Sports Business

Striking Silver: The U.S. Hockey Team That Almost Won Gold

Sometimes a team is destined for greatness. Sometimes great teams come in second, be it in the FIFA Women’s World Cup or the Olympics.

The recent election of Mark Howe to the Hockey Hall of Fame may have surprised some. But not the brother duo of Tom and Jerry Caracciolli, who documented the exploits of Howe and his USA teammates in the book, Striking Silver (Bannon & Bannon, 2006), a look at the 1972 U.S. Olympic hockey team and its almost forgotten run to the verge of Olympic gold.

The gold medal “Miracle on Ice” at the Winter Olympics in 1980 has been documented as arguably the greatest American sporting moment in the 20th century. It categorically is the greatest moment in the history of American hockey.

Since 1956, the number of men who have won an Olympic medal in hockey while playing with “USA” emblazoned across the chest of their sweaters is rare. The names Eruzione, Craig, Johnson and Morrow, McCartan, Christian and Cleary, as well as NHLers Chelios, Hull, Roenick, LeClair, Drury and Miller may be more prominent in U.S. Olympic Hockey history, but they must forever be mentioned along with one team, that for many reasons, seems to have been forgotten.

The story of that relatively forgotten team and its members included players who saw action in the jungles of Vietnam, schoolboy heroes and college All-Americans: Ahearn, Bader, Boucha, Brown, Christiansen, Curran, Ftorek, Howe, Irving, McElmury, McGlynn, McIntosh, Mellor, Naslund, Olds, Regan, Sanders, Sarner, Sheehy and Sears.

Big Lead Sports caught up with Tom and Jerry Caracciolli, who spoke about the team and its players.

Big Lead Sports: That team is really a forgotten part of Olympic Hockey lore. What would surprise people the most?

Tom and Jerry Caracciolli: One of the biggest surprises for many people regarding the 1972 U.S. Olympic Hockey team is they won the silver medal. Until 2010 in Vancouver, the “Boys of ’72″ were the only U.S. hockey team since 1956 to win a medal on foreign soil, Sapporo, Japan. One of the other big surprises of this team was that several of the players were on active duty in the U.S. Army either fighting in Vietnam, having fought, or on their way there if they didn’t make the team. U.S. coach Murray Williamson used that as the ultimate incentive for the 20-something-year-olds who were vying for spots on the team, “Either you make the team or you go to Saigon.”

BLS: What was the biggest influence that team had on the sport today?

T/JC: The introduction of a new style of play and the training methods that we would argue became the blueprint for the success of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team in Lake Placid. U.S. coach Murray Williamson traveled to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1971 by way of an invitation from Soviet Union coach Anatoly Tarasov. With an example of Cold War diplomacy and detente through hockey, Tarasov showed Williamson the Russian off-ice training methods and on-ice systems of a free-wheeling skating and puck movement system that dispelled the North American style of staying in lanes and dumping-and-chasing. Williamson returned home with notebooks filled with information that started a revolution in American hockey beginning with the ’72 U.S. Olympic Hockey team. Williamson’s system placed a premium on skating, puck control and being in peak physical condition. Today off-ice training has become a staple of hockey training, while one only has to look at the styles of Americans Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Zach Parise and Erik Cole to see how the influence of skating and puck handling has developed in the NHL in the past 40 years.

BLS: What was the impetus for doing the book?

T/JC: The impetus for writing the book was to tell a story that we had known parts of for many, many years. Our minor hockey league and high school coach, Pete Sears, played goalie for the ’72 team. Though he didn’t talk much about it, he and his wife lived next door to our aunt and uncle and we would always go over to Pete’s house and ask to see his silver medal. As we began working, one of Tom’s colleagues when he was the Director of Sports Information at Merrimack College was Stu Irving, who also played on the ’72 team and served in Vietnam during that time period. After knowing Pete’s story and hearing Stu’s story, we knew we had to write the team’s story so that others could learn about this very important chapter of U.S. Hockey history.

BLS: Mark Howe is now a Hall of Famer. Do you think there are others who were part of that team that are still worthy and yet unrecognized?

T/JC: Mark Howe, who wrote the foreword to Striking Silver, was 16 when he played on the ’72 U.S. Olympic Hockey team. He is still the youngest American Olympic hockey player to play on the U.S. team. His recent recognition of being elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2011 is overdue and well deserved. His contributions in 1972 were part of a total team effort. The 1972 Silver Medal-winning U.S. Olympic Hockey team is worthy of recognition to be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. It may be a cliché – “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – but this team was the prequel to the Miracle of 1980. They laid the foundation for future American teams and American players to forge great success in international hockey and the NHL.

BLS: What do you think of Olympic hockey today and what the future will hold in Sochi?

T/JC: In some regards the Olympic hockey of today has lost the charm it once had. The dreams that players from the 1972 or 1980 teams had to represent their country at the Olympics have been forever lost. It has now become a collection of NHL All-Star players showing up a few days before the Games to play in a tournament. That doesn’t mean there is any less pride the players possess in representing their country, it’s just not the same. Of course, there is something to be said about watching the world’s best hockey players compete against each other in a two-week tournament. As witnessed in Vancouver, and promises to be in Sochi, it really doesn’t get any better than that.

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