On this day in 1960, the underdog U.S. Olympic hockey team defeats the Soviet Union in the semifinals at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. The next day, the U.S. beats Czechoslovakia to win its first-ever Olympic gold medal in hockey.
The 1960 U.S. team was led by Jack Riley, the head hockey coach at West Point and himself a member of the 1948 U.S. Olympic hockey squad. His players were college students and amateurs and included two pairs of brothers, Bill and Bob Cleary and Bill and Roger Christian. Interestingly, Bill Christian’s son David was a member of the “Miracle on Ice” Olympic squad in 1980 that defeated the heavily favored Soviet Union in the semifinals and two days later beat Sweden to capture the gold medal. The last player cut from the 1960 U.S. squad was Herb Brooks, who went on to coach the “Miracle on Ice” team two decades later.
The Americans had taken home silver medals in hockey at the Winter Games in 1952 and 1956, but going into the 1960 Olympics they were considered a long shot. The team managed to win its first four games against Czechoslovakia, Australia, Sweden and Germany, however, and then scored an upset victory over Canada and went on to meet the Soviets in the semi-final round on February 27. A packed crowd was on hand at Blythe Arena in Squaw Valley to witness the U.S. defeat the Soviets, 3-2, in a tightly fought game. It was the first time an American hockey squad had ever defeated the long-dominant Soviets in Olympic competition. The next day, the U.S. met the Czechs in the finals. After two periods, the U.S. was behind, 4-3; however, they scored six goals in the third period and went on to win the game, 9-4. It was America’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in hockey. Canada won the silver medal while the Soviets received the bronze.
Twenty years later, on February 22, 1980, history repeated itself when the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. It was a major upset for the Soviets, who were considered the world’s best team at the time, even better than any professional team in North America. The victory was particularly charged because the U.S. and Soviet Union were still Cold War enemies. On February 24, the Americans defeated Finland, 4-2, for the gold. The Soviets won the silver and Sweden took the bronze.