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Books | Sports

January 5, 2010

A Cold War Thaw on Ice

Tom and Jerry Caraccioli tell Gelf about how a Soviet coach helped a US hockey team strike silver at the 1972 Olympics.

Tom Flynn

America loves an anniversary, and now that an even 30 years has passed since the 1980 Miracle on Ice, there will be many a fond look back at Coach Herb Brooks and his boys of winter during the upcoming Winter Games.

Jerry Caraccioli (left) and Tom Caraccioli
"Coach Williamson was not averse to reminding these mostly 19- to 22-year-olds, 'Either you make the team or you go to Saigon.' "

Jerry Caraccioli (left) and Tom Caraccioli

In Striking Silver: The Untold Story of America's Forgotten Hockey Team, brothers Tom and Jerry Caraccioli's take a look eight years further back, to the story of the 1972 silver-medal winning US Olympic hockey team.

In an era most Americans associate with grim news from the jungles of Southeast Asia, an inspiring drama played out on the Olympic ice of Sapporo, Japan. There, a team of talented young US players—including a 16-year-old Mark Howe—pursued their goal of an Olympic medal. To those outside the group, the goal seemed at the very least improbable, as traditional powers had held a tight grip on the hockey podium.

What few knew, however, was that the US team coach, Murray Williamson, made an unprecedented trip behind the Iron Curtain in 1971 to study the revolutionary training techniques of the Soviet hockey juggernaut. It was a brief thawing of the Cold War based on a singular and unlikely friendship, one that would ultimately extend to his team and become hockey lore.

Williamson picked up both on- and off-ice techniques from the Soviets that would help his team immensely against international competition. On the ice, he de-emphasized the dump-and-chase style of hockey popular in the US that placed a premium on sharp elbows and the ability to dig the puck out of the corners of the rink while relying little on open-ice passing. The Soviet style was just the contrary: Quick, frequent passes up the ice out-finessed and fatigued opponents. The style emphasized stick work and timed coordination that arose from a level of teamwork only imagined by North American clubs. To keep up the pace, the Soviets trained relentlessly off-ice, often running from their lodging directly to games. After convincing wins in international tournaments, they could be seen running in unison as a team back to their hotel, a practice seldom seen in the US and likely only served up as punishment after a humiliating loss.

On the eve of the 2010 Winter Games, Gelf spoke to Tom and Jerry Carracioli about the unlikely medalists, how Vietnam served as motivation, and the appeal of a more recent winter-hockey event. The following interview was conducted via phone and email and has been edited for clarity and length.

Gelf Magazine: With all the fanfare surrounding the 1980 team, why is there so little interest or knowledge of this team's accomplishments?

Jerry Caraccioli: In our country, we're wired to consider the gold medal as success. That's not necessarily a bad thing or incorrect. But sometimes success can be measured in different ways. In the case of the 1972 US Olympic hockey team, the paradigm of success shifted. Unfortunately, the unexpected silver medal the "Boys of '72" won quickly became obscured by coming between gold medals in 1960 and 1980, and ultimately they became the "forgotten" team of American hockey.

Gelf Magazine: With Vietnam in that era, too, you have a period that people aren't eager to look back to.

Tom Caraccioli: Vietnam's obviously a key thread in this book. Let's face it: The last troops were out of Vietnam in 1975. There was real cause for concern among the players that they would be called into action. There were two who saw combat: One, Stu Irving, was pulled from Vietnam, and our youth and high-school coach Pete Sears served his tour of duty in 1968. There were other guys who had to go to basic training during the course of the Olympic preseason and tryouts.
Stu Irving was the first guy I talked to after Pete. I knew Stu was a former colleague and I knew he was a former teammate of Pete. I never knew his real story. So I'm talking to Stu, and he said, essentially, "I was assigned to the US Hockey team. If I got cut, I'd have to go back to Vietnam."
When he said that to me, I got chills down my spine. He went on to tell me how his dad sent over a dozen sticks and a dozen pucks, and he would take practice shots in the bunkers. When he got done with that story, I hung up the phone, immediately called Jerry, and said, "Jer, we have to get working because we've got a book." I knew from that that we had a story that would resonate for the players. We were fully prepared to go down to Kinko's and make 25 copies for all the guys, if we couldn't get a publisher. Thankfully, it worked out a little better than that.

Jerry Caraccioli: There is no doubt that Pete Sears's and Stu Irving's stories definitely helped give us perspective on the type of story we wanted to tell: not just a "hockey story" but how the changing times and politics of the day affected this team. The guys who were in Vietnam did not talk much about it with their teammates. When they did, it really struck home to the others just how far they had come in order to play on this team. I think Sears's and Irving's stories were a sobering reminder to the team of what was happening in the world. Coach Murray Williamson was not averse in using that as incentive and to motivate the team by reminding these mostly 19- to 22-year-olds, "Either you make the team or you go to Saigon."

Gelf Magazine: What impact did the medal-winning '72 team have on its better known successor?

Tom Caraccioli: It wasn't so much the medal that was the springboard to 1980. It was the training that Williamson brought to USA Hockey. He was a true hockey innovator.
Williamson went to the Soviet Union and visited Russian coach Anatoly Tarasov and the Russian training facilities in 1971. It would be like, when the Patriots were winning all these Super Bowls, Bill Belichick saying, "Sure, Tony Dungy, c'mon in and I'll show you my techniques and how I do everything." But Tarasov liked and respected Williamson. This is the world's best team, the Soviets, and Tarasov is letting him in on the secrets. Williamson takes that back and he teaches the organization and he teaches his players and it's picked up, and Herb Brooks took it to the next level.

Gelf Magazine: In today's game, the NHL has scored a huge hit with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. The popularity of hockey in the US seems to peak around these winter games when they occur, rather than the June playoffs. What do you think of it?

Tom Caraccioli: I love it. My brother and I grew up in Oswego, NY. We had rinks that we played on. Some were outdoors, and there also were ponds that we played on. It throws you back to when you were a kid. Any kid that plays hockey, at least in the Northeast and the colder hockey regions, has skated on a pond. The NHL has captured it and done a great job with it. I think it's a great idea and a great opportunity and I think the NHL is doing a good job with it.

Jerry Caraccioli: It's a great indicator that there is interest and the NHL can continue growing the game at a grassroots level all over the country. This game has quickly become the appointment game for viewing on New Year's Day. That's a great indicator that growth of the incredible sport of hockey can be achieved.

Gelf Magazine: Looking ahead to the upcoming Winter Games, how do you like Team USA's chances in hockey?

Tom Caraccioli: If they have Tim Thomas or Ryan Miller or whoever's starting in goal get hot, who knows? Without Jimmy Craig standing on his head in '80, there's no miracle.

Related in Gelf: Tom and Jerry Caraccioli spoke to Gelf about the 1980 Olympians who didn't get to compete in Moscow because of the US boycott.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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