Photo credit: sportshistoryweekly.com
“The Miracle on Ice” will forever be associated with Team USA’s stunning upset of the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics. What is not so well known is the original “miracle” that took place twenty years prior to that.
“Do you believe in miracles”? Al Michaels classic call at the completion of the Miracle on Ice will forever be a part of the American sports lexicon. If he had been at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, he could have shouted the same line as on February 28th, 1960 Team USA completed the first, if not so well known, miracle on ice to win the first Olympic hockey gold medal in American history.
Much like the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, the 1960 team was not expected to be anywhere near contention for a gold medal. Made up entirely of amateur players, this team was captained by 31-year-old Jack Kirrane, who made his living as a firefighter. Also on the team were brothers Bill and Roger Christian, who would later gain fame as the founders of the Christian Stick Company – anyone who played hockey in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s is certainly familiar with those hockey sticks. Interestingly enough, the coach of the 1980 team, Herb Brooks, was the last player to be cut from this team in the tryouts stage.
The games were played in the semi-open-air Blyth Arena, which was 6,200 feet above sea level (interesting side note, these games also featured the first time a Zamboni Ice Resurfacing Machine was used at the Olympics). The Soviet Union and Canada were heavy favorites to win it all, with Sweden and Czechoslovakia expected to contend as well. Team USA beat Australia, and then in the first of their surprise victories, they defeated Czechoslovakia to make it out of the preliminary round. After these two games, they would stun the hockey world by beating among others the mighty Soviet Union and Canada to make the gold medal game to once again face the Czechs. This game, which started at 8 am PST, was a back and forth battle through the first two periods which Team Czechoslovakia led 4-3 at the end of the second period. The following is a passage from the book 99 Stories of the Game, by Wayne Gretzky – a book that I highly recommend for anyone who likes hockey history.
In the second intermission, a very strange thing happened. The captain of the Russian team, Nikolai Sologubov, came into the US dressing room. This was just never done. He couldn’t speak English, but kept putting his hand over his mouth. American captain Jack Kirrane figured out what he was saying. He was telling them to take some oxygen to combat the 6,200 feet altitiude at Squaw Valley. As a firefighter it made sense to Kirrane. He said “ok Solly, bring it in”. Sologubov rolled a tank in the room and a few players tried it.From the book 99 Stories of the Game, by Wayne Gretzky.
This wasn’t done as any great favor to the Americans. If Czechoslovakia won, the Soviet Union would finish in fourth place, whereas if the United States won, the Soviet Union would at least get the bronze medal. Regardless of the motive, it was a rare moment of cooperation between the US and the USSR during the Cold War.
Sologubov was onto something, as the United States would score six goals in the third period to rout the Czechs 9-4 and win its first gold medal. Unlike the grand medal ceremonies of today, only Kirrane as captain of the team received a gold medal right after the game. The rest of the team found their medals on their beds in the bunkroom.