Twenty years before “Miracle on Ice,” the unlikely U.S. surprised the hockey world by winning its first gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. Like the better-known miracle, this “Quiet Miracle” or “Forgotten Miracle” took place on home ice, at Squaw Valley, Utah.
This time, the Canadians, who had won the World Championships in 1958 and 1959, were the clear favorites. However, their first pick for the team, the Whitby Dunlops, declined, so they wound up with the Waterloo Dutchmen, whose top three players were ineligible as professionals. In addition, the Canadians did not do themselves any favors by playing like arrogant bullies. According to Bill Riley, one of the referees, “The Canadians didn’t hit it off with anybody. They came to Squaw Valley saying they only had the Russians to beat. That wasn’t bad. After all, nobody else gave the United States a chance. But the Canadians acted as if all they had to do was go on the ice and the game was theirs. They threw their weight around literally, knocking around everybody, even the teams that were obviously outclassed.” The reaction to that was that almost everyone pulled for the Americans instead.
The tournament schedule was considered cruel because it meant each team had to play eight games in ten days. Finding rink time became very difficult because the indoor rink was booked for the figure skaters. The hockey practices were relegated to the outdoors, but a thaw left the ice conditions quite poor. For the preliminaries, the national teams were divided into three groups to play round robin, and the top two from each advanced to a final round robin. Finland, Japan, and Australia played a consolation round instead.
For the finals, the games were scheduled based on which would draw the best television audiences, so the U.S.-Canada game was on Thursday and the Canada-Soviet Union game was on Sunday. On February 22, the Soviets beat the Czechs 8-5, U.S. defeated Sweden 6-3, and Canada blanked Germany 12-0. Two days later, the Americans had their turn at the Germans, winning 9-1, and the Canadians shutout the Czechs 4-0. What was telling was that the Soviet Union only tied (2-2) the Swedes, who had decidedly lost to the Americans.
On Thursday, February 25, Germany still was no match for the Soviet Union, which won 7-1, and Czechoslovakia edged out Sweden 3-1. The biggest shock came when the U.S. defeated Canada for the second consecutive Olympics. The Americans led 2-0 until the Canadians managed one goal in the third. Goalie Jack McCartan (of the University of Minnesota) was credited with holding back their northern neighbors. After all was said and done, everyone had high praise for the top goaltender. His coach claimed he had “been the best player on the team,” while teammate Bill Cleary enthused, “McCartan, he’s the boy. We haven’t lost a game with him. You make a mistake and he comes up with a save that’s tremendous. You can’t help but be inspired by that kind of playing.”
Two days later, the Czechs duplicated the U.S.’s score against Germany, and Canada topped Sweden 6-5. Again, the Americans unexpectedly beat their better-ranked foe by one goal. Thanks to Bill Cleary, the U.S. drew first blood, but the Soviets then scored two quick goals. About halfway through the game, Bill Christian produced the tying tally, and he scored again with 5:01 remaining. With the score at 3-2, the Americans had defeated the Russians for the first time. Referee Riley later commented, “Our guys built up friendships with the Russians in the past couple of years. There never were any hard feelings.” American captain Jack Kirrane (a fireman from Brookline, Massachusetts and a veteran of the 1948 Olympics) claimed, “It was our spirit, our desire to win, that beat both the Canadians and the Russians.”
The U.S. was undefeated and would have the gold if they won their last game. Alternately, Canada could win gold only if they beat the Russians and the Americans lost. Because of their tie against Sweden in addition to their loss against the U.S., the Soviet Union could only hope for silver. Because everyone had assumed Canada and the Soviet Union would be playing for gold, their matchup received the primetime slot on Sunday, February 28, while the U.S.-Czech game was squeezed in at 8:00 that morning. With that early time slot, very few spectators came.
After the first period, the U.S. and Czechoslovakia were tied 3-3, but then the Czechs scored the only goal of the second period. American coach Jack Riley (head coach at West Point) went for a rousing speech to motivate his men, but the real motivator came from the unlikely source of Russian defenseman and captain Nikolai Sologubov. As a friendly tip (and to give his team a better shot at silver), he went into the locker room and told trainer Ben Bertini, “Use oxygen. There’s an oxygen tank in the arena. We used it yesterday.” Bertini paid attention because, as he said, “We’ve been friendly for quite a while. I was the American trainer with the Russians last year. And our U.S. team has played them a lot, got to know them well. Did you see them in the stands? They were all rooting for us.” He had the American players use the oxygen to recover. “I didn’t know whether we’d come back or not,” confessed Coach Riley, “But that Bertini, he’s the best trainer in the business.” According to Dr. Thomas “Bart” Quigley of Harvard, the Oxygen would not effect the body but “might very well have a psychological effect on an athlete.”
Whether or not the oxygen helped, the Americans returned to the ice and scored an astonishing six goals in the final period. In another twist, all the goals were scored by two sets of brothers. Roger Christian (of Warroad, Minnesota), having already scored once, sunk three more. His younger brother, Bill Christian, assisted on three of them. Bracketed by Roger, Bob Cleary (of Harvard University) scored two goals, and his older brother, Bill Cleary (also of Harvard), scored one and had two assists. “It was pretty hard. But when we got ahead they couldn’t cover,” commented Bill Cleary. “I’ve never played with a team that came back so much.” Of them, Coach Riley exclaimed, “Bill Cleary and Roger Christian are fantastic. . . . That Roger, what a money player. One of the team bet him he couldn’t do it between periods.” Furthermore, the victorious Coach Riley said, “I’ve never coached a team like this in my life. This is the greatest team ever put on ice for Olympics.” Thanks to their efforts, the U.S. won 9-4.
That night for primetime, Canada defeated the Soviet Union 8-5, earning silver and leaving the Soviets with bronze. The U.S. officially had their first gold, and it was the first time one of the top six defeated four of the other top six to earn gold. The legacy of that win was reflected in the 1980 U.S. team, who earned the only other American gold medal in ice hockey.
- Andrew Podnieks, Where Countries Come to Play (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2013), kindle version.
- Mike Commito, Hockey 365: Daily Stories from the Ice (Toronto: Dundurn, 2018), kindle version.
- Mike Beatrice, “U.S. Wins on Russian Oxygen Tip,” Boston Globe, 29 Feb. 1960, pp. 1, 11, and 13.
- Arthur Siegel, “Referee Raps Canadians’ Tactics, Lauds Russians,” Boston Globe, 29 Feb. 1960, p. 13.