With 10 Winter Olympic Games under his belt, a permanent place in the Hockey Hall of Fame and a building named after him, it's safe to say Walter L. Bush Jr. is a respected authority on amateur hockey.
Now at the age of 77, the part-time Naples resident with strong links to the 1960 and 1980 gold medal-winning men's Olympic hockey teams isn't done yet.
This past Wednesday, Bush packed up some of his belongings inside his Naples condominium — the one with the pristine view of the Gulf of Mexico — and boarded a flight bound for Italy with his female companion of the last few years, Sis Gill. Bush, whose wife of 50 years, Mary, died four years ago, will spend the rest of the month in Turin at the 2006 Winter Games.
Bush serves as one of the 11 executive members of the International Ice Hockey Federation Council and as one of its three vice presidents, representing the United States Olympic Committee. This year, he is overseeing the USA's women's hockey team.
"I think some of my buddies (on the board) had me do the women because I'd have more fun with less pressure than working with the men," says Bush, who also is the acting chairman of USA Hockey, the governing body of amateur hockey in this country based inside the office building bearing his name in Colorado Springs, Colo.
His sarcastic comment, delivered with a hearty laugh and an inspiring hint of humility, brings to mind actor Sean McCann's endearing portrayal of Bush in the 2004 Disney movie "Miracle." The film, starring Kurt Russell as head coach Herb Brooks, was about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that stunned the Russians and went on to win only the second hockey gold medal in the country's history.
Bush was surprised how prominent a role he played in the movie, although he still does take pride in being the one man who was able to connect with Brooks and provide some guidance to the legendary coach.
"That movie was totally done by Herb and he never consulted anybody," Bush recalls. "I never even knew I was in the movie until surprisingly I was at the World In-Line Hockey championships with (current Florida Everblades forward) Ernie (Hartlieb), and one of the players was a cameraman for Disney.
"It was the summer before the movie came out, and Herb was killed (in a car accident) that August, and this was July and the guy said, 'You're all over the movie.' And I thought, 'No way.' So I was invited to the premiere and met the guy that played my part and everybody says he looks like me. I think they did a really job on the film."
Bush does concede that the filmmakers took some creative liberties with the storyline and inserted his character into some scenes that he never really was a part of. For example, he never was in Norway for the exhibition game between Team USA and the Norwegians, after which Brooks skated the team endlessly as punishment for not being focused.
While Bush did go to bat hard for Brooks during the interview process for the head coach's job — Brooks actually was the committee's third choice behind Billy Cleary, who turned down the job, and current Boston University head coach Jack Parker — he pretty much stayed out of the way after Brooks was hired.
"We didn't see him as players much. I know that Herbie probably talked to him quite a bit, but he wasn't visible to us per se," says Rob McClanahan, one of the top forwards on that team who currently is the director of equity capital markets for Minneapolis-based Miller, Johnson, Steichen, Kinnard, Inc. "Walter's presence did more for Herbie than the team but his impact on amateur hockey in the U.S. is unbelievable."
Four decades of passion
Born in the small Minneapolis suburb of Hopkins on Sept. 25, 1929, Bush was drawn to ice hockey just like almost every other kid from that region. He played for Dartmouth College from 1948-51 and also was on the school's football team, then returned to his home state to study law at the University of Minnesota.
But hockey never left his system, and at the age of 29 he was flung right back into the game at a critical time with the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., a little over a year away. That's when he was named general manager of the U.S. national team that was to play in the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1959.
"I kind of got my love for the international side because at 29 I had told somebody they didn't know how to train players, the higher ups, guys about my age now," Bush says. "So they said, 'Well, if you're so smart why don't you do it?' So we went to Europe for two months, and we had a lot of guys in the Army, and 14 of the 18 guys that were on that 1960 team that won the Olympics were on our team."
Goaltender Jack McCartan, who was one of the anchors of the 1960 team, was Bush's goaltender in Prague. The U.S. finished fourth at the worlds, but the foundation of the gold-medal winning team was set, and Bush's path to his 2000 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto had been set in motion.
Jack Riley, who helped the United States win silver in St. Mortitz, Switzerland, at the 1948 Games, was named head coach in 1960. Riley, like Bush, played at Dartmouth and was a member of the school's only national championship team in 1942, His dealings with Bush and Olympic committee chairman Walter Brown helped shape the team that made history 20 years before the famed "Miracle on Ice."
"I was on the Olympic committee in 1959 and I met Walter a few times when the team played over in Europe," says Riley, now 85, who went on to a legendary 36-year coaching career at Army. "We both mentioned that at the time the NHL teams had trouble beating the Czechs, and people back in the States had no idea how good those fellas were. But I had no idea I was going to end up coaching the Olympic team."
Both Bush and Riley can rehash the pivotal moments from those Olympics as if they happened last week, and agree that to an extent, what that team did was even more remarkable than what the 1980 team did.
On their way to the gold medal, the Americans had to beat Czechoslovakia (7-5) and Australia (12-1) in the preliminary round, Sweden (6-3), Germany (9-1), Canada (2-1), USSR (3-2) and Czechoslovakia again (9-4) in the medal round. They had never beaten the Soviets and Canada was considered better than the Soviet Union.
"They're kind of the forgotten team," Bush says. "They were so much like '80, but the difference was the political scene in the United States in 1980 versus 1960, and the television coverage. They had to beat the Czechs and come from behind after beating the Russians the day before, and that gold-medal game was at 8 in the morning."
Leaving his mark
There were only two Winter Olympics that Bush had to miss, in 1972 and 1976, and that was because he was the president of the NHL's Minnesota North Stars at the time.
In fact, Bush played a principal role in bringing an expansion hockey team to Minnesota, achieving success on his bid by guaranteeing that the brand new Metropolitan Sports Arena would be ready for the start of the 1967-68 season.
Bush also was part of the group that formed the Central Hockey League in 1955 and owned, managed and coached the CHL's Minneapolis Bruins. One of his players was none other than Brooks, who was the co-captain of the 1964 U.S. Olympic hockey team after being one of the last players cut by Riley in 1960.
But it's on the amateur side where Bush will be best remembered, and when he steps down from the IIHF Council and the United States Olympic Committee in 2008, he'll take with him cherished memories both material — like his Olympic Order and Olympic Spirit awards — and sentimental.
"I guess I can say safely he's been a great ambassador for USA hockey," says Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 team who now works as the director of athletic development at his alma mater, Boston University. "He's the face of USA hockey around the world. He's the guy that goes to all the meetings and he's somebody that has a great passion for USA hockey."
Bush and McClanahan belong to the same golf club in Minneapolis, and McClanahan says he has gotten to know Bush better since he left hockey. Other members of that 1980 team that are from Minnesota, such as Neal Broten, Mark Johnson and Buzz Schneider, also stay in touch with Bush.
McClanahan is amazed how Bush remembers all of the guys from that team, as well as everyone else he has come into contact with. The hockey family, as Bush and the others will attest, is unique in that way.
"The hockey family is a cult. I call it a cult," says Bush, who is being treated like a cult figure in Turin (American Express hired him a private car with driver to take him and Sis around while he's there). "We're just a group of people that all kind of stick together. We're not football, basketball or baseball, and we're striving to just have a good time and we're not really worried about what they all do."
When these Olympic Games come to a close, Bush will be able to look back fondly on all the years he has given to the game, and look forward to spending more time with his own family. He has two sons, Walter III and Steven, and a daughter, Anne, to catch up with.
"I've watched our association, USA Hockey, grow so huge, and I'm really proud of what has been done through a lot of amateur volunteers all over the country," Bush says. "This area (Florida) is growing. We're getting guys on these Olympic teams and in juniors from Pennsylvania, California, Texas and guys that will make these teams. It used to be New England, Michigan and Minnesota, so we've come a long way.
"I pretty much have prepared my exit. After Tony Rossi takes over in 2008, I'll become an honorary chair, and by then I'll be 80. But I'll still be involved for sure. Hockey's been my life.