The forgotten "Miracle on ice" at Squaw Valley
Mention the words “miracle on ice” to ice hockey fans and they will recall the USA’s thrilling and wholly unexpected 4-3 defeat of the USSR at Lake Placid in 1980, a match that has gone down in Olympic history. It was not the first American Olympic ice hockey miracle, however. At Squaw Valley 20 years earlier, a young USA team defied the odds and their more fancied rivals to pull off what has become known as the “Forgotten Miracle”.
When the Olympic men’s ice hockey competition got under way at Squaw Valley in 1960, few believed that the home side – largely made up of young college players from Minnesota and Boston - had a realistic chance of claiming gold.
Defending champions the USSR, who had won the title on their Olympic debut at Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956, were one of four favourites for the title. The others were Sweden, who had pipped the Soviet Union to the world title in 1957; Canada, who had snatched world gold from the USSR in 1958 and 1959; and Czechoslovakia, who had claimed two podium finishes at the Worlds over the previous three years.
During the same period, these four countries had monopolised the medals at the main tournaments; and that pattern was not expected to change in Squaw Valley. Victorious in six of the eight Olympic competitions held since the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, Canada were again represented by one of the clubs competing in the Allan Cup, the country’s national amateur championship.
Despite winning the 1959 competition, the Whitby Dunlops turned down the invitation to compete in Squaw Valley. Their place was taken by the Kitchener-Waterloo Flying Dutchmen, who had previously flown the flag for Canada at Cortina in 1956. It was the last time a club side would compete on behalf of the nation at the Olympic Games.
The nine teams contesting the 1960 Olympic tournament were drawn into three pools in the first round, with the top two sides in each section advancing to the six-team round-robin medal group. The hosts sprang a surprise in their opening match in Pool C, beating the fancied Czechoslovaks 7-5. The Americans followed up with a 12-1 demolition of Australia to top their pool. Meanwhile, Canada edged Pool A courtesy of a 5-2 victory over the Swedes, while USSR also went undefeated in winning Pool B.
The USA maintained their sparkling form in the medal round, seeing off Sweden 6-3 and Germany 9-1 before again putting the Czechoslovaks to the sword, this time 9-5. However, with Canada and the USSR standing in their path, a shock gold medal still looked a long way off. Watched by a crowd of 8,500 and a TV audience of millions, the match between the USA and their northern neighbours was a tight affair.
Robert “Bill” Cleary put the hosts ahead in the first period from a John Mayasich assist, with Paul Johnson doubling the lead on 14 minutes. Though the Canadians pulled a goal back in the third period through James Connelly, they could not get back on level terms, thanks in no small part to the sterling efforts of US goaltender John McCarten, who pulled off a total of 39 saves.
Miraculous momentsTaking place two days later, the match between the hosts and the mighty Soviet team pulled in an estimated TV audience of over 20 million in the USA alone. Once again it was a Cleary who opened the scoring, as William slotted home from a pass from brother Robert four minutes in. Yet within five minutes the USSR were ahead, as first Yeniamin Alexandrov and then Mikhail Bychkov found the target.
The USA’s second-period equaliser was another family affair, with Roger Christian serving up an assist for sibling William. The Christian boys repeated the feat in the tense final period, Roger once again doing the passing and William the scoring to clinch a thrilling 3-2 win for the USA, who maintained their perfect record to secure their first Olympic title amid jubilant scenes.
Canada made sure of the silver in the final match of the competition, running out 8-5 winners against the USSR, who had to settle for bronze. Coming 20 years before the much celebrated “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid in 1980, the USA’s gold-medal winning campaign as a whole – and the win over the Soviet Union in particular – would later become known as the “Forgotten Miracle”. The champions’ leading scorer with 14 goals, Robert Cleary called time on his career after Squaw Valley 1960, turning down the opportunity to play professional ice hockey. “I wouldn’t swap the chance to parade in an Olympic Opening Ceremony for 100 Stanley Cup titles,” he said years later. “When it was over we all went back to our lives. That’s what we wanted.”