Have you been watching the Olympic ice hockey tournament and cheering for the American team? Be thankful you haven't been forced to choose which U.S. team to root for. American fans faced just such a conundrum at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when two hockey squads showed up for the games and claimed to be the official American squad. Here's a look at how that happened.
It would be great if the story hinged on some heated rivalry between the two American teams, but the real problem actually stemmed from the sort of horrendous foresight that was fairly common at early Olympics. (A lot of the pre-1950 games were like field day at your grade school, only with worse planning.)
In 1947, the International Ice Hockey Federation decided that the Amateur Athletic Union should no longer be the governing body for ice hockey in the United States and replaced it with the American Hockey Association. It may sound like a trivial detail, but this decision really rankled longtime American Olympic Committee chief Avery Brundage. Brundage was renowned for being a curmudgeonly champion of amateurism, and he vehemently opposed the AHA, which allowed commercial sponsorships and pro players.
It quickly became apparent that Brundage wasn't going to take kindly to an AHA-assembled team playing in the Olympics. However, given the way the Olympic hockey system was organized at the time, these two groups with diametrically opposed philosophies would have to agree on who should represent the U.S.
Despite Brundage's irritation, the AHA went ahead and put together a U.S. Olympic team composed of professional players.
Since the International Ice Hockey Federation—the same body that put the AHA in charge of American hockey—was in charge of approving the participating teams in the hockey tournament, everything seemed to be okay.
Not so fast, though. While the AHA team may have had the hockey world's approval, Brundage and the American Olympic Committee had to approve all of the American participants in the games. Brundage refused to approve the AHA's pro team and had the AAU assemble its own all-amateur team to compete for the red, white, and blue.
In retrospect, someone probably should have realized this system was shaky at best, and at this point, things got pretty awkward. Two "official" American teams showed up in St. Moritz ready to play: one amateur squad approved by the Olympic Committee, and one pro team that had the thumbs-up from the governing body of American hockey. Obviously, the Americans couldn't put two teams in the tournament, so tensions between the squads' respective backers started to flare.
If you think you're confused reading this, think about how flummoxed the International Olympic Committee was. As the opening ceremony approached, the IOC decided to simply bar both of the American teams from the tournament. This decision enraged the International Ice Hockey Federation, though, and it looked like the IIHF might just nix the entire tournament to boycott the IOC's choice.
Cooler heads eventually prevailed. The Swiss organizing committee didn't want to see the hockey tournament get cancelled over this squabble, so it agreed to let the professional AHA team play in the tournament. As a consolation prize, the amateur AAU team would get to march in the opening ceremony. This compromise didn't please the IOC, which washed its hands of the whole mess by severing its ties with the tournament.
When the AHA's American team took the ice, they played like professionals in a tournament full of amateurs. They thumped Poland 23-4 before thrashing Italy 31-1. However, Team USA had a tougher time with the stronger teams and fell to Switzerland and Czechoslovakia in addition to weathering a 12-3 beating from the Canadians. Although the Americans led the tournament in scoring with 86 goals, their 5-3 record was only good enough for fourth place. The Canadian and Czech teams both finished 7-0-1 in the round-robin tournament, but the Canadians took the gold on the strength of a stronger goal differential.
The IOC eventually came back around, too. It agree to let the pro AHA team represent the U.S. as long as the team couldn't win a medal or appear in the tournament's official standings. That's why if you look at the 1948 Winter Olympics ice hockey standings in a record book, the U.S. team is usually listed as a footnote just below the Italian powerhouse that gave up 156 goals en route to an 0-8 record.