“Once bitten, twice shy,” goes the popular maxim. But anyone who knows Jack Riley knows that hardly describes the 89-year-old hockey legend. So why then did the Marstons Mills resident turn down an invitation this year to appear in Vancouver to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first United States Olympics hockey gold medal won by the 1960 team he coached?
“Once bitten, twice shy,” goes the popular maxim.
But anyone who knows Jack Riley knows that hardly describes the 89-year-old hockey legend.
So why then did the Marstons Mills resident turn down an invitation this year to appear in Vancouver to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first United States Olympics hockey gold medal won by the 1960 team he coached?
You must turn the clock back eight years to the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, a mere 800 miles from Squaw Valley, Calif.
“Our team was invited to Salt Lake City, but the 1980 gold medal team lit the torch and we were sitting out in the boonies in the stands,” says Riley. “They didn’t even acknowledge us; they gave us tickets to go home the next day. We were all teed off for lack of recognition.”
But that was just the first bite.
The second came on New Year’s Day this year at Fenway Park during what is becoming a National Hockey League tradition – hockey in major league parks.
The Cleary brothers, Bill and Bob, Dick Rodenheiser and Riley – all born and bred in Massachusetts and prominent on the 1960 team – were invited as special guests and told they would be interviewed on television at a between-periods intermission.
“Bob Costas was going to a commercial break and referred to Herb Brooks [coach of the 1980 team and one of the last players cut from the 1960 squad]; we thought it was a lead-in to our interview but we never went on; the ’80 team was interviewed,” says Riley.
So now although Riley’s been invited to Squaw Valley for the 50th anniversary Feb. 28.
“No way I’m going out there after the way we’ve been treated,” he says. “I was offered tickets to Vancouver but turned them down; the Clearys did, too, because of the way we were treated.”
Avoiding a mutiny
In 1959, Walter Brown, the original owner of the Boston Celtics and a force behind the development of hockey in the U.S., was head of the Amateur Hockey Association and arranged for Riley, hockey coach at West Point at the time, to be coach of the 1960 Olympic team.
Riley had played in the ’48 Olympics in Stockholm when the U.S. finished fourth. The U.S. led the Games in goals, having defeated Italy 31-1 and Poland 23-4. Riley scored the winning goal in the 4-3 win over England, but Canada won the gold medal.
The United States started playing hockey in the Olympics in 1920, and while 1960 was the country’s first gold medal, often overlooked is the fact that the 1952 and ’56 teams both took home silver. “We were depicted as bumbling, but we had a veteran team that was underestimated,” says Riley. “I picked the best guys I could find.”
But trouble followed. There was an East (Boston) vs. West (Minnesota) rivalry; players from those areas dominated the team and they didn’t like each other.
Riley informed Brown he had decided to add the Massachusetts’ Cleary brothers to the team and cut Herb Brooks of Minnesota just weeks before the Olympics started. He told me, ‘OK, but if you lose, don’t come back.’
“The 11 players on the team from the West voted mutiny; it wasn’t a happy ship,” says Riley, who had a team meeting and convinced them to stay on. “I used a lot of profanity,” he said smiling.
The West players shunned the Clearys and during the final exhibitions refused to pass the puck to the high-scoring Easterners.
But Riley took command of the team. To ease the tension, he formed Red, White and Blue lines instead of the normal, first, second and third lines.
A strong believer in the importance of team conditioning, Riley saw it pay off in the third period when the U.S. outscored its opponents, 20-4. It also helped that the Cleary brothers combined for 12 goals; Bill Cleary had 14 points in the seven games.
McCartan sparked key victory
Riley’s training rules were simple: “When you see me drink and smoke, you can do it. The players thought it was a good deal; what they didn’t know was that I never drank or smoked. I would have kicked them off the team if I caught them.”
After upsetting the Czechs 7-5 and demolishing Australia 12-1 in the preliminary round, they opened medal-round play with a 6-3 win over Sweden.
The game that made people – including its coach — believe in this team was its 2-1 upset of gold-medal favorite Canada as goalie Jack McCartan made 39 saves. “He was my MVP,” says Riley.
That was followed by a 9-1 dismantling of Germany, setting up the crucial game against the Russians, who were the dominant team in the late ‘50s heading into the 1960 Games.
After the teams swapped leads, Billy Christian of Minnesota knocked in a rebound with 5 minutes remaining and all the U.S. needed was a tie or win against the Czech team it had beaten nine days earlier.
Figuring that it would be Canada vs. Russia for the gold medal, the schedule-makers had the U.S. playing Czechoslovakia at 8 a.m. and the “Championship Game” at 4:30 p.m.
“We went to church at 7 a.m. When we got to the arena, there weren’t many people in the stands, but more than 9,000 were there by the end of the first period,” says Riley.
The U.S. trailed 4-3 when Rodenheiser, Riley’s all-time hero on that team, forced a Czech penalty by absorbing a vicious hit. In those days, a player sat in the penalty box the entire length of the penalty instead of coming out when the opposing team scored. So when the U.S. netted the tying goal, the Czech stayed in the box, and the Americans scored twice more to make it 6-4 before the teams were back at full strength. The U.S. added three more in the final minutes to win the gold medal going away, 9-4.
Standing at attention for the “Star Spangled Banner” was the ultimate thrill for Riley. “We didn’t think about medals, just winning. The team captain [Kirrane] was on the podium and they gave him all 20 medals, and he handed them out to us. I got the medal in a box and put it in my pocket. In my heart, I never thought we’d go 7-0.”
On the flight back to New York, the pilot announced that the coach of the Olympic championship hockey team was on the plane and everybody gave Riley a standing ovation.
“When I arrived back at West Point, four MP cars greeted our car and took us to the hockey rink. The whole corps of cadets came out to party at the hockey rink; the only one who didn’t come was the track coach because he said we didn’t celebrate when his team beat Navy the previous year,” Riley joked.
That was what Riley and his 1960 Squaw Valley Miracle team had hoped for in Salt Lake City and Fenway Park. Riley’s not shy, but he was not to be thrice bitten.
The genesis of a book
Two years ago, Harvey Shapiro of Centerville was waiting in a long checkout line at Stop & Shop in Marstons Mills. He noticed the man behind him had an ‘A’ for Army baseball cap on and they started talking.
A year later they made plans to write “1960: Miracle at Squaw Valley” and have spent 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. most Tuesdays at Riley’s house.
“I’m a people writer and storyteller and Jack is so shy and demure,” Shapiro laughs.
The 405-page self-published book was handwritten – Shapiro doesn’t have a computer – and sent to an editor in Connecticut with the artwork and page layout. He expects to have the finished product by Feb. 28, the 50th anniversary of the real Miracle on Ice.