Quiet Pride Defines 1960 Gold Medalist
Feb. 23, 2010
"Forgotten Miracle" is a documentary which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the accomplishments of the 1960 US Olympic Team, the first United States hockey team to win an a gold medal at the Olympic Games. Two Spartans, Weldy Olson and Gene Grazia, played for MSU in the early days of the Amo Bessone regime, then went on to make US Olympic history. The documentary chronicling the 1960 US team's unbeaten run to the gold medal was released on Dec. 7, 2009.
Members of the 1960 US Olympic Team (L-R): Weldy Olson, Edwyn Owen, Rodney Paavola and Gene Grazia. Olson was one of Amo Bessone's first recruits, and represented the United States in two Olympic Games.
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The buzz has barely died down from the United States beating Canada in Olympic hockey on Sunday evening. It was not only exciting, but historic - it was the first US Olympic victory over its neighbors from the north since 1960.
Sitting at home in Findlay, Ohio, former Spartan and 1956 and 1960 Olympian Weldy Olson had a keen appreciation for what Team USA accomplished. After all - he was a member of the only other Olympic teams to defeat the Canadians at their national game.
The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" has become an iconic part of US Olympic history, retold in recent years through the Disney movie "Miracle". We've watched countless television tributes during this year's Olympic coverage, checking in on the American heroes 30 years after shocking the world, when they defeated the heavily-favored Russians before downing Finland to capture gold.
We don't hear much, however, about a golden anniversary - it was 50 years ago when the United States first captured an Olympic gold medal in ice hockey. A recently-released documentary, however, sheds light on the first "miracle" team- the 1960 squad which downed heavily-favored Canada, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and the Soviet Union en route to gold at Squaw Valley.
Two Spartans - Gene Grazia and Olson - were on that 1960 team; Olson won silver with the 1956 team in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy as well - and until this past Sunday, those two teams were the only US teams to down their neighbors to the north in Olympic play.
The world was a different place in 1960 - and so were the Olympics. The participants took four-month leaves of absence from their jobs and families to train at West Point, traveling around the States to play exhibitions against college and senior teams to prepare for the games. Once the games were over, they went back to their jobs - Olson was in the Air Force, captain Jack Kirrane a Boston firefighter, the Cleary brothers (Bill and Bob) back to their fledgling insurance business, and Minnesota's Christian brothers (Bill and Roger) returning home to their work as carpenters.
Today's hockey fans complain that the hockey airs on MSNBC instead of the parent network, and (gasp!) some people cannot get the broadcast in high definition. By contrast, the 1960 Olympic Games were the first-ever to air on television in the United States, and fans nationwide got anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes of daily coverage from Squaw Valley, peaking at the three hour-block on Saturday, Feb. 27, when Team USA downed the Soviet Union in the hockey semifinal.
How many people watched the gold medal game the following day, the biggest hockey game in our nation's history to that point? Zero. It was played at 8 am. The CBS television broadcast aired from 2-5 p.m. and featured the 80-meter ski jump and closing ceremonies.
The 1960 Olympians returned to their lives to be private citizens. The 2010 Olympians will return to their lives as NHL stars. That wasn't an option for the 1960 version - with just six Canadian-dominated teams at the time, college players didn't continue their careers in the NHL.
The 1960 and 1980 teams share the bond of winning gold on their home turf - 1960 in Squaw Valley, and 1980 in Lake Placid, but the 1980 team has always been more celebrated - partially because of its more recent success, partially because of a Disney movie which gave us chills all over again.
There's no hard feelings, however, from the 1960 group - no jealousies over there being more attention paid to the 1980 team than his groundbreaking squad.
"It was just a different time," explains Olson. "Hockey was still relatively new to many areas. We didn't have the same coverage that they do now with the pros, but even in '80, there was just more publicity for it then there was [in the 60's]. We were happy if we got mentioned in the paper! And of course there was no internet and no computers or anything else.
"I always tell young hockey players, `Don't worry about what somebody did before or what they're going to do after because you can only play during your time," he continued. "You've got your window that you can play in - do the best you can while you're there and that's that. And you have to accept that, that's the way it is at your time. Sure - I'm sure some of the old ball players and hockey players would love to have the salaries they have now, too. We compare it, but we were happy with what happened then.
"We were proud to be the first. Our goaltender Jack McCartan said it best when they asked him about everything else that has happened since. He said, `We live with one thing - quiet pride.' It's a great line, because that's what we had, and that's how we approached it."
Olson, the youngest of nine hockey-playing brothers from Marquette, Mich., skated for Michigan State in the early 50's, coming to East Lansing to play for Amo Bessone. Three of Olson's older brothers had skated for Bessone at Michigan Tech, and with Bessone's move to East Lansing, he called Weldy to invite him to be a part of his first Spartan teams.
Olson was a standout for Bessone's first four MSU teams, leading the squad each season in goal scoring. He finished with a school record 71 goals, 54 assists, and 125 points; to this day he remains the only Spartan to lead his team in goal scoring in all four years of his collegiate career. He originally tried out for the Olympics in 1952; the camp was held in his hometown. "I was sent home after two hours," he remembers. "They told me - `go back to school'.
Once he completed his senior season in 1955, he again wanted to see how he measured up for Olympic competition, and inquired with Vic Heyliger, the head coach at Michigan who was holding one of the six regional tryout camps. Heyliger told him that his attendance in Ann Arbor wasn't required - that he was being sent directly to the camp in Minneapolis, where approximately 70 "western" players (from Michigan, Minnesota, and Colorado) would be whittled down to a group of 35; that group went on to compete in Lincoln, Neb. against the pool of 35 from the east. From the Lincoln experience, 25 were brought to Duluth, Minn. for the final training camp which began in December.
The group traveled throughout the US, playing various collegiate and men's senior teams to prepare for the Games. Right before departing for Italy, the team was trimmed down to its roster limit of 17. Fifteen could dress for each game - 11 forwards, four defensemen, and two goaltenders. Olson made that team, and was off to the VII Olympic Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo.
It was a strong showing for the Americans in Italy, earning a silver medal and finishing second to the Soviet Union. Team USA defeated Germany (7-2), Canada (4-1), Sweden (6-1), and Czechoslovakia (9-4) in the medal round, falling only to the heavily-favored Russians by a 4-0 margin. The silver was an accomplishment, as the Americans were an underdog in the tournament; they were picked fifth heading into the games - and were picked fifth again four years later.
In 1960, Olson was a veteran and an alternate captain for the Americans, and had skated for each of the US National Teams in the years between the Games. Training camp that season was held at West Point under the direction of US head coach Jack Riley. Olson wasn't the only Spartan there - Gene Grazia, a year behind Olson at MSU, also made the team. There was a bit of consternation at the end of the exhibition tour, when Riley added three players - the Cleary brothers and John Mayasich - famously forcing the final cut of Herb Brooks, who would go on to coach the 1980 `Miracle' team. In fact, no picture of the final version of that 1960 team was ever taken, so the faces of the three additions are superimposed over the final three players who were replaced in the final weeks. John Mayasich's head appears on Herb Brooks' body in that team photo.
Despite the initial bristling, the team came together, and the two Spartans ended up on a line together, centered by Paul Johnson. Johnson and Olson had spent more than 100 games together between the 1959 National Team and the 1960 Olympics. The trio was used primarily as a defensive line, and a later switch put Dick Rodenheiser on their left wing - and after beating Canada with that combination, Riley kept the line together for the remainder of the Olympics.
In the preliminary rounds, the US was paired with Czechoslovakia and Australia; Australia allowed 30 goals combined to the other two teams, scoring just twice; Team USA earned a 7-5 win when facing off with the Czechs to advance to the medal round. The Americans dispatched Sweden and Germany with relative ease before a 2-1 thriller with Canada in which McCartan stopped 39 of 40 shots. One of Olson's top memories of his Olympic endeavors was his linemate Johnson scoring the game-winner against the Canadians.
"He got the winning goal against Canada from about 80 feet," Olson recalls. "He picked it up in our zone, went over the center red line and let it go. I was on the ice at the time and when we skated over to the bench, and I asked him why he shot so soon. He said `oh, I had him beat."
In the semis, the Americans faced off with the Soviet Union, a team the United States had never beaten in the Olympics. More than 10,000 spectators looked on as the US took an early lead, but the Russians countered with a pair of tallies to take a 2-1 advantage. Bill Christian got the next two goals to give the Americans a slim 3-2 victory, and a second meeting with the Czechs loomed.
Loomed, but not for long - the game was played at 8 a.m. the following morning, giving the US contingent little rest. Perhaps sluggish in the first two periods, the Americans trailed Czechoslovakia at the second intermission, 4-3. Few expected what they saw in the third period, when Team USA posted six unanswered tallies - three from Roger Christian - to provide the United States their first golden moment in Olympic hockey, and its first and only undefeated and untied Olympic team in history.
Then, Monday came, and they went back to their jobs. Kirrane returned to his ladder truck as a firefighter in Brookline, Mass. Bill Cleary returned to Boston to officiate and run his insurance business (he later became the head coach, then Athletic Director, at his alma mater, Harvard). Olson returned to the Air Force. Bill Christian returned home and resumed his work as a carpenter (and later saw his son, Dave, join him as an Olympian as part of the 1980 contingent).
While subtle, there are tributes to those who have come before them from the current US squad in Vancouver. Ryan Miller had two shamrocks painted on his Olympic mask as a tribute to Jim Craig, the last US goaltender to wear Olympic gold. In Sunday's US-Canada game, Team USA's sweaters were an identical design to those worn by the 1960 team, complete with the AHAUS patch over the left breast.
Back in early February, Olson had emailed Miller to wish him luck - the double connection of being a fellow Olympian and also a Spartan is a strong one. Miller replied, and made sure to tell Olson that the Americans would be wearing the 1960's-style jerseys, with `USA" diagonal from right shoulder to left hip, at least once during the preliminary round. To his delight, Team USA wore those sweaters for their preliminary game against the Canadians. Maybe some luck was passed through those uniforms.
Olson watches each Olympics with great interest, and is closely following this year's Games. Much has been made of Miller's role on Team USA - he is perhaps the lynchpin to American success in Vancouver. He's certainly been outstanding, making 42 saves against the Canadians.
Fifty years after he and his teammates became the first to accomplish all those things Miller and his teammates are working daily for on this international stage, Olson doesn't want the United States accomplishments in Olympic hockey to lie solely with his team and the 1980 squad.
"Ryan can carry this club," shares Olson. "And if he does it, it will be great for Michigan State as well as the United States."
The Olympic spirit is still alive and well within Weldy Olson - along with the `quiet pride' of being the first to accomplish the dreams of each of those hockey players competing in Vancouver.
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