Fifty years ago, divine intervention changed Stu Irving’s life forever.
A US Army soldier stationed in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, the former Beverly High hockey star passed the time playing tennis with US medics and military officers at the compound. He asked his father, Bob, to send him hockey sticks and pucks that he could throw on base against sandbags and bunkers.
Then the 5-foot-7, 160-pound kid from Garden City learned he never thought he’d come: He was wanted in the United States to try for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team. United of 1972, which would compete in Sapporo, Japan, this February. However, if he was not on the team, he would be sent back to Vietnam.
A naturally gifted left winger who could score in groups, Irving did everything in his power to show coaches he belonged: blocking shots, battling opponents, playing through injuries. It paid off as he eventually traded in his army fatigues for a red, white and blue Team USA hockey jersey, helping his team win an unexpected silver medal – and a huge parade when he returned home to Beverly later that winter.
How are you this for a miracle on ice?
“It was amazing then, and it’s still amazing to think about it now,” said Irving, who turned 73 last week and still lives in Beverly with his wife, Debbie. “So many things had to go well for this to happen…and when I got my chance, I was going to do everything I could to make sure I kept it.”
A taste of international competition
After a stellar career at Beverly High (Class of 1969) and a year of junior hockey for the Thetford Mines Canadiens in Quebec, Irving made the Manchester (NH) Black Hawks of the defunct New England Amateur League.
One of the goaltenders at this club was Jim Logue, a former Boston College goaltender who had played for Team USA at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. The two developed a quick friendship and Logue spoke to 1968 Olympic coach Murray Williamson about the remarkable young striker.
“Murray was also going to coach the 1972 Olympic team, and Jimmy was kind of his eyes and ears on the East Coast,” Irving recalled. “Logey was a big fan of mine.”
Irving played all season in the NEAL and was chosen for a league all-star team that faced international teams from Canada, Switzerland, Sweden and others in Lake Placid, NY Logue was even more impressed with Irving’s play at this showcase and, having some attraction to Williamson, told him if he ever wanted to play hockey at this level again to let him know.
But he was drafted into the Army and posted to Fort Dix, NJ on May 14, 1970 for eight weeks of basic training and then another eight of advanced training before being sent to Vietnam.
“I thought my hockey career was over,” admitted Irving, who has two children: daughter Ashley (Rollins) and son Andrew, the latter himself a former BHS star and current assistant coach at the men’s hockey team.
In July, while Irving was still in the United States, Logue called the Irvings’ home in Beverly to ask if Stu was there; there would soon be a tryout for the 1971 U.S. National Team, and Williams would be there. Assessed of the situation, Logue (who later served as an assistant hockey coach at Salem State, among others) began making phone calls on Irving’s behalf.
“USA Hockey had people at the Pentagon who apparently wanted me back for tryouts,” Irving recalled, “so my captain called me and asked if I played hockey. When I said “Yes sir” to him he said “You are supposed to show up this week for a trial” and gave me a 48 hour pass to go home.
“I hadn’t worn skates in so long, but I did whatever it took to make this team. I tore my groin on the third day.
After Irving was ordered to ship to Vietnam, he took advantage of his 30 days at home by calling Logue almost daily to find out if he would make the team or not. Logue said he couldn’t give any guarantees, but would do whatever he could to help. Irving trained like crazy in the meantime, cycling 25 miles a day or more to stay in shape while skating whenever he could.
Irving returned to Fort Dix in October and traveled to the overseas barracks with a party heading for Vietnam. He mentioned to the army captain there that he was waiting to find out if he was going to make the United States national hockey team and asked him if he knew. So Irving spent another week in a detention barracks in New Jersey before he officially got the word: despite Logue’s best efforts, it probably wasn’t going to happen.
“I thought that was the end of that,” Irving said. “I went to Vietnam and thought no more about it.”
Make the team – or else
A courier worker in Vietnam, Irving had been in the country for 11 months when he was told by one of his tennis-playing doctors in early September that he had a plane ticket for Irving to fly from Vietnam to Minnesota. The precinct captain backed it up: He had ordered Irving to report to Minnesota and try out for the 1972 U.S. Olympic hockey team beginning September 15.
After leaving the country and traveling to Saigon to wait on hold, he flew from Vietnam to an Air Force base in California, caught a red eye at home to see his parents quickly and participated in a few hockey practices with longtime Beverly. friend (and future Salem State and University of Vermont coach) Mike Gilligan in Fitchburg before heading to Minnesota.
The only problem: if Irving was excluded from the team, he would be sent back to Vietnam.
“Being a big fan of mine, Logey told Murray Williamson, ‘Stu is going to be rusty, so give him as long as you can to prove himself,'” Irving said.
That he has done. Surviving the first cut, the left-winger traveled to Bemidji State (Minn.) for a training camp, which was reduced to around 30 players, and this group then played against college teams , American Hockey League teams and even eight games against the Russians boasted “which was probably the best thing we ever did,” Irving said.
In the last of those eight pre-Olympic clashes against Russia, Irving scored twice against Vladislav Tretiak, considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, in an 11-4 loss to the United States at the Madison Square Garden. The next morning, he and his center, Needham’s Robbie Ftorek, were called into a suite by the USA Hockey brass and told they would be traveling with the team to Japan.
From Minnesota to Colorado, they geared up for Team USA kits, then to Tokyo for a night before heading to Sapporo. Irving and Ftorek played on a line with right-winger Ron Naslund, who was selling insurance before trying out and making the team.
“Robbie and I nicknamed him ‘Daddy Nas’ because he was 28, I was only 22 and Robbie had just turned 20,” Irving recalled with a laugh.
Placed in Pool “B” in the 14-team Olympic draw, the Americans had to beat Switzerland in a round robin match to be eligible for a medal. They did it, 5-3, with Irving scoring the fifth goal on a looping return behind the net.
In the medal round, Team USA lost to Sweden, beat Czechoslovakia and lost to eventual gold medalists Russia before upsetting Finland (4-1) and eliminating Poland (6 -1). Because the Americans and Czechs finished with the same record, Irving’s team ended up with the silver medal based on their head-to-head victory.
Stu Irving never returned to Vietnam. He considered playing professional hockey near home for the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers before Williamson helped land him with the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars. Although he never played in a regular season game for the big club, he spent a month with their AHL team in Jacksonville before playing 11 years for the organization’s International Hockey League team. in Saginaw, Michigan. Irving played three more seasons in the IHL after his Saginaw went on to serve as an assistant coach at Merrimack College for 14 years.
Before all that, there had been a huge parade for him in Beverly after the Olympics. His parents and grandparents were escorted by state troopers from Logan Airport home, and the parade took him downtown to Beverly Farms.
There are plans to hold a 50th team meeting in Florida this summer, near where Williamson has a condo.
“Good times with great guys,” Irving said. “I’m grateful to have had the change to be a part of all of this.”
Contact Phil Stacey