Captain and defenseman Jack Kirrane was standing on the podium in Squaw Valley, Calif., in February 1960 to accept the gold medal on behalf of the US Olympic hockey team when his knees began to shake as the national anthem was played.
“But my pants weren’t moving so I was OK in public,” he recalled on the 40th anniversary of the historic achievement. “It’s a hard feeling to describe.”
In 1948, just one year out of Brookline High School, Mr. Kirrane was the Olympic team’s youngest player. In 1960, as its oldest at age 31, “Jack was the concrete that held us together,” said teammate Dick Rodenhiser. “You loved playing with him because he had your back and you disliked playing against him because he was so competitive and tough.”
Mr. Kirrane, who took a four-month unpaid leave of absence from the Brookline Fire Department to play in the 1960 Games and was triumphantly escorted home from Logan Airport by his Ladder Company 2, died Sunday in The Atrium at Faxon Woods in Quincy from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88 and had lived in Brookline most of his life.
“Jack had a quiet presence and everyone respected him,” said 1960 teammate Bill Cleary, a former Harvard University player, coach, and athletic director. “I was his roommate in Squaw Valley and after every game I noticed he had welts on his arms because of all the shots he blocked. He was fearless.”
There was dissension on the team when head coach Jack Riley brought in the Cleary brothers, Bill and Bob, from Boston and John Mayasich from Minnesota late in the exhibition schedule to add needed scoring punch.
That necessitated cutting others, including future 1980 US Olympic team coach Herb Brooks, and Mr. Kirrane felt he had to stabilize the volatile situation.
“Jack told the team that if he had to go to Squaw Valley alone, he’d do it,” Rodenhiser recalled. “That put everybody back on the same page.”
Mr. Kirrane was inducted into the US Hockey, Massachusetts Hockey, and Brookline High halls of fame. In 2010, the rink at Larz Anderson Park in Brookline, which overlooks the site of a pond where he skated as a youngster, was renamed the Jack Kirrane Ice Skating Rink. Those attending the ceremony included Bill Cleary and Jack Riley.
“Help us honor a man whose Brookline roots run deep, and who has given back to the community through the sport he championed,” the event invitation read.
John J. Kirrane Jr. worked for the Brookline Fire Department from 1954 to 1990 and retired as lieutenant. He was a son of John Sr., a Brookline police captain, and the former Katherine Cleary.
Mr. Kirrane’s siblings also are in the Brookline High Athletic Hall of Fame. Bill, a prolific scorer, captained the 1948-1949 Boston University hockey team, and Ed, Mr. Kirrane’s teammate on the 1957 US National squad, coached high school hockey and was a founder of Brookline youth hockey. The town’s Aquatic Center is named for their late sister, Evelyn Kirrane, who was Brookline’s former recreation director.
Shortly after returning from the 1960 Olympics, Mr. Kirrane called her an inspiration. She had been diagnosed with polio while studying at Harvard for a doctorate, which extended the time she needed to finish her degree.
“I waited 12 years to be an Olympic winner,” Mr. Kirrane told the Globe, “but what my sister did in eight years was far greater.”
After the 1948 Games, he played with the Boston Bruins farm team, the Boston Olympics. A pro career was cut short when he was drafted into the Army. Upon being discharged, Mr. Kirrane played in senior amateur leagues during a time when only amateurs could try out for the national and Olympic teams.
At the 1960 Olympics, the US squad rolled into the championship round, upsetting Canada, 2-1, and the Soviet Union, 3-2, then defeating Czechoslovakia, 9-4, with a six-goal third period outburst. It was the first American hockey team to win Olympic gold and remains the only one to go undefeated and untied.
Mr. Kirrane’s son, Jackie of North Weymouth, was 5 when he witnessed the victory ride home from Logan. A banquet was held in Mr. Kirrane’s honor two weeks later at the old Brookline High gym.
“I remember dad sitting in the tiller seat in the ladder truck, steering with one hand and waving and taking pictures of the crowd with the other,” Jackie said. “Dad was never the kind of person to crow about his accomplishments, but he was quietly proud of them.”
Mr. Kirrane married Patricia Rose in 1950.
“Gee, it’s going to be good having Jack on the payroll again,” she said when interviewed after the US triumph, and added: “Now that it’s over I just feel numb.”
Mrs. Kirrane, who died in 2010, said that while she watched the games on television, “I screamed so loud a few times the kids thought something was wrong with me.”
In addition to his son and his brothers William of Waltham and Edward of Dedham, Mr. Kirrane leaves his daughters, Susan Fields and Kristin Greymont, both of Brookline; four grandchildren; and five great- grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. Lawrence Church in Chestnut Hill. Burial will be at St. Joseph Cemetery in West Roxbury.
Mr. Kirrane, once a single-digit handicapper at the Brookline Golf Club, was a former rink manager at Harvard University’s Bright Hockey Center and a close friend of Don Sweeney, a former Harvard defenseman and current Bruins general manager.
“One of the first things I did after we won the Stanley Cup in 2011 was take the cup to Jack’s house. In his usual unassuming way, he gave me the business because it was unannounced,” Sweeney recalled.
“Jack’s door was always open to the student-athletes at Harvard. He always listened and he gave you the straight and narrow – whether it was about hockey or about life,” said Sweeney, who added that Mr. Kirrane was “a hard-nosed hockey player with a huge heart and as loyal a person as I have ever known.”
In a 1994 Globe interview, Mr. Kirrane said the 1960 team members went their separate ways after the Olympics with little fanfare.
“There was no going to Washington to meet the president. . . . No endorsements. No commercials,” he said, adding that “it’s different today and I understand it . . . the only thing I got out of it was personal fulfillment. And that’s all I needed then and it’s all I need today. That alone made it worthwhile.”
Marvin Pave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.