The State of Hockey


I had hardly keep my eyes open this morning. For the last 5 days 20 Prospect Jr. has had hockey practice. So for the last 5 days I have spent an hour a night trying to be an assistant coach for his team of Squirts. This is more physical exertion than I have had in the last 2 months combined. (Yeah, I’ve put on a little weight, but I don’t think of myself as “fat”. I prefer “Rubenesque”)

Did I mention that most of the 9 year olds can skate better than me?

I say most, because there’s one chubby kid that I can totally skate circles around. Yeah, I own that little porker.

I’m Kidding! Relax! I kid! I’m a kidder!

Even the little pork pie skates better than me.

Youth Hockey is a Minnesota rite of passage for fathers and sons. Each winter at dusty old ice rinks across the great State of Hockey, the hockey Dad’s will gather in the meat locker cold bleachers and speak in monosyllables, each dreaming of the day that junior signs that pro contract. Each winter another generation of Minnesota boys (and girls!) will throw their rubbery bodies around, sweating and smashing into things, as they chase the puck. By season’s end the Dad’s may have actually learned each other’s names, and the kid’s hockey gear will smell like a butchered hog on a July afternoon.

As I have said before, Hockey in Minnesota is not a sport, it’s a cult. The hockey parents that I have encountered have that intense stare, you usually only find among cultists and serial killers. These people take the sport seriously. Their kids are skating by age 3, and playing organized hockey by age 5. This is only 20 Prospect Jr.’s second year in hockey, so he’s got a lot of catching up to do. I am already amazed at how good of a skater he has become. Now he just needs to learn the sport, and develop some aggression. I’m sick of the little mamby-pamby whining when I make him work the speed bags for an hour after practice. But how else is he going to learn how to throw a devastating left right, combo while on skates? And don’t get me started on his crying after I belt him. The little whiner needs to learn how to take a punch.

Just another day at the rink

Hah! Hah! There I go kidding again!

As far as you know.

So the long hockey season has begun. For the next 4 months 20 Prospect Jr. and I will spend countless hours driving to and from rinks, at all hours of the day and night. Talking, and listening to tunes in the car. I can’t tell you how much I treasure this time with him. All too soon, he will be all grown up, off playing professional hockey in some far away Canadian city, as me and Mrs. 20 Prospect buy a home in the Caribbean with his earnings.

Seriously though, I have no earthly idea what I am doing out there on the ice. It’s amazing what parental guilt can convince you to do. Mostly I just hope I don’t embarrass myself, or hurt the children. So far, so good. Thankfully, there’s a real coach that actually knows how to skate and play hockey, so I do whatever he tells me, and try to stay out of the way. Who knows? If all goes well, I might actually learn how to skate, and lose a few pounds. As 20 Prospect Jr. can tell you, I already know how to throw a punch.

 

I’m kidding! Sheesh! Relax.

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Hey! Drop the Puck!

Greatest. Mascot. Ever.

One of the many endearing quirks about my adopted home state of Minnesota, is the annual Minnesota Boys State High School Hockey Tournament, which begins today in St. Paul. Having grown up in Western New York, it has always struck me as odd that a high school state championship tournament would not only be televised in a major television market, but sell out a 16,000 seat arena for 3 straight days. Whenever a Batavia or ND basketball squad made the state tournament back home, the best we could hope for was radio coverage on WBTA.

Hockey at the St. Paul Civic Center

My first experience of the Hockey tournament was in 1993, my first year living in Minnesota. I was between projects with ABB, and hanging out for the week at my apartment in St. Paul, when I stumbled across the daytime TV coverage of the tournament one afternoon. I’d been nursing a cold, and was pretty much confined to the couch, so any alternative to daytime television was a godsend. So I spent the week watching hour after hour of coverage. It was just so damn Norman Rockwell-esque. The pimply-faced boys being introduced before the game with a TV closeup, the perky cheerleaders on figure skates (another strange Minnesota thing), the team captains reciting the MN High School Sportsmanship Code over the PA before the game, the play by play call of Wally Shaver, and the color commentary of Lou Nanne, I was hooked. That year, Bloomington-Jefferson steamrolled their way to the Class 1 title to finish the year 28-0, and the storied Golden Bears of Eveleth-Gilbert won in Double Overtime over Lake of the Woods.
Each year since I have always tried to make time to watch the games, much to the dismay of Mrs. 20 Prospect who fails to understand the Hockey cult. I have been blessed to have been knocked down with the flu on a few occasions during the week of the tournament. But mostly, I have had to pick and choose my games around the TV viewing habits of Mrs. 20P.

The St. Paul Civic Center

As the great Vintage Minnesota Hockey site details, the tournament has a long and storied history, and has been played in several historic locations, but is most closely associated with the St. Paul Civic Center. The Civic Center was a classic 1970’s arena. Huge open bowl seating, stretching a mile from the ice, narrow hallways and few amenities. Opening on January 1st, 1973 as the home of the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints, it was notable for it’s clear plexi-glass boards, the result of a seating quirk in the multi-purpose facility that placed the first row of seats on the same level as the ice, but way back from the boards.

MN Fighting Saints Program cover showing clear boards

The Fighting Saints were notorious for living up to their nickname, as Glen Sonmor filled the squad with a team of goons, as was the style in the mid 70’s. In fact, the real life “Hanson Brothers” played hockey for the Fighting Saints. SO did the infamous Bill Goldthorpe, (the real life inspiration for Ogie Ogelthorpe in the movie Slapshot) when he was signed for a playoff series in 1975.

Yes Virginia, there really were Hanson brothers

Jeff Carlson - 1975

The Fighting Saints came and went, and the arena become host for college and high school hockey tournaments, circuses, and rock concerts. Eventually, when the NorthStars left town for Dallas, an AHL club named the Moose moved into the Civic Center for a few years until an NHL expansion franchise was granted to Minnesota. The Civic Center was torn down in 1998 to make way for the Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.

The Taj Mahal of Hockey

So the tradition continues. At 11am today the puck will drop on the 65th edition of the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, as the Carlson’s Alma Mater, Virginia, take on Hermantown. The “Big” schools take to the ice tomorrow when the “hoosier-esque” Rosseau Rams take on the Edina Cake Eaters Hornets. I think I feel a cold coming on.

(All photos copyright VintageMinnesotaHockey.com)

Squaw Valley – The Forgotten Games

This and all other images, Copyright the IOC

As I’ve said before, I really geek out over the Winter Olympics. Having them in North America again, is wonderful because it allows me to follow the events in real time, even if NBC elects to tape delay the broadcasts. As you may have heard during the US – Canada game, the Sweaters that Team U.S.A were wearing were a 50th anniversary tribute to the gold medal winning US Team from 1960. In fact, there was a documentary recently released that also commemorates that event. It’s called the “Forgotten Miracle” because it has long been overshadowed by the events of 1980, which had the benefit of occurring in the middle of the media age, when there was a certain zeitgeist that imparted the Miracle on Ice with a significance far beyond a sporting event. Which got me to thinking, and wondering about the 1960 Winter Olympics. So I did a little internet research to fill in that blank area in my knowledge, as I like to do. What I found out about the 1960 games, has fascinated me, so I thought I would share it here.

The 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, California, which was the extent of what I knew about them prior to this week. Squaw Valley is place I had trouble picking out on a map when I first heard about them as a kid. All I knew was that it was in the Sierra Nevada, somewhere in California. Unless you have a detailed map, you’d still be hard pressed to find it. About 5 years ago I was at a conference in Reno (yeah, lucky me) and took an afternoon to drive up into the mountains around Lake Tahoe. When I came upon signs to Squaw Valley I expected that there’d be a town there, or at least a village. I was surprised to find nothing but a ski resort. And therein lies one of the most fascinating things about these Olympic Games. They were held almost entirely on the grounds of a single Ski Resort.

Finish Line of Alpine Ski Races - Ice Arena, and Speed skating oval visible on the right

The story behind it is that the resorts creator, Alexander Cushing, got the wild idea to bid for the winter Olympics after seeing an article that mentioned that Reno, Nevada, and Anchorage, Alaska were considering submitting bids. The fact that Squaw Valley was a town with no mayor, and claimed one ski resort with only one chairlift, two rope tows, and a fifty-room lodge, apparently did not deter him. In fact, Cushing was the only permanent inhabitant and homeowner in the whole area. He must have been quite a salesman because he eventually convinced the USOC to back his bid. How he managed to make the IOC’s list of finalists alongside, Innsbruck, Austria, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and St. Moritz, Switzerland is beyond me. The fact that he beat them out would lead a cynic would think that bribery had to be involved. Regardless, after winning the bid in 1955, he had 5 years to create a Winter Sports infrastructure to support an Olympic games.

View of the Oval and Ice Arena from top of the Ski Jump

Now, in all fairness, the Winter Games in 1960 were not the extravaganza they are today. There were only 750 athletes from 30 nations, that competed in 15 alpine and ski jumping events, 8 speed skiing contests, 3 figure skating competitions and 28 hockey matches. In fact, he managed to house all of the athletes in the same purpose built hotel. It wasn’t an “Olympic Village”, just an “Olympic Hotel”.

From an infrastructure perspective, he needed to create only a ski jumping hill, the alpine ski runs, a speed skating oval, an ice rink, and cross country ski trails. He managed to build all of these within a one square mile area. The pictures of the site are astounding. It’s as if the Olympic Games were a county fair. It’s interesting to note, that no Bobsled run was built, and that the IOC instead awarded the Olympic medals for Bobsleigh that year to the winner of the St. Moritz, World Cup meet.

View of Alpine Runs from inside of Blythe Arena

As you know, I also get geeked out over old photos. And these pictures which were taken from the IOC website, are amazing.

Hockey Game in Blythe Arena - Showing ropes hanging behind rings

Blythe Arena, the Ice Rink, was an open air arena built under an A-frame roof. The side of the arena facing the ski hill was open to the sunlight, allowing a vista of the Ski Jumps, and Speed Skating Oval, as well as the finish area for the alpine events. The openness caused a bit of a headache in the lead up to the games, as the powerful sunlight began turning the ice on the rink into slush. So workers proceeded to hang strips of heavy ropes, like a bead curtain, to help diffuse the light. It must have worked because the games went on as planned.

Another view from inside of the Arena, Ski Jump Hill visible on the left - before the ropes were hung from the ceiling

The 6,000 ft. altitude caused some difficulties for the athletes, and a few countries took advantage of oxygen tanks, to help their athletes recover after exertion. The story goes that the captain of the Russian team visited the locker room of the US team, in the second intermission of their gold medal game against Czechoslovakia, to tell them of this trick. The US followed his advice, and it helped them to score 6 goals in the 3rd period, and defeat the Czechs (guaranteeing, the Soviets a silver in the process.)

Roger Christian of Warroad, MN scores on the Soviets

The Squaw Valley games were also the first winter games to be televised live in the U.S. The opening and closing ceremonies, and many of the decorations around the site, were provided by none other than Uncle Walt Disney. Hard to get more post-war American than that.

American's celebrate a win

Anyway, enjoy the photos. Sadly, most of the infrastructure of the games has long since been torn down, and replaced with parking lots for the Squaw Valley Ski Resort.

U.S.A. 5 – Canada 3

Oh, did that feel good.

I mean, really good

It’s been 30 years to the day since the Miracle on Ice. Make no mistake, last night’s game was not of the same cultural, or even sporting significance. For one thing, Olympic hockey is pretty much an NHL all star tournament and not the amateur athletic event is used to be. For another, this was Canada, not quite the Evil Empire. More like the Milquetoast  Empire.

Really, it’s hard to demonize Canadians. It’s like having a hatred for vanilla ice cream. There’s nothing there to hate. Except for how insufferable they are about hockey. So beating them on their own turf, in their own Olympics, in front of 19,000 red clad Canadian fans is especially satisfying.

If it’s any consolation for them (and I am sure it’s not) I still like Tom Horton’s Donuts.

The Pinnacle of Winter

Whiteface Mountain

The start of the Winter Olympics this weekend is a big event in the 20 Prospect household. Me and the Mrs. have always made a habit of watching the coverage of the winter games dating back to the 1994 games in Lillehammer. In fact, the very week that I met Mrs. 20 Prospect the 1992 games in Albertville were kicking off. I can still remember hurrying home from dinner each evening to my hotel room in the Holiday Inn in Eveleth, MN to watch the coverage. Perhaps it’s the fact that we are Northern people, but we both have always enjoyed the winter games more than the summer ones. Few memories of sporting events stand larger in my life than the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

for years afterward you could still find stuff with this logo in the trinket shops of Lake Placid NY

I was 11 years old at the time of those games, and the fact that they were being held just a few hours away in Lake Placid made them feel like “our” games. The winter of 1980 was not a very happy time in the United States, or in Western New York. It was the tail end of the 70’s afterall, and economic depression had taken quite a toll on WNY. Watching the evening news was an exercise in masochism. The Iranian hostage crisis, OPEC oil embargos, plant and factory closings, all seemed to dominate the national news. In Western New York the only story of national importance since the devastating blizzard of 77’ was the Love Canal. Yeah, it wasn’t a cheery place to live. So the fact that Upstate New York was going to take center stage in the international spotlight of the Winter Olympics was one of the few positive things that we had to hold onto.

In the life of 20 Prospect clan, we also had a personal connection to the games. My bratty-big sister was in her first year of college at Paul Smith’s college in Saranac Lake. Since Lake Placid sits in the middle of the wilderness of the Adirondack mountains, every town and school in a 60 mile radius had shut down for the duration of the games so their public facilities could be turned into housing, or media centers for the masses of people descending on Lake Placid. My bratty-big Sis had managed to find a job working as a hostess at the Olympic Village. This just seemed to bring the events even closer to home.

Maint Street Lake Placid N.Y.

The previous fall I had visited with my folks for parents weekend, and we had taken a side trip to check out the village of Lake Placid. What folks who aren’t from the area fail to realize, is that Lake Placid really is a village. It is a small little place on the shore of Mirror Lake, smack in the middle of the great Adirondack Park. How it ended up hosting the games is a mystery. Probably because it was the only place in North America at the time with the requisite bobsledding facilities, which had been built for the 1932 version of the games. Few places I have been are as beautiful as the high peaks region of the Adirondacks, and had I been able to find employment there after my graduation from Clarkson, I would have never left.

1930's WPA poster

At eleven years old my entire world revolved around sports. It was all we did on Prospect Avenue, and it was all we talked about at school and watched on TV. The Winter Games were a veritable feast for my voracious sporting appetite. Every day I would hurry home from School and flip on the TV to watch the coverage. Back then, ABC actually carried live coverage of the outdoor events during the daytime. For the first week of the games all of the focus was on this guy.

Eric Heiden

Eric Heiden’s performance in the speed skating events is something that I don’t think will ever be duplicated. He dominated everything from the short sprints, to the long endurance events. Man, that guy had thighs like two locomotives. I can remember watching the clock and holding my breath as he won each and every one of those gold medals. To think those speed skating events took place on a natural ice surface built on the front lawn of  Lake Placid High School is hard to fathom in this day of billion dollar games.

I sucked up every second of TV coverage on Bobsledding, Luge, Skiing and Ski Jumping. At age eleven I wanted nothing more than a chance to run the Zig-Zag at Mt. Van Hoevenberg in a bobsled. Actually, that one is still on my bucket list.

Of course, there was ice hockey too. And all of America remembers this event…

Yes, I do believe in miracles...

But what folks forget is that the hockey team wasn’t in the spotlight at the start of the games. In fact, few of their games were even televised, because no one expected them to do well. But as they started winning, and getting on a roll behind the out-of-his-mind performance of goalie Jim Craig, the media started to seize on them as a touchstone. They were everything that we loved in a story. A bunch of plucky over achievers that seemed to succeed against all odds. Fewer stories would fit so well into the American consciousness. And fewer stories are a bigger source of angst for Canadians. Honestly, don’t ever bring this up with a Canadian. They HATE the Miracle on Ice story. It’s part of that whole red-headed step child complex that Canadians have towards the US. Mom always did like us best.

I can remember really taking an interest in the U.S. Hockey team when they played Czechoslovakia and won 7-3. It was televised on ABC, and was such a wide open, hard hitting, barn burner of a game it got people believing in this team. Another little remembered aspect of the story is the fact that the night the U.S. played the Soviets, the game was not shown live on ABC. Because they had not been expected to do well the game was played starting in the late afternoon. It was a Friday night, and I was sleeping over at my friend Chris’ house on Manhattan Ave. While most of America had to wait to see the tape delayed broadcast on ABC, we had the good fortune of watching the game live on Canadian TV, albeit through a snowstorm of static. Nothing in the world gives me more goose bumps than the final 2 minutes of that game. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. As soon as the game was over, we switched to ABC and watched it again.

It’s been 30 years since then, and times have changed. The Olympics are a big money event now, and will never be hosted in such a Podunk town as good old Lake Placid again. The hockey tournament has become an NHL all star game. TV friendly “sports” like snowboarding, have pushed the sled and ski events even further into the shadows, and endless media spin has made Figure Skating damn near unbearable to watch. Still, for the next two weeks you know where I’ll be each evening. Sitting in front of the TV watching like an eleven year old kid, wishing for all the world that I would have had some sort of talent to get me into the winter games, but alas, moping and blogging are not yet Olympic events.

Monday night at the rink

17 degrees. Snow falling. Lights on at the rink. Enough to sooth the savage beast.

Last night I took 20 Prospect Jr. over to the rink to play some hockey with his friends. 2 hours of non-stop hockey for a gaggle of K-3rd graders, while me and the other Dad’s shoveled the ice. Add Human Zamboni to my list of mad parenting skillz.

I do love it here. No, really, I do.

Happy Hockey Day

Tomorrow is Hockey Day Minnesota!

Our newest national state holiday. It is like Easter for the Hockey Cult. We are all expected to put on our Sunday best, and gather at one of the many Cathedrals of Hockey sprinkled throughout the state, and receive the sacrament of ice time.

As recent converts to the Hockey Cult, the 20 Prospect clan will be attending services at the National Sports Center’s “Basilica of the Our Lady of the 5 Minute Major”. I’m told the services there are spectacular.

The Basilica of Our Lady of the 5 Minute Major

20 Prospect Jr.’s hockey club has a an outdoor party on a lake in the morning. Bonfire, grill out, and shinny on the ice. Then a game in the afternoon. If all goes well, we should also find time to either skate beneath the belly of the water tower at our local rink, or battle each other in another epic round of NHL 2K10 on the Wii. The night will end with a vigil in front of the TV watching either the Wild or the Gophers. A veritable Bacchanalia of Hockey.

All work and no Hockey makes Jack a dull boy

Yes, we are no longer acolytes in the hockey cult. I already feel like a seasoned pro, standing in the rink watching the boys practice, discussing the finer points of the game with other Dad’s. Well, not really. That would require me to speak with a stranger, and hockey cult or no hockey cult, that would be a very Un-Minnesota thing to do. Instead we all stand in silence waiting for someone to introduce us to each other.

The boy is still enjoying it. And I have to confess, I am enjoying watching him enjoy it. I guess that’s the definition of the joy of parenting right there. That and yelling profanity at the refs.

Happy Hockey Day Minnesota!