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Minnesota Wild celebrate
The Minnesota Wild's unbelievable run to the Western Conference Finals, and the enthusiasm it generated among the region's hockey fans, is just the latest example of hockey's popularity in the Minnesota area.
Minnesota loves hockey in all shapes and sizes

By John McGourty | Impact! Magazine

In the United States, Minnesota truly is the "State of Hockey." In no other American state is hockey so ingrained in the community and in the minds of its residents.

Minnesotans tend to be in the majority on U.S. National teams and there are more Minnesotans in the NHL than residents of any other state.

"Ten thousand lakes doesn't hurt," Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said.

"Climate helps," offers Jack McCartan, the St. Paul native who played goalie on the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold-medal team and is now a scout for the Vancouver Canucks. "Minnesota also has good grass-roots organizations in the smaller communities and the Twin City suburbs. The kids get real good coaching and there's lots of ice time at a lot of rinks. Plus, we have the Minnesota Wild and several good college teams that the kids can watch to try to emulate the professional players."

In the last decade, hockey-player registrations have increased by more than 4,400, from 40,275 in 1994 to 44,675, said Mike MacMillan, USA Hockey's coach-in-chief of the Minnkota District. More than 10,000 Minnesota teens are playing high-school hockey, 6,276 boys and 3,922 girls. One author estimated about one in every 113 Minnesotans is on a hockey team. More than 100,000 people will watch the three-day, state high-school hockey tournament in March.

"We did a lot of outdoor skating. I was a rink rat and we had a rink behind our school," Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ben Clymer said. "I loved skating outdoors. I played for a couple years before I got into organized hockey. I took my skates to school and then to the rink and skated for a couple of hours. My parents would get us for dinner and then I'd go back for a couple more hours."

"When I grew up, hockey was just part of the fabric," said Joe Micheletti, who had three goals and an assist to lead Hibbing to the 1973 Minnesota High School Tournament title. Micheletti played on two of Herb Brooks' NCAA championship teams in 1974 and 1976. "Something had already been established prior to my being a part of it. We'd go two blocks down to the regulation rink and play ‘til later than we were supposed to. Every year, dad would make a rink. Later, my four brothers and I built it."

"In the United States, Minnesota is the closest you're going to get to having the atmosphere that Canada has in terms of enthusiasm in the community for hockey," said popular Minnesota Wild forward Jim Dowd, a New Jersey native. "People here love it from youth hockey all the way to the colleges and the pros. They live and die hockey in Minnesota. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, the Range, there's no real difference. It doesn't matter where they're from. All over Minnesota, they love hockey."

Ben Clymer
Ben Clymer used to bild his own rink to refine his skills, a common endeavor amongst the hockey-crazy youth of the area.

Minnesota is the kind of place where hockey success can help get you elected governor, like Wendell Anderson, Minnesota's chief executive from 1970-76 and a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. It's the only state where an incoming governor scheduled a hockey game as part of his inauguration as Tim Pawlenty did last January. The team led by Pawlenty, a junior varsity player at St. Paul Johnson High, beat Anderson's Old Timers, 6-2.

"The average teenage boy thinks about sex once every seven seconds; in Minnesota, he thinks about hockey the other six," wrote John Rosengren in his 2003 book, Blades of Glory, about the Jefferson High School team in Bloomington, Minn., a suburb south of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Jefferson won five state championships between 1981-94 and produced NHL players Clymer, Mark Parrish, Tom Kurvers, Mike Crowley, Dan Trebil and Toby Petersen. "The state obsession grips us before puberty. The Farrah Fawcett poster on my bedroom wall was overshadowed by Bobby Orr's autographed likeness, a North Stars pennant, and a pair of crossed hockey sticks flanked by two 8 x 10 color photos, one of my older brother, one of me in my Squirts jersey -- a 10 -year-old beaming in his Bauers."

Hockey has been played for a long time in Minnesota and the state has always produced top talent. Moose Goheen was a great player in the St. Paul area before World War I and led the U.S. team to a silver medal at the first Olympic hockey tournament at St. Moritz in 1920. Goheen was widely sought by NHL teams in the 1920s, but stayed in Minnesota to further his business career while continuing to play local professional hockey. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in 1952.

How it began

Iron-ore mining became a big industry in northern Minnesota in the 1880s, attracting thousands of immigrant workers whose sons took to skating and hockey. With nearly five months of skate-able ice, "The Range" became the home of Minnesota hockey for decades. Author Greg Anzelc described "an area identifiable by record-setting low temperatures and the ability to tune in a polka 24-7 on the radio."

Teams from Eveleth, Roseau, Duluth, Hibbing, International Falls, Grand Rapids and Warroad competed in leagues for all ages. Oldtimers remember there were only three rinks in the Twin Cities area so teams from the Range dominated state hockey. Cliff Thompson coached Eveleth and four of his players went on to NHL careers. Frankie Brimsek, Sam LoPresti and Mike Karakas made their marks as goalies and John Mariucci played five seasons on the Chicago Blackhawks' defense, interrupted by a three-year World War II hitch.

Jim Dowd
Dowd, a New Jersey native, now starring for the Wild has embraced the enthusiasm his new home holds for the game of hockey at all levels.

Little Roseau, population 2,700, has won six state tournaments and placed seven residents on U.S. Olympic teams, including Don Ross, who played in 1964 and 1968, and Neal Broten in 1980. The town's website opens with this sentence: The first thing that comes to mind when the name Roseau is mentioned is "Hockey".

U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Oscar Almquist compiled a 406-150-121 record from 1942-67 and won four state tournaments.

Warroad, population 1,722, has given Bill and Roger Christian from the 1960 gold-medal team. Bill's son, Dave, who was one of 12 Minnesotans on the 1980 gold-medal team; and Henry Boucha on the 1972 silver-medal team.

Boucha, who played for three NHL teams, was asked how the loss of the North Stars would affect Minnesota. He shrugged and said, "We still have Warroad-Roseau four times a year."

Neil Broten
Neal Broten lived the dream of every child from Minnesota, playing in the NHL -- including a stint with the hometown North Stars -- and also representing the United States in international comopetition.

The late Herb Brooks once said Minnesotans were unlike other Americans when it comes to hockey. "We think of ourselves as Southern Manitobans."

The State tournament

The typical Minnesota boy (and since the early 1990s, girls too) wants to play youth hockey so he can play for his high-school team. The ideal then is to play for the University of Minnesota.

"The neatest experience a high-school player can have is to play in the state tournament," said Clymer, who also played for the Golden Gophers, too. "I was 15 years old and playing in front of crowds like that. Who does that? It was a neat experience, a really cool experience."

"Minnesota is all about community-based hockey. There's a loyalty there," said Bob O'Connor, USA Hockey Coach In Chief, and an Edina resident. "Minnesota goes against the national trend. All the kids in youth hockey want to play in the state high-school tournament. You've got 18,000 people at the games. They have the AA tournament for the big schools and the A tournament for the smaller schools."

Brooks put it in perspective from a Minnesota viewpoint.

"Winning the state championship (1955, St. Paul Johnson) with my friends from the neighborhood topped the Miracle On Ice because we had talked about doing that since we were peewees. When the smoke clears, your buddies from high school are awfully important, probably more important than anything," Brooks told Sports Illustrated. Brooks had two first-period goals to down Minneapolis Southwest, 3-1.

Sen. Norm Coleman was mayor of St. Paul when the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild, was dedicated in 2000.

"I don't think this place would've been built if it weren't for this tournament being here," Coleman said. "The strength of hockey in Minnesota is in high-school hockey."

And the strength of high-school hockey is the players, the coaches, the parents and the youth programs. What players they've developed. NHL pros Tom Chorske, Trent Klatt, Darby Hendrickson and Erik Rasmussen are among those named "Mr. Hockey" since the awards inception in 1985. Neal Broten was the first Hobey Baker Award winner in 1981. Other Hobey Baker Award winners from Minnesota include NHL players Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson and Robb Stauber.

Broten, of course, is remembered as one of the greatest of them all and his high-school reputation was enhanced by playing with his brother, Aaron, who has returned to Roseau to coach the high-school team, and Bryan "Butsy" Erickson, nine-year NHL pro. Their 1977 and 1978 teams went undefeated in the regular season but the 1977 team lost to Edina East in the first round and the 1978 team lost to Edina East in the semifinals.

Trent Klatt
Trent Klatt, now playing for the Los Angeles Kings, originally established his pro hockey credentials by being named Minnesota's "Mr. Hockey."

How big is the state tournament? Families take their vacations in March to attend and tickets are passed down through families.

The colleges

John Mariucci, a great high-school player for Cliff Thompson at Eveleth, went on to star at the University of Minnesota, then joined Eveleth goalie Sam LoPresti with the Chicago Blackhawks for two seasons before the two went into the military. He returned for three more seasons with Chicago, being named team captain in 1947-48.

Mariucci became head coach at the University of Minnesota in 1952 and produced great teams of nearly all American players, mostly Minnesotans, through his retirement in 1966. His best team was the John Mayasich-led 1954 squad that fell in the NCAA finals to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 5-4 in overtime. Meredith and the late Bob Johnson were teammates.

"We might have 1,500 for a game and the high schools had similar attendance, good crowds but not what they are today," Meredith said. "Interest increased after 1952 when John Mariucci took over. First, there was a strong rivalry with the University, then the rest of the WCHA. John was great with the press and he had such a great reputation. Hockey really bloomed and you couldn't buy a ticket. He really spurred the game on in Minnesota. Then he coached the 1956 Olympic silver-medal team at Cortina, Italy. Everybody started hockey and all the kids wanted to play hockey. Before that, big kids played basketball and smaller kids played hockey.

"After that, there were fewer and fewer basketball players. I really think John Mariucci started the Minnesota hockey boom."

"My parents, Colleen and Richard, and I had tickets to the Gophers since I was 12," Clymer said. "I knew those names by heart. Those were my idols and they were bigger than life. I would beg to stay after for an autograph or a stick."

The Golden Gophers lost three NCAA Finals in 1953, 1954 and 1971 and was third once before Brooks guided them to their first title in 1974, a team led by Grand Rapids' Buzz Schneider, Hill-Murray's Dick Spannbauer and Edina's John Harris, now a pro golfer. The Golden Gophers won again for Brooks in 1976 (Tom Vanelli, Warren Miller, Reed Larson, Tom Gorence and Bill Baker) and 1979 (Neal Broten, Phil Verchota, Eric Strobel, Mike Ramsey, Rob McClanahan, Steve Christoff and Baker).

"When we won NCAA title in 1974, it was the first time in the history of college hockey that a team comprised only of Americans won the national championship and we all were from Minnesota," Micheletti said.

Don Lucia was a member of Grand Rapids' state championship teams in 1975 and 1976. He played college hockey with Dave Poulin at Notre Dame, then coached in Alaska and at Colorado College, which he took to the NCAA championship game in 1996, losing 3-2 in overtime to Michigan. He was named Gophers head coach in 1999 and led the Gophers to NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003.

Minnesotans were proud of the Gophers' recent titles but it wasn't the same for some because not all the players were from Minnesota.

Norm Maciver
Norm Maciver helped Minnesota-Duluth reach its only NCAA Finals in 1974, a team that also featured future NHLers Tom Kurvers and Bill Watson.

"Herb Brooks said I believe in the Minnesota hockey player," Clymer said. "I feel the same way. I think the U of M should have stuck with all Minnesota kids. I knew everyone in our locker room before I ever got there. I had a good idea my junior year in high school who my teammates might be at Minnesota. That was neat. I thought it was unique thing to be able to do and I didn't think there was a lack-of-talent issue."

One other Minnesota college team has gone to the NCAA Finals, the 1984 University of Minnesota-Duluth team led by future NHLers Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson and Norm Maciver.

"We had Gophers' season tickets and that's where I wanted to go but wasn't recruited very hard," Kurvers said. "I had a good tournament up north and the Duluth coach's brother who was coaching recommended me, as did Scott Carlston, a former Bloomington Jefferson captain. The number of kids getting scholarships wasn't that great, maybe 20-25 a year. When you got one, you didn't wait long to say yes."

Kurvers wasn't one of the top-rated Minnesota defensemen entering college but he bloomed under UMD coach Tom Sertich and won the 1984 Hobey Baker Award. Still, the 5-4 overtime loss to Garry Galley and Dave Ellett's Bowling Green team remains his most painful memory.

"We had some good hockey players and good goaltending with Bob Mason my first couple of years and then Rick Kosti had a good year as a freshman in 1984. Our team just came together. We were ahead 4-2 with five minutes left. In the last minute, Kosti went to the corner to handle a puck and it hit a seam in the boards and bounced into the crease. They just tapped it in to tie. We played 40 minutes of overtime before Gino Cavallini scored. We all had chances and it was an exciting game. The next year, after I left, they lost the semifinal in triple overtime to Adam Oates' RPI team."

St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato also play Division I hockey in the WCHA.


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