Last Friday, at the annual U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction dinner in Minneapolis, the Wayne Gretzky Award, which honors an individual for his or her contributions to U.S. hockey, was introduced. The first recipient, fittingly, was the award's namesake. Among those who joined in applauding Gretzky was a broad-shouldered, soft-spoken Minnesotan: 66-year-old John Mayasich, who in his playing days could have laid claim to being the Great One of U.S. hockey.
That Mayasich is little known outside his home state is an accident of time and place rather than the result of any limitation in his skills. "I don't care who you name, John could have played with them," says former Harvard coach Billy Cleary, who starred with Mayasich on the victorious 1960 U.S. Olympic team in Squaw Valley. "If you were to name an alltime American team, he'd be on it, either as a forward or a defenseman."
"Like a lot of great American players of his era, John came along at the wrong time," says Herb Brooks, a former national teammate of Mayasich, who coached the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal and, later, the NHL's New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Minnesota North Stars. "He had a great shot and was a tremendous playmaker and skater," Brooks says, "but what set him apart was that he was the smartest hockey player I've been around. He was subtle, like a great chess master, and he made players around him better. It was like he saw the game in slow motion."
Funny, that's the same thing people said about Number 99. Mayasich, born in the mining town of Eveleth in 1933, grew up to be a rangy, rawboned kid (six feet, 180 pounds) who was a natural at every sport he tried. His parents, Frank and Mary, had emigrated from what is now Croatia, and his father worked in the iron mines. John was the 10th of 11 children: six boys, five girls. He came of age before television, so he spent all his free time outside playing sports: baseball, football, hockey, swimming, tennis. In the winter he played hockey on frozen ponds all day Saturday, even skating home for lunch, then played street hockey after dark under the streetlights.
"We didn't know it, but we were developing skills," Mayasich says. "We didn't have hockey nets. We just used a pair of boots as the goal. If you shot the puck, you'd have to spend the next 10 minutes looking for it in the snowbank. So we always deked the goalies, and I became a pretty good stickhandler. I learned to shoot backhand from playing street hockey, where the goals weren't opposite one another, because we didn't have enough room. You were always coming at them from an angle."
Mayasich, who played center, never lost a game in his high school career, leading tiny Eveleth High to 69 straight wins and four state titles in a row, from 1948 to '51. No other team has done that. The Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament is the most prestigious of its kind in the country, and Mayasich's name is still all over the record books. He owns 10 tournament scoring records, including most goals in one game (seven); most goals, career (36 in 12 games); most hat tricks, (seven in 12 games); and most points, one tournament (18 in three games).
Because hockey scholarships were not given then, Mayasich, who had been a quarterback and a running back at Eveleth, went to Minnesota on a football scholarship, although he never played football. He starred on the ice there, too, leading the Gophers to the NCAA hockey finals his sophomore and junior years, losing to Michigan and RPI, respectively. "If there was one, that was the biggest disappointment in my career," he says of the overtime RPI loss, in 1954. Mayasich still holds the record for most points in a Final Four game—seven, against Boston College in '54.
During college he developed the weapon that was to become his offensive trademark: the slap shot. He learned about it while working in, of all places, Eveleth's open-pit mines during the summer with his friend and teammate Willard Ikola. Ikola had been the goalie on Eveleth's state championship teams. He went to college at Michigan, and every year the Wolverines played an exhibition game against the Detroit Red Wings. Some of the Wings were experimenting with the slap shot—a little-used novelty young players like Boom Boom Geoffrion of the Montreal Canadiens had introduced. Ikola described the shot to Mayasich, who'd never seen it.
This was before the innovation of the curved stick, and few players had the strength and coordination to master the slap shot. "I worked on it quite a bit," Mayasich says. "I had strong wrists from baseball and tennis, and got to where I could really let it go. If I was aiming at the right pipe, I'd come within six inches most of the time. I'd use it when I came down three-on-two, waiting till the defense backed in enough to let me get across the blue line. Then I'd slap it, and if the goalie stopped it there was usually a rebound. If the defense held the blue line, I'd pass off to a wing."
Mayasich became a scoring machine. His career scoring records at Minnesota still stand: 144 goals, 298 points in 111 games between 1951 and '55, a staggering average of 2.68 points per game. ( Gretzky averaged 2.62 points per game in his best four-season stretch in the NHL, 1982-86.) The Gophers' coach was John Mariucci, who had played defense for the Chicago Blackhawks, and he set up an exhibition game between the Hawks and the Gophers, which Chicago won, 5-3. "John scored two goals, and I thought he was the best player on the ice," recalls Jack McCartan, who played goalie for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team and made it to the NHL for a few games with the Rangers. "There's no doubt he could have played in the NHL. He was the best American hockey player I've ever seen."