Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Olympic Jersey Controversy & 1980 United States Olympic Team Mark Wells Jersey

As reported by Esme Murphy of WCCO TV, 1960 Olympic gold medal winner Bill Christian and his son, 1980 Olympic gold medal winner Dave Christian (the only father and son to have both won Olympic gold medals in the same sport) are entering into a legal battle with the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto over their attempts to get the hall to return Bill's 1960 Team USA and Dave's 1980 Miracle on Ice jerseys, which they insist were loaned to the Hall of Fame in 1981 and are currently on display on the main floor of the Hall of Fame in the International Section.

Bill Christian 1960 USA jersey
Bill Christian's 1960 jersey on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame

Christian 1980 USA jersey HHOF
Christian 1980 USA jersey HHOF
Photos of Dave Christian's 1980 jersey, also on display
at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto

Here is the full text of the story from WCCO's website:
Two of Minnesota’s greatest Olympic gold medalists are locked in bitter international battle to get their Olympic jerseys returned from Canada.
Dave Christian of Moorhead was on the U.S.A. 1980 Olympic Hockey team that shocked the world and won a gold medal.
His dad, Bill, was on the only other U.S.A. Olympic Hockey gold medal team in 1960. Their Olympic jerseys are in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. The Christians want them back, the Canadians are saying no and the origin of the dispute goes back 30 years.
In 1981 Bill Christian received a call from the Hockey Hall of Fame. The hall wanted to display both of their jerseys. At the time, both jerseys were hanging in a closet at Bill Christian’s Warroad home. Bill Christian said he believed he was loaning the jerseys to the hall.
“I thought they were just going to display them never dreaming they would be gone forever,” Bill said.
Over the past six months, the Christian’s have been trying to get their jerseys back.
“Why now it would be nice to get my jersey back in my possession before something happens to me,” said Bill.
“I would like to pass on those jerseys to my children,” Dave said.
The Hockey Hall of Fame has told the Christians the jerseys now belong to the hall.
At the heart of this dispute is a 1981 letter from the Hockey Hall of Fame to Bill Christian thanking Christian for “the donation” of the jerseys. In 1981, Bill was busy running the Christian Brothers Hockey stick company in Warroad. Bill Christian said he paid little attention to the letter.

“It’s our viewpoint that the sweaters were donated in 1981 in a legally effective manner and they are now the property of the Hockey Hall of Fame,” said Hall Curator Phil Pritchard.
“I just took it that good, they arrived safely. I never took it as a legal deal they should keep the jerseys,” said Bill.
“The mistake that was made was not to question the wording of the letter, the receipt of the letter that the Hall had sent in 1981. My dad is not an attorney,” said Dave.
At the time Bill Christian sent the jerseys to the hall, Dave Christian was just beginning his 15-year professional career. He vaguely remembers his father telling him he had sent the jerseys to Toronto.
“I never gave my jersey to the hall. I never gave my jersey to anyone. I want my jersey back,” said Dave.
The Hockey Hall of Fame has sent the Christian’s a letter saying they are ready to fight a legal battle over the jerseys.
“I think it’s wrong for them to keep threatening a legal battle over this. “We are going to fight for them,” said Bill.
Whatever happens, the Christian’s know what they did in those USA jerseys can never be taken away.
“Where the jerseys are, where they hang and where they are displayed won’t change the outcome,” said Dave.
The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto has no connection to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth.
To date, only one member of the 1980 United States Olympic Hockey Team has parted with either of his blue jersey from the gold medal clinching game against Finland or his white jersey from the "Miracle on Ice" game against the Soviet Union, that being Mark Wells.

Mark Wells
Mark Wells

Of all the players on the team, Wells is the only one to reportedly arrive back to his hometown following the games and not receive a hero's welcome, which affected Wells in a way which led to him not placing as much importance on his memorabilia as his other teammates, who were given parades and other accolades upon their return home.

While Wells' teammates held on to both their blue and white jerseys, Wells gave the blue one to a family friend and his white one was put on display in his brother's bar, where it remained on display until 2002. In 2002, the family friend in possession of the blue jersey ran into some financial difficulty and asked Wells if it would be alright if he sold it. Wells gave his blessing and the jersey was posted for sale on an online message board by his sister, rather than putting it up for auction through ebay or any of a number of high end auction houses which specialize in sports memorabilia.

When an offer was submitted at a price the Wells family was quite pleased, if not surprised with, Mark then agreed to make the white jersey available for the same price as well.

The owner of the white jersey from the Miracle on Ice game is Stu Oxenhorn, who is the director of the MeiGray Vintage, part of the MeiGray Group, the leading seller of authenticated game worn NHL, AHL and ECHL jerseys. Stu has displayed his Wells jersey in public, including at the 2004 NHL All-Star Game Fan Fest as well as the annual MeiGray Game Worn Jersey Expo. The blue jersey is in the hands of a different collector. To date, these are the only two 1980 Olympic jerseys which have been made available to collectors.

Mark Wells 1980 USA jersey
Mark Wells 1980 USA Miracle on Ice jersey
on display at the 2005 MeiGray Expo

Wells, who has been suffering from a rare genetic disease of the spinal cord, also parted with his 1980 Olympic Gold Medal for $40,000 to help offset his medical bills from the five back surgeries he has had to endure, only to see the buyer consign the medal to Heritage Auctions, who then sold Wells' medal for $310,700, the one and only of the 20 Miracle on Ice medals to ever be offered for public sale. His Olympic ring has also been sold through Heritage Auctions as well.

Mark Wells 1980 Olympic gold medal

"It killed me to sell the medal. Killed me," Wells said to the New York Daily News. "But my life was crumbling. I was going to lose my home. I needed to sell it to have surgery and to live. I had no choice. The medal was a reward - a medal of honor, but really, it's just a commodity. The memories are what's most important. They can't be bought. They can't be sold. They will always be here, and no amount of of money can change that."

Mark Wells

The only two other jerseys still not in the hands of their original owners are those which belonged to Mike Ramsey. At the conclusion of the Olympics, the team's equipment manager allowed each player to keep all their gear and their equipment bag. Unfortunately, Ramsey's gear bag, which contained both of his jerseys, was stolen in transit to his return to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport and have never been seen again.

USA 1980 Olympic jersey photo USA19805RF.jpg
USA 1980 Olympic jersey photo USA19805RB.jpg
A 1980 USA Olympic Team Mike Ramsey jersey
as worn in the movie "Miracle"

The only other 1980 related jerseys in the hands of collectors are the team's pre-Olympic jerseys, which have their USA cresting silk screened on diagonally across the chest, rather than the sewn on lettering arched across the chest. These were sold unannounced at the 1998 TwinsFest in Minneapolis by the team employee who was in possession of the full set for between $50 and $75 each to the lucky collectors who just happened to be present when they were made available on the floor of the Metrodome, a price we'd gladly pay for one today!

USA 1980 Pre-Olympic jersey photo USA1980Pre-OlympicF.jpg
USA 1980 Pre-Olympic jersey photo USA1980Pre-Olympic5B.jpg
A 1980 pre-Olympic USA jersey as worn in the movie "Miracle". These jerseys were made with darker, muted colors than the actual jerseys for purposes of the film in order to make the jerseys worn during the Olympic Games scenes (as shown above) jump off the screen in comparison.

We certainly wish Wells all the best in his life going forward and also hope the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Christians can come to an amicable agreement on the fate of Bill's 1960 USA jersey and Dave's 1980 USA jersey, as we're certain Dave never had any intention of letting his jersey permanently out of his ownership, especially in light of the other 18 members of the team retaining possession of both of theirs, as well as his stated desire to pass it onto his children, rather than selling it for profit. We also hope that if Dave's 1980 jersey is returned to the Christian's ownership, it will return to public display, perhaps at the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota or perhaps the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thankfully both Bill and Dave are still in possession of their gold medals.

Special thanks to Rich Ellis of Spirit of the Game for his assistance with this story.

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