Lessons From A Legend

Bill Cleary Holds Close To The Time Tested Beliefs That Carried Him To The Top Of The Game

Bill Cleary's life is a treasure trove of hockey memories, but one may stand out above all the rest.

It was Christmas 1984 when Cleary brought his Harvard University team behind the Iron Curtain to play a series of exhibition games in what was then known as Czechoslovakia. 

During the tour Cleary received word that former Czech national team goalie Dmitri Vorachev was eager to see him despite being in failing health. 

As the team pulled into the town of Kolin for the second-to-last game of the tour, Cleary stepped off the bus and there was Vorachev, looking older and withered, waiting in the cold. The former Olympic competitors greeted one another as old friends as Vorachev went through the roster of that gold-medal winning team from 1960, asking about each member, what they were doing now, what their families were like and if they were still involved in hockey.

Soon it was time for that evening's contest, and Vorachev walked out onto the ice to address the crowd.

"I want to welcome my good friend from the United States," he said. "We haven't seen each other in almost 25 years. We competed against each other in the Olympics. And even though our countries aren't friendly, we are friends, we are sportsmen and we are Olympians."

"It was unbelievable. I was getting choked up," recalls Cleary, who was brought out on the ice and given the coat of arms to the city. "After the game was over, we talked some more. It was like he didn't want me to leave."

The following night was the tour finale, and Cleary was recounting his visit with Vorachev when his interpreter stepped in to deliver some bad news. Vorachev had died that morning.

"It was almost like he waited to see me. Not me, but what I represented. It was the eeriest thing that ever happened to me," Cleary says.

"But that's what the Olympics are all about. I think that says it all."

*    *    *

Few things bring Cleary's blood to a boil like the talk of professional players competing in the Olympics.

"I haven't changed my feeling on it. I'm dead set against the pros playing in the Olympics," says the two-time Olympian who also won a silver medal in 1956 in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and gold four years later in Squaw Valley, Calif. 

"We did alright as amateurs. I've got a gold and a silver medal at home. What do the pros have? They may have a couple of silvers but they don't have any gold."

To make his case, Cleary points to photos from two Olympic eras wrapped by a common symbol.

In a simpler time, there stood Jim Craig, one of the many heroes from that 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that staged the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid, N.Y., wrapped in the Stars and Stripes as he searched the frenzied crowd for his father. 

In a distant arena separated by time, space and ideals, stood members of basketball's Dream Team, who used the American flag to cover up the logo of a conflicting sponsor on their warm-up suits after winning gold at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games. 

In the eyes of Cleary, those images speak volumes about what the Olympics were about, and what they have become.

"It's about money and not about sport. And that's why I'm against it and I'll never change," he says. "People think I'm old fashioned, and I am. I make no apologies for that."

*    *    *

Ben Smith has heard Cleary rail against the proposition of pros competing in the Olympics for the better part of 30 years. And he has a rebuttal for his dear friend. 

"We've had some great arguments because I always throw it right back in his face," Smith laughs. "I say, 'Hey, Billy, who was the best hockey player in America in 1960? It was you, hands down. So why shouldn't the best player in America get to play in the Olympics today? Why shouldn't Patrick Kane get the chance to represent his country?'"

Smith was just a youngster when his father took him to see Cleary play for Harvard in the early 1950s. Through his innocent eyes, Smith could see that Cleary was in a class by himself, the way he saw the ice, the way he stickhandled as if the puck was tied to his stick like a yo-yo, and the way he could shoot it with a flick of his magic wrists.

"He was the type of guy where as a kid you might go see a Roy Rogers movie on a Saturday afternoon and come out of the theater looking for a horse to ride," Smith says using one of his many movie analogies. 

"When you saw Billy Cleary play, you wanted to come out of the rink and find a pond and try to do what he did. 

"He was just so far above the competition level that you didn't have to have a discerning eye to know that guy was different."

*    *    *

It's been 60 years since Cleary and that spirited U.S. team shocked the hockey world by upsetting the heavily-favored Canadian and Russian teams to capture the United States first gold medal in hockey in Squaw Valley, Calif. 

It was a feat that was repeated 20 years later on American soil in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Cleary said the people who cheered the loudest were the 20 players from that 1960 squad.

"No one wanted to see them win more than we did," says Cleary, who was prompted by his friend and former teammate Herb Brooks to address the 1980 team before they shocked the Russians.

To Cleary, the Olympics is about more than winning a medal. It's about the memories that last a lifetime.

"Obviously winning a gold medal was a thrill, but I think the highlight of my career, and the thing I'll never forget, was marching in the opening ceremony in Cortina," recalls Cleary.

 "It wasn't that long after the Second World War. I was just a young boy in Cambridge and to come marching in behind the American flag with USA written across my chest. It was such a memorable thing being able to represent your country. Believe me, I could win 100 Stanley Cups, but it would never equal the feeling of marching in that parade. Never!"

*    *    *

After the Olympics, Cleary decided not to turn pro and returned to the insurance business he and his brother started in Boston. He kept in touch with hockey by refereeing in his spare time, and when the offer came to coach the Harvard hockey team in 1968, he jumped at the chance.

Over the course of his 19 seasons behind the Crimson bench, he posted a 324-201-22 record and guided the school to an NCAA title in 1989. He had three Hobey Baker Award winners, reached the frozen four seven times and the national championship game on three of those occasions. And all this without the luxury of offering a scholarship to a single player.

"One of his greatest strengths as a coach was that he trusted his players and let them play," says Smith, who faced off against Cleary's Crimson many times when he was coaching at Yale and Boston University. 

"He wanted players who could think the game and act quickly with their skills, but also act quickly with their minds. I think he understood that it's basically a player's game and he didn't want to get in the way of his players."

*    *    *

Cleary's association with the Ivy League school spanned six decades, starting as a youngster selling programs at Harvard Stadium through a career as a standout player, on to a 19-year tenure as the head hockey coach and more than a decade as the school's athletic director until he retired in 2001.

The trophy case inside his Newton, Mass., home is filled with more honors than can be counted. He's won the Hobey Baker Legend of Hockey Award, the Lester Patrick Award, was a member of the NCAA's 50th Anniversary team and USA Hockey's 60th anniversary team. He is enshrined in the IIHF Hall of Fame, the Olympic Hall of Fame, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and is the only athlete in the 150-year history of Harvard athletics to have his jersey number retired.

Any mention of any of these honors is quickly brushed aside.

"They're all very nice honors, but it's not going to change my life because of it," Cleary says. "It all comes down to the memories. I used to say to the kids, when it's all said and done and you're not skating anymore, what is sport all about? It's about the memories and the friendships. 

"Let me tell you, I'm a wealthy guy because of the memories and friendships I made from my time in hockey. I wouldn't trade that for all the tea in China."

*    *    *

And he hasn't closed the book on creating even more memories and making new friends. Cleary still attends Harvard hockey games and catches as many of the other local college teams on TV as he can. 

He bristles at the way the game is played today and yearns for a return to a more skilled game. He applauds the NHL for cracking down on the clutching and grabbing but deplores the trap and other defensive systems that put paying customers to sleep.

And he continues to rail against early specialization and the win-at-all-cost attitude that is pervasive in youth sports. He sees promise in new programs like the American Development Model, with its emphasis on teaching skills-particularly puck skills-to the youngest players.

"From everything I see and hear, I like what's going on," he says while watching a cross-ice tournament at Boston's Agganis Arena. "There seems to be a better emphasis on skills now. If you know how to skate and handle the puck, that's the most important thing. That's why it's so important to give every kid a puck every practice. How else are you going to get better?"

*    *    *

As the hockey world marks the passage of time by celebrating the stunning upset in Squaw Valley from 60 years ago, Cleary seems content to keep the awards and accolades tucked away, along with the bottle of vodka given to him by legendary Russian coach Anatoli Tarasov. He's more than content to leave it to others to judge his place among the greats of the game. 

And as the number of fans who saw him wearing the Harvard crimson or the red, white and blue of the United States dwindles, there are still a faithful few who are more than happy to see that Bill Cleary's legacy continues to burn as bright as the Olympic flame.

"To me he's Roy Hobbs," Smith says. "In the movie, "The Natural," [Robert Redford's character] wanted to be able to walk down the street and have people say 'there goes the best ball player there ever was.'

"For me, Bill Cleary can still walk down any street in America and have people point at him and say, 'there is the best American hockey player that ever was.'" 

 

Issue: 
2020-03

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