At any given Minnesota Wild home game, Jon Bakke is arguably the most popular man in the seats of Xcel Energy Center. For the last nine years, Bakke, a lifetime Wild season ticket holder and one of the hockey world’s greatest jersey collectors, has worn one authentic game worn jersey from his vast collection to almost every Wild home game.
During warm-ups and between periods, Wild fans flock to Bakke and routinely line up in the Xcel Energy Center’s corridors and aisles just to share a few words and view his nightly jersey selection. One night, Bakke will don a white Mario Tremblay Canadiens sweater that is streaked with red and blue markings along the sleeves, residue left from the real paint used on the cap rail along the sideboards in the old Montreal Forum.
If it’s close to Christmas, Bakke and his partner Sheilah Burg and another friend will wear the mustard yellow and Kool- Aid purple colors of the old Los Angeles Kings (The Three Kings… get it?). Sometimes he’ll just wear Willie Plett’s blood splattered Atlanta Flames rookie jersey because, well, heck, who doesn’t love Willie Plett?
Bakke and his carousel of about 150 jerseys are so beloved by Wild fans that even the best hockey players in the world can’t compete with his popularity. In January, the New Jersey Devils made a rare visit to St. Paul and Martin Brodeur, the best goaltender in NHL history, put on a spectacular show during warm-ups. But a throng of fans completely ignored Brodeur’s scintillating saves because they were too busy peppering Bakke with questions about the game-worn Minnesota Fighting Saints jersey that he was wearing that night.
“Whose jersey is that?” A middle aged man blurted out in near hysterics.
“It’s Gord Gallant’s jersey,” Bakke said. The creamy white Minnesota jersey had the classic, rascally looking saint on the crest. The jersey was also speckled with stains.
“Gallant was a real goon,” said Bakke. “Look at these dark spots on the front. That’s real blood!”
In John Bakke’s jersey collecting world, the prospect of blood was a good thing. Black puck and stick marks, stitching, tears, and various forms of “board burns”
are evidence of both hockey’s undeniable spirit, and a jersey’s authenticity. Bakke believes that hockey jerseys are the true artifacts of the games history and should be treasured. Each jersey, each stitch and each tear is unique. More importantly, though, each jersey has a story that should be shared.
“One night Gord Gallant missed a team curfew,” Bakke regaled to the middle-aged man (and all the other fans within ear shot) while the Devils warmed up behind him. “He got so mad about being caught that he knocked on his coach’s door and punched out his own coach! I think he was traded the next day.”
As a willing disciple of the game, Bakke wears his jerseys to Wild games so that he can share a small piece of hockey’s long legacy with his fellow Wild fans. In the case of the Gord Gallant jersey, the bare-knuckled brawling era of the WHL was literally soaked into the Dureen fabric. While photographs have the capacity to capture and freeze moments for an eternity, the passion and history of the game is saturated into Bakke’s jerseys. You can smell a bucket full of Yvon Cournoyer’s sweat on Bakke’s authentic Montreal jersey from 1964. A fan isn’t going to extract that level of gamey nostalgia from a scrapbook photograph on a website.
Bakke’s collection is so legendary that if the State of Hockey had a wardrobe department, he would be Minnesota’s chief curator. But his collection is more than just mere memorabilia. Instead of skimming the surface with novelty items, Bakke’s jersey collection delves deep into the lore of the game. When he heaves open the massive doors on his 3,000 pound safe (it is the old payroll safe from the downtown Dayton’s) that he keeps his treasures in, the jerseys almost come alive, revealing the guts and glory of the players that wore them.
The grizzled and repeatedly repaired sleeves of Basil McCrae’s North Stars jersey speak directly to McCrae’s career battling in the trenches of the old Norris Division. Bakke’s Henri “The Pocket Rocket” Richard’s Montreal jersey from 1971-1972 is Richard’s first ever Canadiens jersey with the captains “C.” Dave Brown’s Flyers jersey is stained with blood and ripped from the collar all the way down the side from his epic Thanksgiving brouhaha with Boston’s Jay Miller in 1985.
Speaking of the Flyers, check out Bakke’s Paul Holmgren jersey. The jersey length was cut super short to accommodate for Philadelphia’s infamous debut of the dreaded high-waisted, full-length Cooperalls. The authentic Hershey Bears (the Flyers former minor league club) jersey Bakke owns is unique because in the left corner of the front is the number #31 which is a memorial for Pelle Lindberg, the late Philly goaltender who died in a tragic car crash.
Bakke owns a set of jerseys from the historic 1976 Canada Cup where Canada beat an upstart Czech team: the two silky pajama weight Czech Republic jerseys of Bohuslav Stastny and Peter Statsny and the crisp white and red Team Canada jersey’s of Lanny McDonald and Steve Shutt. After McDonald won the Canada Cup, the players swapped jerseys and McDonald proceeded to parade around the ice in a celebratory lap, waving to an arena full of adoring Canadian fans all the while dressed in a Czech Republic jersey.
Mike Bullard’s Pittsburgh Penguins jersey has Frankenstien-ish stitching that goes from the left collar, down the left side of the jersey, hooks around the Pens logo, up the right side of the jersey and down the entire right arm, revealing that Bullard apparently suffered an injury so severe the jersey had to be cut off him. Instead of getting Bullard a new jersey, though, the Penguins remarkably just sewed up the old jersey that had been cut in half and gave it back to him to wear.
The buck shot of round dime size stitches on Doug Risebrough’s jersey are the signature trademark of a Montreal Canadiens equipment man that loved to sew his jersey repairs in clusters of tight circles.
Then there is the “Gainey of all Gaineys.” There is wide speculation that the white Montreal Canadiens Bob Gainey jersey that Bakke owns is the exact one Gainey wore in 1979 when he won both the Conn Smythe and Selke Award, and his teammates memorably carried him off the ice on their shoulders after they won the Stanley Cup.
These types of stories and puck fodder fill every aspect of Jon Bakke’s life. On a daily basis, he is surrounded by the very fabric of the game. As he doddles around his house, he sports Adam Foote’s Sault Saint Marie minor league jersey. In his study, he sits in the actual Montreal Forum stadium seat (Number 11, Row J, and Section 407) that he sat in when he watched Montreal battle Calgary in the 1989 Stanley Cup playoffs. He also owns the Forum’s original gigantic stadium seating chart and gift shop sign. He reaches over and grabs Guy LaFleur’s old stick that is impressively stamped with “#10 Flower.”
Bakke’s fingers move effortlessly across the ancient hand-sewn crest on his old timey Quebec Ramparts jersey like a blind man feeling a row of brail. The light fixture that illuminates his garage is an exact replica of the old scoreboard in the Montreal Forum. Bakke can smell the cracked plastic and foam of Gilles Gilberts 1969 vintage goalie mask that sits in his bookshelf. He even owns Maurice Richards old passport and driver’s license.
Needless to say, hockey affects nearly every aspect of Jon Bakke’s life. He is huge music fan and a dude of the greatest ilk. But he is so devoted to hockey, that he will carry his love for the game into the afterlife as well. When he recently took stock of his jersey collection, he came across a one of kind Team USA hockey jersey from 1976. There were hand-sewn stars and stripes and a magnificent eagle patch stitched on the front.
“This is the jersey I want to be buried in,” Bakke said. Sheilah heard him from the other room and rushed in to see which jersey he was talking about.
“What jersey is it? I have to make sure you’re wearing the right jersey when you get buried,” Sheilah quipped.
Buried in a jersey? Now that’s a hockey fan.