For the Mike Antonoviches, such risks undoubtedly seem worthwhile. In northern Minnesota, hockey has traditionally been a means of upward social mobility comparable to basketball in the ghetto. (With a little luck and a little puck, anyone can make it.) The difference until recently had been that a top hockey player had virtually no chance of playing professionally; instead he might hope to begin a career through his reputation and a college scholarship.
"I think I would have worked in the mines and played baseball if I hadn't got a hockey scholarship," says Antonovich, who was an All-State third baseman in high school. He grew up in Calumet, a town on Minnesota's iron range that once had close to 1,000 inhabitants, but now counts fewer than its listed 460; most of its ore has given out. The Antonovich family still lives in the small frame house where Mike's mother Eleanor gave birth to him without benefit of physician 21 years ago.
Small-town legends grew up around Antonovich, legends of how he was better than bigger and older boys and how he skated every day until dark. There were tales of his cockiness. "Mike was really a modest kid," says his high school coach, Bob Gernander, "but he had an arrogant way about him." From the time he led Greenway to its first state title as a 5'4", 122-pound third-line sophomore, Mike no doubt felt it was necessary to throw what weight he had around.
Perhaps because of his reputation for roughness, Mike never made All-America, though he led Minnesota from third-period ties and deficits to 13 wins his freshman year and from a three-goal third-period disadvantage to an overtime win in the NCAA semifinals in his second year. The magic ran out in his junior year, when he injured his knee. With a pregnant wife and no chance of remaining academically eligible, he did not have to vacillate about turning pro. "I could have gone back to school," he says, "but you want to get in at the ground floor. I just went to school to play hockey." Antonovich is anything but cocky now, being understandably preoccupied with learning his position and surviving against bigger men.
"I think Mike could have played in the NHL," Sonmor maintains. "But he would have had to score 40 goals in Saginaw—and he would have. Then he would have had to score 40 goals in the high minors somewhere—and he would have—and then someone would have given him the chance."
"Every time a Mike Antonovich takes the ice for the Saints, it helps hockey all through Minnesota," says Roy Kelly. "The kids on the high school teams look at him and realize that if they work hard enough, there's a place for them in pro hockey, too."
"In a few years there's going to be an explosion," says former Minnesota and Olympic Coach John Mariucci. "Why? Because we have numbers. Coaching's getting better, we have a 12-month program and rules are getting better, too." He paused. "And when we cross the color line, it's gonna be great."