Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Forgotten Miracle


If you're looking for a Christmas present for the hockey fan in your house, or simply want to get hold of a terrific documentary, order "Forgotten Miracle", a just-released DVD that revisits the U.S. Olympic hockey team's 1960 gold medal win in Squaw Valley. (Here's the website: Forgotten Miracle. For the flavor of the film, click on the trailer when you get there. If it doesn't grab you, you don't have a pulse. If it does, click on the Buy DVD link. Best $19.95 you'll ever spend.)
Those of you who have checked out the trailer have already discovered that I was one of the ones interviewed for the film. (And no, I have no financial stake in the DVD sales.) I was eight years old when the 1960 team triumphed in Squaw Valley, so it's a little surprising I come across as such a know-it-all. But I've actually written a couple of stories on that 1960 team for Sports Illustrated, have interviewed its two best players, Billy Cleary and John Mayasich, at length, and covered the 1980 "Miracle on Ice", where I became friends with Herb Brooks, the last man cut from that 1960 team. I also used to play hockey with two of Coach Jack Riley's sons on a team called the Bud Kings (mid-70s, Boston), and know from them how much pride Riley took in what that 1960 team accomplished. If you're interested, here's what I wrote in SI in a piece entitled The Original Miracle On Ice, which I hesitate to send you to because the SI Vault website spells Cleary's name "Geary" throughout the piece. Plus it's a reader's digest version of the events which transpired in Squaw Valley, which is far, far better told in the "Forgotten Miracle" movie.
A better story, I think, is the short profile I did of Mayasich, one of America's greatest hockey players, which can be found by clicking here: The Quiet American. The one statistic that really jumps out about him is that in his four year career as a center at the University of Minnesota, he averaged a staggering 2.68 points per game--higher than any four year stretch that Wayne Gretzky (2.62) managed during his NHL career.
Mayasich's scoring records at Minnesota still stand, but it is a measure of his greatness that for the 1960 Olympic team he played defense, not forward, breaking up rushes, initiating breakouts, and posing as a threat from the blueline with his trademark slapshot--a weapon that was still in its infancy.
Mayasich and brothers Billy and Bobby Cleary were last minute additions to the 1960 Olympic team. Bill Cleary and Mayasich had played for the silver medal winning US team in 1956, held regular jobs, and didn't want to take a year off to do the Olympic tour leading up to Squaw Valley. Coach Jack Riley was smart enough to know the team couldn't win without them, and tough enough to cut three players who had toured with the squad for nearly four months just a few days before the Olympics began. One of those players was Herb Brooks, a disappointment that helped fuel Brooks' own manic pursuit of the gold in 1980. "Forgotten Miracle" does a wonderful job recalling the chilly reception the latecomers got from their teammates when they joined the team in Squaw Valley, and how Billy Cleary in particular responded to it. At the end of the day, of course, the team realized Riley had been right. Billy Cleary led the team in scoring with 12 points in five games; Bob Cleary added eight points, including the first goal in the 2-1 win over Canada; and Mayasich was the team's best defender. But it is a testament to how late the trio arrived that in the official team photo, pictured below, the faces of Bill Cleary (first row, third from left), Bob Cleary (middle row, next to trainer) and Mayasich (top row, far left) had to be superimposed onto the bodies of the three players who'd been cut at the 11th hour: Brooks, Robert Dupuis, and Larry Alm. Can you imagine? There is no official team photograph of the 1960 team that won the Gold medal. It had to be faked.
There are any number of examples in the documentary that show how the game, and the Olympics, have changed in the intervening 50 years. The day after Mayasich collected his gold medal, he was back in Green Bay selling appliances. Captain Jack Kirrane, a Boston firefighter, was passed over for a promotion because he took the Olympic year off. And the gold medal game against Czechoslovakia was played at 10 a.m. before just a few thousand fans. It was a simpler time, a time when sports--at least in the U.S. and Canada--were truly amateur. None of the 1960 players benefitted financially from the win. No endorsements. No parades. Goalie Jack McCartan, who was sensational during the tournament, was signed by the New York Rangers after the Olympics, but he played only 12 games in the NHL. The only player from the 1960 team who was given a real shot in the NHL was Tom Williams, who ended up playing 663 games over a dozen seasons, primarily with Boston, scoring 161 NHL goals. But Williams was a minor player in Squaw Valley, with only 1 goal and 4 assists for the tournament. The best players, Mayasich and Cleary, never were given a chance.
Not that they were regretful about any of it. The quiet, intense pride of those 1960 players, now in their mid-70s, and their coach, who's 87, shines through in this wonderful documentary. Andrew Sherburne, the film's producer, who came to my house to interview me, told me how surprised he was at the humility of all the players he tracked down. Not an ounce of bitterness or arrogance in them. I wasn't surprised, having talked to a few of the men myself. They reached the highest pinnacle any of them ever hoped to in hockey: Olympic gold medalist. America's first gold medal in hockey. One that was every bit as shocking, in the hockey world, as the 1980 triumph. But without 1/100th of the attention.
In the film you can see how much enjoyment these men got from the sport, whether it was in recalling the memories of having snowballs fired at them by fans in Sweden, or recalling how one of the players, Paul Johnson, nearly left the team in the middle of the Olympics to go to Las Vegas because he needed some money. They were characters; they were honorable; they were tough as grit; and they were sportsmen who played the game for love and pride. One doesn't see their ilk much in the sports world anymore. But they are bigger than life in this film, and finally getting the recognition they so richly deserve.

4 comments:

  1. Looks like a great documentary. Another link to the 1960 and 1980 teams is the Christian Family. Minnesotans Bill and Roger played on the '60 team and later started the successful Christian Bros. hockey stick company. One of their sons, Dave, was on the 1980 team and had a solid NHL career. Christian Bros is now owned by a P/E firm.

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  2. My brothers and I went to Bill and Bob Cleary's hockey school. Bill married the girl who lived across the street from me. We knew them well and they were always true gentlemen.
    I wish them all the best and thanks for teaching me to skate backwards :-)
    Jim O'Doherty

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  3. Larry Alm was an assistant coach for his younger brother, Rick, at Minneapolis South High School and also the Junior Varsity Coach. Both coaches would skate with us during scrimmages after practice. Larry never once talked of his time as a member of the 1960 team. He was one of the final cuts with Herb Brooks. Very humble man from a great hockey playing family. Four brothers were lettermen at the University of Minnesota. Herbie played alongside three of the brothers.

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  4. My father was a custodian at South High and we went and saw them play in the playoffs at Memorial Arena(?) in the 70's and with vigor he pointed out that "those are the Alm brothers!". It wasn't until watching the movie Forgotten Miracle - The 1960 Mens Gold Medal Hockey Team that I understood "those are the Alm Brothers!"

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