In 1993 the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame was described by its executive director, Ted Brill, as "a place of dignity and honor which all Americans should be able to point to with pride." Point to? Few Americans even know where the museum is. Perhaps that's because it's hidden away in Eveleth, Minn. (pop. 4,064), 200 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. While the area is popular for fishing, hunting, skiing and snowmobiling, the 23-year-old Hall of Fame is not, as Brill concedes, "a tourist destination."
Nor should it be, given the shabby state it's in. Last year the Hall drew about 10,000 visitors, most of them during the summer. The museum is located in Eveleth because the people there were the first ones to raise the money to open it, but now, sadly, it is a disappointing collection of broken exhibits, outdated and tarnished plaques, and an inappropriately violent video show. There is, however, one exhibit, about the 1980 Winter Olympics, so moving that it makes the Hall of Fame worth saving—albeit in a different location.
The theater on the museum's first floor holds 110 viewers, so 109 seats remained empty after 1 sat down in the front row to watch a 30-minute highlight video, Hockey's Hardest Hitters, showing brutal bodychecks from NHL games. One part of the film, called "Cheap Shots," is as grim a collection of high sticks, cross-checks and hits from behind as you could find this side of a street fight.
A cluster of columns in the first-floor Great Hall honors each of the Hall of Fame's 93 enshrinees. Alas, some of the plaques bear typewritten updates sloppily glued over the original text, and many of the entries need editing and corrections.
A second-floor exhibit called "Amateur Hockey Past and Present" consists of a large screen above a button that one is supposed to push to start a slide show. I pushed the button three times: Nothing happened. The exhibit was broken, as were most of the other interactive displays in the museum. The list of NCAA All-Americas, next to the broken slide show, ends with the 1991-92 season, as does the list of Stanley Cup winners.
But there is redemption on the mezzanine. A full-length video of the "Miracle on Ice," in which the U.S. team beat the Soviet Union 4-3 at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, plays continuously on a TV screen set into a reproduction of a gold medal. To the left, a display case contains memorabilia of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, which triumphed at Squaw Valley, Calif. A similar case to the right of the screen displays souvenirs of the 1980 win. Even though you know the game's outcome, the recorded voice of ABC-TV's Al Michaels echoing in the near empty museum makes your pulse race: "Twenty-eight seconds, the crowd is going insane.... Nineteen seconds.... Five seconds left in the game.... Three.... Do you believe in miracles?"
Not as much as Brill and a group of Eveleth businessmen who are intent on keeping the Hall of Fame in their town. The group is led by former chamber of commerce president Jerry Pfremmer. Pfremmer's group and Brill organized the Oct. 12 Hall of Fame Faceoff Classic at Minneapolis's Target Center, an exhibition game in which Boston University defeated Minnesota 4-3. The game drew 17,471 fans and netted, according to Brill, $40,000.
That's about half the debt of the nonprofit Hall of Fame. Other funds raised by Pfremmer should erase the remainder of the debt and even give the Hall a surplus for repairs and improvements. "We're going to fix this thing," says Brill.
The key to keeping the Hall in Eveleth, say Brill and Pfremmer, will be the sale of individual and corporate memberships and the Feb. 5 opening of a site on the World Wide Web through which anyone anywhere can "visit" the Hall.
It won't be enough. Nothing against Eveleth, which has produced a dozen members of the Hall, but the museum's survival is tied to its location. The time has come not only to spiff up the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame but also to put it where more Americans will get to it.