February 16, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Striking Silver

1972 Silver Medal Team Gathers to Launch Book, Celebrate Accomplishment

by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Writer

BOSTON — Forgotten no more.

That's what the 1972 silver-medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team is now, more than three decades later, with the publication of a new book, Striking Silver: The Untold Story of America's Forgotten Hockey Team (2006, Sports Publishing LLC).

Members of the team gathered Wednesday along with authors, and twin brothers, Tom and Jerry Caraccioli for a book signing in Boston and post-signing reception. The team also received a proclamation from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, commemorating their accomplishment. It coincided with the first U.S. game in this year's Olympics in Turin, Italy, against Latvia. The book sold out the store in less than two hours.

"It's been unbelievable, completely beyond what we expected," said Tom Caraccioli.

The book was officially launched earlier this month in the authors' hometown of Oswego, N.Y.

"To sell out in our hometown, to sell out the bookstore here in Boston, just completely blew our mind," Caraccioli said.

Authors Jerry and Tom Caraccioli flank 1972 coach Murray Williamson at Wednesday's book signing.

Authors Jerry and Tom Caraccioli flank 1972 coach Murray Williamson at Wednesday's book signing.

Caraccioli confirmed there is already talk about a printing a second run of the book, which chronicles the surprising yet relatively unknown story behind the only U.S. Olympic hockey team to capture a medal on foreign soil in the last 50 years.

It's an underdog story like few others in the annals of U.S. hockey. The 1972 team was given virtually no chance of succeeding, and had to win a play-in game against Switzerland just to make it into the round robin tournament.

"I'd played on four (national) teams, and we always got beat up pretty bad," said Ron Naslund, a forward who graduated from the University of Denver in 1965.

"So my expectations were not that great. But after we won a few games and it began to look a little brighter, it was just a great feeling, to actually be in line to win something."

The 1972 Games took place in Sapporo, Japan, in a day and age where media coverage of the event was miniscule compared to today. That played a major role in the team's accomplishment going unnoticed.

"In '72, NBC covered the Olympics — 37 total hours of the Olympic Games from Sapporo — in two weeks," said Caraccioli, who most recently worked as a senior publicist for NBC/Universal. (His brother, Jerry, is an executive with CBS Sports.)

"This year, 2006, 418 total hours. They were on TV at 3, 4 in the morning — and it was briefly. They didn't show the whole games, they showed little bits and pieces. So their family members were trying to stay up at 3 in the morning, just to get a little piece of what was happening in Sapporo."

"I had one neighbor who stood in front of the TV and took still pictures of the action," said Stu Irving, a forward from Beverly, Mass.

Naslund said he wasn't even sure how much play the story got back in the U.S. "I think it was taped, maybe three or four minutes a night. I don't know for sure, but I know it was very limited."

Even after the U.S. had won silver, with no cell phones or Internet, Naslund said, "I never called anyone and no one called me. I imagine they found out the next day."

"Same Old Story"?

Going into the Sapporo Games, Sports Illustrated said, "It is the same old story: a young, inexperienced, unpredictable team. ... Fifth place is more like it."

But it wasn't the same old story, not to the players or to head coach Murray Williamson. Williamson had coached the 1968 team to a sixth-place finish. But in 1972, he would bring a new attitude and a new way of doing things, learned from an unlikely source — the Russians.

"Murray Williamson was really a hockey innovator," said Caraccioli. "He was invited by [Soviet hockey mastermind Anatoly] Tarasov to go over there and came back with the techniques that the Russians used and incorporated them into USA hockey."

"We were the first team that, probably moreso than the 1960 team (that won gold in Squaw Valley, Calif.), spent the whole year together, and Murray told us and made it known that we would not be out-conditioned," said team captain Keith "Huff" Christiansen, who until this year was the only Minnesota-Duluth player ever to have his number retired. (Brett Hull's No. 29 was retired on Feb. 3.)

[Coach] Murray [Williamson] told us and made it known that we would not be out-conditioned. And we weren't. ... We were probably the best conditioned Olympic team ever, to that time.

— Keith Christiansen, Captain, 1972 U.S. Olympic hockey team

"And we weren't. The Russians, of course, were always extremely conditioned, it was a full-time job for them. But we were probably the best conditioned Olympic team ever, to that time."

The Americans lost to the gold medalist Soviet Union in Sapporo, one of only two losses for Team USA, but putting it in perspective, that was the same USSR team that would go on to meet the best of the NHL in the Summit Series that fall — and win three games and tie a fourth.

"The team that beat us, 7-2, beat [the NHL players], 7-3," said Christiansen.

What many people don't know is that 1980 coach Herb Brooks credited Williamson in part for the U.S.'s gold-medal triumph in Lake Placid.

"He coached Herb Brooks — and every player takes a little something from his previous coaches," said Caraccioli. "Herb did that and expanded on it, and we know what happened."

Striking Silver includes a reproduction of a note Brooks sent to Williamson following the "Miracle on Ice", in which Brooks wrote, "Murray, your influence as a teammate and coach helped produce this victory."

"Great Stories"

The foundation for Striking Silver, according to Caraccioli, was laid when he and his brother were growing up in Oswego, N.Y. They've known 1972 U.S. goaltender Pete Sears since they were kids, and played for Sears when they were younger. (In another Olympic connection, the Caracciolis were the first coaches for current Olympian and NHLer Erik Cole in Oswego youth hockey; they even taught Cole how to skate.)

"Our former coach is Pete Sears, and we've known about this story since we were seven or eight years old," Caraccioli said. "We used to go over to my aunt and uncle's house, and go swimming, and Pete and Kay were neighbors. We would rap on the door and say, can we see your silver medal? And we'd go in, and he had it up on the wall in his den, with his jersey and other memorabilia from the Olympics.

Members of the 1972 team are interviewed while watching the 2006 team's Olympic opener versus Latvia.

Members of the 1972 team are interviewed while watching the 2006 team's Olympic opener versus Latvia.

"We always knew about this story, but we didn't know a lot. All these guys are very humble guys. Not a lot of fanfare — part of the reason they're the 'forgotten team'.

"So we just had it in our mind that someday we wanted to write a book. Summer of 2004, we decided, if we're going to hit it in time for this Olympics, we've got to get going. So I called up Stuie [Irving] and got his story. And I knew the minute I hung up with Stu, after about an hour or two on the phone, we had a book.

"Every one of these guys has a great story," said Caraccioli. Indeed, besides detailing the team's silver medal — which only came about on the last day when the Americans were idle and the Soviet team defeated rival Czechoslovakia, who had been beaten earlier by the U.S. — the book includes a chapter on each player's personal journey.

Irving, for instance, was just one of several players who also served their country in the Vietnam War. He shot pucks in a foxhole to keep in shape and got more than a few strange looks from his fellow soldiers while doing so. Eventually he was flown home to join the team.

"Stuie's story, to know the full details — here's a guy in the Mekong Delta, if he gets cut, he's going back," said Caraccioli.

One of the more humorous stories involves Massachusetts high school hockey star Robbie Ftorek, who would go on to play in the WHA and NHL and later coach in the NHL.

"Robbie Ftorek, his dad brought him to the tryout at the Tully Forum in Billerica," said Caraccioli. "They were up in New Hampshire at their summer house. He didn't know a thing about it.

"So his dad says, 'Come on, let's get in the car and go for a ride, we've got some ice.' And he says, 'Aw, come on Dad, we're on vacation.' Hey, he's 18 years old. His dad says, 'We'll go down, skate, have some fun, it'll be an hour and we'll come back.' So he says, 'Okay, okay.' Goes down, skates, his dad stays in the car the whole time. Gets showered up, comes out. 'How'd it go?' 'It was pretty good.' 'You have fun?' 'Yeah, it was fun.' 'Great.'

"They go back up to New Hampshire, the phone rings the minute they get home and his dad answers it. 'Okay. Uh-huh. Yup. Okay. Yeah, we'll be there.' He says, 'Son, we're going to skate again tomorrow.' 'What!?' 'Yeah, we're going to skate again tomorrow.' So they go down, and a reporter comes up to Robbie and says, 'So, how do you think it's going?' And he says, 'How's what going?' The reporter says, 'This is the Olympic tryouts!' Robbie says, 'You're kidding me!'

"He had no idea he was at the Olympic tryouts."

"The Whole Olympic Experience"

As the members of the 1972 team watched their modern-day counterparts open up a 2-0 lead on Latvia (a game that ended tied, 3-3), they thought back to their own time and how different it was.

With the infusion of the pros into the Games, the quality of Olympic hockey has never been better, but Christiansen said he thinks today's players are missing something.

"Unfortunately for these players, they miss the opening ceremony, they miss the part of living in the village," Christiansen said. "You can go and sit and have coffee with a Russian figure skater or someone from one of the other teams. That was just part of it, the whole Olympic experience. Unfortunately, these guys didn't get a chance to take part in the opening ceremonies, which were awesome."

Christiansen and Irving talked about some of the off-ice fun the team had, including a visit to an isothermal bath.

"It was like burying yourself in sawdust," said Irving, as Christiansen laughed.

"Every other day, we had off, and we'd go to another venue for dinner," Irving continued. "The Finns and the Swedes, their diet was mainly fish. So the Russians would be in our cafeteria, and we were meat and potato people, but on our off days, we'd go and try other things, the Japanese, what they eat. It was excellent food."

Although times have changed, there's still a unique connection that these players feel every four years when they watch a new U.S. team pull on the jersey and go for a medal. After all, it's a relatively select club of players who have ever worn a USA hockey jersey in the Games.

"What a great feeling. You get goosebumps when you think about it," said Christiansen.

A shot of the U.S.'s Keith Tkachuk comes on the screen, and Irving, who went on to the pros and then to spend 21 years as an assistant coach at Merrimack, chuckles.

"I had Tkachuk in for an official visit. That didn't last long," Irving said, laughing. "He went right to BU."

In another sign times have changed, even a silver medal for Team USA in Turin would be considered something of a disappointment. Gold is expected nowadays, especially with the NHL players involved. The excitement of a group of kids shocking the hockey world in Squaw Valley, Sapporo and Lake Placid will probably never be duplicated.

"It'll never happen again," said Caraccioli. "Probably '80 was the last pure Olympics. It has a certain appeal now with the pros, but it's certainly not like it was."

Perhaps most interesting is that the '72 Olympians seem to identify more today not with the U.S. men, but with their female counterparts in red, white and blue.

"I'm having more fun watching the women play, because they're the true amateurs," said Irving. "And they come back, and have to go work at their jobs — and then try to get ready for the Olympics again in another four years."

"A Special Team"

It's been the better part of three decades since the mini-Miracle of 1972, but time — and the publication of Striking Silver — only seems to have brought the team even closer together.

"This was a very special team," said Christiansen. "Whether we won a medal or not, I think it would still be the same. We meet every year. It's a big thing. We're a big family. Our wives are friends, our families are friends."

"We started this thing in Florida at the coaches' convention, which has really worked out great," said Irving. "The next thing you know, it became an annual thing. We were just out in Duluth to see Huffer go into the [U.S. Hockey] Hall of Fame."

"We didn't really know what to expect [with the book], but now that we've all read it, we're really happy with the way it was done," Christiansen continued. "It told our story. And one thing I think it got across to the people was, how special a team this was to the players that played on the team. And that's why we're here today."

Caraccioli said the book was a labor of love.

"Jerry and I, when we first started this, we didn't have a publisher. And we said, if we have to go to Kinko's and make 25 copies, just so these guys have a history for their families, then that's what we're going to do.

"And thankfully, our publisher thought, hey, this really is a good story."

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