Story #16

USA's original but unheralded "Miracle on Ice"

February 28, 1960 — Squaw Valley, USA

 

There was no colour television coverage, no announcer using a catch-phrase like “miracle on ice,” no celebration of the extraordinary over and above a remarkable gold medal. But make no mistake—when the United States won Olympic gold in 1960 in Squaw Valley, California, it was a much greater miracle than the one that occurred in Lake Placid 20 years later. In 1980, it was one game—a 4-3 win over the Soviet Union—that defined the American victory. In 1960, the U.S. had to defeat the top four teams in the world to win gold.

The first signs of something special came in the first series of round robin games when the Americans beat Czechoslovakia, 7-5. The Czechs had a very good team, and after two periods the score was 4-3 for the Czechs. The Americans stormed the Czech goal in the final 20 minutes, though, scoring four goals in a row to take a commanding 7-4 lead. Only a late and meaningless goal from the Czechs made the score a little closer. Two days later, the home team walloped the Australians, 12-1, to no one’s surprise. The wins advanced the U.S. to a six-team finals round robin pool, and this is where they really proved their worth.

In the first game, against Sweden, the team jumped into a 4-0 lead and coasted to a 6-3 win. Roger Christian led the way with a hat trick. Their second game was a routine 9-1 win over the Germans, and this led to what many people believed would help decide gold—a showdown against Canada.

Backed by the sensational goaltending of Jack McCartan, the Jim Craig of 1960, the Americans led 1-0 after the first period and 2-0 after the second. Canada got one score back in the third, but the Americans celebrated their 2-1 win by mobbing their goalie who had stopped 39 of 40 shots (at the other end, Don Head of Canada faced only 27 shots).

The win put the Americans in the driver’s seat, but there was still much work to be done. Next up were the Soviets, but this time it was the visitors who led 2-1 after 20 minutes. But Bill Christian, Roger’s brother, was the hero this night, scoring once in the second to tie the game and again in the third to give the U.S. another stunning win, this one by a 3-2 score. To complete the miracle, the U.S. beat the Czechs again by an easy 9-4 score to win the gold medal.

There were no invitations to the White House, no Sports Illustrated covers, nor any notoriety that lasted beyond a week or so. One of the best U.S. players, Bill Cleary, had made the decision not to pursue a pro-career. Proud that he was paid $15 a month to play with the Olympic team, he said at a reunion in 1995:

“I wouldn’t trade my chance to march in the Olympic opening ceremony for 100 Stanley Cup championships,” said Cleary. “When it was over, we all went back to our lives. That’s the way we wanted it.”

About the Top 100 Stories

As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.

 

The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.

 

These are the criteria for inclusion on this list: First, the story has to have had a considerable influence on international hockey. Second, it has to have had either a major immediate impact or a long-lasting significance on the game. Third, although it doesn't necessarily have to be about top players, the story does have to pertain to the highest level of play, notably Olympics, World Championships, and the like. The story can be about a single moment — a goal, a great save, a referee's call — or about an historic event of longer duration — a game, series, tournament, or rule change.

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