Bridging off my post yesterday, I’ve picked a list of the top 5 Winter “Olympisotans” (i.e. Minnesota athletes, teams, or coaches in Winter Olympic history). My methods and criteria for ranking each Olympisotan are extremely meticulous, scientific and unbiased, based largely on Google searches, Wikipedia articles and my own opinion.
Here we go…
5. Amy Peterson
Amy Peterson’s uncle, Gene Sandvig, was a member of the U.S.’s 1952 and 1956 Olympic speed skating teams, so perhaps skating fast is simply in the family bloodline. In any case, Amy surpassed uncle Gene’s achievements and earned herself a spot at #5 on the list.
Peterson was raised in St. Paul where she attended Johnson High School, but she was no typical teenager. In addition to her classwork and other teenage goings-on, she also managed to qualify for the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team at the age of 16. For the next 14 years, she’d never miss an Olympics. Competing as a short track speed skater in five different Winter Games (1988, ‘92, ‘94, ‘98, ‘02), Peterson earned more medals than any Minnesota athlete in Winter Olympics history, taking home one silver (’94), and two bronze medals (’92).
In 2002, her fellow American athletes chose Peterson for the high honor of carrying the flag at the front of the U.S. delegation during the opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Peterson’s amazing run of competing in consecutive Olympics ended in 2006 when she fell short of qualifying for her sixth straight Winter Games.
4. Lindsey Vonn
You might best know Lindsey Vonn as Tiger Wood’s girlfriend — this is too bad, because she also happens to be the most accomplished skier in U.S. history — that earns her the #4 spot on the list.
Born in St. Paul and trained on the slopes at Burnsville’s Buck Hill from the time she was very young, Lindsey rose meteorically to become one of the most dominant downhill skiers in the world, compiling a dizzying list of accolades and achievements during her ascent. In World Cup competition, she has won six consecutive season championships in downhill, four consecutive titles in super-G and three in a row in super combined. Overall, Vonn has totaled the third most all-time World Cup victories among female ski racers, while becoming one of only six women in history to win World Cup races in each of the six disciplines (slalom, giant slalom, super-G, downhill and super combined) of alpine skiing.
At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Lindsey battled through a nagging injury to become the first women in U.S. history to capture gold in the Women’s downhill, as well as adding a bronze medal in the Super-G. Based on her success in Vancouver, the United States Olympic Committee named Vonn the Sportswomen of the year for 2010.
Unfortunately, earlier this year Vonn announced she was withdrawing from the 2014 Olympic games due to a knee injury, so we won’t be able to watch her shred the competition in Sochi.
See you in South Korea in 2018, Lindsey?
3. Herb Brooks
Though he never won a medal competing as an athlete, Herb Brooks’ name is rightly synonymous with Minnesota Olympic success. He comes in at #3 on the list.
Brooks, a St. Paul native, was slated to be a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, only to be cut from the roster a week before the games began. That team would go on to win the gold medal — it’s likely this missed opportunity for Olympic glory served only to fuel Herb’s acclaimed competitive fire.
The tenacious Brooks worked hard and earned a spot on Team U.S.A.’s Olympic squads in 1964 and 1968. In fact, he played on more U.S. National and Olympic teams between 1960 and 1970 than any other player in history. After retiring as a player, Brooks became a successful coach, leading the Minnesota Golden Gophers to three National Championships (1974, ’76, ’79), as well as coaching seven seasons in the NHL.
Yet even with his long resume of achievements, Brooks is remembered by most as the brilliant, if fanatical, leader and coach of #2 on the list…
2. 1980 US Hockey Team
It was — and still is — perhaps the most iconic moment in U.S. Winter Olympic history, it has Minnesota’s signature all over it, and it is #2 on the list.
As the final seconds ticked down in the Americans’ improbable 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union, play-by-play announcer Al Michaels famously asked viewers, “Do you believe in miracles?” With that memorable interrogative, the real-life, winterized-version of David versus Goliath, ‘The Miracle on Ice,” became an indispensable part of the American sports lexicon.
It may sound like hyperbole, but the U.S. team’s gold medal in Lake Placid truly was the stuff of miracles. When the Soviets and Americans squared off on February 22, 1980, at Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York, no one could have predicted a victorious U.S. outcome.
The Soviets were a bonafide juggernaut, composed of top-flight professional players — savvy team captain Boris Mikhailov, the world-renowned Vladislav Tretiak who was considered the best goaltender on planet Earth in 1980, and the deft and highly-skilled Valeri Kharlamov — from well-established Russian leagues.The Soviet Union had won the gold medal in the past three Winter Olympics and hadn’t lost a game in Olympic play since 1968. They were the top ranked team in the world, a heavy favorite for gold, and were expected to dominate the competition from the opening faceoff to the final horn.
On the other side of the coin, the U.S. was ranked seventh out of the 12 teams in the tournament. In sharp contrast to Soviets’ star-studded lineup, coach Herb Brooks assembled the youngest team in U.S. Olympic hockey history, drawing largely from the roster he had coached at the University of Minnesota along with other college players from the East Coast. Though the U.S squad was talented, pundits’ prognostications for the Americans included no medals, and certainly none of the golden variety.
Even with steep odds stacked them, the plucky American team, inspired by Brooks’ resolve and sheer determination, edged out the Soviets and the real-life mythology of the Miracle was born.
In addition to it’s place in U.S. Olympic lore, the 1980 team that shocked the world by defeating the mighty Soviets is on this list because it features a plethora of Minnesota ties — 12 of the 20 players on the roster were born and raised in Minnesota, and 11 of them attended college in state. Notable Minnesotans on the squad included Roseau’s Neal Broten, Warroad’s Dave Christian and Minneapolis’s Mike Ramsey, all three of whom went on to lengthy and successful careers in the NHL.
All in all, the “Miracle on Ice” may be the greatest Winter Olympics story ever told. However, I’d argue it should only be #2 on this particular list, because two decades earlier, before television had its chance to make the Olympics into the modern day viewing spectacle it has become, there was another miracle that took place on a sheet of ice — this time in California — and Minnesotans played an even more integral part than they had in 1980 at Lake Placid.
1. 1960 Men’s Hockey Team
The 1980 “Miracle on Ice” receives tremendous fanfare, and deservedly so. But twenty years earlier—when Neal Broten was a toddler who had yet to pick up a hockey stick or lace up pair of skates—the 1960 U.S. Men’s hockey team won a highly improbable Olympic gold in Squaw Valley, California in what has been dubbed “The Forgotten Miracle.” In many respects, it was more of a milestone for Minnesota than its more-universally famous 1980 counterpart and, for that reason, earns the #1 spot on the list.
Author’s note: While I recognize it may be considered blasphemous to rank anything above Herb Brooks or the “Miracle on Ice” in terms of Minnesotans’ overall impact on the Winter Olympics, as I mentioned before, my reasoning is all based on sound scientific principles and Googling lots of stuff, so you know it’s good, and I’m probably right.
In 1980, the Soviet Union was the supreme power in ice hockey, having won the last four Olympic Gold medals in 1964, ‘68, ’72 & ’76. As far as international hockey at that time, the Russians were the only game in town, and nearly everyone expected them to cruise to gold in Lake Placid.
Rewind to 1960 and the competitive landscape was a bit more complicated. Going into the Olympic Games, there were at least two powerhouses the Americans had to compete against, along with several other legitimate contenders. The Soviets had won gold at the Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Olympics in 1956 and were establishing themselves as a burgeoning hockey dynamo in the four years leading up to the games in Squaw Valley.
Canada, the nation that invented ice hockey, had medaled in every Winter Olympics since its advent, winning gold in six of the eight Olympic tournaments up to that point. They were poised and well-positioned to add even more gold to their already voluminous collection.
Metaphorically, if the 1980 Olympics were a David versus Goliath story for U.S.A. hockey, then one might say that 1960’s Games pitted an American David against a Russian Goliath and his giant Canadian cousin.
Despite the strong field of competitors, Team U.S.A. started strong in the Olympic tournament, becoming one of six teams to advance to the round-robin-format medal round after defeating Australia (12 – 1) and Czechoslovakia (7 – 5) in group play. Then, after beating Sweden (6 – 3) and Germany (9 – 1), the Americans prepared to take on Canada and the Soviets in their next two games.
Against Canada, the U.S. was able to squeak out a plucky (2 – 1) victory over their heavily-favored neighbors from the north. The scrappy Americans then followed their upset of the Canadians with a stunning (2 – 1) defeat of the fearsome Soviets in an epic game that served to foreshadow the eerily similar events that would take place in Lake Placid 20 years later.
For their finale, Team U.S.A. overcame a (4 – 3) second period deficit with a deluge of six third period goals, beating Czechoslovakia (9 – 4) — this earned them the top spot on the podium to go along with a gold medal that no expert had given them a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. It was the first Olympic gold medal in the history of United States hockey, and the only gold medal the hockey team would win until the 1980 Games.
Paid $15 a month for expenses in return for their playing services, members of the champion 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team departed Squaw Valley in the same manner they had arrived: no pomp and circumstance. Households throughout the country had no color television and no round-the-clock news or sports coverage. In fact, only one of U.S.’s full games had been shown on TV.
Seven games, seven victories, a gold medal, and very little media attention. In workmanlike effort, the Americans — a roster composed of a collage of college athletes, club-level players, and regular guys who love the game of hockey — had quietly done the unimaginable, coming to California, defeating the top competition on the planet, and then heading home to go back to work or their studies.
Apart from intentionally being contrarian for it’s own sake, the reason I chose the 1960 U.S. hockey team as #1 on the list (over the better-known 1980 team) was due to the indelible mark that several Minnesota-born players left on that team and the significant role they played in bringing the United States its first-ever gold medal in Minnesota’s favorite winter sport.
Here is a quick look at a few of the key players from Minnesota:
John Mayasich, a Minnesota hockey hero and early pioneer of the slap shot, was one of the key members of the U.S. team in 1960. Prior to his Olympic career, John had won four Minnesota high school state titles for his hometown of Eveleth and gone on to star for the University of Minnesota. As a Golden Gopher, John set career records for goals, assists and points and was voted an All-American for three consecutive years.
In 1960, the 26 year old Mayasich worked as an advertising executive during the week and skated for the Green Bay Bobcats of the USHL on the weekends. Earning a silver medal and scoring 10 points as a member of the 1956 squad, John upped his production in the 1960 Olympics. He scored 12 points in the tournament in Squaw Valley, including a hat trick against formidable Czechoslovakia during group play.
The U.S. roster also included St. Paul native John “Jack” McCartan, who tended goal for the Americans. Before the 1960 Olympics, Jack attended the University of Minnesota where he became a two-sport standout, earning All-American honors in baseball and hockey. After college, he joined the Army, but was granted leave from his service to play goalie for Team U.S.A. in the 1960 Winter Games.
Superior play from the goaltender is crucial to winning hockey games and McCartan did not disappoint. Minding the net for the U.S. squad in Squaw Valley, he set the tone for victory, providing consistent high-level performances. Jack allowed only 2.43 goals per game on his way to being named the “Best Goaltender” in an Olympic tournament that included all the top goalies in the world.
And then there were the Christian brothers, Roger and Bill, from Warroad. As far as Minnesota hockey families go, the Christians are something of hockey dynasty: Their older brother Gordon was a member of the 1956 silver medal-winning U.S. hockey team, and Bill’s son Dave skated for the 1980 U.S. gold medal squad in Lake Placid. After their Olympic success, Roger and Bill also went on to start the Christian Brother Hockey Company, makers of the most popular brand of wooden hockey sticks in the NHL during the 1970s and 1980s.
At the 1960 Olympic games, both”Rog” and “Billy” were integral members of Team U.S.A.’s gold medal run. Billy scored 13 points, including two key goals against the Soviet Union during the medal round. Rog added 11 points, including hat tricks against Sweden and Czechoslovakia in the opening rounds. Both brothers also went on to represent the U.S in the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, where they finished 5th.
Overall, eight of the 17 players on the 1960 Olympic roster were born and raised in Minnesota, including three of the top four scoring members of the team (Mayasich, Bill and Roger Christian) and the top performing goalie in the tournament (McCartan).
The “Forgotten Miracle” in Squaw Valley, California was made possible, in large part, due to the talents and efforts of a group hard-working, hockey-loving Minnesotans. Though never receiving the same level of recognition as the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” in many ways, the gold medal-winning 1960 U.S. team personified much of what it means to be an Olympian from Minnesota, as well as laying the groundwork for future generations of Olympic hopefuls from our great (and cold) state… and that is why it is #1 on the list.
So, that’s my list. Like so many debates in sports, which Minnesota Olympian is the GOAT (Greatest Of All-Time) could be a perpetual discussion for years to come. Though many will certainly disagree with my top 5, it would be difficult for anyone to dispute that our beloved state has played a significant role in Winter Olympics history — and with 19 athletes from Minnesota representing the U.S. over the next couple weeks in Sochi, it is safe to assume that tradition will continue.
And, considering this Winter’s extra-frigid snowy-ness, I think it is also safe to assume that all around us, on snow covered hills and frozen ponds throughout the state, a whole new generation of future Winter Olympisotans are spending the season out in the elements, skating and skiing and curling and learning how to win games in the snow and ice, dreaming of someday being a part of their own Minnesota Olympic Miracle.
Photos via: Google