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Olympic Hockey Legend Recounts Original ‘Miracle On Ice’

Bill Cleary, left, scores a goal against the Soviet Union in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. Cleary's brother, Bob, far right, was also on the team. (Courtesy Bill Cleary)

NEWTON, Mass. — Standing in his living room, surrounded by windows, 75-year-old Bill Cleary looks out onto a frozen stretch of the Charles River where a small group of people are skating, hockey sticks in hand, passing around a puck. A German shepherd fruitlessly chases the small black disc. A lone woman floats by on figure skates. A light snow falls, and memories come to life.

“We didn’t have any indoor rinks when we were kids,” Cleary recalls. “We had to learn on the Charles River — I did because I grew up in Cambridge — on Spy Pond in Arlington and all these little places in Lexington and Concord. We’d find ice wherever it was.”

As it turns out, such limitations were perfect training for the young hockey player. When Cleary grew up and played hockey for the United States internationally, all of the competition was held outdoors, rain or shine. “We played in Stockholm one night,” Clearly says. “Twenty-five thousand people, in a snow storm! But it was great!”

Bill Cleary, at home in Newton, displays the silver medal he won at the 1956 Olympics and his "miracle" gold medal from the 1960 Olympics. (Karen Pelland/WBUR

And it was outside, on natural ice, that the U.S. men’s hockey team stunned the world by winning Olympic gold at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. Cleary was the team’s high scorer, and the improbable victory has since become known as the original “Miracle on Ice”.

Most people remember the “Miracle on Ice” circa 1980 when the U.S. won Olympic gold in Lake Placid. Actually, the comparisons are striking; both squads were largely, if not solely, made up of Bostonians and Minnesotans, both squads were huge underdogs to win and both knocked off the big, bad Soviet Union in the semi-finals to do it.

But few remember the ’60 Olympics. It was the first year television even broadcast the Games. Anchored by newsman Walter Cronkite, CBS aired a whole 13 hours of mostly taped footage and highlights, in black and white no less. One of the few live broadcasts just happened to be the spectacular gold medal hockey game between the U.S. and Czechoslovakia. The Americans were losing 4-3, but a blinding six-goal rally in the third period sealed the deal.

The official photo of the 1960 USA hockey team. The photo had to be doctored to include the faces of latecomers Bill and Bob Cleary and John Mayasich.

Bill Cleary is best known as the All-American player and legendary coach for the Harvard University men’s hockey team. The star forward decided against going pro in the mid-’50s, despite invitations from the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens.

“It’s probably the best thing I ever did, turning that down, because if I hadn’t I would never have played in two Olympic Games,” says Cleary, who was also on the silver medal team in 1956 in Cortina, Italy. “Knowing what I know now, I could win 10 Stanley Cups and that wouldn’t equal just marching in the parade in 1956.”

Cleary laments the addition of NHL players to Olympic rosters. “The only reason the pros are in it is because of money,” he groans.

Money and sponsorships — it’s a slap in the face to the intended Olympic spirit, as Cleary sees it. “It’s not Michael Jordan and Barkley going up to the podium wondering whether they’re going to wear Reebok or Adidas,” he says. “That’s not what the Olympics are about. It’s about people. It’s about competition. I often said that I think athletes can do more good than politicians, getting people together and producing harmony and spirit among people in different cultures. And I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it happen.”


Click the “Listen Now” button above to hear the interview with Bill Cleary.

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  • Ruth Powell

    Where is the “Listen Now” button I am supposed to click tohear the above interview?

  • T. Frost

    Loved hearing this story this morning, especially since he mentioned Spy Pond in Arlington, which is right next to my neighborhood. When he skated here it was likely farm land… or a very young neighborhood, I guess. My daughter skates on Spy Pond now and I’m excited to tell her that a Gold Medal Olympic athlete skated here when he was young. thanks for a great story.

  • Mike Anderson

    Bill Cleary and his brother Bob were both recently featured in the documentary film Forgotten Miracle.

  • Kevin Burke

    Nice article. Bill Cleary is, by far, the best hockey player this country has ever produced.

    A note to Bob Oakes – Bob, unless I am very much mistaken, the rink in Squaw Valley had a roof over it. I wouldn’t call that “outdoors”.

    Kevin Burke
    Cambridge

  • Karen Pelland

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the note. I produced this story, and you are somewhat mistaken but not entirely. Bill told us the rink at Squaw Valley actually had a partial roof, and the rest was open. He even said the sun would melt the ice on the open part of the rink so they had to raise tarps to keep that from happening at certain times of the day.

    Best,
    Karen

  • Gladstone

    I recall being a new arrival in the U.S. in April 1959 and by 1960 was a fan of the NY Rangers. when the Winter Olympics began the memory of the Rome Olympics was still fresh. The exploits of Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson, Ralph Boston (silver medalist to Russia’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan’s gold in the long jump), Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali), the disappointment in the men’s 100 meters all gave me great anticipation for my first Winter Olympics.

    I remember the victories over the Russions and Czechs and the great exploits of Jack McCartan who stopped shot after shot against the world’s best amateur hockey teams. That was the “real miracle on ice”! Doing what’s NEVER been done has to be greater than duplicating an earlier splendid feat!!

    All gusto should be given to the 1980 Lake Placid team but let us remember that it was the short-term memory of the sportscasters in 1980 and the fact that saving old black and white video reels was not yet an art form and which caused the 1960 team to become obscured.

    Let us not forget figure skater, Carol Heiss, either.

    LONG LIVE SQUAW VALLEY!!!!

  • Samuel L Peters

    Dear Sir, I,ve been searching for a photo of the 1960 USA oylimpic hockey team for framing but so far to no avail. Would know where I might be able to purchase. Thank you Sam Peters Cincinnati, Ohio

  • Robert Cattolica

    I was there in 1960 at the Squaw Valley Olympics as a young boy. Blythe Arena was completely covered. The south wall was open and the sun could enter through that area.

    I also have a hockey stick signed by the entire team. My mother who sat up by Bud Palmer and Lowell Thomas during the hockey was able to get a signed (entire team) hockey stick from my cousin’s husband who was in charge of mainteance of the Olympic venue and gave it to me. It is a treasure. The stick has number 20 on it and I have had difficulty determining who it belongs to.

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