Among those whoare just as happy not to winter in Florida, Arizona or California are thehockey-playing kids of Minnesota. The state probably has more tinyslap-shooters per chilblain than any other. Minnie-mites do not just grab acrooked tree branch and push a tin can around; by and large they are blessedwith rinks, blades, sticks and togs of which a big-leaguer would not beashamed; note the youngsters at right playing a game at Edina, a suburb ofMinneapolis. Turn the pages for more of Minnesota's winter wonderland, followedby an appraisal of the state of the skate, 1976, and of a man who is notaltogether pleased with it
The most famouskid hockey player, John Mariucci, was a child of the Depression. His father,like many North Minnesotans, labored in the iron mines of the Mesabi Range. Theelder Mariucci worked from sunup to sundown until an injury suffered in themine prevented him from working at all. To feed John and his two sisters,Mariucci's mother rose at 4 a.m., cleaned the kitchen of a Greek restaurant andironed clothes.
But life was notentirely grim for John and the other kids of Eveleth. Able to tax mineholdings, the towns of the Iron Range built some of the best schools in thecountry, and with them some fine hockey rinks. And there was coaching to gowith the blessing of natural ice. For years the ablest amateur hockey in theU.S. was played by Minnesota's "rangers." Once, when Harvard playedYale, a Minneapolis paper, reflecting the number of local boys on both teams,headlined the result HIBBING BEATS EVELETH.
February 9, 1976
John Mariucciplayed his first organized hockey in the 11th grade. In his spare time heskated alone for hours, getting his strength from the hard, cold land. A schoolcounselor named Endicott told him, "John, you'll never be collegematerial." But Mariucci ignored him, enrolled at Eveleth Junior College,transferred to the University of Minnesota, washed dishes and worked for theNorthwestern National Bank to pay his bills, and starred in hockey andfootball. He went on to play professionally for the Chicago Black Hawks. Afterretiring in 1950, he helped revive postwar hockey by coaching the Gophers tosecond place in the NCAA tournament and the U.S. national team to a silvermedal in the 1956 Olympics.
At 59 Mariucci isfinishing his career as a scout for the North Stars, a career that earned himacknowledgment as the father of Minnesota hockey. During his lifetime the stateof the sport in Minnesota has been transformed out of all recognition.
Look what they'vedone to his game:
They've built 110full-size indoor rinks and numerous summer camps, spreading hockey throughoutthe state and the year; they've created a participant cult by registering80,000 amateur players, including Governor Wendell Anderson, an ex-Gopher andOlympian who says he would rather play old-timers' hockey than watch the finalsof the Stanley Cup; and they've kept the state in the forefront of Americanhockey (with 2% of the population, Minnesota produces more than half the U.S.college and pro players). Needless to say, organized hockey in Minnesota beginswith kids a few steps out of the cradle. There are even leagues for6-year-olds.
Some youngstersskate only within their communities; at age 10 the best start playing fortraveling squads. Fully uniformed, indistinguishable from midget North Starsand Fighting Saints except for the sponsors' names on their jerseys, encouragedby coaches and parents who may spend as much as $500 a year on this activity,they roam the state and sometimes journey to Michigan, Illinois and Canada toplay pro-length schedules. Recently, the community of Edina was host to itsseventh international tournament for boys 11 to 14. For four days 48 teamsplayed from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. It may have been the largest kid hockeytournament in the world. In early March the state high school tournament, whichdraws more than 85,000 spectators in three days despite statewide TV, will asusual be the most impressive sports event on the Minnesota calendar.
Mariucci isunsatisfied. "There are too many one-hour players," he says."They're waiting for one hour of indoor ice when they could use the naturalice God has given them for five or six hours. The result is that they can'tskate. Everyone wants to play, but you can't play until you've learned toskate."
Other thoughtfulobservers wonder if the organized programs, which they generally praise, havenot taken both skills and spontaneity from the game. "The kids up Northshoot better than the kids in the Twin Cities," says Gus Hendrickson, whocoached a Northern team, Grand Rapids, to the state high school championshipbefore being hired last year by the University of Minnesota-Duluth. "Thereason is that they play shinny hockey on their own. You need to ding aroundthe nets a lot to learn to shoot. And you improve more when there is lesspressure. I polled the seniors at Grand Rapids before I left. They all wantedfewer games, more practice and more opportunities for everyone." AmoBessone of Michigan State cites the example of the Russians, who forbidorganized hockey before age 12. "I don't think 10-year-olds should play 80games. By high school, some are ready to quit." University of MinnesotaCoach Herb Brooks says, "Maybe there shouldn't be any traveling teams.Making one puts an awful lot of pressure on a young kid. Some drop outaltogether when they fail. Maybe the Elm Street Tigers should play the OakStreet Wildcats. My philosophy is skate like hell, stay onsides, don't tear anyjerseys and have a good time. I'm also concerned about summer camps, eventhough I'm starting one. Kids should be developing in other sports."
Significantly, thebest pro prospect in the state is neither a hockey fanatic nor a product offanatical organization. Reed Larson, a sophomore defenseman at Minnesota, maybecome the first U.S. player ever drafted in the first round by an NHL club."I built up my legs skating and playing pullaway [hockey tag]," saysLarson, who grew up in a working-class district of Minneapolis. "We skateda lot. We were rink rats. I built up my arms by doing pushups for gymnasticsand by water skiing." As a result, Larson has superior acceleration and thehardest shot in college hockey. He has scored from the red line without ascreen and broken a goalie's stick with a slap shot.
No one is arguingthat organized programs be abandoned, just that they be improved. Hendricksonmanaged to get all age-group coaches in Grand Rapids to agree to fewer gamesand traveling teams and more non-traveling teams and practice time. His brotherDave, the coach at Virginia High School, helped persuade his community to dropall its traveling teams below age 12 and reduce the road schedule for those whodo travel. "The Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association has recommended amaximum of 30 road games," he says, "but the people in the cities saythey've created a monster and don't know how to stop it." Another usefulprecedent was set by Brooks, who runs the most grueling practices of anycollege coach without complaints from his players. Brooks constantly varies hisdrills and he has to order his players off the ice.
But the basicchanges, says Coach Harry Neale of the Minnesota Fighting Saints, must takeplace at the 6-to-9 level. "The stupidest thing about hockey for kids thatage," says Neale, "is that they play the same rules as the pros. Whynot make everything smaller—rinks, nets, pucks, sticks—and have nobody-checking, painted lines or slap shots? Little League baseball is scaleddown, but not hockey.
"The puck iswhat gets me—little kids can't move it around. They aren't strong enough toshoot slap shots until about 12. Checkers don't know what they're doing andcheckees can't get out of the way. The idea is to improve skills withoutintimidation. And without lines there would be more chances for goals.
"Kids shouldhave to pass skating tests before playing. That way we wouldn't have kids whonever touch the puck in games. They should be made to play all positions. Whyshould a kid who gets put in the goal at age eight be stuck there forever? Kidsshould also play on a different team every game to reduce pressure.
"It wouldn'taffect the fun or the skills. When I was coaching at Ohio State I started anintramural league along these lines. The people in the league were new tohockey, just like kids. They loved it and I had some of my best moments as acoach.
"I talk aboutthese things around the state. People nod their heads and nobody does anything.The reason is that they want to develop winning teams and they're afraid othercommunities won't adopt the same rules. Well, if they don't adopt the rules,don't play them. What we need is a pioneer."