According to numerous sports media outlets, the top sports story of the 20th Century was the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal triumph by Coach Herb Brooks’ USA ice hockey team. For many reasons, that American victory in Lake Placid has taken on mythological overtones. The classic sports movie MIRACLE captured it all quite well.
That team—and sportscaster AL Michaels—will forever be defined by Michaels’ epic shout-out at the climax of the USA’s 4-3 win over the Soviet Union. “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
(Part of that team’s mythology includes the mistaken notion that the triumph over the Russians won the USA a goal medal. The truth is that the Americans had to come-from-behind to beat Finland for the Gold a couple days later.)
Of course there are countless epic sports stories in human history, and to pick any as the “greatest” is obviously subjective. But events of the past 50 years—coinciding with our modern information age—perhaps get disproportionate attention. There are wonderful sports stories from throughout history, if you care to look for them. And through the magic of Google, such stories are at our fingertips.
One such story involves another ice hockey team which received but a fraction of the acclaim given to the 1980 “Miracle” team. That would be the 1960 USA Olympic ice hockey team, winners of the Gold Medal at Squaw Valley.
In several ways, the 1960 team’s success was even more improbable than the 1980 team’s. The American ice hockey infrastructure in those days was quite limited. The sport was played in regional enclaves. Even in New Hampshire, few schools had competitive hockey squads, outside of Berlin. Berlin’s Notre Dame High School won its 14th straight NHIAA ice hockey title in 1960, beating Berlin High School 9-1 in the championship game.
There were virtually no Americans in the six-team National Hockey League.
At the Olympic level, the USSR had, even then, committed to world dominance. The Soviets were defending Olympic champs and heavily favored at Squaw Valley, although there were other fine teams from countries like Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and—of course—Canada.
Into this forbidding hockey universe came a man named Jack Riley, the USA’s 1960 head coach. Now while Brooks’ 1980 team was indeed a bunch of college kids, they were college kids whose skills had been honed at powerhouse programs like Minnesota and Boston University. And Brooks had several months with which to mold his team into a cohesive unit. Riley had less time—and less talent.
(Ironically, Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960 squad.)
Sports Illustrated’s Shannon Lane aptly referred to the 1960 team as a collection of “carpenters, salesmen and firefighters” who were thought to have no chance against the established international powers.
The USA lucked out early on by getting Australia as an opponent. The Yanks’ 12-1 win over the Aussies was a confidence builder. The Americans eventually advanced to the medal round, where it was expected that Sweden would end their run. But, as in 1980, inspired by the home crowd, the Americans upset the Swedes 6-3. Then an easy win over Germany gave the USA an improbable shot at a medal,
On February 25, 1960, American goalkeeper Jack McCarten played the game of his life, and somehow the USA upset Canada, 2-1. Two days later, with ever-growing confidence, the Americans—as in 1980—took on the Soviet juggernaut. As in 1980 the Americans came from behind to win an epic 3-2 contest to make the Gold Medal Game against Czechoslovakia on February 28.
The Czechs led 4-3 going into the final period, but the Americans were not to be denied, as the USA scored six straight times for a 9-4 win and the most improbable of Gold Medals—with all due respect to the 1980 Miracle Team.
So did the top sports story of the 20th Century really happen in 1960 and not 1980? Who is to say? The 1960 team played before the modern information age and the players returned to being carpenters, salesmen and firefighters. The NHL was not in their future.
Coach Riley passed away last month at age 95—another member of the so-called “greatest generation,” Riley was a navy pilot during World War II, but moved to West Point in 1950, where he coached Army for 36 years.
Did Riley believe in miracles? I am going to guess that the answer would be …
“Yes!” Sports Quiz
Who was the first president to throw out a ceremonial “first pitch?” (Answer follows)
Born Today …
That is to say, sports standouts born on March 24 include NFL quarterback Peyton Manning (1976) and NBA star Chris Bosh (1984).
Sportsquote “The first time I ever saw snow skis was when I was 62 years old. That was many years ago, but I’m still skiing!” – former President Jimmy Carter
President William Howard Taft threw out the first ceremonial first pitch in 1910, a tradition emulated by every president since then except for Jimmy Carter.
Michael Moffett is a Professor of Sports Management at Plymouth State University and at NHTI-Concord. He recently co-authored the critically-acclaimed and award-winning “FAHIM SPEAKS: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back” (with the Marines)—which is available through Amazon.com. His e-mail address is email@example.com.