Sports post of the day: The forgotten miracle on ice

Twenty years before the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the Russians and won the Gold Medal at the Lake Placid Olympics, our 1960 Olympic hockey accomplished the same feat. As in 1980, the win against the heavily favored Russians occurred in the semifinals. The 1960 team came from 2-1 down to win 3-2 on goals by 145-pound Billy Christian (a relative of John’s oldest daughter’s husband, I think). It then came from behind to defeat Czechoslovakia 9-4 for the gold medal.

Jack Riley was the coach of the 1960 team. He died last week at the age of 95.

Riley was a graduate of Dartmouth College. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he captained Dartmouth’s 1947 team (16 wins, 2 losses, 2 ties).

Riley then played for the 1948 U.S. Olympic hockey team. After that, he became the hockey coach at the U.S. Military Academy. When he retired in 1986, he had amassed more wins than every college hockey coach but one. Since his retirement, Army has been coached by his son (for 18 years) and his grandson (for the past 12).

The stories surrounding the 1960 U.S. team are so rich that it’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t made a movie about it (apparently there has been a documentary). Here, from the Washington Post’s obituary, is some of the back story:

The 17 players on Mr. Riley’s squad were college students, carpenters and insurance salesmen. The goaltender, Jack McCartan, was on leave from the Air Force. The captain, 31-year-old Jack Kirrane, a teammate of Mr. Riley’s on the 1948 Olympic squad, was taking time off from his job as a firefighter.

All of them played without helmets or face masks, for a total compensation of $7 a week to cover expenses for laundry.

After their first exhausting workout, the players retired to the locker room and began to take off their equipment. Mr. Riley told them to lace up their skates and get back on the ice because they still had one more hour of practice.

Riley’s no-nonsense approach was not universally appreciated. He ended up cutting three players and bringing in replacements. One of those cut was Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 gold medal squad:

Despite festering resentments, Mr. Riley united his fractious players when it counted most, and they won their first four games in the Olympics with relative ease. On Feb. 25, 1960, they faced the Canadians, who were overwhelming favorites. McCartan turned away 39 shots as the Americans emerged with a 2-1 win.

After that came the semifinal against Russia. It was the first hockey match I ever watched, and one of the first ever broadcast on national network television.

I mentioned that the U.S. came from behind in the final against the Czechs. According to the Post, they got an assist from the Russians:

After two periods, the exhausted U.S. players trailed, 4-3. The captain of the Soviet team entered the locker room and, via mime, suggested that the Americans inhale oxygen before returning to the ice.

Thus renewed, the U.S. team scored six unanswered goals to defeat the Czechs, 9-4, for the gold medal.

Do you think that might make a good scene in a movie?

Riley was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, along with his entire 1960 Olympic team. However, according to the Post, he and his players felt overshadowed by the euphoria surrounding the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, which won the only other U.S. gold medal in men’s hockey.

“We were the first team to beat the Russians,” Riley said, “and the Russians were just as good then as they were in 1980.”

I don’t think they make ’em like Jack Riley anymore. I’m not even sure they were making ’em like him in 1980.

JOHN adds: Paul is right about the family connection. My son-in-law’s grandfather, Gordy Christian, played on the 1956 Olympic team that won a silver medal. His two great uncles, Bill and Roger, played on the 1960 team that won the gold medal, with Bill scoring the tying and winning goals against the Russians. The winning goal came on an assist from Roger. Bill and Roger later founded the Christian Brothers hockey stick company, which for a long time made, I believe, all the wooden hockey sticks in North America. David Christian, Bill’s son, played on the gold-medal winning 1980 team. If I ever get time, I am going to write a book about the 1960 Olympic team.


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