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The Miracle Before The "Miracle" on Ice

The Miracle Before The "Miracle" on Ice

“We hope to be the first American hockey team to beat the Russians and win an Olympic gold medal,” the coach told the reporters. The reporters chuckled. One of them asked the coach what he’d tell the experts who said he had a better chance of building a snowman on the equator. “We hope to be the first American hockey team to beat the Russians and win an Olympic gold medal,” he repeated in his Boston accent.

The coach, to be clear, is not Herb Brooks, the coach of the legendary 1980 team that beat the Soviets and won a gold medal at Lake Placid. Brooks’ story is immortalized in the 2004 Disney film, Miracle. The coach in this story is John “Jack” Riley ’39, the architect of an earlier miracle.

Riley was born in Boston in 1920. He attended Medford High School and starred on the hockey team, earning Greater Boston player of the year honors in 1938. He also attended Tabor’s summer program for two seasons, where his peers voted him “biggest rough-houser” and “best athlete.” Recognizing that a year of prep school would serve him well before college, he joined Tabor’s class of 1939. Riley was crushed to learn that the school disbanded its hockey program in 1936 due to inconsistent ice conditions––it didn’t return until 1962––but he made the most of his time in Marion. He was a key player on the soccer and baseball teams and did well in the classroom. The winter of 1939 was a cold one and he found a way to scratch his hockey itch. He lugged his skates to Wareham and carved across the crisp black ice of the cranberry bogs.

It didn’t take long for Tabor Boys to learn that Riley, whom they affectionately dubbed “Slasher,” worshipped at his sport’s altar. “Just whisper the name of a hockey player and our one-man sports information bureau is at your side giving you your dose and more,” read the blurb on his senior page. “To all of us ‘Slasher’ is Hockey, and Hockey is ‘Slasher.’”

Riley matriculated at Dartmouth College and quickly emerged as one of the best players on their team. In 1942, he left school and joined the war as a naval aviator. For the next four years, Riley patrolled the Pacific in a twin-engine PBM bomber. He returned to Dartmouth after the war and was captain and high-scorer of the 1947 team that won the North American Hockey title. Conventional careers presented themselves upon graduation, but in his heart of hearts, Riley knew where he wanted to spend his life. Not in an office, but on a thin layer of ice.

He earned a spot on the 1948 Olympic squad that finished fourth in St. Moritz. The following year, he returned to the national team as a left-winger, but also assumed a new role: coach. Riley’s passion and hockey acumen made him an ideal fit. As a player-coach at the 1949 World Championships in Stockholm, he led the Americans to a bronze medal with an upset win over Sweden. It would not be the last time he shocked the hockey world.

In 1950, Riley accepted the head coaching job at the US Military Academy in West Point, New York. He had his work cut out for him. Over the first two seasons, Army’s hockey team compiled 5 wins to 22 losses. Riley never relented. The team finished at .500 during his third year. By the 1959 season, they posted a 16-5-1 record. This turnaround did not go unnoticed. The Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, which today goes by the mercifully shorter USA Hockey, approached Riley about coaching the 1960 Olympic team. Although his plate was full with his West Point job and a young family, four sons and a daughter, he couldn’t refuse.

The 17 players he selected for his team hailed almost exclusively from Minnesota and Massachusetts. Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs, and Riley’s boys were a motley band of irregulars. They included a fireman, multiple carpenters, and a television salesman. Recognizing that they were lightyears behind their competitors in terms of training and team chemistry, Riley designed a punishing program for the months leading up to the Games in Squaw Valley. They spent three weeks at West Point doing nothing but conditioning. After that, a grueling 30-game cross-country warm-up tour against the top colleges in the country. On January 24, one month before the Olympics, they skated to a 4-4 tie against Minnesota.

“If we can’t beat a college team,” Riley fumed after the game, “we’re really in trouble.”

When the February 4 deadline arrived for teams to submit their final rosters, Riley did something that rattled his crew to its core. He brought in Bill and Bob Cleary, brothers from Boston who missed tryouts because they were launching a business. Their arrival meant he had to cut two players. The final cut, the hardest one, was a 23-year-old from Minnesota named Herb Brooks.

Later that night, eleven players accosted their coach and threatened to quit. “I told them if they wanted to come to Squaw Valley as the second best team, okay,” Riley said. “I didn’t. I said we’d go as the best, or not at all.” This blunt declaration worked. With the mutiny thwarted, Riley led his team to California.

The revamped Americans skated through their preliminary opponents, earning a date with the defending world champions from Canada in the quarterfinals. Bob Cleary, whose teammates hadn’t spoken to him when he first arrived, netted the first goal en route to a 2-1 win. The only coach more excited by this result than Riley was Anatoli Tarasov, Russia’s skipper.

“In the bedlam that followed the Americans’ stunning conquest of the Canadians,” Louisiana’s Shreveport Journal reported, Tarasov “hugged and kissed the surprised Riley.” The Russian coach was elated that his team, the defending Olympic gold medalists, would not have to play Canada in Saturday’s semifinals. Instead, they’d get the Americans.

Tarasov, an innovative coach regarded as the father of Russian hockey, expected to win. Four minutes into the game, Bill Cleary took a pass from his brother and buried it in the back of the net. The Russians answered with two quick goals. They held a 2-1 lead at the end of the first period. Facing a barrage of Soviet shots in the second and third periods, Jack McCartan, the young American goalie, was perfect. His perfection gave his teammates a sliver of a chance, and they seized it. When the final horn blew, the scoreboard read US: 3, USSR: 2. This was the biggest upset in the history of Olympic hockey, but there was no time to celebrate. The Americans would play Czechoslovakia for the gold medal the next day.

The physical and mental toll of back-to-back victories against Canada and Russia quickly became evident. After two periods, the depleted Americans trailed the Czechs 4-3. During the intermission, Riley invited an unusual guest into his team’s dressing room. Nikolai Sologubov, the Soviet captain, burst through the door. Sologubov, whom Riley re-christened with the classic hockey moniker “Sully,” pounded the American players on their backs and implored them to dig deep. He then suggested that Riley give them oxygen to counter their fatigue, which was exacerbated by Squaw Valley’s 6,200-foot elevation. With nothing to lose, Riley shrugged. The coaches and trainers scrambled to administer oxygen before the game resumed. Sully helped.

In the third period, the American offense exploded. They scored six unanswered goals while McCartan saved every shot he faced. The 9-4 victory gave the United States its first-ever gold medal. A photograph taken after the game was printed in newspapers across the country: players celebrate while Riley and Sully pose in the foreground. Their arms are draped over each other’s shoulders. Schoolboy grins convey deep adulation. It’s an image of the Olympic spirit: athletic fellowship transcending international tension. By 1980, the Cold War had become considerably colder. Maybe that’s why the second miracle made for a better movie.

When the Rileys returned to West Point after the Olympics, they were greeted with a 21-gun salute. Jack Riley retired in 1986, with a career record of 544-242-21, and was succeeded by his son Rob. When Rob retired in 2004, his brother Brian took over, ensuring dynastic continuity. Their father passed away in February 2016 at the age of 95. The following October he was posthumously inducted into Tabor’s inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame class.

Riley only spent a year and two summers in Marion, but he made an indelible mark. In the June 1939 issue of The Log, the senior class’s traditional “Class Prophecy” section predicted that Riley would get to the Olympics. In the cheeky “Last Will and Testament” page from the same issue, he bequeathed a special gift.

“Jack Riley leaves plans for the transformation of Sippican Harbor into a skating rink, so that everyone can see what a true sport is like.”