To get to Houghton, Mich. these days you fly to Green Bay, change planes, touch down briefly at Menominee and Iron Mountain, get off at Hancock, then hope for a passing dogsled to pick you up for the 10-mile haul down across the frozen Portage Channel and up into town. It no doubt will be snowing in Houghton when you pull in—and when you pull out—and if the wind over nearby Lake Superior happens to be blowing in the wrong direction, the chill factor will be something like -52°. So button your thermals and zip your parka, and let's go find out how and why a surfer from Southern California named Jim Warden found happiness playing goal for Michigan Tech on the snow-banks of Houghton.
A long hockey weekend at Michigan Tech starts at six sharp Friday night—either at the Library Bar where you can buy half a gallon of beer in a chilled orange-juice bottle for SI, or over at Funkey's Karma Kafe, where there are carrots to nibble and papaya juice to nip. Either way, happy hour ends promptly at seven, when everyone begins the short trek back toward campus and up the icy hill to the Student Ice Arena. Some people arrive on snowmobiles, others schuss in on skis, but all of Houghton is there. This particular weekend should be an easy one for Jim Warden, the best college goaltender since Ken Dryden was stopping pucks for Cornell back in the late '60s, and for Tech, which, as always, is rated among the top five teams in the country. Denver, the opposition, is on a down cycle after years of domination in the West, and, well, the 90-foot sign taped to a wall in the Arena may be accurate: THE ONLY GOOD THING FROM COLORADO IS COORS.
The Friday night game is no contest as Tech storms to a quick 10-1 lead, then coasts to an 11-5 victory. Under the stands, Warden and his teammates, obviously depressed by Denver's four-goal rally in the third period, dress quietly in a locker room lavish even by pro standards: there is wall-to-wall carpeting and a sauna. The main door to the locker room also leads to the posh Husky's Club, where Tech alums gulp coffee or hot chocolate between periods while inspecting pictures of former Tech players—Chicago Goaltender Tony Esposito is one—or viewing game highlights on a color instant-replay machine.
Warden looks, and apparently acts, a lot like Pistol Pete Maravich in his LSU days: a bit different. "Jimmy once told me that a haircut was no longer on his schedule," says Coach John MacInnes. "And I remember one game when there was a face-off down the other end of the ice and we suddenly noticed that Jimmy was completely turned from the play, his back to the action. Finally a defenseman skated down to see what was the matter. You know what Jimmy told him? 'Not to worry. I'm watching the game through the reflection on the Plexiglas behind the net.' "
March 2, 1975
After the game, the Tech players, minus Warden, head back across the Channel to Hancock for a pizza and beer celebration at Gino's. Warden jumps into his VW van and disappears with his fiancée, Patty Andreini of South Range, a town just a few snowdrifts down the road from Houghton. "Jimmy thinks he's the only 'different' person on the team," says Bob (Roadrunner) D'Alvise, a speedy center from Toronto. "He's tried to fit in, but he believes that what he does, as opposed to what the other 19 guys on the team do, is what society ought to be like." D'Alvise begins to smile. "The other day he showed up wearing a string tie for one of our trips. He wondered why we all weren't wearing string ties."
The next day MacInnes said he had planned to rest Warden and play reserve Goaltender Bruce Horsch in the second game of the back-to-back series, but the Californian had been erratic in the first game—misplaying angles and generally acting bored by it all—and he would be back in goal for the rematch. "We'll shut them out," Warden says as the meeting breaks up.
Driving back to his off-campus residence across the street from MacInnes' home, Warden sounds like a charter member of the Houghton Chamber of Commerce. "This town," he intones, "is the Frisbee capital of the world. The Library Bar always wins the big tournament. I play Frisbee better than I play hockey. I'm a great Frisbee player." Warden's van backs into a snowdrift, and he talks on. "Look at this town! No smog, no spoiled kids, no stoplights for 100 miles. It is the complete opposite of California." Frantically he shifts gears between first and reverse, keeping the gas pedal floored. Finally the van gets back onto the icy road. "Trouble is, I don't fit the town's image of a hockey player because, well, I'm something they have never experienced before. I am a Californian, and California is a different world."
Actually Warden was born in Detroit, where his doctor father was serving an internship. Young Jim lived there and in London, Ontario for four years and then moved to Altadena, Calif., a couple of long field goals from the Rose Bowl. "One day, when I was eight years old, my father read an ad in the local paper inviting kids to try out for a bunch of programs sponsored by the Pasadena hockey club," Warden says. "Every kid who showed up was placed on a team. I played forward for about a year, using a pair of rented skates. Then one day I flat decided to become a goaltender because goalies are on the ice all the time." At home Warden had his brother blast tennis balls at him in his room. He was the only kid on the block who preferred hockey to basketball. "The others thought I was nuts," he says.
Warden received what he calls "my career break" one warm night in 1965 when Glen Eberly, an All-America goal-tender at Boston University in the early 1960s, dropped by the Pasadena rink. "Glen took me down to one end of the rink and worked with me at every practice," Warden says. "He taught me everything, particularly how to use my legs. I don't quite know how to say this, but I have the best legs going. The biggest thrill in my life was the night Glen brought his Kenesky pads and let me use them. Every kid goalie in the world dreams of wearing custom pads and here I was wearing Keneskys!"
Warden's career moved to the back burner for a few years when the rink in Pasadena was converted into a post office. "My Dad bought the old nets for me," Warden says, "and we put them in the backyard. I guess I stopped a couple of hundred tennis balls out there every day." Warden eventually discovered the sun and the sea and he became an accomplished surfer. But then he found another rink and took up hockey again. He was a junior All-America while playing for a team in West Covina.
"I loved hockey," he says, "but I knew I'd never go anywhere if I stayed in California." Warden left the sun land after his junior year in high school, moved to Minneapolis, got a job as a porter at a hotel and enrolled at the Blake School, one of the powers in hockey-mad Minnesota. He took over as the starting goaltender and he earned all-state recognition.
Recruited by most of the hockey-playing colleges, Warden decided on Michigan Tech when MacInnes came calling. "John's voice sounded as though it belonged to a man of stature. Besides, he always has a great goaltender."
Although injuries dogged Warden's first two years at Michigan Tech (once he sliced open a finger while working on a porcelain sink), he showed enough potential to be drafted last year by both the NHL's California Golden Seals and the WHA's San Diego Mariners. "I wasn't ready for the pros, I know that," he says. "Before moving on you've got to be able to say that you've done your best in the previous competition. I couldn't say that. I knew I wasn't mature enough. Besides, I had strained my knee playing intramural volleyball and then reinjured it playing Frisbee."
Warden also had some technical deficiencies: his glove hand was too slow and he did not know how to control a puck once he stopped it. Last summer MacInnes paid his own way to Russia to attend a coaching clinic. He returned with a copy of a Soviet training program for goaltenders, the same program that had transformed Vladislav Tretiak from a sieve into one of the best puck stoppers in the world. In the fall MacInnes went to work with Warden. For an hour each day he had his protégé tumbling over barrels, stick-handling a volleyball, batting down tennis balls with 15-pound weights strapped to each hand and catching rubber balls with weights strapped to his arms. "My glove hand used to be the weakest part of my game," Warden says. "Now it's as good as my legs."
Still, Warden realizes he has yet to master the art of controlling a puck once he has stopped it. "Goaltending has been a step-by-step learning process for me," he says, "...and that's next."
In the net Warden uses his legs like Tony Esposito, but in other mannerisms he resembles Ken Dryden. "Dryden always looks relaxed," Warden says, "and so do I. John [MacInnes] hates it, but that's me. In the past few years John and I have had a lot of deep psychological conversations. I was different from what John had ever dealt with before. We'd talk and I'd sometimes leave the room crying, but I'm a better person for it today. And I think I've been a challenge for John, too. I think he needed someone different. It's better when you don't have 20 guys, a team, thinking and acting alike all the time. We're not a bunch of robots."
True to his predictions, Warden shut out Denver 7-0, playing with an alert cockiness that had been missing the night before. Said MacInnes afterward, pondering the most difficult player he has coached in 18 years at Michigan Tech: "I think we all understand Jimmy better now than we did yesterday, and yesterday better than the day before. And I know he understands us better."
For his part, Warden said, "I want to play on the U.S. National team in the world championship at the end of the college season. I know they pick goalies by looking at their goals-against average. Right now my average is just about 3.00. Good enough, I hope." Next season come the Olympics, and Warden may take off the school year in an attempt to make the U.S. team. "I'm getting married in May, and then Patty and I will take the van and split for a couple of months. Who knows what I'll decide." The only thing he is ruling out for now is the pros. "I'm not ready."
The next morning Warden and his fiancée drove into town for scrambled eggs. It was snowing, and there was a fleeting expression of California pain on his face. "Not a good day for Frisbee," said the sun child.