It’s been more than 50 years, and John Matchefts can still diagram the scoring play, in precise detail, from memory. The University of Michigan hockey star was in his 20s and skating for Team USA when he saw it happen live at the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Playing Olympic hockey that year gave Matchefts and company a series of new experiences, but none newer than seeing a team from the Soviet Union play a brand of hockey nobody had ever witnessed before while en route to the gold medal.
In their game against the Soviets, the Americans saw a team that, under the tutelage of legendary coach Anatoly Tarasov, had taken the skating- and checking-based game and made it into one of puck control, crisp passing and mistake-free defense.
“To this day, I can draw on a board exactly what they did to score their first goal,” said Matchefts, who went on to coach at Colorado College and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
More than one American player estimates that the Soviets controlled the puck for 70 percent or more of the game. The Soviets won, 4-0, and got the eventual game-winner on a power play with Matchefts in the penalty box.
“It’s amazing how clever they were,” he recalled. “They just passed and passed and passed, then tipped the puck in. That was the game, right there.”
The shutout at the hands of the mysterious and then-unknown Soviets was one of only two losses suffered by the Americans in Cortina. They rebounded to spank Czechoslovakia, 9-4, in their final Olympic game and came home from Italy with a cache of silver medals.
The 1956 version of Team USA was picked and coached by John Mariucci, who had just three years of behind-the-bench experience at the University of Minnesota before taking the reins of the Olympians. Mariucci brought more than 30 players to the Curling Club in Duluth, Minn., in late October 1955 and selected 18 of them to wear the red, white and blue. Eleven of the players were from Minnesota (including three from Mariucci’s hometown, Eveleth), along with five from Massachusetts, one from Michigan and one from North Dakota.
“A Lot of people made something of the east and west debate, but John Mariucci was the fairest
According to Dick Meredith, a forward from Minneapolis, Mariucci took a good deal of heat from sportswriters on the East Coast for the primarily Minnesotan makeup of the squad. Forward Bill Cleary, who played for Harvard and coached the Crimson to the 1989 NCAA title, disputes the idea that Mariucci was biased toward Minnesotans.
“A lot of people made something of the east and west debate, but John Mariucci was the fairest guy in the world,” Cleary said. “He treated me just like I’d played for him at the University of Minnesota.”
The skaters agree that Mariucci was a players’ coach who gave his team a lot of freedom on the ice and allowed the natural talents of forwards like Cleary and John Mayasich and goaltender Willard Ikola to shine.
“They coach more now than they did then,” said forward Ginny Christian. “Then, Mariucci just opened the door and let us play.”
Perhaps their biggest loss of the Games came while still on American soil, when talented defenseman Francis O’Grady injured his shoulder in an exhibition game in Boston. O’Grady accompanied the team to Italy, but was unable to play.
The “amateurs only” nature of the Games then meant that a few other talented Americans might not have even tried out for the team due to financial constraints. Dan McKinnon, a forward on the team, noted that the Americans were true amateurs.
“I think we got five dollars a week, plus two sport coats and two pairs of pants,” McKinnon said. “Basically, you paid your own way. There were some damn good hockey players who would’ve made the team that didn’t even try out because they had jobs and couldn’t afford to go.”
After an undefeated run through a series of exhibition games versus American college teams and a banquet in New York City, the team flew to London (a 12-hour trip that included a refueling stop in Newfoundland) for its first taste of pre-Olympic international competition.
After exhibition games in London, the players found mainland Europe to still be in the throes of recovery a decade after the continent had been ravaged by World War II. Meredith recalled the team checking into a hotel in Germany only to find that most rooms were intact, but the rear of the building was still bombed-out rubble. Mariucci promptly got his team back on the bus and check them into better lodgings.
Bob Ridder, the team’s manager, spoke fluent German and served as the team’s unofficial interpreter in that country. Mariucci promised to do the same when they got to Italy, but upon crossing the Alps, the players found they might need a new interpreter.
“We got there and nobody could understand him,” said Meredith. “He couldn’t even talk to the bus driver.”
The team’s final pre-Olympic tune-up was held in the Italian mountain town of Bolzano, and Mariucci quickly realized that the Italian dialect he’d learned growing up around immigrants on Minnesota’s Iron Range was much different than what he experienced in Italy.
Long before he served as Governor of Minnesota, Wendell Anderson was a defenseman on the ’56 team and remembers an Italian fan with a good command of English scoffing at Mariucci’s attempts to speak the native language.
“A gentleman in Bolzano told us, ‘Mr. Mariucci may be able to speak Italian in Eveleth, Minnesota, but he cannot do it in Italy,’” Anderson recalled.
The rink in Cortina, which years later served as the site of a scene in the 1981 James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only,” was open-air, with three decks of fans surrounding the ice in a horseshoe-shaped bowl. Cleary said that in the stunningly beautiful mountain setting, playing games under the stars, you felt like you might be in heaven.
The Olympics opened with a surprising 4-3 loss by the Americans at the hands of Czechoslovakia. But a focused Mariucci rallied his club in a hurry.
“John would go to church every morning before games, and we had never seen him go to church before,” Meredith said. “He was in it.”
The Americans won their next four games by wide margins (including an emotional 4-1 win over Canada) before the showdown with the Soviet Union. American forward Dick Dougherty said that the Soviets were a mystery, but they were generally thought to be similar in style to other European teams.
“It felt like we didn’t do very well. we weren’t happy with second place.”
“We thought they’d be like the Germans or the Swedes, but we were stymied,” Dougherty said of the Soviet style. “We’d never seen anything like that before in North America. That Soviet game really took the wind out of us.”
After their blowout victory in the rematch with Czechoslovakia, the Americans finished second in the tournament. For some though, silver wasn’t good enough.
“It felt like we didn’t do very well,” said Dougherty. “We weren’t happy with second place.”
The medals were handed out in a manner with less formality than the ceremonies of modern Olympics.
“I just went to the podium by myself and they handed me a box of medals for everybody,” said McKinnon.
Mariucci and Matchefts missed the Games’ closing ceremonies, opting instead to visit the hometowns of their Italian ancestors. Both found the country outside of Cortina to be still struggling to recover from the war. When the pair later reunited with the team in Rome, Mariucci related the poverty he’d seen in rural Italy.
“We were in the Excelsior Hotel, waiting to go see the Pope, and Mariucci walked in,” Cleary recalled. “He grabbed a postcard to send to his family and wrote, ‘Ma & Pa, I’m glad you didn’t miss the boat.’”
Aside from the on-ice brilliance of the Soviets, the memory that stands out most in the minds of many players is that of the opening ceremonies in Italy, 49 years ago. Cleary said that his proudest moment in hockey, even better than winning the gold medal in 1960, was parading into the stadium in Cortina for the opening ceremonies, wearing the colors of his county.
“I was barely 20 years old and had hardly even been across the Charles River, let alone across the Atlantic Ocean,” Cleary said. “That was my greatest thrill.”
Jess Myers is a contributing editor for InsideCollegeHockey.com.