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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

A lifetime spent around hockey

In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Mark Monroe talked with former United States Olympic hockey player Weldon "Weldy" Olson, who led the team to a silver medal in 1956 and to a gold medal in 1960, the country's first in hockey. Now 73, Olson is retired and living in Findlay after running the ice arena at the Hancock County Recreation Center for 19 years.

Weldon "Weldy" Olson was a true pioneer of hockey in the United States as part of the first Olympic team to win a gold medal. But while most view the 1960 squad as the first "Miracle on Ice," the unassuming Olson believes the experienced team should never have been labeled an underdog.

Olson played right wing for the 1960 team that was picked to finish fifth and was expected to only beat West Germany. But instead the team upset Canada and then beat the USSR in its next game. The Americans, who defeated the Soviets for the first time, then downed Czechoslovakia in the gold medal game to delight the home crowd in Squaw Valley, Calif.

Olson was born in Marquette, Mich., in 1932 as the youngest of 11 children. He had eight brothers and two sisters and all became phenomenal athletes, particularly in hockey.

In all, the Olsons have been inducted into 12 hockey halls of fame.

Olson played four years at Michigan State University, where he led the team in goals scored every year. He had 21 goals during a 23-game season and ended up with 75 goals in 91 career games.

Olson was selected to play for the U.S. team from 1956 to 1960, traveling the world to play international competition. He spent the offseason serving in the Air Force.

The Americans' gold medal victory was the last competitive hockey game Olson played in, and he acknowledges the 1980 team's miracle at Lake Placid overshadows the 1960 team's.

Olson then joined the Detroit-based Beltz Company, which built ice rinks across the country, as a designer. Olson helped build the Ice House facility on Alexis Road.

In 1977, Olson settled in Findlay to manage the arena at the Hancock Recreation Center. He retired 10 years ago.

Olson married his wife, Helen, three months after the 1960 Olympics. The couple has three boys, Scott, Greg and Keith. In 1983, Greg and Keith Olson helped Findlay High School win a state championship. Both are lieutenant colonels in the Army. Olson also has four grandchildren.

"EVERYBODY IN THE FAMILY played hockey. Five of us played in college. Four of us played at Michigan Tech. My brother Eddie was the best player in the house. He was the only one who played pro hockey. He played nine years in the AHL and was the first American-born player to win the AHL scoring title.

"We all worked at the ice arena in Marquette. We did every job. We cleaned the ice, we rented and sharpened skates. We even cleaned the building. All of us worked the concessions. Our only pay was that you got free ice time.

"Where we grew up you were either a skier or a skater. Hockey was the big sport. U.S. hockey got its start in that area.

"I was always involved in sports. We had a prison in Marquette at the time and we'd play against the prisoners. We'd play basketball and baseball."

"I WAS THE NATIONAL

junior champion in 1947 in log rolling.

You get two guys on a log in the water and you roll it and try to knock each other off. We did that to keep in shape in the summer."

"I WAS ALWAYS RATHER SMALL. I was 5-10, 160 pounds. But I had enough speed and got away most of the time. I was more efficient on defense. Of course I lost my teeth like every other player."

"WHEN I TRIED OUT [for the Olympics] in 1956 we started with 300 players. That got down to 100 or so. They picked 17 players and I was lucky enough to get selected. I was only 23. We were excited. But the Olympic Committee did not give us much money. We'd play exhibition games to raise money to support the team. We started in November and went to the Olympics in February."

"[IN 1960] we were picked to finish fifth. The only team they thought we could beat would be West Germany. We did not feel that way at all because in 1959 we had tied the Russians and Canadians. One thing people forgot is that every player but one had played international hockey. We had over 30 years of experience. I had played for five years. So we did not go in with any fear.

"It was crazy. The stands were full. It was very loud. I wasn't thinking about that. As long as the team got going that was the main thing. We had three good lines and solid defense and you did not have to worry when it was your chance to rest. Our goaltender, Jack McCartan, was the difference."

"THE WHOLE TEAM didn't get medals at the ceremony. Only your captain went up on the stand. They didn't hang it around you neck, they just handed it to you. Our medals were on our bunks when we went back to the barracks. There were no TV cameras. We had to be out of the barracks the next day and then you were on your own. But they had a 'Weldy Olson Day' for me back in Marquette. That was a special day.

"We get together about every five years. We always like to kid [the 1980 team]. We tell them they backed into it. They didn't play Canada or Sweden. But they came at a time when Europe was getting a lot stronger."

"I WAS CAPTAIN of the team in 1958 and it was the first time a team had ever gone into Russia. That was a little bit scary because that was just before the Berlin Wall went up. They still called it the Iron Curtain. But they treated us very well. The food was lousy, but we got to see some sites. We played in front of 18,000 people. At that age you don't care. All you are doing is playing hockey."

"THE PLAYERS NOW are a lot stronger. They go through strength preparation that we did not worry about. I don't think they're faster or better stick handlers.

"The game is different, though. There was no high sticking back then. We had more respect for each other. You knew if you hit someone with your stick, you were in trouble.

"The benches were a lot shorter. We were only allowed to have 15 players on the bench and two had to be goaltenders. We had nine forwards and four defensemen. So we were in good shape because you got a lot of ice time.

"Now there's a long bench and they run four lines out there. You don't get the same ice time. I think the game sped up from that. The rinks are bigger and the equipment is better."

"I'VE JUST ALWAYS LOVED the speed and the game. You play it two and half inches off the ice. You have to learn to skate before you play this game. Everyone can run, but not everyone can skate. There is only one place the game is played and that's in the heart."

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.



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