Hockey's miracle before the 'Miracle'

By noon that day, they had won the first Olympic hockey gold medal for the United States.

By midafternoon, they were packing their bags.

By evening, many were on red-eye flights or trains back home to their jobs as firemen, insurance salesmen and carpenters.

It was like the scene from "Field of Dreams" in which the baseball players fade away like ghosts when they walk into the corn outfield of Ray Kinsella's homemade diamond. Except for one thing: The men from the 1960 U.S. Olympic team were real. The gold medal was real. And 50 years later, the memories of that seminal achievement on U.S. soil in Squaw Valley, Calif., burn bright in their minds.

The memories remain even if they are relative unknowns in their own country, even if their accomplishments have been dwarfed by the next generation of Olympians who became larger than life in 1980.

"The odds were just as long. The achievement was just as great," David Ogrean, the executive director of USA Hockey, said recently of that 1960 team. "They are the pioneers that showed us the first time how to do it."

But any and all discussions of Olympic hockey in the United States are measured against the 1980 Olympic gold-medal effort, the "Miracle on Ice."

Romanticized through two Hollywood movies, that magical team was credited with spawning an entire generation of hockey love in the United States. You can draw a line from almost every successful American player during the past 30 years back to the moment in Lake Placid in 1980 when a young American squad upset the powerhouse Russians in the semifinals en route to a gold medal. (And if Team USA somehow manages to steal gold in the coming weeks in Vancouver or even come away with a surprise medal of any hue, you can bet there will be parallels drawn between 2010 and that underdog 1980 team.)

The 1960 team? Shot through the prism of time, its efforts somehow manage to be both mythical and quaint.

The 1960 team won a medal when television was a relatively new medium compared with 1980, when Al Michaels famously asked the world, "Do you believe in miracles?" as the final seconds ticked to the Americans' improbable win.

"We were in black and white; they were in color," 1960 forward Bill Cleary recalled recently with a laugh.

The 1960 Olympic tournament was played under a format different from the medal-round elimination from 1980 or the upcoming Olympic Games. Teams in Squaw Valley were divided into three groups. The top two teams from those groups advanced to the final round, where they played five round-robin games. The team on top after those five games won the gold medal.

The 1960 team also played the tournament in an arena where part of the rink was exposed to the sun. During the team's second-to-last game against the powerful Russians, the U.S. bench was so crowded with well-wishers, including California Gov. Pat Brown, that there hardly was room for training staff and assistants.

"What am I going to tell him, 'No, you can't get on the bench?'" coach Jack Riley asked rhetorically in a recent interview.

Riley, an irascible sort who will turn 88 in the summer, said Team USA dressed just 15 players during the tournament (four defensemen, nine forwards and two goalies), and if he had lost a defenseman in the game, Brown would have been sent onto the ice.

Dick Meredith, a member of that team, was recently invited to a reception honoring American Olympians from the 1960 Games.

"The arena is all gone. The facilities are all gone. You wouldn't know it if it wasn't for the valley," Meredith said of the place where he and his companions made history.

While gathering material for a documentary about pond hockey, filmmaker Andrew Sherburne and his crew interviewed legendary defenseman John Mayasich.

Mayasich, considered among the greatest American defensemen even though he never played in the NHL, began talking about the 1960 team and the odds it bucked to win gold. Sherburne decided it was a story that needed to be told.

He was right. Sherburne and his partners got together and created the documentary "Forgotten Miracle." It just doesn't tell their story, it also explains how something so monumental could manage to become so anonymous.

If there is a sense of urgency that accompanies a story like this, it's because time is relentless. Three players from the 1960 team are deceased (Bob Owen, Rod Paavola and Tom Williams), while Mayasich and Jack Kirrane both lost their wives.

After speaking to many members of the team, some of whom had not shared their memories in decades if at all, Sherburne was struck by the players' humility.

"For having achieved as much as they did, they're remarkably humble," Sherburne told ESPN.com recently. "These are guys that had 9-to-5 jobs. They had to put their lives on hold to go and play. It's a testament to playing for the love of the game and playing for the love of your country."

The Americans were coming off a fourth-place finish at the 1959 world championships and an Olympic silver medal four years earlier in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, yet many predicted they would be lucky to finish among the top five in Squaw Valley.

Czechoslovakia was expected to ice a strong team along with the twin Goliaths of international hockey: the Canadians, who had won gold in six of the first seven Olympic tournaments, and the Russians, who were just beginning to flex their muscles as international titans. Russia had bested Canada six years earlier in its first world championships foray and followed it up with gold at the 1956 Olympics.

When the coaches gathered to decide the schedule before the tournament, Riley said no one wanted to play Canada and Russia back-to-back. Riley announced it didn't matter to him; the Americans were planning to run the table, so it didn't matter when they played the other teams. "I said it, but I didn't really believe it," Riley said.

Players were paid a stipend of $7 per week (about $50 per week today), which helps explain why a number could not afford to attend the team's training camp and/or travel with the team to exhibition games leading up to the Olympics.

Mayasich worked for a television station and joined the team late. So did brothers Bill and Bob Cleary, who had an insurance company in the Boston area. Bill, who would go on to have a celebrated career as a coach at Harvard and be inducted into the IIHF Hockey Hall of Fame and U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, also was getting married that spring. Both Bill Cleary and Mayasich had been key parts of the 1956 Olympic team, but Bob's addition created friction among the remaining players. "A lot of the Western players didn't like him. I don't know why," Riley said.

Three players were cut to make room for the newcomers, including a man named Herb Brooks. He, of course, went on to coach the 1980 "Miracle" team to gold.

There was talk of a mutiny. Players wouldn't try if Bob Cleary was added, but Riley said the team's captain, an imposing fireman named Jack Kirrane, soon put the talk of insurrection to rest by suggesting anyone not interested in being part of the team would have to go through him.

Riley, meanwhile, was a pistol. The longtime West Point coach and member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame was a naval pilot during World War II and describes nearly being shot down by a group of Russian fighter pilots after the end of the war in the Pacific.

His voice fairly crackled over the phone as he described how he once played slots with Bing Crosby in an Atlanta hotel while at flight school and one of his best pals was basketball coach Bobby Knight. "I think I broke more golf clubs than him," Riley said with pride.

You think Scotty Bowman was tough? In preparation for the 1960 Games, Riley said he wanted the team to be in the best condition possible. He organized two training camps, one in Minnesota and the other at West Point, before the team was selected and skated the players mercilessly. The players hated the workouts and hated Riley just a little, but it worked, as they outscored opponents 20-4 in third periods during the Olympic tournament.

Riley described the divide that existed between the players from the East (Boston area) and the West (Minnesota) as being akin to the split between the North and South during the Civil War. But Riley played no favorites; he was hard on everyone.

He recalled seeing Paavola shortly before he died in 1995. Paavola was coaching some kids and told them they should "get down on their knees and thank God you don't have Riley as your coach," Riley said with a laugh. Riley cut three of his cadets from West Point, and two of them never spoke to Riley again. And then, there was goalie Jack McCartan, whom Riley cut early on knowing he was going to bring him back for the tournament.

"I gave him two weeks off, but he didn't know it. He was miffed," Riley said. "I never told him. He's still mad at me, I think."

McCartan, who would play 12 NHL games with the New York Rangers and serve a stint with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association, was more than miffed, he was devastated. He remembered going to the locker room to look at the roster posted by Riley and thinking the coach had cut some pretty good hockey players. He then realized his name wasn't on the list.

On leave from the U.S. Army, McCartan went home to Minnesota over the Christmas holidays. "It was just like putting a pin in a balloon," he said. "I had to go home and tell my family. I wasn't expecting that."

As McCartan prepared to return to life in the army, team manager Jim Claypool called and asked whether he wanted to rejoin the team.

"It was either the army or the Olympic team, so it wasn't much of a choice," McCartan said. "I guess I was excited for another chance, but I didn't think I needed a second chance."

After posting big wins over Czechoslovakia and Australia in the preliminary round, Team USA began the final round of the Olympic tournament by beating Sweden 6-3 and Germany 9-1. Then, it faced a Canadian team led by longtime Boston Bruins GM Harry Sinden, whose heavily favored club was upset 2-1 by the scrappy Americans.

The U.S. built a 2-0 lead and withstood a furious attack as Canada launched 32 shots at McCartan in the final two periods. "No goalie ever played as well as McCartan played that night," Riley said during the documentary.

Meredith said the Canadians were being "a little on the cocky side. We surprised them, too."

By the time the Americans met the Russians in their next game, the buzz around the team had grown dramatically. The stands were overflowing for the showdown. The Russians led 2-1 until Bill Christian, one of two Christian brothers from Minnesota on the team, tied the game at 2. Christian scored again with 5:01 left in the third to secure the second straight one-goal upset win for the plucky Americans.

Because organizers anticipated the gold medal would come down to a Russia-Canada showdown on the final day of the tournament, they scheduled that game for the afternoon. The Americans' game against the Czechs was set for 8 a.m. But with the Americans upsetting Canada and Russia, the morning game would decide the gold-medal winner.

An estimated crowd of less than 1,000 people were in the stands when the puck dropped. Riley joked this was when he gave one of his greatest pregame speeches. The most important thing, Riley told his troops, was not to let the Czechs get into the game early. "Don't spark 'em," he said.

The Czechs scored eight seconds into the game to take a 1-0 lead. By the end of the first period, the score was tied at 3, and the Czechs took a 4-3 lead into the third.

But during the second intermission, the Americans received a surprise visitor: Russian captain Nikolai Sologubov. Unable to speak English, the captain kept putting his hand over his face and breathing deeply. Finally, someone understood he was pantomiming taking oxygen because of the high altitude. An oxygen canister appeared from somewhere, and some players took advantage of it before heading out to the ice for the third period.

Whether the oxygen was a factor or not, the Americans scored six goals in the third period to beat the Czechs 9-4.

"There was no stopping us," McCartan recalled. "It was a bunch of guys just hugging and slapping each other, and it was a great feeling."

Said Meredith, "It was our time, and it happened in Squaw Valley."

Kirrane went to the podium to accept the gold medal on behalf of the team, and there is a moment in the documentary when you can see some of the players, all older now, giving pause at the thought of that. A gold medal ... their gold medal.

Then, it was over. There were stories in the local paper, but no visit to the White House and no endorsement deals.

"In a week's time, it all passed away," said Meredith, who began looking for work in the days after the Olympic tournament and ended up working at a bank. Riley did color commentary for ABC Radio during the 1980 Olympics.

"When you look back on it, we played as well as a team as any of us had ever played," McCartan said. "We had a pretty good hockey team. You know what, I think probably all of the guys from our team, we know what we accomplished and we're very proud of it. And we're very proud of the 1980 team. We've got our own inner peace."

"I don't see any bitterness there. These guys are remarkably humble," Sherburne said. "In fact, they'll say they were the ones cheering the loudest in Lake Placid."

The team will enjoy arguably its greatest profile in the coming weeks as the 50th anniversary of its win coincides with the Vancouver Games.

"It's nice to be around and still be able to celebrate this," Bill Cleary said. "It's hard to believe that all that time has gone by."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.