Hockey Weekend Across America: Silver Anniversary

Olympic Flame Still Burns Bright For Hockey Heroes Who Paved The Way For Future Generations

Sixty years have passed since Team USA took home the silver medal at the 1956 Olympics, but for U.S. Olympians Weldy Olson and Willard Ikola, the experience still feels like it happened yesterday.

Like the rest of their American teammates who stunned the hockey world in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Ikola and Olson weren’t professionals. Back then, the National Hockey League was populated primarily by Canadians who rose through the ranks of their homegrown Junior programs. For American college kids like Ikola and Olson, the opportunity to pursue a hockey career was far more elusive.

As the hockey community celebrated Hockey Weekend Across America, these two pioneers reflected on how far the sport has come as they were honored during a visit to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Growing up in Marquette, Mich., Olson spent his formative years playing amateur hockey alongside his eight older brothers. Those days spent with his family were some of the only chances the winger had to play hockey in his hometown.

“We had no high school hockey in northern Michigan at that time, so we just played amateur hockey and then those who could went on to play in college,” Olson said.
He spent four years playing hockey at Michigan State University, where he led his team in goals every season.

In Eveleth, Minn., where Ikola was born and raised, youth hockey was much more of a way of life.

“In our little town, we had the senior team, a junior college team, a high school team and then youth hockey,” Ikola said. “You’re only as strong as your youth program.”

In high school, Ikola, a goaltender, won three straight state championships, and then proceeded on to college at the University of Michigan, where he was part of two NCAA title-winning teams.

With the NHL rosters pretty much full, both men enlisted in the Air Force after graduating college instead of trying to move on to the pros.

“There weren’t that many playing opportunities for us,” Olson said. “When we were playing, the rosters were 18 to 20 guys and there were only six teams. Now, the NHL has 30 teams with bigger rosters, and there are more leagues. You just have to do the multiplication.”

Since Olson and Ikola’s first foray onto the international stage, the opportunities for American hockey players have increased tenfold, thanks in large part to the attention that hockey received from those medal runs in 1956 and 1960.

“Once we won in 1960, there was a great surge in youth hockey because of the new interest,” Olson said.

“I don’t think people realize that the game we played against the Russians was the first televised game from the Olympics in the United States. I think that spread interest around the country. The big thing is that youth hockey grew quite well.”

With that increased attention came more opportunities for Americans to prove that they have the skills to compete at the highest levels.

“Back when we were in the Olympics, there were no NHL players involved. It was all college kids. The 1980 Olympic Team opened up a lot of ice with the success that they had with Herb Brooks as the coach,” Ikola said.

“More Americans have been making it to the NHL now, so it’s been great for U.S. hockey, and hockey in general … because we didn’t have that opportunity.”

Willard Ikola and Weldy Olson played key roles as the U.S. won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympic Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and Olson returned four years later to help lead the U.S. to gold in Squaw Valley, Calif.Willard Ikola and Weldy Olson played key roles as the U.S. won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympic Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and Olson returned four years later to help lead the U.S. to gold in Squaw Valley, Calif.

Representing the United States was a dream come true for both men, not only because of the honor of competing for their country on the international stage, but also because of how it demonstrated the success of their hometown programs.

“It was great. Not only to represent the United States but also your college, hometown, your family, everyone who helped bring you up all the way along – you just felt good about it,” Olson said. “You were proud to be a part of the U.S. program.”

Both Olson and Ikola continued to work in hockey even after they hung up their skates. Ikola spent 33 years as a youth hockey coach in Minnesota, where he saw hockey continue to grow right before his eyes. Olson went on to publish sports magazines and work in the ice rink business, managing an ice arena in Ohio near where he still lives.

For these iconic Americans, hockey wasn’t just a hobby or even just a job. It was a way of life.

 


 

Family Affair Still Ranks High In Olson’s Career

Of all the big games that Weldy Olson played in over the course of his storied career, perhaps no contest resonates more with the 83-year-old native of Marquette, Mich., than an exhibition played 50 years ago.

That’s because Olson was teamed up with his eight brothers and a few nephews to take on the Pekin Stars, a senior hockey team in Peoria, Ill. The Olson family prevailed, 14-5, and memories of that day still make the two-time Olympian smile.

“The Olympics were very exciting, after four years at Michigan State and five years with the U.S. [National] Team. But the most exciting game for me was our family game. … My oldest brother was 54 at that time, and I was 33,” Olson recalled. “Of course, winning the gold in Squaw Valley was a big moment, yeah.”

According to a local newspaper report, the crafty Olsons were too much for their younger rivals.

“The slow, deliberate play of the experienced Olsons proved to be too much for the Stars, who generally play a fast game.”

Issue: 
2016-04

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