To college hockey fans in the snowbelt areas of the U.S., it must have seemed as unlikely as surfing in Duluth. The nation's top college hockey rivalry in—Los Angeles? The University of Southern California, mighty Troy, and tiny Loyola? This is a joke, right?
Not to the fans who packed Hollywood's 5,000-seat Polar Palace on Saturday nights from the middle to late 1930s. There, in the rink where most of Hollywood's ice spectaculars were filmed, students from both campuses squeezed in with the region's transplanted hockey fans, who ranged from struggling screenwriters to Bing Crosby.
These were California's first big-time hockey teams with real players, i.e., Canadians and Minnesotans. Teams that could beat traditional college hockey powers. And best of all for the fans, teams that desperately wanted to beat each other—soundly. As John Polich, a native of Hibbing, Minn., and a star right wing for Loyola, said, "Games against USC were pure dynamite. We lived to beat those guys."
When Polich, who went on to play briefly with the New York Rangers in the early '40s, celebrated his 70th birthday in Rancho Mirage, Calif., two years ago, more than a dozen old USC and Loyola players showed up. But the center of attention was Arnold Eddy, now 84, the former USC coach who, with his Loyola counterpart, the late Tom Lieb, raised college hockey in Southern California to such improbable heights.
Eddy says that the era began in 1929 when he was working as an assistant graduate manager in the USC athletic department. His boss, Gwynn Wilson, had decided to elevate hockey from club to intercollegiate status only days before and was sending a team to Yosemite National Park to open the season with a three-game series against California. But a coach was still needed, so Wilson said to Eddy, "Take you, your bride and the hockey team up to Yosemite."
"At that time," says Eddy, a native Californian, "I had never owned a pair of skates, never seen a hockey game and didn't know the rules."
But he learned fast enough. Although the Trojans lost those first three games, just two years later they started a 31-game winning streak that included two perfect seasons. At the time USC's Pacific Coast League opponents were Loyola—which had recently begun its own program—Cal, UCLA and two club teams, the Automobile Club of Southern California and the Hollywood Athletic Club. (Other clubs and colleges would later drop in and out of the league.) In the early '30s, however, USC had no serious competition—until Lieb's Loyolans came along.
If Eddy was the definitive amateur, never receiving a penny for coaching, Lieb was his opposite. From Faribault, Minn., he had gone to Notre Dame, where he played football for Knute Rockne and won two NCAA discus championships. After graduation he won a bronze medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, then returned to South Bend to coach under Rockne. His big break came in 1929 when, with Rockne hospitalized with a bad leg (and, according to legend, occasionally calling plays from his bed), Lieb guided the team through an undefeated season and to the national championship.
Suddenly, Lieb was a hot property. And little Loyola, a Jesuit school with only 300 students but grandiose dreams of becoming a football power, wanted the instant credibility a Rockne prot�g� could bring. Lieb virtually wrote his own ticket, arriving West in the fall of 1930 as a combination football coach-athletic director. Hockey was simply an after-thought, something Lieb decided might keep the football players in shape.
"Coaching hockey was fun for Lieb," says Polich. "It was just the opposite of football, which was a serious business."