- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Among those who are just as happy not to winter in Florida, Arizona or California are the hockey-playing kids of Minnesota. The state probably has more tiny slap-shooters per chilblain than any other. Minnie-mites do not just grab a crooked tree branch and push a tin can around; by and large they are blessed with rinks, blades, sticks and togs of which a big-leaguer would not be ashamed; note the youngsters at right playing a game at Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis. Turn the pages for more of Minnesota's winter wonderland, followed by an appraisal of the state of the skate, 1976, and of a man who is not altogether pleased with it
A Wintry Heritage
The most famous kid hockey player, John Mariucci, was a child of the Depression. His father, like many North Minnesotans, labored in the iron mines of the Mesabi Range. The elder Mariucci worked from sunup to sundown until an injury suffered in the mine prevented him from working at all. To feed John and his two sisters, Mariucci's mother rose at 4 a.m., cleaned the kitchen of a Greek restaurant and ironed clothes.
But life was not entirely grim for John and the other kids of Eveleth. Able to tax mine holdings, the towns of the Iron Range built some of the best schools in the country, and with them some fine hockey rinks. And there was coaching to go with the blessing of natural ice. For years the ablest amateur hockey in the U.S. was played by Minnesota's "rangers." Once, when Harvard played Yale, a Minneapolis paper, reflecting the number of local boys on both teams, headlined the result HIBBING BEATS EVELETH.
John Mariucci played his first organized hockey in the 11th grade. In his spare time he skated alone for hours, getting his strength from the hard, cold land. A school counselor named Endicott told him, "John, you'll never be college material." But Mariucci ignored him, enrolled at Eveleth Junior College, transferred to the University of Minnesota, washed dishes and worked for the Northwestern National Bank to pay his bills, and starred in hockey and football. He went on to play professionally for the Chicago Black Hawks. After retiring in 1950, he helped revive postwar hockey by coaching the Gophers to second place in the NCAA tournament and the U.S. national team to a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics.
At 59 Mariucci is finishing his career as a scout for the North Stars, a career that earned him acknowledgment as the father of Minnesota hockey. During his lifetime the state of the sport in Minnesota has been transformed out of all recognition.
Look what they've done to his game:
They've built 110 full-size indoor rinks and numerous summer camps, spreading hockey throughout the state and the year; they've created a participant cult by registering 80,000 amateur players, including Governor Wendell Anderson, an ex-Gopher and Olympian who says he would rather play old-timers' hockey than watch the finals of the Stanley Cup; and they've kept the state in the forefront of American hockey (with 2% of the population, Minnesota produces more than half the U.S. college and pro players). Needless to say, organized hockey in Minnesota begins with kids a few steps out of the cradle. There are even leagues for 6-year-olds.
Some youngsters skate only within their communities; at age 10 the best start playing for traveling squads. Fully uniformed, indistinguishable from midget North Stars and Fighting Saints except for the sponsors' names on their jerseys, encouraged by coaches and parents who may spend as much as $500 a year on this activity, they roam the state and sometimes journey to Michigan, Illinois and Canada to play pro-length schedules. Recently, the community of Edina was host to its seventh international tournament for boys 11 to 14. For four days 48 teams played from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. It may have been the largest kid hockey tournament in the world. In early March the state high school tournament, which draws more than 85,000 spectators in three days despite statewide TV, will as usual be the most impressive sports event on the Minnesota calendar.
Mariucci is unsatisfied. "There are too many one-hour players," he says. "They're waiting for one hour of indoor ice when they could use the natural ice God has given them for five or six hours. The result is that they can't skate. Everyone wants to play, but you can't play until you've learned to skate."