How did you first get involved in hockey?
On a playground level. I started out in basketball but when I didn’t pass my physical for the Inner-city league, so I couldn’t participate in the activity. Back then, outdoors was what we knew. We went to a pond three or four blocks from the house and just started skating for no real reason. A neighbor down the street said let’s go skating, because there was no official team. In sixth grade I finally played in the outdoor hockey city program.Describe your playing career.
I came from a sports family. One year I played on an inner-city team playing two games a day. In ninth grade I made the South Saint Paul high school team which was one of the best in the Twin Cities. We had good coaching in Lefty Smith who coached at Notre Dame. Hockey was still second to basketball when I grew up. We played a couple games indoors all year, starting at the start of December and ending in the second week of February, when the sun would start to melt the ice. We played four years in the state tournament and the best we did was a 1-0 loss to Roseau in the 1961 state tournament finals. I made the All-Tournament team as a freshman. Then I went to the University of Minnesota in the spring of 1962 and was Captain and All-American in 1965. I played for John Mariucci with a buddy of mine, Bruce Larson and we both got drafted by Chicago. The wages were around $5,500 a year so I decided to go into teaching. I played on the 1967 U.S. National team at the World Championships in Vienna. I fell one squad short of making the Olympic team in 1968 and that was the end of my high-level hockey career.
We had the sticks and skates hanging over our shoulder and the climate dictated the length of our season. We had the Minneapolis auditorium and not much else. We watched the Minneapolis Millers and Saint Paul Saints. Hockey then was a game of fun without much interference from other people. It grew on its own.How did you make the transition into a coach?
I got a degree in social science and geography and began teaching in local high schools and coaching hockey at the same time. I also coached soccer. I always taught. I spent 18 years teaching in public secondary schools. For five years I coached in the Midwest Junior hockey league and we won a couple of national championships with a couple of really tough teams. I coached Paul Holmgren [the GM for the Flyers]. I was the assistant coach of the 1982 U.S. National Junior hockey team. In 1984, I was the assistant coach of the U.S. Olympic team in Sarajevo. In 1985, I was the head coach of the U.S. World Junior team. The University [of Minnesota] job opened up in 1985 and I stayed there until 1999. I had offers from Pierre Paget to help coach the North Stars and the Quebec Nordiques. I didn’t see the pros as my cup of tea; I was more interested in the educational aspect.Describe your time as Gopher head coach.
We inherited a good hockey team with players such as Corey Millen, Pat Micheletti and Dave Snuggerud. We were in the Final Four six times during my years but never won it. We had 12 NCCA tournament appearances in 14 tries. We won 6 WCHA titles but never won the big one. We had a lot of good players and probably about 15 of our guys played in the NHL. A lot of our captains were half-scholarship guys who ended up working hard enough to become full-scholarship guys. Players like Dean Williamson and Jay Cates. Character was never an issue; we had a lot of pride. We took some heat for taking just Minnesota kids, some people thought it was snooty, but you look around now and hockey is much more American. Back then there were not nearly as many from Minnesota, and that’s what we tried to do. That’s what John Maruicci instilled in us. We caught a wave with all the new TV and radio exposure. WCCO, MSC and FOX started showing our games. It’s all evolved slowly. Exposure is the big difference from then and now. When [Herb Brooks] was coaching, they were going to discontinue the season ticket program because the interest was so low. Now there’s a bigger stadium with 10,000 people on the waiting list. Before, getting exposure was the problem.What was your legacy?
My legacy might be that we recruited all Minnesota kids. I inherited guys from other places, but I only recruited Minnesota guys. We had high quality guys. Also we brought it from an attendance of 6,000 every night to a 10,000-seat audience, and to a major TV and radio audience.What was your favorite part about coaching the Gopher hockey team?
Seeing guys execute, watching them learn and the teaching aspect. Watching the relationship they have with each other. There’s just a great bonding between the players and between their parents. Obviously some key wins against rival teams like Wisconsin or North Dakota. Also it was sustaining a winning program for a decade. And watching the growth of the program, seeing the building of the new rink and seeing the increasing exposure of the team.How have things changed at the U since you coached there?
It’s gotten even more coverage. But what’s changed the most is my kids were committed to three or four years of college, more committed to their teammates. The M [on the jersey] was bigger than any I. Today, the process to get here is ‘what’s in it for me?’ The ugliness of the early recruiting, with kids committing in ninth and 10th grade, is absurd for the players and for the institution. The development programs develop individuals, not team-type players. Also, at this point there are still only Minnesota kids, but it won’t be next year. I have no problem with that, it’s pretty obvious that Minnesota players are getting enough opportunities to play. In the 1970s, there was a tendency to recruit a lot of Non-Americans.You helped develop the University of Minnesota into an NCAA powerhouse. Why so much success?
If you look at Herbie’s successes in the early ‘70s and then Brad [Buetow], it was never that we changed that. I added on to to something that had already had a good start. Minnesota didn’t master hockey until Herbie got going and we kept it going. We got the product out into the homes so fans could watch it on a regular basis. We contributed on the rink but the thing we really changed was the media exposure.In your opinion, what led to Sports Illustrated’s naming of Minnesota as the new “Hockeytown, USA”?
I think the crown comes with Xcel Energy Center and the Wild. You take these measurable, visible items, the Wild selling out every game, you see them in the finest arena in the world as far I’m concerned. Also, you see the Minnesota high school program and its development, which is second to none. You see the best tournament in the world for young kids, which originated in Saint Paul. You see a town that embraces it. The college level, and the WCHA Final Five. The best high school tournaments, the best college tournament and equally the best pro franchise. Nobody has all those things. Also you look at the tradition in the building and the coverage it gets. It’s always on the front page of the sports section.Who are the ambassadors of Minnesota hockey today?
There’s John Mayasich, maybe the best amateur player to not play pro hockey. He’s Chairman of the [Minnesota hockey] Board. Lou Nanne stands at the other end, who played at the University and pro hockey and is on the inside of Minnesota hockey. They reign for different reasons. Lou represents junior hockey, playing for the Olympic teams, coaching and managing at the highest level. He has the background; he has great connections with the NHL.What must Minnesota hockey do to continue it’s tradition?
The key is to keep the Wild and not leave a void like the North Stars. The entire group of people running the Wild have provided good leadership for Minnesota hockey. They have woven hockey into the fabric of the city again. They have consistently made good decisions and have become the model franchise for the NHL, and have made Saint Paul into a great hockey city.
We’ve got to try to keep playing hockey affordable. Try to keep the price down or somehow subsidize so more non-white, non-middle class kids get involved in hockey. The biggest is the cost of sticks. I used to pay $3.25 for a new wooden stick, now you have to play close to $200 for a composite stick.
If we could turn back the weather, people could play in their backyards and keep the outdoor ice so it entices people to use it. That includes just a little more consistently cool weather; back then, once winter started it would continue longer into the year. The game is still more fun to play than it is to watch.How do you expect hockey to grow in this state over the next 10 years?
I expect it grow in the female sector and after that for more non-suburban kids. You have to change values and the culture. I see the male side as pretty stagnant but the girls are emerging with more scholarships and a higher quality of play. If you get people with experience in hockey helping girls’ hockey, these programs will flourish.
Bob Breau | Commissioner, Minnesota Junior Hockey League
Erik Johnson | Defenseman, St. Louis Blues
Doug Johnson | Editor, Let's Play Hockey
Doug Woog | Former Minnesota Gophers Head Coach
Bob Naegele, Jr. | Former Chairman, Minnesota Wild &
Norm Coleman | Former U.S. Senator and Mayor of Saint Paul
Laura Halldorson | Former Gopher's Women's Coach
Phil Housley | Former NHL Player and High School Coach
Lou Nanne | Former NHL Player, Coach and General Manager