In-house Bantam team became hockey inspiration

John Gilbert

The years end and a new one starts, and sometimes - too often - a decade ends, and a new one starts. As years go by, it is heartwarming to go back sometimes. One of those is to one of the more formative years of my hockey reporting career at the Minneapolis Tribune, combined with my family’s involvement in the game in the Twin Cities suburb of Shoreview.

I was traveling a lot in those days, covering NHL hockey for the Minneapolis Tribune, and I’d had the chance to cover a Canada Cup tournament that involved the U.S., Canada, the Soviet Union, Sweden, Finland and Czechoslovakia. They played in cities all across Canada, and, by chance, I was seated among the Swedish team players on a flight from Quebec City to Toronto. A fellow named Mats Ahlberg was sitting next to me, and I recognized his name because he had been drafted by the North Stars, but he had no intention of signing, preferring instead to remain in Sweden to work, and play hockey.

In the course of our conversation I asked him what position he played, center or wing, and he said, “Neither.” He explained that in Sweden, the three forwards consist of two “attack forwards” and one “defensive forward,” with the two attack forwards forechecking in coordination, while the defensive forward stayed back, ready to aid the defensemen. As he explained it, it made great sense. In North America, the first one or two into the zone forecheck and the third one stays back. Maybe. Ahlberg laughed at that and said that in the Swedish plan, the

best forecheckers forecheck and the best backchecker backchecks. But if nobody is the center, which one takes the face-offs? He laughed again. “Whichever one is the best at face-offs,” he said.
Brilliant. He explained how that system would help Sweden beat the USSR, which they did, the next day.
After I returned to Minnesota, I discussed that concept with Herb Brooks, who was coaching the University of Minnesota at the time. He was very interested. At the same time, my older son, Jack, was moving up to his first year as a Bantam (age 14-15), and would play on what they called an “in-house” team, for neighborhood kids at an outdoor rink, against other neighborhoods. Nobody had signed up to coach, so I volunteered. We had an interesting group, which I will never forget. We had three kids signed up as goaltenders, so two of them were moved to other teams. The one who remained was a nice kid but stopping pucks was not his strong suit.

We had some good players, and some who had never played before, including two who were big kids who had never skated before but played on the youth baseball team I coached, and I encouraged them to sign up for the hockey team. After a short time, they could skate pretty well, in a straight line, and both could shoot because they were strong. I had a variety of other nice kids and eager kids, and one dynamic skater who could shoot wrist shots harder than anyone else’s slap shots. So I put him on defense and told him he could only shoot wrist shots. His nickname was “Armo.”

One other kid was a little gangly but skilled. His name was Joe DeLisle, and his dad was a realtor who sponsored our team. We skirted the rules just a bit and got special jerseys with nicknames on the back, and a log on the front that read “DeLisle’s Demons.”
My plan was an experiment, to play the “Swedish System” I had just learned, with a twist. We would have attack forwards and defensive forwards, but our strong-side defenseman would always pinch in on opposing breakout attempts. The defensive forward would curl back to cover the point that he would be abandoning. The kids bought it, and we had fun. We also won a lot. Our goaltender was shaky, but I called a team meeting without him, and advised all the rest of the players that we needed to bolster the goalie’s confidence at every chance, and that if I ever heard any player criticize our goalie, that player would be the goalie in the next game. It worked, including the time that our extroverted defenseman challenged my rule by ripping the goalie. So next game, he put the gear on — quite eagerly, I must say — and we went onto the ice for a game. After one warm-up shot hit him, our “new” goalie raced for the sideline and took the gear off. And never again criticized our goalie, whose name was Chris, and we called him Crease.

We played a lot of open hockey, encouraging parents to join in on our outdoor rink, which greatly headed off any criticism, as soon as they learned how difficult it was to play, even badly.
We won game after game, with our Swedish system. My son Jack, and Joe, had never been on any team together, but they were both skilled and creative, and they worked together like a hand in a glove. I balanced the lines and rotated which one started, and we kept winning.

Our only loss of the entire season was a distasteful one, when we played at an Irondale rink on the other side of the district. The team we played was good, and big, and they were sponsored by “B & R Liquors,” which bothered me in principle, just because it didn’t seem right for a liquor store to sponsor a kid hockey team. We played them tough, and in a snowstorm, but their parents refused to clear the snow off their rink. So after two periods, I got our parents to scrape clean the end we would be shooting at for the third period, which prompted them to scramble out and clear the rest of the rink. It was a rugged game, and when one of their players hit Joe with a cross-check from behind that went uncalled, Jack came on the run and flattened the kid with a shoulder. He didn’t even get penalized. But we lost the game by a goal, and it turned out to be our only loss of the season.

They had a playoff, which was the only time in-house teams got to go indoors at Columbia Arena. We won our first game, and we won our second game, in the semifinals. In that game, one of our big late-coming players was battling on the boards for the puck when the kid he was battling with gave him a cheap elbow to the facemark. Our kid — nicknamed “Lurch” because he played much like he was auditioning for a part in the Addams Family — hit the kid back. The kid then punched Lurch, who threw off his gloves and pummeled the kid into

submission. To the surprise of us all. He was thrown out, and, when we won the game, he was barred from playing in the championship game.
Our opponent was, drumroll please, B & R Liquors. The only team that had beaten us. The arena was all fixed up, and they had team signs hanging on the scoreboard — B & R Liquors on the left, and DeLisle Realty on the right. Up in the top row of the stands, sat Lurch, but not forlornly, as far as we know, because his parents and sisters had put up a big sign on the wall that read: “Win it for Lurch.”

We came out flying, and scored off our Swedish forecheck. The game was rough again, but we kept scoring. We didn’t back down, and, in fact, were seen as the aggressors from the officials’ standpoint. At one point we were two skaters short by penalties, and, despite being our only forward on the ice, Joe DeLisle scored two goals while killing the same penalties. We kept up the attack, and got scoring from every line. We won the game, something like 7-2, or 9-3. A blowout of spectacular and immensely satisfying proportions.

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part came in the final seconds. We were ahead so far they had no reason to pull their goalie, and we had a face-off in their end. We got the draw back to the left point, to Armo — the kid with the wrist shot who was forbidden to shoot a slap shot. He knew we had the game in hand, but he was

bristling with adrenaline still as he moved in a step from the left point, then he cut loose with a wicked wrist shot. But he was a little high. Hi shot went over the net, over the glass at the end of the rink, and continued on a trajectory that carried it right at the electric scoreboard. The supersonic missile struck the B&R Liquors nameplate squarely, and knocked it off the scoreboard, landing on the concrete floor below with a clang.

You couldn’t script that. The completely disjointed neighborhood team,
the not-too-bad goalie by the end, our completely off-the-charts style
of play, our toughness and our creativity, the disciplined play of our
defensemen, and the seemingly undisciplined play of our forwards — and
Armo, finishing off our winning one for Lurch.
You can’t make that up.
Years later, Joe DeLisle played at Fridley Grace, before it became Totino Grace, then he came to UMD, where he ended up being captain. Same guy. Years after that, he wound up in Australia, from where he sent me a letter asking if I could put him in touch with some hockey equipment reps, who sent him skates, sticks and pads to outfit the locals, who, yes, played hockey. Joe played among them, and helped them organize the best players to get together and head off to Great Britain for the World Class B (or C?) Championships. They asked Joe to coach the team, because as an American he couldn’t play.

He sent me another letter a short time later. Australia had won the championship! And Joe said, proudly, that after all the great coaches he had — Mark Loahr at Grace, Gus Hendrickson and Mike Sertich at UMD — when he put Team Australia together the system he chose to have them play was the Swedish System he learned as an in-house Bantam.

As I said, you can’t make this stuff up!

Happy New Year.