The University of Denver’s ties to the Miracle on Ice run deep

Photo: The 1959 Soviet Union team that came to Colorado Springs to play Colorado College and DU

Editor’s Note: This is a reprint from author Dick Hiker who wrote this for LetsGoDU to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the biggest game in DU hockey history. It may be the best article on DU hockey ever published. Thanks to Damien Goddard for capturing this gem and Dick Hiker for providing the game account.

****DU graduate Craig Patrick, BA Business Administration ’69 a member of the National Hockey League Hall of Fame will be a guest speaker at the DU Alumni Weekend May 20th who will talk about hockey at DU, playing the Soviet Union and his business career if you want to learn more.****

Article by Dick Hiker

Fifty years ago—on Saturday Jan. 10. 1959—a dramatic international hockey game was played in Colorado and the result catapulted both the American collegiate game and the University of Denver’s program to a new level.

On the ice at the old Broadmoor Arena in Colorado Springs, the Pioneers pulled off perhaps their most stunning “upset” in history, fiercely battling to a 4-4 tie with the powerful Soviet Union National team.

It was a Russian squad hailed by many hockey experts as being among the best teams in the world—amateur or professional, including the then-six clubs in the National Hockey League.

Basically, the Russians were professionals disguised as amateurs as they prepared for an appearance on the world stage at the 1960 Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley, Calif. the following winter. The majority of the men with “CCCP” on their sweat suits were members of the Soviet Army “assigned” to hockey duty in Moscow.

Officially known as the “Soviet Select” team, members were meticulously chosen and prepared for their assignment: Win gold medals at the Olympics and the World Games and thereby create a propaganda coup for the motherland at the height of the Cold War. It was an era when strict amateur rules still were applied to athletes west of the Iron Curtain—but not east.

The Russian juggernaut, which won Olympic gold in its first try in 1956, was built on three components—superb physical conditioning, on-ice discipline and a newly created style of play which featured speed, teamwork and a dazzling short passing game. Coached by Anatoly Tarasov (left), hailed as the “Father of Russian hockey, was to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame many years later.

The strategy of finesse was the opposite of the physical “dump and chase” style largely deployed throughout the NHL and in Canadian amateur ranks.

Photo: DU was led by Walker, Massier & Dingwall

The Buildup
The Soviet team had never played in North America and in order to prepare for the 1960 Olympics, a nine-game exhibition tour was arranged for 1959. Games six and seven would be in Colorado Springs against Colorado College and DU, certainly good collegiate teams (DU was the defending NCAA champion) but neither seemed to be in a class with the touring defending Olympic champs.

The Russians had little trouble winning four of the first five games, but were held to a tie by the U.S. National team.

The management of the Broadmoor Hotel, headed by brothers Thayer and Russell Tutt, rolled out the proverbial red carpet for the visiting Communists. The resort hotel was no stranger to hosting major athletic events (including the first 10 NCAA hockey championships and World and U.S. Figure Skating meets), but the international significance of hosting the mighty men from Moscow pushed the Broadmoor management and staff to a new level of hospitality.

The hotel’s fleet of white Cadillac limos was dispatched to Denver to meet the Russians at Stapleton Airport and a couple of hundred people were on hand at the hotel’s front entrance when they rolled up.

As flashbulbs popped, a Broadmoor waitress, who spoke fluent Russian, welcomed the visitors and the Tutts handed out white Stetson western hats to every member of the travel party. There was polite applause. The Russians’ broad grins appeared to be genuine. They had made it to America’s Wild West.

The night before the game with Colorado College, the hotel hosted a players-only party for all three squads. No coaches, team officials or press. Security was air-tight.

My sources on the DU team said the festivities lasted well into the night and that the European visitors consumed extremely large amounts of straight vodka. Our DU lads did their share of imbibing, too, but I have been assured that their thirst was only quenched by beer made with Rocky Mountain spring water.

The late Harley Key, the hockey beat writer for the Rocky Mountain News and my competition, figured we should do our bit to give the Russians a Colorado welcome. So, while the players were cavorting, we asked one of the Soviet big-wigs, Roman Kiselov, to join us for beverages in my hotel room.

Comrade Kiselov didn’t seem to have any official title with the Soviet entourage, but it appeared to Harley and me that he was the man in charge. During a briefing with a U.S. State Department official a couple of weeks earlier, we were told that the KGB would likely have a man or two in the traveling party. We also suspected Roman also played that part.

Kiselov was a gregarious Russian bear of a man who spoke very good English. Had he chosen to defect to the U.S., he could have made a fortune in Hollywood playing Russian roles.

To our delight, Kiselov took us up on our invite. In four hours, while he ingested an entire quart of the hotel’s best vodka and Harley and I did away with a quart of bourbon between us, we had a great discussion covering hockey, potato farming and the benefits of communist and democratic societies. By 2 a.m., we were all having breakfast at an all-night café in downtown Colorado Springs.(We couldn’t get Kiselov to admit—or deny—that he was KGB.)

On Friday night, the Russian hockey players gave absolutely no indication that vodka—even consumed in large amounts at 6,000 feet above sea level—had affected their performance.

They defeated Colorado College 11-5 in a game that really wasn’t close. The visitors conducted a hockey clinic that might well have been choreographed by the Bolshoi.

Would a similar fate befall the Pioneers on Saturday?

No one could be certain. But the mood of the DU players indicated that this would be no mere exhibition skate. Far from it. All of the Hilltoppers were Canadians and national honor would be at stake. Coach Murray Armstrong didn’t hesitate to remind that hockey was Canada’s game, not Russia’s.

Armstrong had stressed DU’s defensive strategy in practice sessions for the past several weeks: breakup the Russian passing game with unrelenting back-checking and fore-checking. Keep them from getting their well-publicized rhythm. Denver’s changes would depend on one thing: A dogged defense.

Armstrong was wound tighter than a garage door spring late Saturday afternoon. His jaw was his game face and it was firmly set. He confided that his senior goaltender, Rodney Schneck, hadn’t been feeling well most of the day and he was concerned about it. But Rodney insisted he would be ready.

The Game
The Broadmoor arena had less than 3,000 seats, but an extra 400-500 standing witnesses had been stuffed into the old building. The crowd was both apprehensive and electric.

It is would be a contest pitting The Free World against soldiers from a state-run sports program designed for political advantage—a hockey game, it seemed, combined with a morality play.

Colorado Gov. Steve McNichols was involved in a ceremony in center ice before the first puck was dropped, but must most eyes were on the red-uniformed soviets lined up at their blue line. Were these guys really super men?

From the onset, the Pioneers gave every indication they could make a game of it.

They jumped to 2-0 lead. Bruce Walker got the first goal just five minutes into the game after he and center Murray Massier found themselves on a two-on-one break and Massier, who had played on Armstrong’s junior team in Regina, Sask., faked the Soviet defenseman right off his skates.

Three minutes later, Paul Josephson took John MacMillan’s pass and rammed home a goal from in front at short range.

But a night earlier, the Russians had also given up the first two goals of the game to Colorado College before switching their game into high gear. Was this going to be a repeat?

The visitors did storm back for a pair of goals of their own and tied it with nine and a half-minutes left in the period.

But the Pioneers answered. Sophomore defenseman Marty Howe, who had scored six goals and seven assists in DU’s first 11 games of the season, let loose with a 25-foot blast to make it 3-2.

A crucial point in the contest came soon after. MacMillian was assessed with a two-minute penalty, Denver’s first of the game.

In their first six games on the U.S. tour, the Russians had scored at least one goal on each of their power-play opportunities (international rules then mandated that players must serve the entire penalty, regardless of goals scored). There seemed to be no stopping the Soviets when they had a manpower edge.

But the short-handed Pioneers didn’t buckle under the pressure and held-fast for two minutes. Schneck, under the weather or not, was gallant in the nets.

Denver survived the first period with a 3-2 lead and Schneck had 14 saves.

The second period was just as hard-fought as the first. The Pioneers seemed to have the best of it. But it was the “Select” team that got the only goal of the stanza—a disputed one at that. Center Victor Iakushev got open in front of the net and got off a hard shot. The goal judge said the puck never made it across the goal line. But he was overruled by Referee Jack Riley.

Later in the period, Riley, a Bostonian, took away an apparent goal by DU’s Paul Josephson, saying the puck was forwarded by Josephson’s glove.

The game was not televised, so there could be no review of Riley’s calls.

The Pioneers suffered another severe blow in the period. Defenseman Howe, going down to block a hard Soviet shot, took the puck off his knee and collapsed in a heap. The kneecap was broken and the big Regina native was lost for the season. Armstrong was forced to make a major personnel switch, moving sophomore wing George Konik back to his more natural position at defense and putting senior winger Walt Dingwall on the ice for full-time duty.

After two, it was 3-3 and still anyone’s game.

Then, in the third period, there was drama heaped upon drama.

Marty Howe refused be immediately taken to Penrose Hospital for treatment. He demanded to watch the third period while laying on a gurney placed just off the ice at the entrance to the dressing rooms. He could watch the rest of the game and his teammates could see him.

If the Pioneers needed any more inspiration, they had it.

The Russians attacked with even greater determination in the third period. Could they have been threatened with transfers to Siberia?

But Denver, sticking with its strategy of check, check, check, was up to the challenge. The emotional crowd, composed of many Colorado College fans, screamed its support, hoping to see Ivan the Giant toppled.

With 7:50 gone, another of D.U.’s super sophomores, Center Bill Masterton, put the Pioneers ahead 4-3. He pounced on a loose puck in the Soviet end, made a quick stride forward and drilled an 18-foot forehand shot past Goalie Eugene Erkin.

It was 4-3 and the roar of the crowd was deafening. Even people in the press box—scorers, timers, reporters—were on standing and cheering. For the first and last time in my sports writing career, I briefly joined them. After all, with that racket, who could hear me?

The Pioneers, backstopped by Schneck, who had 14 more saves in the third, grimly hung on to the slim lead as minute after minute rolled off the clock. It was Rodney’s best game of his three-year career.

But with just over a minute to play, the Soviets got a sliver of an opportunity and capitalized with the tying goal. Racing down right wing, George Krylov got a half-step advantage on the D.U. defender and blasted away with a 20-footer from a difficult angle. The puck found the corner of the cage and it was 4-4.

That’s the way it ended up after another furious assault by the Russians in the final minute.

Hockey had no provisions for overtime in those days—a tie was a tie.

After the final horn, the crowd stood and applauded both teams as they filed off the ice past the prone Marty Howe.

“The boys played their hearts out,” Armstrong said in the dressing room. “They did everything anyone could ask of them.”

On Monday afternoon, when I stopped at D.U. Arena to watch practice, I caught flak from some of the players.

The headline across the top of the front page in the Sunday morning Denver Post sports section, set in “war-declared”-sized type, said DU TIES RUSSIANS, 4-4

“Hey, they tied us,” the players emphasized to me. Their anger with the headline writer said everything about how they had approached the game. (Fifty years later, while doing research for this story, I learned that my colleagues had changed the headline in later editions. The second version was DU, RUSSIANS PLAY 4-4 TIE. Much better.)

The 4-4 result was no fluke. The following year, 1960, the two teams had a rematch at D.U. Arena. It was another pressure-packed game that ended in a deadlock, 2-2. The Russian squad, with a lot of new faces from the year before, was now the nation’s Olympic team on its way to Squaw Valley.

In the Olympic semifinals, the U.S.S.R. was upset by the United States in he first “Miracle on Ice,” and the Russians had to settle for a bronze medal.

During the 1959-60 season, Denver not only tied the Ruskies 2-2 but also took two out of three games from the U.S. Olympians at D.U. Arena and also defeated the West German and Swedish Olympic squads.

Four of the players on the 1958-59 team that had valiantly tied the Russians eventually were named collegiate all-Americans—Marty Howe, George Konik, Bill Masterton and Grant Munro. Konik, Masterton and John MacMillan eventually played in the National Hockey League.

And, I can’t forget Roman Kiselov. While covering the Olympics at Squaw Valley I went to the Soviet dressing room after one of its games and found a gaggle of western sports writers waiting to get in for interviews. After several minutes, the door opened and there stood Kiselov. He looked at the impatient newsmen, spotted me and waved for me to come inside. Only me. Roman interpreted for me while I and the boys from Tass interviewed the Russian coach. The Denver Post had quotes. The New York Times could wait.

It’s amazing what a bottle of good Vodka can get you.

****You can learn more at DU Alumni Weekend on May 20th from a hockey Pioneer, Craig Patrick, who played in the games.****