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Up around the Western tip of Lake Superior, there might be fewer accolades uttered about University of Minnesota sports success than anywhere else in the State of Minnesota.
It’s not that we are anti-Gopher...Or, maybe we are. But because the UMD Bulldogs take on the Golden Gophers in hockey, and have done so for nearly 60 years, UMD fans have grown accustomed to cheering for the Bulldogs and feeling not at all discouraged whenever the Gophers lose. Especially, but not limited to, when they play UMD.
It’s different in football, and basketball, where Minnesota is the state’s only Division 1 program, and the rest of the state competes at the Division 2 or Division 3 level. In those sports, we can all cheer heartily for the Golden Gophers. But it’s been my experience that some diehard UMD hockey fans don’t cheer for Gopher success in any sport.
It’s different for me. As a native Duluthian who attended both UMD and Minnesota, and wrote sports for the school papers at both institutions on my way to a sportswriting career at the Duluth News Tribune and then, for 30 years, at the Minneapolis Tribune, I’ve covered a lot of sports at both institutions.
In the old days, when John Mariucci coached hockey at Minnesota, he was such a beloved character that modern-day media types can be easily coaxed to come up with all sorts of legends that go well beyond the facts, although the facts are impressive enough to stand on their own.
To set the record straight, “Maroosh” was a legendary hockey and football player at Eveleth High School, and an All-America star at Minnesota, before embarking on a rugged, uncompromising career in the National Hockey League. With the Chicago Blackhawks, Mariucci blazed a trail of ruggedness that facts struggled to duplicate.
Then he came home and coached the Minnesota Gophers -- nobody bothered with “Golden” in those days. John coached in the old west end of Williams Arena, under that high arching roof, with seats on both sides, none at the ends, and terrible low-sloping sightlines for the first 15 rows on either side. But the Gophers captured the imagination of the cult of fans, if not the media, back then. They had the best Minnesota kids, led by the inimitable John Mayasich, another Eveleth superstar who probably is the greatest player every to come from the state.
Mariucci coached the Gophers form 1952 through 1966, give or take a break here or there to coach an Olympic team in 1956. Athletic director Marsh Ryman, a “banty-rooster” of a man who was a vicarious hockey coach always, coached the team in John’s absence. In fact, Ryman has a major part of John’s legacy.
In only three of his 13 seasons were the Gophers below the .500 mark in the WCHA, which, in those days, was an overpowering collection of all the Western teams that won virtually every NCAA title. The Gophers never won one under Mariucci, but for good reason.
Back then, Canadian kids all played junior hockey, with 60-80 games in a season, conducted like a mini-NHL, and it was the source of virtually all NHL players. In Minnesota, there was no junior hockey. The kids played high school, 12 to 16 games roughly, of abbreviated period duration, 12 minutes instead of 20.
The NHL had its draft of 20-year-old amateurs, and the routine wss that every worthy prospect in Canada played “Major Junior,” from age 16 to 20. When they turned 20, the NHL drafted some, and they signed and went off in hopes of a pro hockey career. Those who didn’t get drafted often settled for a scholarship to a big-time U.S. college.
North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Michigan, Michigan Tech and Michigan State all went to Canada to recruit, and the top Eastern colleges -- Cornell, RPI, Boston University -- also used top Canadians. The top Canadian players had played junior until 20, so they came to college as 21-year-old freshmen.
Mariucci made a stand for Minnesota hockey players, however. He tried to convince other college coaches to promote American hockey by doing something similar, but the temptation was too strong to get polished 21-year-old rather than raw, inexperienced 18-year-olds who had played fewer games in three years of high school than their Canadian counterparts had played in one season.
The rivalry between Minnesota players and Canadians grew, and when UMD started Division 1 hockey, the Bulldogs also tried to get top Canadians but lacked the absolute pipeline Denver’s Murray Armstrong had to Calgary, or Michigan Tech’s John MacInnes had to Toronto. At one point, the Gophers refused to play Denver, and to this day, Mariucci is credited or blamed with the refusal.
But John told me, on a sidewalk in Los Angeles when he was assistant general manager of the Minnesota North Stars, and I was covering the team for the Minneapolis Tribune, that it was never his idea. “That was Marsh Ryman,” Maroosh confided. “I hated the fact that they had old Canadians at Denver, but I would never have refused to play ’em. I wanted to play ’em and beat ’em.”
John was always a good soldier, so he didn’t sound off when the WCHA came out with a lopsided schedule that showed Minnesota not playing Denver in 1958-59, 1960-61, and for the rest of his career, until the series was resumed in Glen Sonmor’s sixth season.
But what Mariucci’s tenacity did for the state of Minnesota is it forced Minnesota kids to elevate their game. Having to play older and more experienced Canadian opponents, they improved, high school hockey got better and some Minnesota kids over-achieved. And it was all because of John Mariucci.
So when the University of Minnesota decided to renamed the hockey end of Williams Arena as Mariucci Arena, it was altogether fitting and proper.
Sonmor carried on John’s legacy after Ryman fired Mariucci and he became Wren Blair’s assistant GM with the North Stars. And of course, Herb Brooks, who had played for and greatly admired Mariucci, carried it to the top echelon. Brooks’s Gophers won the school’s first three NCAA titles in 1974, 1976 and 1979 -- three titles in six years, and all with Minnesota high school players. Astoundingly, Minnesota beat Michigan Tech and all its aged Canadian players, in the NCAA finals for its first two championships.
By then, a few had gone off to play with the first established junior teams in Minnesota, mainly the St. Paul Vulcans, but the majority of the team was right out of high school.
The NCAA did its part to help nurture American players. First, they declared the Tier I, Major Junior players in Canada ineligible for NCAA play, treating them like pro players. So Tier II hockey rose up all across Canada, leaving the top three Tier I leagues, but very good Tier II leagues in every province.
The game has changed over the years, and when the University of Minnesota built a new arena across the street from Mariucci Arena, it moved the name to the new facility as well. Richly deserved, for the Godfather of Minnesota Hockey.
And now, big money dictates the the University of Minnesota will change the name of its still-fabulous hockey arena to 3M Rink at Mariucci Arena. The Twin Cities media, most of whom never shook hands with John Mariucci, or looked into his eyes when he got that twinkle to accompany his wry grin, are claiming that all the hard-core hockey types are all for the change.
Me? The only way I’ll settle for adopting “3M Rink at Mariucci Arena” is if they leave a little bit of space next to the 3M, and in small letters, they stack three words: Minnesota, Mariucci, Mayasich.
Now there’s 3Ms we can all live with.