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Throwback: Unfancied USA take a breather to lift unlikely ice hockey gold at Squaw Valley

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 4: 1960 U.S. Olympic Gold Medal hockey players Dick Meredith, John Mayasich and Jack McCartan speak during the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Minneapolis Marriott City Center on December 4, 2014 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Being the underdog… on home soil

 

February 28, 1960

The USA men’s ice hockey team seemingly went into their home Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley 1960 as also-rans.

They had never claimed gold before, never beaten defending champions Russia and had just completed an uninspiring 18-game tour of the States that yielded 10 wins, four draws and four defeats.

 

The golden road

But buoyed on by a raucous home crowd, a tremendous team spirit and some unlikely help from a Russian player, they turned the predictions proved the doubters wrong.

The opening game gave a taste of things to come, with the hosts beating the fancied Czech team 7-5. After that they built more momentum, seeing off neighbours Canada – who had won six of the eight Olympic titles to date – in the medal round.

Then in the semi-finals they saw off defending champions Russia in a match given even more significance because of Cold War tensions between the countries.

Standing between them and gold in the final were the Czechs, who had bounced back from that opening defeat. The match was watched by a noisy crowd of 8,500 in the open air Blyth Arena in Squaw Valley, as well as a television audience of millions.

 

Coming from behind

After the first two periods, the Americans were 4-3 down and had it not been for outstanding goaltender Jack McCartan, they would have been further behind. The players were feeling weary at the break when an unlikely visitor came into their locker room – the Russian star Nikolai Sologubov.

“When he put his hand over his mouth we realised he was trying to convince us to take oxygen,” Bill Cleary remembered.

With the arena a mile above sea level, the Russian reckoned this could give the Americans the boost they needed. The story has gone down in folklore, although there must be some doubt about whether this was really the key for the Americans.

“They brought the oxygen,” McCartan said. “Some of the guys took it, some didn’t.”

One of those who didn’t, Roger Christian, scored three goals in the final period as a resurgent US team swept their opponents aside, scoring six unanswered goals to win 9-4.

Captain Jack Kirrane accepted gold on behalf of his team at the medal ceremony. Afterwards he returned to his job as a firefighter and only two of the team went on to make it to the NHL.

“When it was over, we all went back to our lives,” Cleary said. “That’s the way we wanted it.”

But the achievements have never been forgotten and the team were finally inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000 (above).

 

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