The Olympics are on in Bill Reichart’s house on this sunny afternoon, the Sandhills sun shimmering on the golf-course lake behind it. It’s speed skating, not his sport. Reichart’s sport was hockey, 54 years ago, when the naturalized American captained the U.S. team to a fifth-place finish in Innsbruck, Austria.
There’s always something about the Olympics, especially this one without NHL players, that brings back memories for Reichart. He was the 28-year-old leader of a bunch of college kids from Minnesota and Massachusetts and Michigan at a time when the U.S. and Canada were still sending amateur teams to face de facto pros from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries.
Reichart had to ask for time off from his job at IBM to accept the invitation, and even then the Winnipeg-born Canadian had to be hustled through the citizenship process. But the picture is on his wall now: A portrait of him in his USA sweater from the pages of Sports Illustrated, which sent Robert Creamer to write a profile of this unlikely American captain.
All these years later, Reichart at 82 still has a lot in common with that young man: The close-cropped hair, the elfin grin, the wiry frame, the hard prairie accent.
“It was just an honor to be on the team, to be the captain of the team,” Reichart said. “I never thought I would be there, but there I was. That was quite an experience.”
His path to North Carolina was more typical: Tired of the Minnesota winters, Reichart and his wife Betty retired to Pinehurst in 1992 to practice a second sport at an elite level, golf. Reichart shot his age at 68 and qualified for the 1994 Senior Open on Pinehurst No. 2 as an amateur. But at this time of year, with the Olympics on television, his thoughts inevitably return to hockey.
Reichart played for North Dakota in the early days of college hockey in the west, and he left a mark. A two-time all-American for the Fighting Sioux who once recorded nine points in a game, he was later named to the UND Hall of Fame and one of the Western College Hockey Association’s 50 greatest players.
When he graduated in 1957, Detroit Red Wings general manager Jack Adams offered him a $6,500 contract. Reichart, at 145 pounds, wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it to the NHL, and in the Original Six days, there weren’t a lot of jobs available. He also had a geology degree and an equally lucrative offer to drill oil wells in rural Alberta. He thought the latter seemed like a better long-term bet.
After a couple years of that, his North Dakota coach, now a minor-league coach, came and dragged him off the frozen muskeg and back to hockey. Reichart played one high-scoring season in Denver and Minneapolis before turning down a big raise to take a job with IBM in Rochester, Minn., where he played elite-level amateur hockey on the side. That’s where Walter Bush, the driving force behind USA Hockey for decades, found him in August of 1963 and invited him to play for the United States. Reichart had applied for citizenship in 1960, but was still waiting for it.
“I said, ‘I’d like to play, but I’m a Canadian citizen,’ ” Reichart said. “ ‘You need to be an American, right?’ They said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’ Sometime in late August, they asked if I could be up in St. Paul in early September. That day I became an American citizen. I’m not exactly sure what happened.”
So Reichart went off to Innsbruck, where the U.S. team missed the opening ceremony because it had a play-in game against Romania, which it won. Reichart led the team in scoring with 10 points in eight games – every team he played on in his entire career, he was the leading scorer – but the Americans were no match for the Soviets, among others. Among his teammates in Innsbruck: A feisty University of Minnesota winger named Herb Brooks, who would return to play on the 1968 U.S. team and, more famously, coach a few notable teams, including the “Miracle on Ice.”
“Herbie was a real hustler,” Reichart said. “He worked hard, he was a good right winger. He knew what it took to win. He knew that you had to own the corners and you had to go in there and battle. And he believed in positional hockey. He was tough on his players. But they respected him and played hard for him. He ingrained in them what it took to win. That’s the way he played and the way he taught to play.”
After 30 years at IBM, the Reicharts were driving back from Florida when they put in a low-ball offer on a house in Pinehurst. They got it and never looked back. Golf was Reichart’s primary focus for most of his time here, with hockey part of his past, until the Hurricanes arrived in 1997. For the past 20 years, the Reicharts have watched the games on TV religiously, and as a former player and Olympian, Reichart holds strong views about the team’s current play. (He’s not thrilled.)
Reichart was more enthused about the U.S. team in this Olympics, which lost to the Czech Republic in a quarterfinal shootout Wednesday night after finishing third in a preliminary group that included the “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Without NHL players, it’s a throwback Olympic hockey tournament, one that more closely resembles the old days, if not to quite the same extent as when Reichart played on a team of amateurs.
“I think the NHLers, do they make it more exciting? No, not really. Is the hockey better? Probably so, yeah,” Reichart said. “The enthusiasm, I think, is overwhelming with the real young players they’ve got. It’s exciting.”
Reichart, of all people, knows what they went through, fighting against a team of Russian professionals competing under another name, just as he did.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock