Golden Anniversary; Unthinkable Loss

A  sad story about an 18-year old boy who died .. I didn’t care how it was written (News should differ from novel, correct?).  But two facts stood out: one US took  the Gold from the Russians in 1960 too – a very little talked about fact.  And two, how composed the father was in talking about his recent lost, the most graved lost, every parent’s nightmare.

Another thought/fact: just now, watching the Toronto Maple Leafs (vs NJ Devil), the worst performing team in da league, the house is packed, packed to the gills. The Devils played at home last night, the first place team, the arena was half empty (compressed schedule due to Olympics? The league should extend the season making easy on the players ..). Even the Rangers who stands the chance of a playoff spot, playing at MSG at the moment, but the Garden is half empty, in the heart of New York City. The drastic difference between USA and nothing-to-do Canadians.

That 1960 Olympic hockey squad upset the Soviet Union, 3-2, on a Sunday morning in Squaw Valley, Calif., for the gold medal.

One week later Dan Mayasich reflected, remarkably enough, on the gift he had received. He thought back to a week or so to the evening when he addressed the Brophy community inside the school’s chapel.

“I wanted them to know what an amazing and actually ‘joyful’ thing it was for us to be experiencing,” Dan Mayasich said. “And how unusual or odd it could possibly be … but ultimately how lovely … to be using the word ‘joy’ in the face of such tragedy, horror, sadness. I then had them consider that this thing they’re all seeing, this magic they’re all feeling in the chapel, it’s actually there in all of their kids, all of the time. They just don’t realize it. It’s like this invisible thing that shows itself only when it’s called upon, but it’s always there for everyone, not just our son. Perhaps THAT is God?”

John Walters

For the Mayasich family, that Friday dawned with the promise of adventure, of moments that would live forever. February 26 was to be a day for commemorating a momentous achievement past and for attempting a more modest one in the present. A celebration of life across three generations.

John Mayasich, age 76, was in Vancouver. Fifty years earlier, Mayasich had won a gold medal as a member of the United States Olympic hockey team. During the first week of the Vancouver Games he had sat down with NBC’s Brian Williams for an interview that would run in a Nightly News feature about that “Forgotten Miracle” squad. When on Friday afternoon the U.S. ambushed Finland 7-1 to advance to the gold-medal game, it seemed most fortuitous that this four-minute piece would air. Mayasich, the only member of that 1960 squad to attend these Winter Olympics, would be featured prominently.

His grandson, Robby Mayasich, would not see it. Robby, a senior at Brophy College Prep in Phoenix, had taken the day off from school with 11 friends. The dozen of them, 11 of whom were Brophy students, had risen well before sunrise in order to participate in the Ragnar del Sol. The Ragnar is a 202-mile relay race that stretches from the town of Prescott, 100 miles north and slightly west of Phoenix, to Mesa, a suburb east of the city.

Share Dan Mayasich is the link in the chain connecting John and Robby Mayasich. Son of a hockey legend. Father of a high school lacrosse player. On the eve of that Friday, Dan, the sales manager at KPNX-TV, the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, was reading in bed. It was about 10 p.m. The door opened and Robby, 18, entered. He approached his father, leaned over and hugged him with both arms. Robby planted a kiss on his father’s cheek.

“I love you, Dad.”

Then he walked out of the bedroom, closing the door gently behind him.

A Hockey Phenom

John Mayasich was born in Eveleth, Minnesota, up north in the Iron Range. Eveleth is also home to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is itself a second home for him. John Mayasich, you have to understand, is perhaps the greatest hockey player that hockey-obsessed Minnesota has produced.

Mayasich’s high school achievements on the rink are mythic or, to use an adjective endemic to this land, Bunyanesque. He never lost a game in high school, leading Eveleth High to a 69-0 record and four state championships. He once scored 14 goals in one game. At the state tournament his senior year, Mayasich scored 15 goals in just three games. Three different times — and twice in one game — he had a hat trick in a single period.

There was no one like Mayasich, the square-jawed son of an iron miner and one of 11 children. At the University of Minnesota he was a three-time All-American and led the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) in scoring in both 1954 and ’55. He once scored seven points in a game against Boston College (an NCAA record) and is even credited with introducing the slap shot to amateur hockey. He graduated as the school’s all-time leader in goals (144) and points (298), records that to this day stand. Records that stand 55 years later.

The University of Minnesota has won five NCAA championships in hockey and have produced four Hobey Baker Award winners. In all their illustrious years, the Golden Gophers have retired one hockey number: John Mayasich’s number 8.

“John Mayasich, well, he’d be right at the top,” says Murray Williamson, who coached the 1972 USA Olympic hockey team to a silver medal in Sapporo and overlapped one year with Mayasich in college. “John was a natural athlete. He was legendary for excelling at any sport. He could pick up a tennis racket, he’d be a tennis star.”

Robby Mayasich did not inherit his grandfather’s athletic gifts. “I cut him last year,” Brophy lacrosse coach Beau Pich says.

Lacrosse is a relatively nascent high school sport west of the Mississippi, but Brophy, a Jesuit high school, had won the Arizona state championship in 2007 and 2008. Pich was in his first season at Brophy in 2009 when he cut the grandson of one of the greatest amateur stick-sport players in U.S. history. Although Robby Mayasich never once mentioned his celebrated pedigree.

“I never knew about that,” Pich says. “After I cut Robby, he wanted to stay involved. He volunteered to be the team statistician.”

By the end of the season, a year in which Brophy lost in the state finals, Pich was so impressed with Robby’s attitude and determination that he added him to the roster.

“And this year Robby flat-out made the team,” says Pich. “He stepped up. In fact he scored our first goal of the season in a scrimmage a few weeks ago.”

Robby requested the number 8. His grandfather’s number. He also chose to use a lacrosse stick in his favorite color: pink.

“Robby is a charismatic personality,” says Brophy principal Bob Ryan, as he rattles off a list of colleges to which Mayasich had applied. “Brown, Cal, Harvard. Just a great student and a great young man.”

Ragnar del Sol

The Ragnar del Sol, which has similar relay races throughout the country that are growing in popularity each year (borrowing from the model first made popular nearly three decades ago by Oregon’s “Hood-to-Coast” relay race), puts a team-spirit spin on the somewhat stale concept of the road race. The appeal of the Ragnar, beside the road-trip aspect (each team’s 12 members ride in two vans), is that it tests your stamina as well as your physical fitness. The tagline on the Ragnar’s website proclaims, “Run. Drive. Sleep? Repeat.”

This year the Ragnar began at 7 a.m. in Prescott, a scenic desert-meets-pine country town that sits more than a mile above sea level. Prescott is part Old West, part Midwest, as numerous Victorian style homes dot the streets. It is a favorite day trip, an escape from the heat, for Phoenix area residents. The race would feature 36 legs (each runner runs three legs), varying in distance from three to eight miles in distance.

At some point after midnight on Friday, Robby took the baton to run his second leg. His path would take him along State Route 74, which is better known to Arizonans as the Carefree Highway. The road traverses east-west through the desert north of Phoenix with nothing but darkness on either side. “Dark and lonely,” one runner described the area. The posted speed limit is 65 mph but at that hour of the night, with few reasons to stop along a 20-mile stretch, that speed is often exceeded. The shoulder of the road (see photo, right) is virtually non-existent.

Robby crossed the dry bed of the Agua Fria River and completed his leg just before 1:30 a.m. He hopped into one of the two support vans, which then drove ahead to meet the next runner. As Robby’s teammate approached eastbound while running in the westbound shoulder or lane, Robby hopped out of the van — parked on the east shoulder — with a bottle of water. He set out across the two-lane highway.

“That portion is just incomprehensible to me,” say Ryan, the Brophy principal. “I don’t know how to explain it. Maybe he just lost focus.”

Robby was struck by a westbound Toyota Camry, which would remain on the scene (no charges have been filed against the driver). His friends immediately began performing CPR and dialed 911, but they were so far out in the middle of nowhere that a teammate had to run ahead to a mile-marker in order to provide an Air Evac helicopter a location.

Robby Mayasich held on. On Saturday morning, Beau Pich held lacrosse practice at 9 a.m. All anyone knew at that time was that Robby’s condition was stable. “We thought that the best thing to do was to get the guys together and have a light practice,” Pich says. “At that time there were no details.”

John Mayasich won a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics and a gold in 1960. He never cashed in on his hockey talent, never joined the NHL. It was a different era. In fact, Mayasich was already 26 and a father of four when he scored a hat trick — after just one practice — in the U.S.’ opening game win against Czechoslovakia in the 1960 Winter Games. All three goals were unassisted.

“(John) was a tremendous playmaker and skater,” the late legendary U.S. Olympic coach Herb Brooks (who also coached at the University of Minnesota) told Sports Illustrated in 1999, “but what set him apart was that he was the smartest hockey player I’ve ever been around.”

“If you were to name an all-time American team, he’d be on it,” former Harvard coach Bill Cleary, an Olympic teammate, told SI in that same story. “I don’t care who you name, John could have played with them.”

That 1960 Olympic hockey squad upset the Soviet Union, 3-2, on a Sunday morning in Squaw Valley, Calif., for the gold medal. That afternoon, John Mayasich was on a flight home to Green Bay, Wis., where he worked at a local television station. On Monday morning, the father of four, with a fifth to arrive later, showed up for work.

At the end of the Nightly News piece that run on the final Friday of the Vancouver Games, Brian Williams noted that John Mayasich and his teammates were too young to be a part of the “greatest generation”, the term coined by Tom Brokaw to describe Americans who came of age during World War II. “I asked John Mayasich what term he would use to describe his generation,” Williams said, “and he answered without hesitation, ‘The fortunate generation.'”

Fifty years later, after Mayasich led the U.S. to gold in Squaw Valley, as another generation of American hockey players vied for Olympic gold, this time against Canada, John Mayasich and his son kept vigil at St. Joseph’s Hospital. By that point Robby’s condition had been downgraded. That evening a prayer service was held at the Brophy Chapel. The 82-year-old Spanish structure, which normally seats 300, was filled to nearly twice the capacity. Inside Robby’s father addressed the throng.

“What we’re experiencing is without a doubt every parent’s nightmare,” Dan Mayasich said. “But this … looking out on this loving and caring collection of friends and family is every parent’s dream. How odd, and yet how beautiful is it to have those two very different forces at play simultaneously.”

Two days later, just after noon on Tuesday, March 2, Robby Mayasich died. He was 18 years old.

One week later, the Brophy lacrosse team played its first game of the season against Chandler High School. The entire team wore gray undershirts that read “WE ARE ONE” and feature a pink No. 8. On the sidelines that day, Robby’s sister, Frances, and his girlfriend, Sarah, each wore one of his jerseys. Teammates took turns holding Robby’s pink stick. Brophy won 10-6, as one of Robby’s pall bearers scored four goals and had one assist.

One week later Dan Mayasich reflected, remarkably enough, on the gift he had received. He thought back to a week or so to the evening when he addressed the Brophy community inside the school’s chapel.

“I wanted them to know what an amazing and actually ‘joyful’ thing it was for us to be experiencing,” Dan Mayasich said. “And how unusual or odd it could possibly be … but ultimately how lovely … to be using the word ‘joy’ in the face of such tragedy, horror, sadness. I then had them consider that this thing they’re all seeing, this magic they’re all feeling in the chapel, it’s actually there in all of their kids, all of the time. They just don’t realize it. It’s like this invisible thing that shows itself only when it’s called upon, but it’s always there for everyone, not just our son. Perhaps THAT is God?”

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