Olympic Hockey: A long shot for American gold | SierraSun.com

Olympic Hockey: A long shot for American gold

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun

Photo courtesy Craig Beck Collection

Like many Olympiads, the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley showcased some very poignant athletic accomplishments, but the dramatic story of the underdog U.S. Olympic hockey team is worth noting on this 50th anniversary.

Blyth Arena was packed with spectators for the big contest between the U.S. and favored Canada, while millions more watched at home on live television. The Americans scored first and then increased their lead to 2-0 in the second period. The Canadians scored their first and only goal with less than seven minutes left in the third and final period. When the buzzer sounded on the 2-1 American victory, spectators went crazy with delight.

The next key test for the United States was the highly anticipated match against the Russians. The tempo of the game was lightning-fast action, but played clean with a total of only five penalties between the two teams. When the game ended with an American win over the mighty Soviet Union, pandemonium rocked Blyth Arena. The huge upset victory set up a final match between the U.S. and Czechoslovakia and a chance for the Americans to win their first gold medal in ice hockey.

The Czechs employed the same aggressive style of quick play that put the Russians on the podium in 1956. This game played out on Sunday morning, the last day of the Winter Games. After the big win against the Soviet Union the night before, the exhausted Americans had their work cut out for them. By the first intermission the game was tied even up 3 to 3. During the second period the Czechs went ahead with a one point lead. Down 4 – 3 and tired from their physical and emotional battle with the Russians, the American skaters were running out of gas.

During the second intermission, Nickolai and#8220;Sollyand#8221; Sologubov, the Soviet hockey team captain told American coach Jack Riley that his players could boost their energy levels by inhaling pure oxygen. Riley managed to find a tank and some of the players inhaled the gas in the hope that it would help fight their fatigue. Solly’s suggestion wasn’t a completely altruistic gesture. The Russians could still win a silver or bronze if the Czechoslovakian team lost to the Americans.

The atmosphere was tense in Blyth Arena as the third period went nearly six minutes without a goal until the American team’s high-powered offense kicked into overdrive. In a sudden explosion of firepower by Robert Christian, Robert Cleary, and his brother William Cleary, the U.S. scored six goals to lead an American surge past the Czechs. The team’s amazing 9 to 4 victory made international headlines and clinched the first U.S. gold medal in Olympic ice hockey competition.

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After the game, Coach Riley said that the best overall performance was by goalie John McCartan, who he anointed and#8220;the greatest John since John the Baptist.and#8221; Many newspaper articles focused on the oxygen assist angle of the story, but in reality the U.S. team was a talented group of amateur guys bursting with the desire to win it all. Years later, McCartan downplayed the oxygen story by revealing that none of the top scorers in the game, Christian or the Cleary brothers, had inhaled it.

The American media had given the U.S. hockey team virtually no chance to place higher than fifth at the Games. After their remarkable victory, however, the same pundits who said they were bound to lose proclaimed them the and#8220;Team of Destiny.and#8221;

and#8212;Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin’s new book, and#8220;Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sportsand#8221; is now available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.