Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 27, 1960: The original miracle

SQUAW VALLEY, Calif. - Before the college kids from 1980 could be compiled with the goal of beating the Soviet Union - heck, before some of them had even learned to walk - there was the original miracle, the original Olympic hockey upset.

The Soviet Union hockey team wasn't as highly regarded in 1960 as it had been in 1980, but they were still considered the best team in the world. They had won the gold in 1956, the first time they had entered the Olympic ice hockey competition, and they were favorites again in 1960 as the games came to California.

Meanwhile, not many people were paying attention to the United States team at these Olympics. Most people thought that if the Soviets were going to lose, it would be to either Canada or Czechoslovakia. But then the Americans shockingly beat Czechoslovakia in group play, then surprised even more people by beating the Canadians in the medal round.

This set up a matchup on February 27, 1960, between the unbeaten Americans and the unbeaten (but once tied) Soviets, in a game that would almost certainly determine the gold medal winner.

Trailing 2-1 after one period, the Americans tied the score in the second on a goal by Bill Christian, assisted by his brother, Roger. The game was on now. The play picked up, and it was a fast-paced, up-and-down affair between two gifted teams. There was no more scoring in the second period, and half the third period passed without a goal, either. Then, Bill Christian struck again, poking one home from right in front of the net to give the U.S. a 3-2 lead. Once again, he was assisted by his brother

From there, the Americans held on, winning 3-2 and making the standing-room-only crowd of more than 10,000 delirious.

The competition wasn't over yet. While the United States could do no worse than silver, they still had a rematch against Czechoslovakia the next day to clinch the gold. Earlier in the day, the Canadians shocked the Soviets, ensuring Canada of a medal and leaving the U.S. - Czechoslovakia game to decide it all.

After two periods, with the U.S. trailing 4-3, a famous scene occurred in the U.S. locker room. A member of the Soviet team came into the U.S. locker room. Not knowing English, he instead used gestures to suggest the American team take oxygen to refresh themselves for the third period. It was seemed as a great example of sportsmanship, but there was a reason for it - if the Czechs held on, the Russians would have been deprived of a medal. An American win would give the Soviets the bronze.

The Americans took the Russian's advice, taking the oxygen to recharge their batteries. They came out firing, outscoring the Czechs 6-0 in the third to win 9-4 and clinch the gold. Roger Christian scored a natural hat trick in the period to lead the U.S. to their unlikely medal.

In a unique family twist, Bill's son (and Roger's nephew) Dave would play on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. The two teams are forever linked as the only U.S. Olympic hockey teams to win the gold medal. In the Soviet Union's history, they lost only six Olympic hockey games, and 1960 and 1980 represent the only two times the nation did not win the gold medal. Both times, the turning point was an upset loss to the Americans on American soil. And while the 1980 game is widely considered the greatest moment in American sports history, the 1960 game isn't too far behind.

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