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Kirrane Remembered as Leader, Teammate and Friend

By Greg Bates - Special to USA Hockey, 10/14/16, 9:00AM EDT


Tough defenseman was captain of 1960 U.S. Olympic team

While Jack Kirrane could be a quiet man, when he was on the ice he was impossible to miss.

Bill Cleary knew both sides of Kirrane well as the teammates roomed together in the Olympic Village during the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California.

Kirrane, one of the first-line defensive players for the U.S. National Team, was known for his do-anything attitude to stop a puck in front of the net.  

“He had more black and blues from taking pucks,” said Cleary, who was a center for the Olympic team. “Never, never said a word, wouldn’t complain. He wouldn’t own up to being tired or achy or anything. But that’s the way he was. He was fearless when he played.”

That was the essence of Kirrane: a hard-nosed, rugged defenseman who was the captain of that 1960 Olympic squad that shocked everyone by capturing the gold medal. Kirrane died on Sept. 25 after complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

Kirrane’s teammates from the 1960 Olympic team certainly have fond memories of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer, who they call a special person on and off the ice.

“He was a great guy, forget about hockey for a couple minutes,” said John Mayasich, Kirrane’s defensive partner for the ’60 Games. “A nice, quiet guy. Didn’t say much.”

Said Cleary: “A man of very few words. But those are the guys you’ve got to worry about, because they’re the ones that carry a big sword. ... But when he did speak, you knew he was all business. You didn’t fool around with him.”

Kirrane was a great leader who had the utmost respect from all his teammates on the national team. He led the way, and the guys followed.

“If you’re going to war, you want a Kirrane in your foxhole — believe me,” Cleary said. “Because they would show the way and they wouldn’t back down.”

Kirrane, whose real first name was John, was a member of the 1948 Olympic team to go along with the ’60 team. He was the veteran in the latter Olympics at 31, serving as an on-ice coach to the young college players who filled the squad.

“I don’t know if people know it, but he was married with three children at the time,” Cleary said. “He had to take a leave of absence and he didn’t get paid. I think of it now, these young whippersnappers, they’ve got to get paid and all this baloney. Jackie wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Kirrane finished with three points in the Olympic tournament, all on assists, but it was his presence in front of the net that helped the U.S. upset Canada and the Soviet Union before downing Czechoslovakia to clinch the gold medal.

No one knows Kirrane’s impact in the 1960 Olympics better than U.S. goalie Jack McCartan.

“Here’s the kind of player he was, if you could equal the goals that he saved by blocking shots and convert that into an offensive year, he’d be a 35- to 40-goal man,” McCartan said.

“He probably saved my bacon a few times, probably more than a few.”

Kirrane blocks a shot during the 1960 Olympic Winter Games

McCartan’s savior around the crease, when a shot was fired, Kirrane would drop down on one knee, put both arms down and his chest out. His face, teeth, chest — nothing was safe from the puck.

“He’d take them anywhere,” McCartan said, laughing.

Kirrane was also a bit of an enforcer on the ice. He wouldn’t let any opponent rough up any of his teammates, and he always tallied the last hit. Mayasich said Kirrane kept the Canadian and Soviet Union players honest with his hard-nosed play in the defensive zone.

“They didn’t go in the corners with him,” Mayasich said. “The Canadians would hit him, but they’d get penalties. Jack had that technique, and it’s hard to explain. He was punishing, and I’m not saying he got away with it. He had a way to hit. They felt it and kept their heads up.”

Kirrane, a native of Brookline, Massachusetts, served for 38 years on the Brookline Fire Department along with 15 years as the rink manager on the campus at Harvard University.

“He was the same way fighting fires, he’d go right in the middle of fires in the smoke — it didn’t bother him,” Cleary said.

Since Kirrane was the captain of the 1960 Olympic hockey team, he was the United States’ representative during the medal ceremony as the team was presented with the gold. Kirrane stood high on the pedestal with his teammates nearby.

“That was really one of the great moments when I sat there and watched Jack Kirrane,” Cleary said. “This tough Irishman from Brookline with the jaw sticking out, tough as nails, and he was standing up there in the No. 1 position getting the gold medal. His knees were shaking, his hands were a pool of perspiration, and I said, ‘Look, that’s what it’s all about right there. That’s what it’s about.’ That’s what it meant to all of us. And to watch Jack stand up there getting it, it was a great thrill.”

“I know damn well he was proud,” McCartan said.

Added Mayasich: “He was certainly deserving of getting the medals for us. Boy, and when you think of where he came from and what he was doing, and he was there representing the country on our behalf.”

Now that Kirrane is gone, he certainly isn’t forgotten. His legacy as a hockey player and a person will live forever.

“He gave more than he had,” Mayasich said. “He sacrificed a lot and he certainly deserved it as everybody did, the right to the gold. Nobody played harder and tougher than Jack. He set a good example for the kids playing today or any future kid that pursues the challenge. He was special, I have to say that, in every department. A great guy and a friend.

“We lost a good one.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc

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