Recently, we were fortunate to catch up with Weldy Olson, a Marquette native who was a member of the USA gold medal winning team at the 1960 Winter Olympics. Before we share a little more about Weldy (gotta love that nickname!), let’s take a brief look at some hockey history in the Upper Peninsula.
Hockey is a long standing tradition in the Upper Peninsula. A tradition rich in history, and the birthplace of professional hockey in the United States, that started in 1903 with the Portage Lakers. Just weeks ago Calumet celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Calumet Colosseum, with a rivalry that dates back before indoor hockey even existed.
A number of native Yoopers have gone on to play hockey professionally, most notably, Taffy Abel of Sault Ste. Marie. Taffy Abel went on to play over 300 games in the NHL, won a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1928 and served as the United States flagbearer in the 1924 Winter Olympics, where he scored 15 goals in the hockey tournament. The USA team went on to win the silver medal that year. In more recent years the NHL has seen the likes of Jeff Finger of Houghton and most recently Justin Florek of Marquette. Florek, 23, made his NHL debut in January with the Boston Bruins and scored his first NHL goal on January 9th. Coincidentally, that goal was scored against Jonathan Quick, who has been the leading goaltender for the USA in the 2014 Olympics.
Before the USA competes in the 2014 gold medal game in Sochi, it must face Canada. The gold medal has eluded the United States since the historic 1980 “Miracle on Ice”. This will be the 9th Winter Olympics since that historic win in Lake Placid. Since 1920 the USA has collected one bronze, eight silvers, and two gold medals in men’s hockey.
The first gold medal was in 1960 in Squaw Valley, California. Though the 1960 USA hockey team didn’t see the same amount of press and commercial attention that the 1980 team received, the victory was no less impressive. Really, it was a miracle in itself and some dubbed it the “Forgotten Miracle”.
This brings us back to Weldon Howard “Weldy” Olson.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes on the phone with Weldy to hear in his voice that he still has a great passion and love for the game of hockey. At the time he was watching the women’s USA vs. CAN gold medal game, which was a heartbreaking loss for the United States. Weldy communicated a genuine kindness and warmth, and I was quick to recognize that he still shows great enthusiasm in sharing his hockey experience, which runs much deeper than the 1960 gold medal team.
Weldon Howard Olson was born in Marquette, Michigan on November 12, 1932. Before his family moved to Marquette they resided in Hancock, and they were no small family. Weldy was the youngest of nine hockey playing brothers. The brothers are Allan, Edward, Gordon, Marcus, Paul, Roy, Theodore, and Wesley. As a group, they are members of twelve different halls of fame. Now that’s a hockey family!
Four of Weldy’s older brothers played hockey for Michigan Tech and Weldy planned to do just the same. At the time Weldy was slated to skate for Amo Bessone at MTU. However, Bessone took a new coaching job at Michigan State University, where he would go on to coach over 800 games for the Spartans. Weldy followed, and went on to play four years of hockey at Michigan State from 1951-1955. From there he would go on to serve in the Air Force.
In 1956, Weldy made the USA Olympic team. At the time it was a much different experience. The team had no NHL players. There we no household names. And there were certainly no million dollar contracts.
Nobody was a professional hockey player, that wasn’t our living. We had carpenters, salesmen, advertising men. I was in the Air Force and Paavola was in the Army. One of our guys was a driver on a firetruck. At the time there was no money involved. We were given seven dollars a week for living.
Unlike the seeding tournament format we’re familiar with today, the Olympics at the time featured a round robin tournament. The USA would go on to win silver after being edged out with one loss in the final round, a 4-0 loss to the Soviet Union.
Four years later the Winter Olympics were back, this time hosted on home territory in Squaw Valley, California. The game was changing fast. Technology had improved drastically by 1960. Computerized scoring and the Zamboni were introduced in Squaw Valley, and most notably the games were moved to an indoor facility.
We were receiving a lot of criticism because they didn’t think we had a very good team. But we had a lot more experience on that team than people realize. We had about 30 years of player experience on that team.
According to Weldy they were expected to finish fifth and didn’t get recognition until they beat Canada. In the final round the USA would go a perfect 5-0 to win the gold medal. Weldy scored one goal in the series. This marked the first miracle on ice.
And it’s important to note that Weldy wasn’t the only Yooper on the team. In fact the term Yooper hadn’t even been coined in 1960. One of Weldy’s teammates was Hancock native Rod Paavola. Paavola, a defenseman, was just 20 years of age when he won the gold medal. He also played on the 1959 national team at the World Championships in Prague. The annual “Rod Paavola Memorial Tournament” is played between the Calumet Wolverines and Portage Lake Pioneers. He is a member of the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 1966 all nine of the Olson brothers came together in Marquette to play a game for charity. One team was made entirely of the Olson brothers, with the help of a goalie they recruited. This was the only time all nine brothers played together.
Weldy now resides in Findlay, OH with his wife, who was his next door neighbor in Marquette. They make it back to Marquette a few times a year and also makes it to East Lansing for the occasional Spartan hockey event. He says that he still keeps in touch with his USA teammates and they occasionally see each other when passing through town. Weldy Olson has been inducted into the Michigan Amateur Sports Hall of Fame, the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame, the Michigan State University Athletic Hall of Fame, and the Hancock County Ohio Sports Hall of Fame in Findlay, Ohio.
If you knew anything at all about ice hockey at the start of the Olympic Games in 1960 you knew three things: 1 ) the Soviets were the best; 2) the Canadians and the Czechoslovakians were almost as good as the Soviets; and 3) the Americans didn't have a chance.
It wasn't a pleasant fact, the host country's entry being held in such low esteem, but it was as much a reality as Eisenhower in the White House and Khrushchev in the Kremlin. Conventional wisdom gave the United States as much chance of winning an Olympic ice hockey medal as the Soviet Union of holding free elections.
Incidentally, the same conventional wisdom said man would neverwalk on the moon, tail fins were the wave of the future, the Japanese would never make a decent car, and a Memphis singer named Elvis was a passing fad.
Still, the case was strong for Soviet superiority and American inferiority. The Soviets trained together, ate together, roomed together, practiced together year-round, and ostensibly worked for the same company. They were the defending Olympic champions.
The Americans were a rag-tag collection of students and working men, including a fireman, two carpenters from Minnesota, and one guy who sold advertisements for the relatively recent medium called television. They came from such hockey hotbeds as Harvard University, the Gleneagle fire station in Springfield, Ohio, and various minor league outposts. The coach, Jack Riley, was a hard-as-nails officer from West Point. No starry eyed dreamer, Riley admitted going in that his team's only chance was to out condition the Soviets.
Ice hockey held center stage at Squaw Valley, when the unheralded team of Americans beat the Soviet Union, 3-2, for the first time and went on to capture the Olympic title.
Even assembling the team wasn't easy. Riley's most sought-after player, Harvard star Bill Cleary, only agreed to join up if they also let his brother Bob play. Goalkeeper John Magasich initially refused to come because of a minor league hockey commitment and didn't show up until the rest of the team was already on the ice in Squaw Valley. At about that point, every hockey team in the Games was checking the schedule to see when they got to play the Americans.
Then the tournament began and somehow the well-conditioned Americans survived the preliminary round and qualified for the six-team championship round. To everyone's surprise, the U.S. scored early medal-round wins over Sweden and Germany, a situation that left essentially four teams - the others were the USSR, Canada and Czechoslovakia-vying for the three Olympic medals. That was the good news for the Americans. The bad being they next had to play Canada. To that point the Canadians had scored 40 goals in the Games to their opponents' three. They had not allowed a single goal in medal round wins over Sweden or Czechoslovakia.
There was essentially no way the United States could beat Canada. The first goal of the U.S.-Canada match was scored by an American, Bill Cleary's brother Bob. The pro-American crowd of 8,500 started to come alive. The United States actually had the lead in a game with the Canadians that really counted.
The U.S. scored again in the second period, leading the Canadians - the same Canadians that had won the World Championship in Helsinki a few weeks earlier - in a serious state of shock. The American goalkeeper, Jack McCartan, while dreaming of a tryout with a minor league team, stopped 20 Canadian shots in the second period alone.
Canada scored with six minutes to play in the game, making the score 2-1, but the American defense then held firm. With a minute to go the crowd counted down the seconds while McCartan beat his stick on the ice in unison. The United States faced the USSR next. They had one day of rest. They could have used a year.
There was essentially no way the United States could beat the Soviets. Within seconds of the game's start, Bill Cleary took a perfect pass from his brother Bob and slapped home a goal. The Soviets answered back quickly, scoring twice to assume what the over-capacity crowd of 10,000-plus - by now stone quiet - seemed to think was commanding.
At the period break, Riley looked at his players and told them with military bluntness, "Everyone in the nation is counting on you. There are millions watching on television." When the team retook the ice, Bill Christian, a carpenter from Warroad, Minn., quickly scored a goal. In the third period he scored again. The Americans held on for a 3-2 victory that was easily the biggest win in U.S. hockey history.
In the finale, the U.S. met Czechoslovakia. A win meant the gold medal. A loss gave the gold to Canada, a final-game victor over the Soviets. After two periods the Czechs forged ahead, 4-3. It appeared the magic was over. The Americans, drained from their win over the Soviets, were sluggish and tired.
But just before the U.S. team came back on the ice for the final period an unexpected visitor came to the locker room. Nikolai Sologubov, captain of the Soviet team, entered the room. Sologubov had been watching the game, which Czechoslovakia led, 4-3, from the stands and noticed that the U.S. wasn't playing with nearly as much energy as the day before when they stunned the highly-favored Soviets, 3-2. Using hand gestures because he knew little English, Sologubov indicated to the Americans that they needed to inhale more bottled oxygen to revive them for the crucial third period. Many did as Sologubov suggested. Forgetting the fact that the only thing Sologubov and his teammates dreaded worse than an American win was a Czech win, it was a remarkable display of international relations.
The oxygenated Americans scored six goals in the third period, including three goals by Roger Christian, Bill's brother and the other carpenter from Minnesota. The U.S. had a 9-4 victory, the gold medal, and the undying admiration of a television-watching nation.
Twenty years later, at the Lake Placid Games, another lightly-regarded U.S. hockey team would do it again - beat the Soviets and win the Olympic gold medal. If anything, the 1980 team's success received more publicity and attention than the 1960 championship. Certainly the 1980 victory deserves its place in sports history as one of the most thrilling, against-all-odds performances ever. But of course it wasn't the first time. In 1960, the original Boys of Winter showed them the way.
A boisterous crowd screamed with delight while the American fought off the Soviets in the closing minutes. The puck was in the Americans' end for many of the final minutes, and McCartan was brilliant preserving his country's first hockey win over "the Bear." "Every face-off seemed to last an eternity," Bill Cleary remembered.
After the game, the teary-eyed Soviet coach, Anatoli Tarasov, entered the American dressing room and kissed Riley on the cheek, and the Russian interpreter Roman Kesserlov gave Bill Cleary a bottle of vodka he had to pay off a bet they had made. The vodka still sits unopened in Cleary's Massachusetts home as a memento of the triumph.
Almost twenty years later, Bill Cleary would entertain coach Tarasov at his home overlooking the Charles River in the Boston area. Tarasov would joke that he "ended up in the Siberia" because of Cleary and his colleagues.
The visit to Cleary's home was in the spring of 1979, and Tarasov had brought along a bottle of vodka. Before he left, he threw the vodka in the bushes and told Cleary not to retrieve it until the American hockey players won another Olympic gold medal. He probably assumed that wasn't going to happen for many years. Less than a year later, he would be wrong.
Aside from Tarasov, the Russians didn't accept the loss in 1960 very well. A bitter Nikolai Romanov, the Soviet minister of sport, told the assembled media: "Perhaps we would have won on a neutral rink, but naturally it is the right of the spectators to cheer their team as much as they can and we just had to bear that handicap."
“It was one of the proudest moments of my life. The Olympics were the highest level of hockey you could play back then. To be able to win the gold medal and represent your country was wonderful.”
— Dick Rodenhiser, 1960 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team member
Before Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, Mark Johnson and the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team defeated the Soviet Union en route to Olympic gold, there were the Christian and Cleary brothers, John Mayasich, Jack McCartan, Jack Kirrane and the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team that made hockey history.
Nearly 50 years ago, and 20 years before the Americans took gold in Lake Placid, N.Y., 17 players captured the United States’ first-ever Olympic gold medal in ice hockey at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif.
Heavy underdogs going into the tournament, the U.S. squad knocked off powerhouse countries Canada, the Soviet Union, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. They are still the only U.S. Olympic Team to defeat Canada and Sweden in the Olympics since 1960.
“The whole experience was indescribable,” said Bob Cleary, who along with his brother, Bill, joined the team just prior to the February games. “USA won it. It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t other individuals. It was a team effort for your country.”
Those individuals that comprised one of the best U.S. hockey teams in history weren’t only some of the best American players of their generation, but of all time.
Names like John Mayasich and Bill Cleary, members of USA Hockey’s All-Time Team, would be household names if they played today.
Mayasich starred at the University of Minnesota, tallying 144 goals and 298 points (both school all-time records) in 111 career games played. He won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association scoring title in 1954 and 1955, and was a three-time All-America selection.
Bill Cleary, who led Team USA with seven goals and seven assists at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, still holds Harvard University’s single-season point record (89), which was set more than 50 years ago.
“I was so honored to play on such a talented team,” Rodenhiser said. “I was the Bob Uecker [journeyman baseball player who’s most famous for beer commercials and movies] of that team. [Bill] Cleary and Mayasich were two of the best players at that time. I was just lucky to be a part of it.”
Although the U.S. boasted some great players and their games were filled with spectators at the open-air Blyth Arena, their accomplishment didn’t reach the level of some the United States’ other historic golden moments, the 1980 Olympics and 1996 World Cup.
In fact, Team USA’s last game of the tournament was played at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning. The schedulers gave Canada and Russia the prime ice slot, thinking the two teams would be playing for gold.
“There just wasn’t as much coverage back then. Not a lot of people knew what happened,” Bob Cleary said. “It was just black-and-white television and our game was early. We were the pioneers of [TV] coverage.”
While the 2010 U.S. squad is filled with NHL players for the fourth straight Olympics, in 1960, the players mostly played in semi-professional leagues and had to leave their full-time jobs temporarily in order to compete in the Olympics.
“I used to go up to Lewiston, Maine on the weekends to play Saturday night and Sunday afternoon,” Rodenhiser said. “It was the most ice time I could get, and I would get paid $25. On the way home I’d always spend it on a steak dinner.”
“I couldn’t try out for the Olympic Team at first because I just got married and opened an insurance business,” Bob Cleary added. “I couldn’t afford to be away for all the time leading up to the Games. When [Coach Jack Riley] asked Bill and I to play later on it was just amazing.”
As the next edition of the Olympic Winter Games draws near and the United States looks to create another golden moment, the members of the 1960 Olympic Team can look back at their accomplishments knowing their victory put U.S. hockey on the world’s radar, inspiring a new generation of players to the game.
“The opening ceremonies and walking in with my team representing the United States of America is still the greatest honor I’ve ever been a part of,” said Bob Cleary. “I tingle when I think about it. To see Jack Kirrane standing at the podium getting the gold medal – there’s nothing close.
“It’s incredible it’s been 50 years. It’s a great thrill and honor playing for your country.”
U.S. left wing Weldon Olson (left) and Miroslav Vlach, Czechoslovakian Olympic hockey team left wing, battle for puck behind the nets in the opening Olympic hockey match, February 19, 1960 in Squaw Valley, California. The United States team came from behind to win by a 7-5 score.
The United States Olympic Ice Hockey Squad poses on the ice rink at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York on Jan. 6, 1960. Left to right are (first row): Jack McCarten; Herb Brooks, Weldy Olson, Paul Johnson, Richard Meredith, Harry Batchelder, Larry Palmer;
(second row) Jim Claypool, manager; Rod Paavola, Harry Berg, Bob McVey, Roger Christian, William Christian, Ben Bertini, trainer, Jack Riley, coach; (third row) Tom Williams, Bob Owen, Dave Cuterfbridge, Bob Dupuis, Gene Graziam Larry Alm, Jack Kirrane.