Duluth has lost a legendary hockey star in Pokey Trachsel

John Gilbert

Steve "Pokey" Trachsel

Back in 1966-67, the Duluth Arena had just been built and I worked at the Duluth News-Tribune, where I had the honor of covering UMD and high school hockey, and that year I watched what I consider the best high school hockey team I ever saw, representing Duluth Cathedral.

The Hilltoppers were not allowed to play in the regular state tournament, which was OK because they spent the season beating the best public-schools teams, such as Greenway of Coleraine, with the spectacular Mike Antonovich as a sophomore who led the Raiders to the state championship, and Hibbing, with the speedy Bob Collard centering Bill Baldrica and Mark Barbato on the “Mafia Line,” which also made it to state and lost in the semifinals to Greenway. Cathedral beat both of them by identical 4-1 scores.

The Toppers also defeated Warroad, with the legendary Henry Boucha, and they beat Duluth East in an incredible midseason, midweek rivalry game that drew an overflow crowd ion 6,122 to the Duluth Arena – later the DECC – despite being broadcast on public television.

In that game, Phil Hoene, an extremely skilled centerman named “Phantom Phil” by me, scored three goals in 27 seconds to vault Cathedral from behind to victory. That team had Kevin Hoene, Phil’s junior brother, centering the second line, and sophomore Mike Randolph centering the third line.

Bill Trachsel was a wing on Phil Hoene’s all-senior line, and junior Larry Trachsel was a wing with Kevin.

The oldest of the Trachsel boys was Jim, who had played and was a powerful pitcher in baseball, and the youngest of the four boys was a ninth-grader named Steve Trachsel, known universally in hockey circles as “Pokey.”

He got the nickname from the kid’s book Pokey the Puppy that his mom used to read to him.

Pokey’s reputation preceded him, because he was a 12-year-old pitcher on the first Duluth team to ever advance to the Little League World Series. A year later, he scored 100 goals in 30 games as a center on his Bantam team. Then, as a ninth-grader, he became a standout, dominant defenseman for Del Genereau’s Cathedral Hilltoppers.

He was big and grew to 6-foot-1 by the time he finished at Cathedral, where he helped the Hilltoppers win the last four of their five straight state independent school championships.

As a senior, he scored 12 points in the victories against Brady, St. Thomas Academy and the 6-1 final against Hill-Murray, and was named all-tournament for the third straight year.

To win it, Cathedral had to beat some other powerful teams, from Hill-Murray, Cretin, St Agnes, Blake, Breck, St. Paul Academy and St. Thomas Academy. So they did.

In the process, Pokey Trachsel’s name should be inscribed among the very best hockey players ever to come out of Duluth.

After graduating, Pokey turned down scholarship offers from Minnesota, Colorado College and Notre Dame to follow Phil Hoene to UMD, which was coached by Bill Selman.

A progressive-minded coach, Selman always encouraged his defensemen to get involved with the offense, so Trachsel was a perfect fit.

Times were indeed different in those days, before Herb Brooks forced the eyes of NHL scouts to recognize skilled U.S. prospects. Hoene fought his way up through the system and played several years for the Los Angeles Kings, but the NHL’s emphasis on Canadian prospects made it tough for Americans.

After three years playing defense for the Bulldogs, Pokey Trachsel was moved up to forward as a senior, and that’s where he played on Nov. 17, 1972, when UMD played Lake Superior State in the Christmas City tournament opener at the DECC.

When it was over, UMD had won 11-6, and Pokey Trachsel had scored five goals. That still stands as a single-game record in UMD annals, and he added one assist for a six-point game, which tied Keith (Huffer ) Christiansen for that single-game points record. Curt Giles later tied it as well.

Pokey Trachsel got tangled up in the controversy about NHL discrimination against U.S.-born players, and never really made it into what an NHL that seemed made for his skill and toughness. But he and his wife Cathie raised three daughters and lived in Woodland, with a summer cabin on Island Lake until recent years, when they grew weary of the cold and snow and bought a place in Tucson, Az., returning to the cabin in summers.

They planned a partial family reunion for Easter, at Palm Springs, Calif., and last week they were driving their SUV west from their Tucson home, and were near the Arizona-California border when they ran into a dust storm. Visibility was so bad, they slowed down, driving behind a semi.

Behind them, another semi approached and didn’t slow down. Arizona highway patrol said the second semi crashed into the SUV, sending it into contact with the front semi. The SUV burst into flames, and both Pokey and Cathie Trachsel were killed instantly.

There is no further information, and their daughters are making final arrangements. Understandably, it will take some time to get over the shock – for the family, and for every hockey observer who ever heard Pokey’s name, and appreciate that Duluth has lost one of the greatest hockey players in the city’s long history. Rest in peace, Pokey and Cathie.

Gophers falter in NCAA quest

It was an exciting NCAA hockey tournament, after an inspiring championship victory by Quinnipiac, and the Gophers probably haven’t yet gotten over the shock of blowing a 2-0 lead and losing 3-2 on a spectacular goal 10 seconds into overtime.

After being acclaimed as the No.1 team in the country through most of the season, Minnesota won the Big Ten, lost the Big Ten tournament final to Michigan with a late collapse, but appeared to not put that experience to use.

Bristling with high NHL draft picks, and acclaimed by all boosters including Lou Nanne, that their top line was “the best ever at Minnesota,” it turned out that like wasn’t even the best on the team, as the third line, with Aaron Huglen and Rhett Pitlick making the play of the year while whipping Boston University in a 6-2 semifinal, was the Gophers best – if true teamwork matters.

But after leading Quinnipiac 2-0, the Bobcats came back with a true lesson in unified team play, taking over the game, and outshooting the Gophers 14-1 in the third period.

After getting the 2-2 tie, the teams lined up for a 20-minute overtime.

Jacob Quinlan pulled the face-off back to right defenseman Zach Metsa, who zipped a perfect pass ahead to Sam Lipkin, breaking up the right boards. Lipkin caught the pass and rushed to the outside of the right circle, where he backhanded a perfect pass toward the goal. Quillan somehow skated away from back checkers and defensemen alike, crossed at the crease, and deflected Lipkin’s pass through goaltender Justin Close. It took 0:10.

Afterward, the Lipkin said that they had practiced that exact play “hundreds of times.” To which I say, “Now, that’s teamwork!”

Talking about time passing by, the Gophers immediately started scattering to NHL contracts right after the finals, with Jackson LaCombe signing with Anaheim, Brock Faber joining the Wild, Matthew Knies signing with Toronto, and maybe more high regarded underclassmen to follow. After all the boasting and boosting and assumption that a national championship was coming, maybe the “Main U” should learn something from UMD.

While winning three NCAA titles since Minnesota last won one, never once did I hear anybody in the Bulldogs camp sound arrogant or sure that a title was coming. Since the Big Ten and NCHC began play 10 years ago, the NCHC has won five national championships, and the Big Ten none. As in zero. Maybe the Gophers have learned that before the boasting and boosting, and declarations that the Big Ten is the best conference, maybe they should win one first.