To get to Houghton, Mich. these days you fly to Green Bay, change planes, touch down briefly at Menominee and Iron Mountain, get off at Hancock, then hope for a passing dogsled to pick you up for the 10-mile haul down across the frozen Portage Channel and up into town. It no doubt will be snowing in Houghton when you pull in—and when you pull out—and if the wind over nearby Lake Superior happens to be blowing in the wrong direction, the chill factor will be something like -52�. So button your thermals and zip your parka, and let's go find out how and why a surfer from Southern California named Jim Warden found happiness playing goal for Michigan Tech on the snow-banks of Houghton.
A long hockey weekend at Michigan Tech starts at six sharp Friday night—either at the Library Bar where you can buy half a gallon of beer in a chilled orange-juice bottle for SI, or over at Funkey's Karma Kafe, where there are carrots to nibble and papaya juice to nip. Either way, happy hour ends promptly at seven, when everyone begins the short trek back toward campus and up the icy hill to the Student Ice Arena. Some people arrive on snowmobiles, others schuss in on skis, but all of Houghton is there. This particular weekend should be an easy one for Jim Warden, the best college goaltender since Ken Dryden was stopping pucks for Cornell back in the late '60s, and for Tech, which, as always, is rated among the top five teams in the country. Denver, the opposition, is on a down cycle after years of domination in the West, and, well, the 90-foot sign taped to a wall in the Arena may be accurate: THE ONLY GOOD THING FROM COLORADO IS COORS.
The Friday night game is no contest as Tech storms to a quick 10-1 lead, then coasts to an 11-5 victory. Under the stands, Warden and his teammates, obviously depressed by Denver's four-goal rally in the third period, dress quietly in a locker room lavish even by pro standards: there is wall-to-wall carpeting and a sauna. The main door to the locker room also leads to the posh Husky's Club, where Tech alums gulp coffee or hot chocolate between periods while inspecting pictures of former Tech players—Chicago Goaltender Tony Esposito is one—or viewing game highlights on a color instant-replay machine.
Warden looks, and apparently acts, a lot like Pistol Pete Maravich in his LSU days: a bit different. "Jimmy once told me that a haircut was no longer on his schedule," says Coach John MacInnes. "And I remember one game when there was a face-off down the other end of the ice and we suddenly noticed that Jimmy was completely turned from the play, his back to the action. Finally a defenseman skated down to see what was the matter. You know what Jimmy told him? 'Not to worry. I'm watching the game through the reflection on the Plexiglas behind the net.' "
After the game, the Tech players, minus Warden, head back across the Channel to Hancock for a pizza and beer celebration at Gino's. Warden jumps into his VW van and disappears with his fianc�e, Patty Andreini of South Range, a town just a few snowdrifts down the road from Houghton. "Jimmy thinks he's the only 'different' person on the team," says Bob (Roadrunner) D'Alvise, a speedy center from Toronto. "He's tried to fit in, but he believes that what he does, as opposed to what the other 19 guys on the team do, is what society ought to be like." D'Alvise begins to smile. "The other day he showed up wearing a string tie for one of our trips. He wondered why we all weren't wearing string ties."
The next day MacInnes said he had planned to rest Warden and play reserve Goaltender Bruce Horsch in the second game of the back-to-back series, but the Californian had been erratic in the first game—misplaying angles and generally acting bored by it all—and he would be back in goal for the rematch. "We'll shut them out," Warden says as the meeting breaks up.
Driving back to his off-campus residence across the street from MacInnes' home, Warden sounds like a charter member of the Houghton Chamber of Commerce. "This town," he intones, "is the Frisbee capital of the world. The Library Bar always wins the big tournament. I play Frisbee better than I play hockey. I'm a great Frisbee player." Warden's van backs into a snowdrift, and he talks on. "Look at this town! No smog, no spoiled kids, no stoplights for 100 miles. It is the complete opposite of California." Frantically he shifts gears between first and reverse, keeping the gas pedal floored. Finally the van gets back onto the icy road. "Trouble is, I don't fit the town's image of a hockey player because, well, I'm something they have never experienced before. I am a Californian, and California is a different world."
Actually Warden was born in Detroit, where his doctor father was serving an internship. Young Jim lived there and in London, Ontario for four years and then moved to Altadena, Calif., a couple of long field goals from the Rose Bowl. "One day, when I was eight years old, my father read an ad in the local paper inviting kids to try out for a bunch of programs sponsored by the Pasadena hockey club," Warden says. "Every kid who showed up was placed on a team. I played forward for about a year, using a pair of rented skates. Then one day I flat decided to become a goaltender because goalies are on the ice all the time." At home Warden had his brother blast tennis balls at him in his room. He was the only kid on the block who preferred hockey to basketball. "The others thought I was nuts," he says.
Warden received what he calls "my career break" one warm night in 1965 when Glen Eberly, an All-America goal-tender at Boston University in the early 1960s, dropped by the Pasadena rink. "Glen took me down to one end of the rink and worked with me at every practice," Warden says. "He taught me everything, particularly how to use my legs. I don't quite know how to say this, but I have the best legs going. The biggest thrill in my life was the night Glen brought his Kenesky pads and let me use them. Every kid goalie in the world dreams of wearing custom pads and here I was wearing Keneskys!"
Warden's career moved to the back burner for a few years when the rink in Pasadena was converted into a post office. "My Dad bought the old nets for me," Warden says, "and we put them in the backyard. I guess I stopped a couple of hundred tennis balls out there every day." Warden eventually discovered the sun and the sea and he became an accomplished surfer. But then he found another rink and took up hockey again. He was a junior All-America while playing for a team in West Covina.