Russian wins ice hockey gold
China Xinhua News

 

It went, miraculously, to overtime.

No one thought it would. No one believed the Germans, 66:1 bet to win gold in PyeongChang, would stay competitive with the Russian men in the ice hockey finals. In the end, in sudden-death overtime, Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov took a pass from Nikita Gusev and blasted a shot into the net to end Germany’s incredible run, and take the game 4-3.

Team OAR won gold. Team Germany won silver….a most unexpected silver.

After losing their first two games in the tournament, Team Germany started winning, and then defeated Sweden in overtime 4-3, and Canada 4-3 in the semifinals, setting up their improbable match against the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR). Germany had never been to a finals before, and were happily aware that a silver medal was still all gravy.

But they realized early on, they had a chance for gold. At 16:44 of the third period, Jonas Muller took a pass from Yasin Ehliz, held the puck looking for an opening, and then rocketed a shot into the net. Germany led 3-2. All they had to do was hold on for a little over 3 minutes to achieve their first ever gold medal.

Thirty seconds later, Russia got called for a penalty. Could it really be that easy? Did they really believe in miracles?

With only a minute 11 seconds left in the game, the Russian goalie, Vasili Koshechkin, went to the bench. Players on the ice were five on five, but the Russian net was empty. Then, at a most inopportune time, the Germans had a brain cramp. As they approached the Russian blue line, the Germans dumped the puck, essentially handing the puck back to the Russians. They could have passed it back towards their own zone, and killed off more precious seconds, but instead, the Germans gave up control of the puck to the Russians.

And they took advantage.

The Russians carried it into the German zone, and you could feel an opportunity building. The puck came loose to the left of the German goalie, and the Russian forward, Gusev swatted at the puck, somehow knocking in a shorthanded goal, with only 55 seconds left in the game to tie the match.

As NBC analyst Mike Milbury intoned, “Just when you thought it was destiny for Germany….”

When the game goes to overtime, they play four on four, which is thought to be an advantage for the better skating, better passing team. That would be the Russians. And while Team OAR did not dominate, they made the great passes when they needed, the final snap pass to Kaprizov putting an end to an incredible ice hockey finals.

So for a second time in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympiad, we saw the raising of the Olympic Flag in place of the Russian flag, and the Olympic anthem playing in place of the Russian anthem.

But you could sense that the crowd and the players were singing a different song.

The Russians didn’t care. They won one of the most incredible Olympic ice hockey finals ever. And they were the champions.

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Germany celebrates victory over Canada
German players celebrate their Olympic men’s hockey semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

When the USA upset the Soviet Union in the semi-finals of the men’s ice hockey tournament at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, it was dubbed “The Miracle on Ice”.

Maybe we can call the 2018 version “Das Wunder auf Eis”.

Germany shocked Canada 4-3 on Friday, February 23 at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. It was the first time that Team Canada, both men and women, failed to win gold in an Olympiad since 1998.

“Crazy, just crazy,” said German coach, Marco Sturm. “It’s unbelievable, what the team achieved. We had never before been in a situation in which we had been under positive pressure before. We had to stay cool. This is unique. The lads need to savor it.”

Equally shocked were Canadians. Here’s the first line of The Vancouver Sun’s article, “Dark Day for Canadian Hockey.”

The worst possible outcome for an Olympic team without NHL players landed like a spear to the gut in an embarrassing night for Canadian hockey Friday at the Gangneung Hockey Arena.

Canada has won gold in ice hockey three of the last four Winter Olympics. In the past 29 meetings between the two nations, Germany had won only once, and had lost the previous 11 matches. Ice hockey is essentially Canada’s national pastime, and there are over 630,000 registered hockey players in that country. By contrast, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are only some 20,600 registered hockey players in Germany.

This was a huge upset.

As German defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff, said in his interview with Pierre McGuire of NBC, “It’s unbelievable. I am out of words. Right now, it’s such a huge day for German hockey. So proud right now.”

“Is it fair to say this is the German 1980?” asked McGuire.

“I can agree with that,” replied Ehrhoff. “No one really had us on the list. For us we’re just living a dream, day by day right now. The ride continues. It’s just amazing. Everybody is already so proud of us already. Everything that’s coming now, it’s just a bonus. For us to guarantee ourselves a medal, it’s….wow.”

Team Germany celebrate victory over Team Canada 2
German players celebrate their semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Brendan Smalowski / AFP / Getty Images

Germany was an overwhelming underdog, but they took advantage. And in hindsight, the circumstances that brought the men’s hockey players to the PyeongChang, may have worked in Germany’s favor.

The second biggest hockey league in the world is the KHL, and the bulk of the Russian squad is made of KHL players, which allowed their players to participate. That is probably a good reason why the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR) squad is in the finals of the men’s ice hockey championship.

The NHL, the biggest and best professional hockey league in the world, forbade their players from participating in the Olympics this year. That heavily impacted most of the other competitive hockey nations, particularly those from North American and Scandinavia. Germany, which is far from being considered an ice hockey power, which did not even qualify at the Sochi Olympics, only had 10 Germans in the NHL. So, as this article states, perhaps “the absence of the NHLers has not hurt the Germans as much as most.”

A lot of credit is given to the German coach for raising the level of play of the German team. Sturm, who played nearly 1,000 games in the NHL over 14 seasons with 6 teams, took over the German national team in 2015. According to this DW article, written after Germany upset #1 seed, Sweden (4-3), the German players have responded well to the retired NHLer who had lived in the States the previous 20 years. As they began to win, they began to attract more and better players, and come together as a team.

Compared to many of the teams that had previously relied on NHL players, like the Canadian and American squads that came together only weeks before, the German players, on the whole, have played together for years leading up to PyeongChang.

The Canadian team members were announced on January 11, a little less than a month before the start of the PyeongChang Olympiad, so there was little chance for the team to gel. Even though Team Canada had some momentum into the match with Germany, having shut out both Korea and Finland, anything can happen in short tournaments. Even miracles.

Ice hockey coaches are trained to be emotionless when talking about their teams, unmoving anchors in the shifting winds of a storm, particularly before their teams have won it all. But when McGuire ended an interview of Coach Sturm, saying, “We’re going to see you on Sunday afternoon in a gold medal game. Marco Sturm, Congratulations,” Sturm’s face exploded in glee, and he wrapped his arm around McGuire in a big hug, giggling like a schoolboy who just pulled off the greatest practical joke of all time on his teacher.

Germany is no joke. They play the Russians for gold.

Team Korea Scores
Korean forward Randi Heesoo Griffin (No. 37) celebrates her goal against Japan during the teams’ Group B contest in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 14, 2018. (Yonhap)

Team Japan had lost their two matches by 3-1 and 2-1. Team Korea got walloped by the same teams (Sweden and Switzerland) 8-0 in both games.

Thus it’s safe to say that most money was on Team Japan in this grudge match between Japan and Korea, played on Valentine’s Day 2018 in Kwandong Hockey Arena. Would there be bad blood on the ice between the two geo-political rivals?

To be honest, other than what was written in the press about Japan-Korea relations, there was no bad blood. There may have been little interest in this game in Korea, a country without a hockey history. In the Korean barbecue restaurant where I was dining and watching the game, I may have been the only person of some 20-30 people actually watching.

As for Team Korea, made up of members from both North and South Korea, all they wanted, possibly, was just to score a goal, their first goal.

Japan lived it up to the prognostications early.

Defenseman Ayaka Toko sent a nice feed from behind the net to forward Hanae Kubo for the score at only 1 minutes 7 seconds into the match. Then shortly after forward Shoko Ono knocked in a rebound during a power play to make it 2-0 Japan over Korea within the first four minutes of play.

Would it build to 8-0 as the other games had?

Fortunately, for Team Korea, the two teams were more closely matched in power, speed and skill levels than they were compared to Swedes and the Swiss. It stayed 2-0 Japan through the first period, and half of the second.

That’s when history was made. Here’s the NBC announcer’s call:

Brought in by Marissa Brandt. Some room for Randi Heesoo Griffin…and the shot…THEY SCORE!!! Korea! It’s in! Randi Heesoo Griffin and let the celebration begin!

Griffin, who was born in North Carolina to a Korean mother and an American father, took a pass from Marissa Brandt, a Korean-born adoptee of American parents, and scored at 9:31 of the second period. Japan goaltender, Akane Konishi, had her right leg lined up to stop Griffin’s weak shot but for some reason, moved her leg down and away to create an opening for the puck to sneak through.

Weak shot, strong shot – it doesn’t matter. If it goes in, it’s a goal.

And it was a historic goal. Just before start of play resumed, an official secured the puck for posterity. This piece of hard rubber is headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Martin Hyun, deputy sport manager for hockey at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, made sure.

“If the puck was still in play and gone, the historic puck would be gone forever,” Hyun told Yonhap News Agency. “I ran and made my voice heard that the puck has to come and stay.”

In the end Japan won its only game 4-1.

But Korea made history.

Women's Ice Hockey_Sweden vs Korea 2
Korean women’s hockey forward Park Jong-ah (2nd from L) attempts a shot against Swedish goalie Sara Grahn during the teams’ Group B game in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 12, 2018. (Yonhap)

After their shellacking to #6 Switzerland on Saturday, February 10, the women of Team Korea took on #5 Sweden on Monday, February 12.

The score was the same: 8-0.

And yet, to me, the level of play was different. Team Korea wasn’t a mass of five players on the ice scrambling around their zone desperately trying to keep up, as they were against the Swiss. This time, they looked a little bit more in control.

They weren’t able to deal with a Swedish offense that was stronger, faster and more skilled – thus the eight goals surrendered. Sweden had 50 shots on goal, two short of what Switzerland had, so the Korean goaltender must have felt she was stuck in an endless loop of shooting drills.

However, Monday’s Team Korea was more confident on offense. Their passes were quicker and crisper. They hesitated less and shot more. And they were visibly better on the power play, passing quickly, creating space, and making shots. In the game against Switzerland, they managed 8 shots, almost all of them wafflers and slow rollers. Against Sweden, Team Korea rifled shots on net, and excited the crowd into oohs and aahs with more than a few nifty deflections that barely missed the net.

Women's Ice Hockey_Sweden vs Korea 1
Anna Borgqvist of Sweden (L) and Kim Hee-won of Korea battle for a loose puck during the teams’ Group B game in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 12, 2018. (Yonhap)

Team Korea had 19 shots on goal, each one of them building the anticipation. The Korean play-by-play announcer got so caught up in the possibility, he kept shouting “Shoot! Shoot!” when a shot looked like it was lining up. But it’s not just the announcer. The entire nation is in a state of suspended anticipation.

Korea takes on Japan on Wednesday, which should be an exciting match just for the natural rivalry the two countries have. Japan also lost to Sweden and Switzerland, but their losses were close: 2-1 against Sweden and 3-1 against Switzerland. The speedy Japanese team will be looking to win their first against the overmatched Koreans.

Forget winning. For Korea, the goal is a goal. Just one.

Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

For the hottest game on ice, the players and owners have entered into a cold war of sorts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the press that no meetings have been arranged with the International Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of NHL players competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018.

The NHL schedule and the Winter Olympics schedule overlap every four years. In order to convince he NHL to release its players in the middle of the NHL hockey season, the IOC agreed to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodation of these professional hockey players. The insurance is a key component because it protects the NHL teams against an injury to a star player who could impact team success and/or team revenue for years to come. For the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the IOC sent some USD7 million to the NHL, something the IOC does not do for other sports leagues. The IOC has done so for the past five Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but this year the IOC announced they would not pay the NHL for players to come.

Bettman stated that without IOC financial support, it’s unlikely the owners would support. “We don’t make money going [to the Olympics]. I can’t imagine the NHL owners are going to pay for the privilege of shutting down for 17 days. I just don’t see that.”

However, the star players in the NHL view the Winter Olympics as a matter of prestige and pride. The very best players like Canadian Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Russian Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have said they intend to go, Ovechkin going as far to say he would go without the NHL’s permission. And as mentioned in this Ottawa Citizen article, the owners will listen to their stars.

When Alex Ovechkin said he was going to the Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing, it didn’t take long for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to stand behind his star. And why wouldn’t he? Ovechkin is the face of the team. He not only helps the team win games, he puts fans in seats.

Major League Baseball stands in contrast to the NHL. Currently, the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball championship series taking place in March, 2017, has the full commitment and support of MLB. And while the major league players from big-time baseball nations of Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Korea are heavily involved in the World Baseball Classic, Team USA is bereft of its stars. In contrast to the NHL players, the Americans have little to no interest in participating.

Now, the World Baseball Classic is not the same at the Olympics. And when baseball returns to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely want to ensure his league’s best players are at the Summer Games. Growing the international market for baseball will be a big priority for Manfred. But he has yet to gain consensus with team owners on how to make it work for the MLB when the Olympics will take place in the middle of the 2020 MLB season. Injuries and lost revenue to lost games will certainly be in the minds of the owners.

Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner
Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner

According to this Sports Illustrated article, there are two possible options to make it work: allow the season to continue without interruption, and just free up the players selected to their respective national teams, or shut down the MLB season for, say two-and-a-half weeks, like the NHL has done in the past.

The NBA, on the other, other hand, has had the distinct advantage of holding a primarily Fall-Winter-Spring season, while the Olympics tend to fall in the summer, the basketball off season. Traditionally, the NBA has promoted its brand and players globally, and have been a model for building a global business. Their commitment to the Olympics is thus considerable. The issue has been ensuring that the richest and greatest athletes in the world stay motivated enough to train and risk injury during their time off.

The US men’s team took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and were dubbed “The Nightmare Team”. It didn’t bode well when the superstars of the league, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett begged off of the team, and Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were out with injuries.

After the team’s embarrassing finish in Athens, Team USA appointed Jerry Colangelo to take charge of team selection. His job was to persuade the NBA’s best American players that it was their duty to restore pride and glory to men’s basketball in the international arena.

Colangelo convinced such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade not only to join Team USA for the 2008 Seoul Olympics, he got them to commit to playing together for three years leading up to the Olympics. Under Colangelo’s leadership and the coaching of Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA dominated at the 2008 Seoul Olympics to easily win gold. They’ve done so ever since.

Summary:

  • NHL: League and Owners not committed; Players committed
  • MLB: League committed; Owners not yet committed; American players not committed, but world players committed
  • NBA: League committed; Owners committed; Players committed

1984-united-states-hockey-team

They met the President of the United States even before the Olympics began. Before they set foot in Sarajevo, the 1984 Men’s Ice Hockey Team were treated to festive events and meals, honored in so many towns where they played exhibitions as if they had already won the gold medal.

It’s hard for me to recall, but I suppose I and many other Americans had very high expectations for the 1984 squad. Our memories of the “Miracle on Ice”, proclaimed so emphatically by play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, were seared into our mind’s eyes. We can still today see the team throw their sticks and gear into the air, leaping into each other’s arms as the crowd (and an entire nation) exploded in unrestrained glee.

The 1980 team crept slowly into our consciousness with an amazing buzzer-beating goal to tie Sweden in their first game in Lake Placid, an amazing upset of the Soviet Union in the semi-final match, culminating in yet another come-from-behind victory for gold against Finland. This team proved that David could slay Goliath, assuming David was American. So, of course the 1984 team was destined for greatness and glory.

And the 1984 team sported a few great players, now Hall of Famers, like center Pat LaFontaine drafted by The New York Islanders, goalie Tom Barrasso drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, center Eddie Olczyk drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, and defenseman Chris Chelios drafted by the Montreal Canadiens . They even had two players from the 1980 Miracle-on-Ice team, John Harrington and Phil Verchota.

As Bob Brooke, a forward on the 1984 team wrote for the New York Times, “We rode the crest of a media wave all year, basking in the sunshine of little boys and girls tugging at our coattails for autographs, drinking in the prospects of appearing in commercials and [on] posters.”

But the expectations were too great for the 1984 team. How could they possibly replicate the story of the 1980 team, their rise from nowhere to become a rallying cry for Americans, pained by the beatings they were getting internationally (hostage crisis in Iran) as well as domestically (an economic “malaise”).

Even their coach, Lou Vairo, a virtual unknown who had more experience with roller hockey than ice hockey, thought that equaling the 1980 team’s success would be an even bigger miracle, according to this great article by Jeff Pearlman, called “A Miracle Put on Ice“.

“How can you replicate that magic?” Vairo says. “You can’t.”

Those are not words Herb Brooks, head coach of the 1980 team, would ever have slipped from his lips.

Team Canada
Team Canada celebrate a goal during hockey action against the United States at the 1984 Winter
And yet, Brooks was not there to exhort the 1984 team to greatness. While it’s true the American team was routing the opposition in the exhibition matches leading up to the Sarajevo Games, once the Olympics began, the Team of Great Expectations faded immediately. First, they lost to Canada 4-2. Then to Czechoslovakia 4-1. And that was essentially the end of any Miracle redux. The team fought on, managing a 3-3 tie with Norway, routing Austria 7-3, before finishing weakly with a tie against Finland.

There would be no banquets. There would be no visit to the White House. Instead, there would be scorn, as Pearlman wrote:

The players were branded “disappointments,” “slackers,” and “overrated.” In a scathing piece for the Dallas Times Herald, columnist Skip Bayless wrote, “It wouldn’t have been quite so embarrassing if our kids had been half as good as their hype.” Vairo, in particular, caught most of the heat. He was in over his head. He was no Brooks. His style was too basic. He was an amateur. “I can tell you it didn’t hurt,” he says. “But it did. Of course it did. I’m human.”

Sasson and El Shehaby
Or Sasson of Israel extending a hand to fellow judoka Islam El Shehaby of Egypt, to no avail.

The man in blue lay on the mat, a victim of a well-played seoi-nage, staring at his fingers for over ten seconds, while the man in white stood waiting.

When they faced each other, the Israeli, Or Sasson (in white) looked to the referee and bowed to the Egyptian, Islam El Shehaby (in blue). El Shehaby did not return the bow, which is essentially a requirement at the end of a judo bout. Sasson, who eventually won bronze in the  +100kg class, then walked up to El Shehaby and extended his hand, but the Egyptian judoka turned away and refused to shake his hand.

Was this a personal gripe? Was this a geo-political spat? However you look at it, El Shehaby earned significant points in quest of the title of Rio’s Biggest Sore Loser.

Close behind is American goaltender, Hope Solo, who was in net when the vaunted and heavily favored US women’s soccer squad lost to Sweden on penalty kicks. She was rightly proud of her team for showing “a lot of heart” for coming back to tie Sweden 1-1 late in the match, but then lost control of her emotions (again) by saying post-match that the Swedes played like “bunch of cowards.”

When we perform at the highest levels and win, win so often that losing is hard to come to grips with, words and actions can sometimes be unpredictable at best, shameful at worst. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, reigning champion in men’s figure skating, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, lost to American, Evan Lysack. Plushenko’s reaction: “I was positive I won. I suppose Evan needs a medal more than I do. Maybe it’s because I already have one.”

Back in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, South Korean boxer Dong Kih Choh was suddenly disqualified in the first round of his bout against Stanislaw Sorokin of the Soviet Union. He was so peeved that he grabbed a chair, and refused to leave the ring for about an hour.

Dong Kih Choh 1
Dong Kih Choh, south Korean Featherweight, from XVIII Olympiad Volume 10

And then there is the infamous American ice hockey squad. In 1996, the NHL and the IOC came to an agreement that enabled NHL pros to participate in the Olympics. At the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the Americans, which included such stars as Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, performed miserably, winning only one game against a weak Belarus squad. After getting thumped by the Czech squad, the eventual gold medalists, the Americans are said to have washed away their sorrows in alcohol. Not sated by liquor, they turned to vandalism: smashing chairs, chucking fire extinguishers off the balcony, and causing several thousand dollars in damage. Equally distasteful  – no one on the team acknowledged any bad behavior.

A few weeks later, team captain Chris Chelios sent the Nagano Olympic committee a check for $3,000, and wrote in a letter, “I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the people of Japan, the Japanese Olympic committee, the USOC, and to all hockey fans throughout the world. Bitter frustration at our own level of play caused a few team members to vent their anger in a way which is not in the tradition of NHL/Olympic sportsmanship.”

Well, at least they apologized.

I kinda doubt we’ll see an apology from El Shehaby and Solo…..

Adam Scott
Adam Scott of Australia

Golf is returning to the Olympic stage in 2016, the first time since the third Olympics in 1904.

And yet, some big names in the game are declining their invitations: 3-time majors winner Vijay Singh of Fiji, World # 7 Adam Scott of Australia, and World #12 Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.

And it’s possible they won’t be the only ones. While Singh cited fear over contracting the zika virus in Brazil, Scott explained that adding the Olympics to the already congested PGA Tour will make for an exhausting schedule. According to this article, “the PGA Tour has had to cram the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, British Open and PGA Championship into a five-week window because of the Olympics. And, two weeks after the Olympics end, the FedEx Cup playoffs begin. Two weeks after those are done, the Ryder Cup will be contested.”

In other words, ensuring they are in top condition for the tournaments that count are key to many of the top pro golfers.

Professional ice hockey players, perhaps many of them, may be having an opposite reaction. Ice hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1920, and countries like the United States, the Soviet Union and former members of that nation, and Canada have had epic battles in the Olympic Games over the decades.

Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

Professional ice hockey players, particularly those from the National Hockey League, were allowed to represent their national teams at the Olympics, starting from the Nagano Winter Games in 1998. But because the NHL and the owners of the team were worried about disruption to the NHL schedule as well as injuries, it was decided that the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) would foot the bill for transportation and insurance costs. For the Sochi Games in 2014, that was a combined USD$32 million!

The IOC, which provided USD$14 million of that bill for Sochi, just announced that they would not pay those costs to ensure the participation of NHL players at the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018. Said Rene Fasel, president of the IIHF in this sportsnet article, “Our wish is to have the best players. [But the IOC] not covering the cost as they did at the last five Olympic Games puts us in a difficult financial situation.”

Immediately after this announcement, one of the NHL’s biggest stars, Alex Ovechkin, announced that he would join his Russian National Team for the PyeongChang Olympics regardless of the NHL’s decision. It’s likely that many of his colleagues in the NHL will have similar feelings.

Why the difference in reaction towards the Olympics? I’d have to speculate. But here are a couple of possible reasons:

  1. History: ice hockey and the Olympics have a long and emotional history. The Olympics are considered the pinnacle of achievement for many ice hockey players, even beyond the NHL Stanley Cup championship. Golf has practically no history in the Olympics.
  2. Rigors/Value of the Schedule: The Olympics happen at the time in the NHL schedule where teams are jockeying for playoff spots. But since the NHL controls the schedule, they can suspend the schedule for all teams, which makes it an even playing field for all teams. In the professional golf tour, as has been true with the professional tennis tour, those individuals who participate in the Olympics may lose out on opportunities to play in tournaments that will be more lucrative and perhaps perceived to be more important. When tennis returned to the Olympics in 1984, many of the best players did not compete.
1980 US ice hockey team locker
1980 US ice hockey team locker

It was February 22, 1980. The American men’s ice hockey team were in a locker room in upstate New York, preparing for a game against the Soviet Union in the Olympic Winter Games. Bill Cleary was the head coach of ice hockey power, Harvard University, and he stopped by the locker room to wish his friend, Coach Herb Brooks, good luck. They talked, and then Cleary left the room.

“Then I see the trainer chasing after me and says Herb wants me to go back in to talk to the boys. So I went back and this is what I said: ‘I know what’s going through your mind. You feel isolated here in upper state New York, oblivious of what’s going on in the rest of the world. But you have captivated our entire country and everyone is pulling for you. There are 20 guys pulling for you more than anyone. And that’s the 1960 team. There is only one outcome. You’re going to win!'”

To Cleary, member of the 1960 US ice hockey team, the first American team to win gold in the Olympics, being an Olympian is an honor. When he attended his first Olympics in 1956 in Cortina Italy, he remembers being 21, a kid who never left Boston thrust into the incredible beauty of the majestic Alps. “I thought the sky was so beautiful and was so close it was going to come down on you. Heaven was right there. And we were marching in the parade during the opening ceremony, not long after World War Two and the Korean War, and in came the Russians, the ogres.” But they weren’t there to fight. They were there to compete in sports. “That’s what makes the Olympics so special,” said Cleary. “Olympians can do more for world peace and good will than all the politicians in the world.”

(L-R): Bill Cleary, Dick Meredith, Weldy Olson, Dick Rodenhiser, and John Mayasich were on the 1956 and 1960 US teams
(L-R): Bill Cleary, Dick Meredith, Weldy Olson, Dick Rodenhiser, and John Mayasich were on the 1956 and 1960 US teams

But Cleary believes being an Olympian is also an obligation, an obligation to demonstrate a bond across nationalities and generations, to continuously uphold an Olympic spirit. He remembers the performance and the behavior of the US Men’s ice hockey team at the 1998 Nagano Games. He didn’t like the addition of professional athletes, but when they reacted to poor performance at the Games by vandalizing the locker room, he was miffed. “I was really upset about that. They should have been proud to compete, but instead they were burning their uniforms. We are Olympians. We should take great pride when we represent our country.”

In contrast, Cleary remembers a time in Czechoslovakia he will never forget. In 1983 Coach Cleary took his Harvard hockey team over to Prague. It was Christmas time, but you could tell the locals were having a tough time, he said. On the second to last night of this tour, the interpreter informed him that a fellow Olympian from the 1960 Czech ice hockey team wanted to see him. And when they pulled into a small coal-mining town called Koln, Cleary stepped off the bus to be greeted by Czech goaltender, Vladimir Dvoracek.

“And all of a sudden Dvoracek, he sees me, and shouts ‘Bill, Bill!’ He brings me inside to a room and says ‘coffee, beer, coke?’ He wanted to know what my life was like, about my teammates, about the US. It was almost like he was interrogating me, he had so many questions. Finally, I said I got to go and prepare the team for the game. We warm up, and at the end of the warmups, they play the national anthems. I see my friend Dvoracek and he grabs the microphone. He tells the audience, ‘I want you all to welcome my good friend Bill Cleary. We have not seen each other in 25 years. Our countries are not friendly, but we are friends. We are Olympians and we are friends.’ I am getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it.”

Czech goaltender, Vladimir Dvoracek, sits in the front row, fourth from the left.
Czech goaltender, Vladimir Dvoracek, sits in the front row, fourth from the left.

After the game they met again, and Dvoracek brings out a scrapbook with pictures of his hockey career until it comes time for me to leave. “He was sad, kind of tearful that I was

Bob (14) and Bill (7) Cleary
Bob (14) and Bill (7) Cleary

The team was set. Nobody on the team wanted the new guys. So when Bill and Bob Cleary joined the US ice hockey team at the deadline, just prior to the start of the Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley California, their reception was, well, icy. “When we arrived on the rink in Denver, the other players walked by us without saying a word,” Bill Cleary told me recently.

“I thought, well, this is going to be fun.”

The brothers Cleary were members of the US ice hockey team and Olympic champions, not in 1980 – the Miracle on Ice- but in 1960, the so-called “Forgotten Miracle”. While Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, and Mark Johnson became house-hold names at Lake Placid in New York, by beating the Russians on their way to gold and glory, the 1960 US ice hockey team did that first.

Captain Jack Kirrane, star goaltender Jack McCartan, John Mayasich, the Christian brothers, and the Cleary brothers shocked the hockey world by knocking off perennial powers Canada, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in succession. The Cleary brothers alone accounted for 24 points in the seven Olympic games, and they weren’t even on the team two weeks before.

As Bill told me, they were businessmen first. He and his brother Bob were just starting a fledging insurance company. Bob was married and Bill was soon to be. Playing in the Olympics would have meant lost revenue. But the coach of the US team, Jack Riley, was heading a team that was struggling, losing to teams across the country. So Riley was persistent. “He kept calling me. I don’t know how many, but quite a few. I finally said, if you want to take me, you have to take Bobby too. Bobby was good, the leading collegiate scorer in the country, and was on the 1959 World Championship US team.”

Coach Riley convinced Bill Cleary to join, and with him came his brother Bob. This led to two cuts from the team, one very famous one – Herb Brooks – the eventual coach of the 1980 US team. But this decision proved decisive. Once the brothers Cleary joined, the team did not lose a single match prior to or during the Olympics.

Bob Cleary passed away a month ago, on September 16.

“Bobby was a classic centerman,” said his brother Bill. “He had a great ability to know where people were on the ice, a sixth sense. And he smelled the net. In the game against the Canadians, he scored the first goal. If you ever watch the game, he won the face off, and when Mayasich passed toward the net, Bobby was prone in the air when he chipped the puck into the net.”

Bill and Bob Cleary were brothers on the team, but when they first arrived on the team, as remarked on earlier, there was no brotherly love for them. It took one game in the Olympics to turn that around, according to Bill. “When we first got on the ice for the first game, my brother passed it to me. I shot the puck and it hit the other winger, and the puck went into the net. There’s a great picture of the three of us hugging each other. And when we started to win, it got better.

“Today, you would never know we had those problems in the early days. We’re all very close today.”

Many remember the 1980 Men’s Ice Hockey Team. But we cannot forget the 1960 team. Here’s the trailer of the film, “Forgotten Miracle”, depicting the journey of that pioneering American hockey team.