Fifty years ago, the United States men’s national team won their first Olympic gold medal in ice hockey. American Olympic success in men’s ice hockey for many people begins and ends in 1980 with that legendary win over the Soviet Union – the Miracle on Ice. Many don’t even realize that the U.S. won the gold in hockey at the 1960 Winter Olympics. In fact, many don’t even realize that the U.S. didn’t even win the gold in 1980 by beating the Soviet Union – they had to beat Finland too. At most, the U.S. 1960 Olympic hockey team is just listed in the record books as the winners of the 1960 gold medal. Many don’t realize how tremendous that win was, what the team did prior to 1960, and the circumstances the team went through in winning the gold.
Thankfully, a 65 minute documentary by Golden Puck Pictures in association with USA Hockey and the United States Olympic Committee is available to fill in that void of recognition: Forgotten Miracle. Sure, there have been articles written about the 1960 U.S. team, like this excellent one by Kevin Allen at ESPN Classic and this 1999 article by E.M. Swift - who was in the documentary - at SI. Yet, this documentary really captures how the U.S. national team performed and succeeded in Squaw Valley in 1960 with plenty of interviews and commentary by the players from that team. That alone makes the documentary important. If you have even a passing interest in U.S. hockey history, then I would recommend checking out this documentary.
Back in December (and as full disclosure), I got a message from the directors promoting the movie. I requested a review copy, but I waited until the Olympics to properly give my opinion on it as international hockey is fresh on the minds of many hockey fans. I thank the directors, Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne for sending me a DVD copy of the film for this purpose. You can learn more about the movie, as well as purchase it, at the official website.
Admittedly, Forgotten Miracle is a bit of a difficult documentary to review. It's not meant to be even-handed, totally neutral look at the 1960 Olympics. I think that's fine, it was produced in association with USA Hockey, after all. The whole point of the film is to provide the American take of their success from 1959 up until the 1960 Olympics. Chances are, if you're interested in this movie, then you're interested in U.S. hockey from that time period to some degree - this film will satisfy your interest. However, if you have that interest, then you likely may have heard of Forgotten Miracle and you would check it out just based on the subject due to the dearth of movies covering this subject.
The bulk of the documentary are the numerous interviews from the players (e.g. winger Bill Cleary, goaltender Jack McCartan, forward-turned-defenseman John Mayasich, forward Roger Christian), head coach Jack Riley, and general manager Jim Claypool. This is the best reason to watch Forgotten Miracle altogether. The players recount with detail, among other things, how each game went, how each game felt, how difficult Riley's practices were at West Point for training camp, their experiences in Europe in 1959, and the controversial decision to cut three players from that camp so John Mayasich and the Clearly brothers could be on the team. Their perspective was insightful right from the beginning to the end. This approach is boosted by the additional commentary by E.M. Swift, writer Harvey Shapiro, and historian John Soares, who really helped highlight the national team's efforts in a bigger picture.
Among all of them, I felt that Bill Cleary and Jack Riley really stuck out. Cleary was among the more talkative players in the documentary and recounted the events memorably. No disrespect intended for the other players or commentators, they did a very good job; but I felt Cleary was the most articulate in recalling what went on. Right from the beginning in stating how low-key the win was right to the end where he recounts his pep talk to the 1980 U.S. Olympic team during the credits.
In my opinion, Riley's commentary was the most insightful, as he was the coach of the team. He really had a no-nonsense approach in coaching the team; even in recalling 1960, his candor really emphasizes that attitude. Riley was up front on why he had to cut three players to add Mayasich and the Clearys (Bill wanted Bob to go along with it), and why he cut who he cut (Herb Brooks was the last player to be cut, made to make space for Bob Cleary). My interest piqued when he was on camera to speak.
Forgotten Miracle is also laudable for not making it just 65 minutes of just the 1960 Winter Olympics. The opening of the film focuses on how the Soviet Union was entering the international hockey scene with a bang in 1954, showcasing a passing-based attack that looks basic now but just wasn't done in hockey back then. They highlighted their gold medal win at the 1956 Winter Olympics while noting the United States' own surprising silver medal in hockey (which included a win over Canada 4-1 ).
The film continues on through, specifically highlighting 1959 as the year where the U.S. national team had their foundation for 1960. The main points were their extended trip to Europe - including the Soviet Uniton - to get experience playing European teams on their rinks, their World Championship experience in Prague, and their training camp at West Point by Riley. I certainly didn't realize how experienced the 1960 team was going into those Olympics nor did I know much about the team. The documentary is certainly educational for those who don't know much about American hockey history, like myself.
The first half of the movie does an excellent job showcasing how the team was built. The second half is all about the Olympics themselves, and I think that the directors did a great job with approaching the games the way they did. They highlighted the wins over Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union (first ever win over the USSR in hockey), and Canada more than anything else as those were the crucial games. Head coach Riley noted that the U.S. was considered to be the fifth best team in the tournament, and that set up the additional focus for those games. The usage of video from those games, while not great quality due it being from 1960, was really illuminating to me. The games looked so different back then (e.g. no helmets, stand-up goalies, poor ice) as well as the important American goals against the Canadians, Soviets, and Czechoslovakians. I would have like to have seen more video and pictures, but who knows how much actual usable media is out there from that time period.
That said, I'm left with three main criticisms. First, I felt that there could have been more in-depth discussion on how good these players really were. I believe John Mayasich was the only one who was really specifically highlight as a great American player, a dominant forward converted to play defense. Granted, some of the performances in 1960 by the players speak for themselves (e.g. Bill Cleary's goals, McCraten's goaltending). Sure, the film did state that the players really were amateurs - none were in the NHL and some players went on unpaid leave from their jobs just to play on the national team. Yet, I felt there could have been more time to show how important these guys were for U.S. hockey back then. Paul Johnson was a massive scorer for the national team, McCraten and Tommy Williams actually got to play in the NHL, and most of all, this wasn't a bad team. They went undefeated at the Winter Olympics, knocking off Czechoslovakia twice, Canada, and the Soviet Union.
Second, while I understand that the documentary was going to have an American perspective, it would have been great to at least hear opinions from other nations about the win. Canadian captain Harry Sinden had a few words about how they couldn't beat McCraten late in losing the United States, and that was good. The film also does a sobering take on how little fanfare there was for the American gold medal in hockey; some players just went right back to their day jobs on Monday after winning gold on Sunday. It would have been interesting to see how the Soviets, Canadians, and Czechoslovakians took the loss to the Americans, how they regarded their players, and how they saw the American gold medal win. I feel it would add some depth as to how important this gold medal was in a time period during what I perceive as the Soviets becoming dominant in international hockey and Canada's realization that hockey was no longer just their game. I'm not looking for equal time, I just feel that a few additional perspectives would have been interesting.
Third, really relates to the first two criticisms: I'm left wanting more. The documentary is very good for what it is, but it's still only 65 minutes long. That's not necessarily the fault of the directors or Golden Puck Pictures. There's not much to American hockey history that's easy to point out as "This is what it was like." There weren't many, if any at all, Americans in the NHL. College hockey was heavily regionalized, as hinted by Jack Riley's referring to taking players from Boston (East) and Minnesota (West). The U.S. Olympic team was really the high point for these players, but were they all former college players? If not, did they play minor pro hockey somewhere? How were national team schedules set up? How do they compare with other U.S. teams? Who were the best players on those teams? The DVD copy I received didn't have any extra features (though the official website has plenty of content) - so I'm left feeling really curious about American hockey back then.
Maybe that's not such a bad thing, I wouldn't have considered all of these questions or wonder about these players if it wasn't for the Forgotten Miracle documentary. I think that in of itself speaks highly to the directors and production of this film. Essentially, you may be wondering, "Is it worth my time? Would you honestly recommend it?" To both questions, absolutely. How they present the U.S. national team from 1959 through the 1960 Winter Olympics is well done overall; I'm just left wanting more.
Of course, those who are interested in the 1960 Olympic gold medal in hockey or American hockey history may have already heard about this movie and will check it out regardless. It's not like there's a lot out there for comparison purposes. Though, at the same time, that makes this documentary more valuable because it addresses a subject that I don't think has been covered in such depth in a documentary or something like it. Again, the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal victory is mostly resigned to the history books. Forgotten Miracle puts the victory in perspective as well as give that team some very well-deserved recognition. That alone, I think, should drive you to go check out Forgotten Miracle.