Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fade To Grey

I don't normally blog about sports [and I'm not planning on it, either], but a recent death in the world of sports caught my attention. Somewhere in that group photo on the left [forgive me for not being able to discover where, exactly] is one Edwyn Owen, known for most of his life as "Bob" Owen. Owen was a member of the 1960 US Men's Olympic Ice Hockey team, the first American hockey team to win Olympic gold, and the only one to do so until the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" team. Despite the fact that the '60 squad is nearly forgotten today, its story may be more compelling than the 1980 team.

Kevin Allen, in "USA Hockey: A Great Tradition", said this about the circumstances of the US club in 1960: "In many aspects, the U.S. team's performance at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, was every bit as remarkable, if not more so, than the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympic Games. First, the Americans had never beaten the Soviets. Second, the Canadians were better than the Soviets. Third, the team hadn't played all that well in the 18-game pre-Olympic tour. And finally, some players didn't like seeing Herb Brooks and Bob Dupuis dropped from the team to make room for the Clearys. Dissension threatened to undermine this team before it even arrived in Squaw Valley." 'The Clearys' refers to Bill and Bob Cleary. Bill was a great amateur player who insisted that his brother be added to the roster. They were one of two pairs of brothers on the roster; Roger and Bill Christian, from Minnesota, was the other.

The United States was hosting its first Winter Games since 1932. It was hoped that the Americans could at least match the '52 and '56 teams, who both earned silver. But coach Jack Riley [no relation] pulled his all-amateur [this was in the era that pro athletes were banned from Olympic play] team together, smoothed over the controversies, and led them into the final round. In round-robin play, the US beat Sweden, then edged Canada and the Soviet Union [the first time the US had beaten them, and a Cold War victory to boot], then faced Czechoslovakia for the gold. The Squaw Valley Games seemed to be oddly-arranged; after beating the USSR in an exciting night game, the Americans had to come back for an 8 AM contest the following morning! Sluggish from the previous night's effort, the US trailed the Czechs 4-3 after two periods. But a third-period Roger Christian hat trick [three goals, for the uninformed] helped push the Americans to a 9-4 victory, and the Gold.

The 1960 Winter Olympics, despite being played in the US, didn't draw a lot of interest in the host country. Winter sports in general, and hockey in particular, rated very low on the leisure activity "radar" of the era. CBS, the television network that broadcast the Games in America, paid only $50,000 [a low figure, even in those days] for the broadcast rights. Few of the hockey team's games were televised (although the club's success led to the first national broadcasts of pro hockey in America). After the publicity surrounding the 1980 team, there were reports of some bitterness and dismay among the 1960 team's alumni, feeling that they, too, deserved some renown for their feat.

Most of the Olympians did not end up in pro hockey; in fact, the most famous post-Olympics members were the Christian brothers. They used their carpentry skills to design and build hockey sticks for the successful company that bore their name. Ironically, one of the players cut to make way for the Cleary brothers went on to make some Olympic history of his own. Herb Brooks was the coach of the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" US team.

In retirement, Bob Owen lived quietly, supporting amateur hockey in his hometown of Topeka, Kansas. He loaned his name to the championship trophy of the town's tavern-league. The Bob Owen Cup was an empty beer keg, with a silver cup attached to the top.

Owen died last week, in a bizarre incident in his native Kansas. His car was found in an open field, aflame. Fire investigators believe the vehicle's engine set dry grass under the car ablaze, starting the fatal fire. Bob Owen was so severely burned in the blaze that it took until earlier this week to identify him.

Owen wasn't a memorable part of a nearly-forgotten team. But he did play for his country, and helped achieve victory in unlikely circumstances. Most of us can't say that.

- Mike Riley