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Minnesota town holds unique spot in Olympic history

by Mike G. Morreale

There's a small town on the western shores of Lake on the Woods in Minnesota nestled six miles south of the Canadian border that's considered by some the original Hockeytown, USA.

The place is Warroad, which has a population of almost 1,800. Not only is the town the birthplace of four members in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, but it boasts seven Olympic ice hockey medalists.

"When you drive into Warroad, the first thing you will see is that we have hockey sticks on our water tower and the claim of being 'Hockeytown USA,'" Warroad High School athletic director Steve Bengtson told "That kind of tells you how important hockey is to our school and community."

The residents of Warroad, young and old, share one common bond: a passion for ice hockey.

"Our motto is come early, stay late, skate every day because the rink is always open," United States women's Olympic team defenseman and Warroad native Gigi Marvin said.

No U.S. Olympic men's hockey team ever has won a gold medal without a Warroad player in the lineup. Bill and Roger Christian were members of the 1960 Olympic team that upset the Soviet Union for the gold medal in Squaw Valley, California.

"You can play hockey, skate or ice fish, but unless you're flooding the river or pond, they really frown on cutting holes in the ice [to ice fish]," said Warroad native, Olympic gold medalist and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Dave Christian.

Dave Christian, Bill's son, was a member of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"There's not much else to do other than play hockey in the winter in Warroad," Christian said. "The arena back then was called Memorial Arena; now it's an empty lot. But I grew up in that building. You could always round up a key, find an open door, get inside the arena and to the electrical room to flip on the light switch so you could skate."

Gordon Christian is the only member of the hockey-playing Christian family to have played in the Olympic Games and not leave with a gold medal; he won silver at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

Bill and Roger Christian and Hal Bakke also provided Warroad a solid economic boost for more than four decades with the creation of Christian Brothers Hockey Company, which produced wood hockey sticks in Warroad from 1964 through 2009, until the name and rights were bought by Harrow.

"I am so proud of the fact so many Olympians have come from Warroad," Dave Christian said. "That's a big reason why playing on that Olympic team was a dream of mine as a young kid. Every time you went to [Memorial] Arena, you would see the photographs and read the history of those from Warroad who had played for national teams and Olympic teams.

"Whether it was in the trophy case to the lobby of Memorial Arena or on the wall of an old warehouse building when you entered town, it was quite prevalent."

At the 2014 Sochi Games, the men's Olympic team will include another former resident of Warroad, St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie. The women's Olympic team will return Marvin, who won a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

"It's amazing how many Olympians that town has produced," Oshie said. "I'm not going to say for everyone, but for most people hockey is everything; everyone there grows up playing."

Oshie, Marvin and every young, aspiring hockey player in Warroad know blindfolded the route to Warroad Gardens & Olympic Arenas in town. It's there families routinely meet to catch up on daily events, enjoy some hot chocolate or coffee and, of course, skate.

"There's no movie theater [in Warroad], no McDonald's; it's just a small town where everything is simple," Oshie said. "My grandparents went to school there when we were younger and my dad was there plenty of times."

Warroad High School has made 22 trips to the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament, including 11 final-round appearances. The school's most recent championship came in 2004-05, the season Oshie totaled 37 goals and 99 points in 31 regular-season games.

"I think more importantly than how unbelievably talented he is on the ice is his heart," Marvin said of Oshie. "He always has a smile on his face; he absolutely loved waking up and going to the rink. He loved hanging out with people, whether playing hockey, golfing or singing karaoke. It didn't matter."

Oshie played collegiately at the University of North Dakota, totaling 59 goals and 142 points in 129 games before joining the Blues as a rookie in 2008-09.

He and Zach Parise are aiming to become the first North Dakota alums to win U.S. Olympic gold since Dave Christian in 1980.

Oshie and Marvin were part of the 113-member Warroad High Class of 2005.

"Looking back I remember watching the goals he scored; it was impossible to break down his insane ability to walk through every single player on the opposing team," Marvin said. "But despite all that what sticks out most is the joy he had competing. The joy he had just being a teammate and playing for his team."

Marvin also was a dynamic force at the high school, earning All-State honors her freshman, junior and senior seasons. She had 55 goals and 112 points as a senior to finish her career with 196 goals and 425 points. She played collegiately at the University of Minnesota and twice was named a top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award (2008, 2009) as the nation's best collegiate women's hockey player.

Marvin acknowledged the people of Warroad have a special bond, unlike anything else she's seen during her travels internationally or domestically. Her father, Mike, played hockey at Brown University.

"Growing up my entire family was involved in Warroad youth hockey, since my grandpa, so there's a heavy presence of my family within the organization," Marvin said. "I fell in love with the sport immediately."

Like the Christians, the Marvin family also made significant contributions within Warroad. Gigi's grandfather, Cal, was the coach of the 1958 and 1965 U.S. men's national team and was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.

Upon his return from World War II with the Marine Corps, Cal formed the Warroad Lakers, the most successful senior amateur hockey team in U.S. history. Serving as general manager for more than 50 years, the team never had a losing season and reached the heights of amateur achievement by winning the 1955 United States Intermediate title, the Canadian Intermediate Championships in 1964 and 1974, and the Allen Cup, awarded annually to the senior amateur men's ice hockey champion of Canada, for three straight years (1994-1996).

"I played a couple seasons with the Lakers during the playoffs after my senior year for Warroad High School and actually had an opportunity to play on the same line with my dad one season, which was a big thrill," Dave Christian said.

Cal Marvin, forever known as the godfather of Warroad hockey, died in 2004.

"Whenever dad calls me and we talk about what's going on back home, I always picture kids just playing for hours at the rink," Gigi Marvin said. "It goes beyond a simple love for the game. It's in your bloodlines."

Dave Christian is hopeful that a third generation of his family one day will get an opportunity to skate for the U.S. Olympic team. His nephew is New York Islanders forward Brock Nelson, who had 103 goals and 192 points in 111 games spanning three seasons at Warroad High. Nelson, a first-round pick (No. 30) by the Islanders in 2010, played collegiately at North Dakota.

"He's a fantastic young man and great player," Christian said. "I'm partial. I'm hopeful the NHL stays a part with the Olympics so that Brock gets a chance. I'd love to see that."


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