Picking Players For the Olympics: A Timeline
Controversies, Politics and Chaos
The United States Olympic hockey team was cobbled together this year from multiple parts, forced in that direction after the NHL decided it was not going to release its players to participate.
But for most of its existence, the select of a U.S. team was an even more haphazard proposition. It only started becoming as smooth as it's been around 1980 or so, which is the last time the U.S. won a gold medal.
Given that pros have been allowed to participate since 1998, this year's team is made up of mostly non-NHL professionals playing overseas, with a few non-NHL-contracted AHL players, plus four current NCAA players.
How we got here, is a winding tale.
1920, Antwerp, Belgium
The first hockey tournament was played as part of the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, a decision that was made just three months before the games opened. That year's games — and all the ones up until 1968 — were counted as the World Championship for that year as well. Organizers at Belgium's ice arena refused to allow figure skating to take place unless hockey was also concluded. It wasn't the last time such politics came into the equation.
At that time, college hockey was played mainly among Ivy League schools, a smattering of others in the East, and a handful of teams out West. The NHL had just come into existence two years before, and had four teams, all based in Canada, whose rosters included just three Americans combined.
The Olympic selections came mainly from amateur players that were older. Since most of these players never signed professional contracts, they would continue playing hockey on various amateur teams around the country while holding other jobs. Thus, they were eligible for amateur tournaments like the Olympics.
The Canadians had sent an entire existing amateur team to the Games, wheras the U.S. picked an "all-star team" from various organizations. The 11 players came from teams like the St. Paul Athletic Club, Pittsburgh Athletic Association, and Boston Athletic Association. The youngest player was 23 years old, while the oldest was 30. Four of the players were born in Canada, but held American citizenships, a point of consternation for some Canadian faithful.
The youngest player was Gerry Geran, who was the first U.S. player to participate in the NHL. He had played four games for the Montreal Wanderers in 1918 before their arena burned down (a common theme in turn-of-the-century hockey arenas, and the subject of another article altogether) and the team disbanded. As a result, he was able to get a special waiver to play in the Olympics.
The second youngest was Moose Goheen, who eventually became the second American to get inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (after Hobey Baker). Goheen, like Hobey, served in World War I, though there's no evidence the two ever met. A Minnesota native, Goheen had just bounced around, and was playing locally for Valparaiso (Indiana), of all places, when he was asked to join.
In order to play, the U.S. team needed to raise $15,000, so they played four exhibition games at the old Duquesne Gardens in Pittsburgh vs. the Canadian team from Winnipeg.
William Haddock, who was vice-chairman of the International Skating and Hockey Union (ISHU) and was in charge of getting the team together, said, "I want to impress on every hockey fan in Pittsburgh not to regard the admission prices as a charge to see these games but as a contribution to help send our boys away."
The only countries that had any sort of skill in hockey at this point was Canada and the U.S. The Americans outscored all other opponents 52-0 in the tournament, but lost to Canada 2-0 and earned a silver.
After returning home, players complained of poor conditions in Belgium, shoestring budgets and cheap hotels.
Roy Schooley, who was the Pittsburgh AA team manager, was going to go manage/coach the Olympic team, but his wife got sick with pneumonia so he wound up staying home. Cornelius Fellows, president of the ISHU, went instead.
1924, Chamonix, France
After the 1920 Games, the United States Amateur Hockey Association (USAHA) was formed at a meeting in Philadelphia. The ISU, with the approval of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) — which controlled the entirety of amateur sports in the U.S. — agreed to turn over control of amateur hockey to the AHA.
Haddock was named president of the USAHA.
The famed George Brown (father of Walter Brown), who ran the Boston Athletic Association and helped start ice hockey at Boston University, argued in March 1923 that an entire team should go to represent the U.S., not an all-star team. Of course, he might have been motivated by the fact that B.A.A. had won the amateur championship.
"If President Haddock thinks otherwise, he probably will discover that there are others with considerable influence in hockey circles who disagree with him," Brown said. "His plan of an all-star outfit really astonished everyone in this section that really knew anything about the game."
Eventually, organizers agreed to let BAA make up the bulk of the team, with other players brought in to supplement. Only nine players wound up going to what was the first standalone Winter Olympics, because others couldn't get the time off work, or couldn't afford the time off.
Regardless, the U.S. again dominated everyone else but Canada, outscoring opponents 72-0 in four other games, but losing 6-1 to the Canadians.
1928, St. Moritz, Switzerland
For whatever reason, Haddock changed his tune in 1928, and wanted to send a whole existing amateur team to the games instead of an "all-star" group. But a soon-to-be-famous soon-to-be-general intervened and put a stop to it. As a result, The U.S. did not field a hockey team at the 1928 games.
Haddock wanted Minnesota's Augsberg College to represent the U.S. According to Haddock, no other team could raise the funds to go, whereas Augsberg had funds at the ready. Also, Augsberg had some impressive wins, actually, through the course of its season.
Douglas MacArthur, who would become a famous general in World War II, was then a Major General and chair of the American Olympic Committee. He told Haddock that Augsberg wasn't representative of America and had not competed for a championship.
George Brown told MacArthur that his Boston A.A. group would volunteer to go instead.
Haddock sent a telegram to MacArthur saying that the "sport governing body (USAHA) selects the team and the Olympic committee gives formal approval only."
Unable to agree, no one went.
Augsberg, by the way, featured the original Hanson brothers — five brothers who all played on the team, three of which went on to play professionally.
1932, Lake Placid, N.Y.
There's no way American hockey would sit out these games, since it was being hosted in the United States itself. The hockey would be played in an arena that eventually was the site of Cornell's capstone to its undefeated season, the 1970 NCAA championship game.
The USAHA, which at one point sponsored leagues, had weakened to a point where it had little function. As a result, in order to ensure there was no fiasco like 1928, the USOC urged the AAU to resume control of governing amateur hockey. It tried to create some order by having Eastern amateur teams play each other, and Western amateur teams do the same, in order to narrow things down to what team would represent the U.S. But, of course, controversy ensued anyway.
Minnesota and Michigan Tech had a "semifinal" to determine whose team would challenge the East.
Meanwhile, Boston AA and St. Nick's (New York) were allowed to combine teams, and defeated Yale. That combined team then defeated Minnesota to become the representative. Minnesota people cried foul that they were allowed to combine teams.
The Boston team eventually just joined forces with former players from Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton and Harvard anyway, making it basically an Eastern team of 14 players.
The U.S. lost 2-1 to Canada in round-robin play, then tied the final, 2-2, when Canada's Romeo Rivers scored on a long shot with 43 seconds left in regulation. They played three 10-minute overtimes after that and didn't get a winner, so Canada got the gold and the U.S. the silver on tiebreakers.
Some notes: Olympic rules at this time did not allow forward passing in the neutral or offensive zones. Also, 15-minute periods were still in effect at this point in international play.
1936, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
The Americans were starting to learn some things. Walter Brown was given the authority to run a tryout for 59 players from around the country, at New Haven Arena. They played exhibition games there against Princeton, St. Nick's and Yale, after which the team was selected.
The team left Jan. 3 for a tour of games in London, Paris and Switzerland.
These Games, of course, and the subsequent summer ones in Berlin, were Hitler's propaganda Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was miffed at numerous anti-Semitic signs that dotted the outskirts of town, but the Germans just pretended they weren't there. Germany actually had a Jewish player that was one of its best, but he was originally not selected for the team, Rudi Ball. A teammate, Gustav Jaenecke, threatened not to play unless Ball was allowed on. He was, with a deal that also allowed Ball to let his family leave Germany, thus becoming the only Jewish athlete to represent Germany at the Games. Ball got hurt after four games, however, and Germany finished fifth.
The U.S. took the bronze.
Soon thereafter, World War II broke out, and there were no Olympics in 1940 and 1944.
1948, St. Moritz, Switzerland
The Olympics returned from hiatus, and returned to St. Moritz, Switzerland. Unfortunately, whatever lessons the U.S. had learned over the years about picking an Olympic team, were forgotten. Two different U.S. teams showed up in St. Moritz — and that story is long and twisted. Ultimately, the IOC ruled one was allowed to play, but it wouldn't be eligible for any medals.
One team from the U.S. was the one sanctioned by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), led by Avery Brundage, and sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which was the governing body of all amateur sports in the U.S. for many years up to that time.
The other team was sponsored by the American Hockey Association (AHA), which was the organization now led by Walter Brown. That group also had the blessing of the IIHF, the international governing body of ice hockey. The IIHF saw the USOC/AAU to be interlopers, only interested in hockey every four years, while Brown was more serious about it and more highly regarded.
Brundage's contention was that Brown's group had "professionals" on the team, though it was a rather loose definition. Brown was an entrepreneur who ran rinks and put on events (he founded the Ice Capades and was the first owner of the Boston Celtics), so the people playing under him, Brundage decided, were pros. That definition didn't really fit these players, though.
Backing up, the new AHA (eventually known as AHAUS, and now USA Hockey) was formed in 1937, by Brown and Madison Square Garden president General John Reed Kilpatrick. The first president of the AHA was a man named Tommy Lockhart.
In 1939, the AHA was initially turned down by the IIHF to replace the AAU as the official sanctioning body from the U.S. By 1946, however, the AHA was accepted, and as a result, both teams showed up to the World Championships in Prague in 1947, as well.
As the 1948 Olympics approached, Brundage threatened to pull the entire U.S. contingent from the games — all sports — if the AHA hockey team was allowed to represent America.
The IOC was caught in the middle, but didn't have a lot of sympathy for Brundage. Brundage had shown support over the years for German and Italian fascists, and was regarded by many as an anti-Semite. There were Jewish members of the IOC that would never give Brundage any regard.
The AAU championship was won by an AHA team, but Brundage rejected it out of hand, and went about putting together his own AAU team, with college coaches overseeing the selection process.
Meanwhile, former Dartmouth star — and eventual long-time Army coach and head coach of the 1960 Olympic team — Jack Riley, who had led that team which won the AAU championship, continued on piecing together what he figured would be the Olympic team. Jack's brother Billy Riley, another Dartmouth star, was ineligible because he had played two pro games for the Boston A.A.
Both teams wound up hopping on a ship to St. Moritz. Brundage and Brown met for two hours during the trip, but nothing was solved.
The IOC, afraid of upsetting Brundage, sanctioned neither team.
The Swiss organizing committee and IIHF didn't want the Games spoiled by a lesser hockey competition that didn't include the Americans, so they ignored the IOC and allowed the Americans to play. Basically, the AHA team, led by Riley, beat the AAU team to the arena for the first game, and thus became the representative.
The AAU team wound up hanging around St. Moritz for a week, watching their buddies and drinking and skiing.
Brundage didn't follow through on his bluff to pull all Americans from the games. The games went on, but because of the shenanigans, the IOC threatened to remove hockey from the 1952 Games.
1952, Oslo, Norway
This wound up being the first time that the roster was comprised entirely of players who had played in the NCAA. The only other time that happened in American Olympic history was 1980.
Despite some controversies, things ultimately ran relatively smoothly.
In 1951, the IOC, now with Brundage as the president, decided to drop hockey from the Olympics. However, after another meeting later in the year in Romania, the sport was reinstated. Brundage basically backed down, and instead of initiating another controversy, he left things in the hands of a committee formed by members from both the AAU and AHA. Highly regarded Princeton athletic director Asa Bushnell was elected to chair the committee.
There are conflicting accounts of what this committee was like. One had it as eight committee members. Some newspaper accounts at the time, however, had it as 10, with five from each organization. The AHA picked Walter Brown, Minnesota-area rink manager Fred Edwards, Boston Globe sportswriter Leonard Fowle, and Bob Ridder to be on the committee. The USOC had Bushnell, Brown coach Westcott Moulton, Dan Ferris, and Dartmouth coach Eddie Jeremiah. Al Yourkewicz and Connie Pleban, a legendary high school coach in Minnesota, were also involved.
Ultimately, Pleban was picked to be the head coach.
Tryouts were held in the East and West. Three current NCAA players were not at the tryout because the NCAA teams wouldn't release them to go: Ken Yackel (Minnesota), Willard Ikola (Michigan) and John Matchefts (Michigan). Yackel — who later was the interim coach at Minnesota after Glen Sonmor stepped down midseason to go to the NHL, and before Herb Brooks took over — dropped out of school so he could play.
In a sign of things to come, Boston University coach Harry Cleverly complained that star player Joe Folino was misled into thinking he had made the team, but then was cut. When the Olympic team played an exhibition game later against BU at Boston Garden, the team was heckled mercilessly.
The U.S. team — and the Canadians, for that matter — were considered very rough by European standards of the day. As a result, they would get hounded during European tours. Fans in Switzerland, at one game, pelted U.S. players with snowballs and tried to steal sticks from players in the penalty box.
Some of the players on this roster included Len Ceglarski, who went on to coach at Boston College; Rube Bjorkman, who coached at RPI, New Hampshire and North Dakota; goalie Dick Desmond, who was the NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player in a losing effort for Dartmouth in 1948; future Brown coach Donald Whiston; and North Dakota's first Olympian, defenseman John Noah.
1956, Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
This was the first Olympic hockey tournament to include the Soviet Union, after its participation had gotten turned down in 1952 because it missed the deadline. The Soviets had spent their time learning to get really, really good. As a result, they won the gold medal.
Meanwhile, American selection of its Olympic team settled in nicely, now with the AAU/AHA feud successfully arbitrated in 1952.
Bill Cleary of Harvard and John Mayasich of Minnesota appeared on the team for the first time. Other notables include Matchefts, now out of school, Dougherty again, Gord Christian of North Dakota, Michigan State legend Weldy Olson, and future governor of Minnesota Wendy Anderson.
The U.S. won silver.
1960, Squaw Valley, Calif.
The players, at this point, were still mainly post-college guys who were floating around playing in amateur leagues, or, in some cases, no longer playing at all.
How this played out in 1960 is pretty well-chronicled, as the U.S. went on to its first miracle gold medal. One thing the U.S. had determined by this time was that the Russians and Czechs were playing a totally different style, great skating, movement, passing, etc... The U.S. had to adapt, and no longer play the plodding, banging style that had served it well over the years. Head coach Jack Riley also conditioned the players hard, to the point where he was pretty well hated by the time the Games started. Riley worked them out at Army, where he coached, and which had a 230-foot arena. The conditioning served them well playing in the mountains of California.
The most famous story of player selection in these games was the late arrival of Bob and Bill Cleary, and Mayasich. Basically, Riley promised Bill Cleary and Mayasich they didn't have to show up to camp but could come later. Cleary, who had started an insurance business with his brother by this time, still wasn't convinced, however. He eventually agreed, but only if his brother, Bob, would go too. Riley reluctantly agreed to that, knowing there would be dissension, and there was. Famously, Herb Brooks was the final cut needed to make room.
1964, Innsbrouck, Austria
Whatever lessons were learned for 1964 didn't carry over that well to 1964. The U.S. team finished fifth with a 2-5 record.
Canada, meanwhile, sent a national team for the first team, one that trained together for this purpose, as opposed to a single existing amateur club. The Soviets won gold, and Canada was shut out of a medal because of a controversial last-minute change to the rules that calculated standings. Fun times.
1968, Grenoble, France
The U.S. again struggled, going 2-4-1, placing sixth.
The coach of the team was Murray Williamson, a former All-American at Minnesota, and who was part of founding the USHL junior league. Williamson also was the coach in 1972.
1972, Sapporo, Japan
After many years of complaining about the Soviets and Czechs being able to play with de facto professionals, Canada decided not to send a team to the 1972 Olympics. Instead, it went about setting up matches between its best, the players in the NHL, and the Soviets' best. That ultimately led to the 1972 Summit Series, which Canada barely won, and then the Canada Cup. Canada returned to the Olympics in 1980. Canada had always been against the strict amateurism of the Olympics, but it didn't became as much of an issue until the Soviets started clobbering everyone.
The U.S. managed to win a surprising silver, with players like Robbie Ftorek, Stu Irving, Henry Boucha, Tim Sheehy and Mark Howe.
The most intriguing issue was Tim Regan, BU's goalie. He caught the eye of Williamson when BU played the Olympic team in an exhibition. Williamson asked him to join the team, and assured Regan he would play in Japan. He played 10 exhibition games with Team USA, but when the rosters had to submitted, Regan was left off. He returned to BU, where the other goaltender had hurt his knee, and helped lead the Terriers to the national championship. After the games, he received a silver medal anyway.
1976, Innsbrouck, Austria
As the 1976 Olympic Games were getting closer, things had started to shift. Thanks to rapid NHL and AHL expansion, there were many more pro teams, which meant that many more players coming out of college would get a chance to sign pro contracts. And as a result, they would no longer have Olympic eligibility. If the players weren't good enough for a pro contract, it probably meant they weren't good enough to make the team over the best NCAA players.
Wisconsin's Bob Johnson was selected to coach the team, and along with the governing body for hockey in the U.S., now called AHAUS, held tryouts in the East and West before whittling players down to a final tryout.
Most players selected would have to leave school and play with the Olympic team for the season-long tour leading up to the Olympics, and most players and coaches were OK with that at this point. One player who decided not to leave school was Providence's Ron Wilson, who wanted to stay with his brothers on the Friars and get an education. But generally, attitudes towards the Olympics had shifted.
In fact, in a juicy piece of irony, Minnesota coach Herb Brooks complained that Bob Johnson snubbed his players. Even though a couple Minnesota players made the team, Buzz Schneider and Robbie Harris, Brooks said five more deserved it. (Mike Polich would've made it but decided to sign a pro deal instead.) Of course, this was the height of a feud between the two.
"What I think should be done is select a coach who has no ties to a particular institution," Brooks said at the time. "You really can't expect a coach to be totally objective in selecting players. I don't know if I could be."
In further irony, Brooks said the U.S. team had no chance against the Russians and Czechs, and that the Americans should consider not sending a team in the future, like the Canadians.
Sweden decided to join Canada's protest of the Games, and didn't send a team either. The U.S. did not medal, and the Soviets won gold again.
1980, Lake Placid, N.Y.
Again, there is so much out there on this year, that we hardly need to discuss it. But in terms of selecting the team, things were finally a rather well-oiled machine, even if Brooks, now the head coach, was highly opinionated on who he wanted.
Other than 1952, this is the only time Team USA was made up entirely of players that once played college hockey, and a large majority would've still been in the NCAA in 1979-80 if not with the Olympic team.
First, the USOC ran a National Sports Festival in July 1978 in Colorado Springs, and invited players from all over so hockey officials could take a look at them. Also by this time, the USOC itself and many of the sports' governing bodies moved their offices to Colorado Springs.
When Brooks came along in 1979, more tryouts were held, though Brooks already had the team he wanted in his head. It included numerous players from his own Minnesota squad that had won the national title the previous winter. And it included a couple of players from Wisconsin, including Mark Johnson, son of Bob.
It also included a couple of players that had been in the minor league IHL after leaving college, including captain Mike Eruzione. This was allowed because the IHL was technically under the auspices of AHAUS at the time. Even though IHL teams were each allowed five pro players, the league was considered amateur and non-pros received only "living expenses." Players like Eruzione would sign an AHAUS card that maintained their eligibility.
Brooks' took him team on a grueling 61-game world tour, and won the gold medal, including the famous win over the Soviets.
1984, Sarajevo, Yugloslavia
Bob Johnson and Herb Brooks had gone to coach in the NHL, so the Americans picked Lou Vairo as the next head coach. Player selection was again smooth, and again made up mostly of current NCAA players, but also with players from Canadian Major Junior, an increasingly popular route for some high-end Americans at that time, like Pat Lafontaine.
It was a talented team, but ultimately somewhat of a mess, and finished out of medal contention.
The IOC and IIHF had decided to open Olympic hockey to pros for the first time, ending the pretense of what was happening in the Soviet Bloc countries. This is also a time when Mikhail Gorbachev was introducing new freedoms into Soviet culture, which ultimately led to Russian players coming to the NHL.
However, since the NHL was not allowing its players to leave for the Olympics, the team still had to be pieced together from existing NCAA players, and others that had already moved onto the pros. Among the pros were Chris Terreri, Steve Leach, Peter Laviolette (who played in D-III at Westfield State), and the late Jim Johansson.
Bob Johnson, who had been with the Calgary Flames, left there to run AHAUS, and picked Dave Peterson as the head coach. Many thought this was the most talented team the U.S. ever put together, and still do. They formed the nucleus of what became the 1996 World Cup championship team. But Peterson seemed to be over his head, and they did poorly in the Olympics.
1992, Albertville, France
It was the second straight games where current NCAA players mixed with Americans who were toiling in the minor leagues. Elblematic of that was the team's starting goaltender Ray LeBlanc, a native of Massachusetts who was 27 when the Games began, having toiled for years in the IHL. He got hot and the U.S. went on a run, but finished fourth. The current NCAA'ers were names like Bret Hedican, Ted Donato, Keith Tkachuk and reigning Hobey winner David Emma.
The Soviet Union had disbanded by now, but the players from Russia and the former Soviet republics played under the "Unified Team" moniker, and won the gold medal. Canada — with a team that included Eric Lindros and Joe Juneau — won silver, its first Olympic medal since 1968.
1994, Lillehammer, Norway
Same deal as 1992, basically, with Yale's Tim Taylor named the head coach. The team didn't fare that well, finishing eighth. It was mostly players who had already left college and were playing in the minors. The oldest player was Laviolette, and the youngest was Clarkson's Todd Marchant. Sweden defeated Canada in a famous gold-medal game shootout, led by Peter Forsberg.
1998, Nagano, Japan
The next major shift began here, when the NHL decided to take a vacation from its regular season and allow its players to go to the Olympics. That meant no year-long world-wide tours, or anything of its kind anymore. Instead, it was in and out.
Most of the same players that won the '96 World Cup were on this team, but the U.S. finished a very disappointing sixth.
2002 (Salt Lake City), 2006 (Turin, Italy), 2010 (Vancouver), 2014 (Sochi, Russia)
In this span, it was all the same — the NHL sent its players, and it certainly made for highly-competitive tournaments. The U.S. earned silvers in the two games played in North America, 2002 and 2010, but has yet to grab another gold. Herb Brooks came back to coach the 2002 team, after the debacle of 1998, and got them to the final, where it lost to Canada.
2018, PyeongChang, South Korea
And here we are. No NHL players, too late to pull a ton of NCAA players out, so the U.S. settled on four players from current NCAA teams, and mainly got the rest from Americans who are playing overseas, most of whom were in the NCAA before.
The list of current (*) or former NCAA players on 2018 Olympic rosters:
United States Jordan Greenway *Boston University Ryan Donato *Harvard Troy Terry *Denver Will Borgen *St. Cloud State Brian Gionta Boston College Chris Bourque Boston University John McCarthy Boston University Chad Kolarik Michigan Brian O'Neill Yale KHL Mark Arcobello Yale Broc Little Yale Garrett Roe St. Cloud Jim Slaton Michigan State Bobby Butler New Hampshire Ryan Stoa Minnesota KHL Matt Gilroy Boston University KHL Noah Welch Harvard Chad Billins Ferris State Ryan Gunderson Vermont Ryan Zapolski Mercyhurst KHL Canada Rene Bourque Wisconsin Mason Raymond Minnesota-Duluth Ben Scrivens Cornell KHL Chay Genoway North Dakota KHL Cody Goloubef Wisconsin Andrew Ebbett Michigan Chris Lee SUNY-Potsdam KHL Mat Robinson Alaska-Anchorage KHL Karl Stollery Merrimack KHL South Korea Brock Radunske Michigan State Mike Testwuide Colorado College Matt Dalton Bemidji State Slovakia Milos Bubela RPI Slovenia Luka Vidmar Alaska-Anchorage Sweden Viktor Stalberg Vermont Erik Gustafsson Northern Michigan Norway Ludvig Hoff *North Dakota