Feb. 21, 2014
By Jeffrey Weinstein
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It's been 58 years since former University of Michigan ice hockey standouts and childhood friends Willard Ikola and John Matchefts suited up for Team USA at the 1956 Winter Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.
For the Eveleth (Minn.) High School hockey teammates -- Ikola in net and Matchefts up front -- the 1956 Olympics were the culmination of a hockey journey together as players, but it was only part of a lifelong friendship that continued until Matchefts passed away this past fall on Nov. 10, 2013.
On the eve of another Olympic medal round, Ikola remembers well his Olympic experience and a friend whose career was shaped by Team USA's journey to a silver medal in the mountains of Italy.
"Every four years when you see it, you automatically remember the time that you had and what a great experience it was," Ikola said.
The pipeline from Eveleth, Minn., to Ann Arbor, Mich., began with forward Wally Grant's success at U-M. Grant, a star at Eveleth High School who helped the school win the first Minnesota state championship in 1945, was drawn to Michigan by head coach Vic Heyliger. Grant was a three-time All-American with the Wolverines, helping Michigan win its first national title in hockey during his sophomore year in 1948.
"We had a snowballing effect from our high school to the University of Michigan as far as hockey players go," Ikola said. "The first players that went to Michigan were Wally Grant and Neil Celley, who graduated (from Eveleth High) in 1945. It seemed like every year after that we had one kid from our high school that went to the University of Michigan on a hockey scholarship. Michigan was offering hockey scholarships at the time and the University of Minnesota wasn't, so that's one reason we went to Michigan."
With the path to Michigan from Eveleth established, Matchefts, also a talented forward from Minnesota and three time all-state honoree, enrolled at the University in 1949. Matchefts played his first season with the Wolverines in 1950-51 and quickly made an impact on the ice, playing a highly skilled, tenacious style of hockey that garnered him a nickname from his teammates, "The Fly." Matchefts earned All-American honors and Michigan won its second national championship in 1951.
"John wasn't a very big kid, probably 5-8, 160 pounds, but he was very quick," Ikola said. "He was a tremendous stick handler. The one thing I always recall about John was that he was a complete player as far as playing both ends of the rink. He was also one heck of a competitor. He was a three-sport man in high school, and maybe that's one of the reasons he was so competitive when he played. He didn't want to lose, that's for sure."
After a stint in the IHL, Ikola joined Matchefts on the ice at Michigan for the 1951-52 season, earning the starting goaltending job and helping U-M earn its second straight national championship.
Michigan won its third straight national title in 1952-53 as Matchefts was named NCAA Tournament MVP after a 7-3 win over Minnesota, his final game with the Maize and Blue. Ikola and Matchefts both earned All-America recognition that season as well.
Both players enrolled in the armed forces after highly decorated college careers, Ikola in the Air Force and Matchefts in the Marine Corps. Just a few years removed from winning national championships at Michigan, the two Wolverines returned to the ice together to play for the United States after phone calls by USA Hockey.
"Over half of the Olympic team was in military service," Ikola said. "What happened was that USA Hockey, who ran the Olympic program, would contact the service and say, 'We'd like to have these players try out for the Olympic team.' So we got orders out of Special Services in Washington, D.C., assigning us to USA Hockey for Olympic tryouts. It was a pretty good deal for us because we were getting our military pay at the same time."
After breaking camp in Duluth, Minn., with the team, Ikola and Matchefts became Michigan Hockey's first Olympians, along with Bob White (Canada), who enrolled at Michigan after the 1956 Games.
With head coach John Mariucci at the helm, Team USA played a series of exhibitions in the United States against college teams and overseas in London against international competition before opening preliminary round play at the Olympics in January 1956. There were 11 teams in the Olympic tournament, and Team USA was in a group with Czechoslovakia and Poland in a round-robin, double-elimination format.
On Jan. 27, 1956, the U.S. lost its first game of the tournament against Czechoslovakia, 4-3, before defeating Poland, 4-0, the next day to advance to the medal round consisting of six teams playing five games against each other. Team USA won three straight games against Germany, Canada and Sweden (Matchefts scored twice in a 6-1 win) before a de facto gold medal game against the Soviet Union.
This was the first meeting between the United States and the Soviet Union in ice hockey at the Olympic Games, and there was intrigue among the American contingent about what they would face.
"The Russian team that we were up against was an older team," Ikola said. "Most of those guys were in their upper 20s, some guys in their early 30s. They were the so-called Red Army team, because all of them were in the service, and their primary job was to play hockey, so they were well-drilled."
On Feb. 3, 1956, the Soviets defeated Team USA, 4-0, leaving the American players impressed with the style of play they had seen. Ikola, who started in net for the contest, remembered well what he saw that day.
"They didn't like the body-checking part of the game, like the Americans and Canadians played," Ikola said. "They were a puck-moving team. They maybe even over-passed to a point. They would have point-blank shots and then make that extra pass, and the puck was in the net. They were very skilled."
The U.S. went on to win the silver medal with a 9-4 victory over Czechoslovakia the next day, and Matchefts and Ikola became the first Michigan hockey alums to win Olympic medals, joining White, who won a bronze medal with Canada.
But it was the game against the Soviet Union that would stick with Matchefts and influence his 30-year coaching career.
"Johnny Matchefts liked that (Soviet) style. He was a very skilled player and it made a big impression on him, the way they handled the puck."
After the Olympics, Matchefts returned to Minnesota to coach high school hockey at Thief River Falls from 1956-58, before becoming the head coach at Eveleth High School, where he coached for eight years.
Ikola became head coach of the hockey team at Edina (Minn.) High School in 1958, where he remained for 33 years, compiling a record of 616-149-38 and winning eight state championships.
Matchefts joined the college ranks after his own highly successful high school coaching career, joining Colorado College from 1966-72, then Air Force from 1972-1985, where he replaced his mentor, Heyliger, as head coach in 1975.
During his college tenure, Matchefts recruited players from Ikola's Edina team who offered high opinions of Matchefts' coaching style.
"They always thought that John was a very good coach," Ikola said. "He was very down to detail and was a very hockey-oriented type of coach. He liked the European and Russian style. He copied some of that in his own coaching philosophy. He was a very knowledgeable hockey person, and I know our former players really enjoyed him and thought he was a great coach."
Both Matchefts and Ikola were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in consecutive years, Ikola in 1990 and Matchefts in 1991. Both were also part of a memorable era in U.S. Olympic hockey, a team that learned from its experience against the Soviet Union in 1956 and returned with many of the same players at the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. That team beat the Russians, 3-2, and won the first gold medal for the United States in men's hockey at the Olympics.
But for Ikola, it was the success experienced during a golden era of Michigan Hockey that set the stage for their experiences at the international level and in coaching.
"We were fortunate to have great teammates and good teams at Michigan," Ikola said. "The caliber of play was very good. The guys that came in were gifted hockey players, and they played and most graduated in four years. It was a great school."