Colorado Springs, November 15————-Somewhere beneath the noxious layers of mist that made our American sports news in the last week, came a smaller, almost unnoticed story that drew me in with its historic imprint and echoes of a time long gone when sports produced legends of substance.
Buried on the pages of the newspapers beneath the inundation of words about Penn State’s growing scandal, the anger of the economically-challenged NBA players and their struggles to survive on an average salary of $5 million per year and DeSean Jackson’s tearful apology to his Eagles teammates was the news of the passing of a true American sports hero.
Roger Christian had died in Grand Forks, North Dakota of a heart attack at 75.
He was remembered yesterday at services at the Mount Zion Lutheran Church in Warroad, Minnesota, where he grew up.
The story of Christian and his young American ice hockey teammates at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley has been almost forgotten. Some grainy footage from the black and white CBS coverage of those Games still exists, as well as photos and artifacts related to the team’s improbable miracle that was later diminished by the Cold War inspired triumph of the 1980 USA team at Lake Placid.
Less than 18 hours after a stunning 3-2 upset of the Soviet Union on the ice at Blyth Arena in Squaw Valley, the Americans faced off with Czechoslovakia for the gold medal. The United States came to the game after an historic win 2-1 win over Canada earlier in the tournament that had rocked the hockey world. The showdown began at 8:00 a. m. before a crowd estimated to be less than a fourth of the 10,000 that had jammed the partially open-air arena to see the upset of the USSR.
CBS, which had paid only $50,000 for its Olympic rights, televised only the third period of the game after the network had carried the game against the USSR in full.
Ironically, the late afternoon showdown in Lake Placid in 1980 with the Soviets was not shown on live American television, but replayed later in the evening when the nation already knew what had taken place.
The Czechs took a 4-3 lead into the dressing room after two periods, but the American team, coached by Jack Riley and with Jack McCartan in goal, scored six times to take a 9-4 win and capture the gold medal.
Roger Christian scored three of his four goals in that dramatic third period.
That team did not return to an avalanche of adoration, nor a trip to the White House………. most of the team went back to college or to their jobs. Christian and his brother, Bill, were stars of the Games along with Billy and Bob Cleary, the brothers from Harvard, Minnesota’s John Mayasich, and McCartan. Riley went back to West Point, where he coached the Army hockey team. The Clearys had been added to the roster late and the architect of the 1980 Miracle On Ice, Herb Brooks, had been cut.
The Christians, reared in Warroad, were hockey legends, but did not go on to careers in the NHL and cereal box fame. Roger and his brother were the sons of a carpenter, and they learned the game playing in the winter on frozen ponds and lakes, using sticks repaired by their dad.
The brothers returned to Warroad to coach and play, and in 1964 and founded the famous Christian Brothers firm that manufactured hockey sticks. Bill was the firm’s PR and marketing guy and the quieter Roger ran the factory and the production. They sold the business in 2002.
According to weekend news reports, Roger’s wood-working skills carried into retirement. He was known for using hockey sticks to build coat racks and benches that he gave to friends. Visitors often left with wood products he had crafted.
Bill’s son, Dave, became a star for Brooks’ 1980 team in Lake Placid that won the hearts of a nation, and Roger and his brother were inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame and both were on hand in Salt Lake City in 2002 when the 1980 team lit the flame at the Opening Ceremony.
A 2009 documentary about the ’60 team, The Forgotten Miracle, was produced with the help of USA Hockey and the United States Olympic Committee, and it featured Roger and Bill Christian as well as their teammates. There is no book written about them, and no movies have been made.
I met this team at a USOC fund-raiser in Boston years ago when we honored the 1960 team, the 1980 legends and the 1998 USA women’s team that had won the gold in Nagano. When I introduced the Christian brothers, I recalled that winter of 1960 when I was a high school senior in Omaha and the drama of the gold medal.
In 1967-68, my last year in Omaha, I was doing some radio commentary and coverage of the Omaha Knights of the old Central Hockey league at the now gone AkSarBen Coliseum.
The Omaha goaltender was Jack McCartan, still toiling in front of the nets after playing only eight games in the NHL after his Olympic glory, much like Jim Craig after his 1980 miracle.
McCartan hung around with minor league teams like the San Diego Gulls and the Minnesota Fighting Saints until 1975 at the age of 40.
By that time, Roger Christian had been making hockey sticks for almost a dozen years in Warroad, some of them possibly used by McCartan.
True life sports heroes they were.
Mike Moran was the Sports Information Director at Nebraska-Omaha and the University of Colorado before becoming the chief spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee for a quarter century, through thirteen Games, from Lake Placid to Salt Lake City. He joined the USOC in 1978 as it left New York City for Colorado Springs. He was the Senior Communications Counselor for NYC2012, New York City’s Olympic bid group from 2003-2005 and is now a media consultant and works with the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation. www.coloradospringssports.org <http://www.coloradospringssports.org>. His opinions are his own.
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