Exactly 50 years ago, on Feb. 28, 1960, the U.S. Olympic hockey team did something that nobody thought it ever could of done.
It won the gold medal.
The setting was Squaw Valley, Calif., and the world was a much different place than it is today. The Olympics were coming into the modern age. Instant replay was used for the first time, television was becoming ubiquitous and computerized record-keeping was taking its first steps.
The world was changing, but some things never truly change. In 1960, the Canadians were good at hockey. So were the Soviets. The countries were destined to battle for the gold medal, damn all other comers.
Heading into the Olympic tournament, the pundits did not give the United States a chance. The media thought the Americans would struggle for fourth place and get steam rolled by the Harry Sinden led Canadian team.
‘You could count, on one hand, the number of times that the United States beat Canada in the Olympics,’ 1960 coach Jack Riley said when interviewed for the documentary ‘Forgotten Miracle’ last June.
‘Forgotten Miracle,’ produced by Golden Puck Pictures, is the story of how a group of American amateur hockey players came together and, despite the better judgment of the hockey world at large, stunned everyone to claim the United States’ first Olympic hockey gold medal.
The producer for Golden Puck Pictures, Andrew Sherburne, called me out of the blue last May to ask if I was free in early June to head down to the Cape to interview Riley along with Bill and Bob Cleary for the film. I had met Sherburne the previous November when I interviewed him for an article in New England Hockey Journal at a screening of his previous film, ‘Pond Hockey,’ during the Jack Falla Memorial event at Agganis Arena at Boston University. (For those of you who do not know, Falla was a longtime hockey scribe and professor at Boston University who served as mentor, guide and inspiration to a number of current Bruins writers and sports writers across the country. He died of a heart attack in September 2008.)
To a hockey fan, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Jack Riley, who played hockey at Dartmouth and coached at West Point, is a member of the U.S. and International Hockey Halls of Fame. So is Bill Cleary. Bob Cleary is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as well. Bostonian hockey mavens know Bill Cleary was a longtime coach and athletic director at Harvard who coached the Crimson to the NCAA  championship in 1989.
Yet Bill Cleary, one of the greatest hockey players in the world at the time, almost did not make the team.
Riley and Team USA general manager Jim Claypool had a tough balancing act for the U.S. roster. The two bastions of American hockey, Minnesota and Massachusetts, split the team right down the middle. The Cleary brothers had played internationally with the United States in the World Championships during the 1950s. When the team was first assembled, the core components that would lead it to the gold were not present. Neither Cleary brother was present, nor was the United States’ best player, defensemen John Mayasich, or the starting goaltender from the 1959 international team, Jack McCartan.
The team’s exhibition schedule was a tour through the United States. Without the Clearys or Mayasich, the squad had trouble beating college opponents, let alone the competition that awaited it in Squaw Valley. Riley knew he need to bring in reinforcements.
Recalled Riley: ‘So, I called Walter Brown, Mr. Hockey in Boston, president of the Garden, and I said, ‘Walter, do you want to go to Squaw Valley with a chance to win or no chance to win? He said, ‘I want a chance to win.’ So I said, ‘I want the two Clearys, Billy and Bobby.’ ‘
Riley got his way, and the Clearys and Mayasich (who was scheduled to join the team in Squaw Valley) joined the roster.
‘Without Mayasich and the two Clearys we would have been fighting Australia for fifth. They were the whole key,’ Riley said.
Yet, to get Bill and Bob on the team, Riley needed to cut somebody from the Minnesota side of the equation. That final cut turned out to be Herb Brooks, the coach who would lead the 1980 ‘Miracle On Ice’ team to Olympic gold.
‘Every coach has to drop someone, and he was the only forward who had not played in Europe, so I went with more of a veteran team,’ Riley said of the decision to cut Brooks.
So, there they were. With the Cleary brothers manning one line and their Minnesota counterparts, Bill and Roger Christian, manning another, the Americans went undefeated through the tournament. Inthe medal round, they first beat Canada then the Soviet Union and finished off the gold medal with a win over Czechoslovakia. (The medal round of international competition was round-robin and not elimination style until 1988.)
Like the 2010 U.S. team, the 1960 version was young and talented and had a hot goaltender in McCartan. The Americans marched through the early rounds, knocking of Czechoslovakia, Australia, Germany and Sweden before the big showdown with Canada.
‘Don’t forget that we were a group of young kids. And we had a chance to win a gold medal and that was the only focus that we had our eyes on,’ Bill Cleary said.
And so they did.
‘Every game that we won it became evident more and more that we had a shot to win that gold medal,’ Bill Cleary said. ‘And we weren’t going to let any little petty things get in our way.’
The fateful moments arrived. The United States jumped on Canada with two goals in the first period and held on, with McCartan making 32 saves in the final two periods.
‘Anytime that we played Canada we were underdogs. For us to do what we did ‘¦ that was pretty good,’ Riley said.
The Canadians were stunned.
‘It was a big shock in 1960 to get beat by a team that was probably ranked fourth of fifth in the tournament,’ former Bruins president Harry Sinden, a player on that Canadian team, said in the documentary.
The Americans scored first against Russia but fell behind 2-1 in the second period before tying it and winning on a Bill Christian goal in the third.
The Americans’ game was played the next morning at 8 a.m. mostly because nobody thought it would be the gold medal-determining game. Against Czechoslovakia, the United States entered the third period down 4-3 before a six-goal explosion, including a natural hat trick by Roger Christian, sealed the tournament.
‘I think a lot of us were skating two feet off the ice because we knew we had that opportunity and we were not going to be denied,’ Bill Cleary said.
Then it was over. It seemed as if the day after the gold medal game, the world had forgotten about the miraculous win.
‘There were 17 guys on that team that know what we did. So, you know what? It is in the records books, so we don’t have to explain anything. Bill Cleary said. ‘They were great moments for us and we were the first to win a gold medal for this country.’