian locker room was closed -- to newsmen, to Avery Brundage, to California governor Pat Brown. Outside the locker room, Minister of Soviet Sport Nikolai Romonov shook his head: "Perhaps we would have won on a neutral rink, but naturally it is the right of the spectators to cheer their team as much as they can."
The Americans were still celebrating in their locker when Russian coach Anatoli Tarasov paid a visit. Tears welling in his eyes, he kissed Jack Riley on the cheek.
Postscript I: The next day, in the gold-medal game, The Czechs led 4-3 after two, Then, between periods, an unexpected visitor showed up in the United States locker room: Nikolai Sologubov, who had arrived to give the Americans some advice -- take oxygen. The Russian star had come in the spirit of more than fellowship: If the Czechs won, and the Canadians beat the Russians that afternoon, the Russians would get no medal at all. Certainly, their welcome back home would be a frosty one -- if not downright Siberian.
Riley's trainer fetched an oxygen tank from a storage closet. But it wasn't the oxygen that made the difference in the third period. It was Riley's conditioning; the third-period scoring for the entire tournament? U.S. 19, opponents one. On this day, the United States outscored the Czechs 6-0 in the final twenty minutes, for their first gold medal.
Oh: Two and a half years later, John F. Kennedy called Khruschev's bluff, the Soviet missiles turned around 50 miles from Cuba, and the planet had dodged the nuclear bullet. Two miracle victories. Only a lunatic would connect them right?