I understand some young reporter wanted to know what it was that explained the loyalty we have for this hockey team. She wanted to know what it was that caused this love for a team in a place so far removed from everywhere. Here is my explanation.
I grew up on a farm in Gilby, North Dakota; a small town located midway between Grafton and Grand Forks. My dad was a farmer. My mom was a house-wife. They raised four kids. They loved UND hockey. Everyone in Gilby loved UND hockey. In Vienna, everyone loved Mozart. In the Bronx, they loved the Yankees. In Gilby, we loved hockey; UND hockey. People did not have season tickets for the ballet, the opera, nor the symphony. They didn’t care. But almost everyone in town had season tickets to UND hockey. This was 50 years ago, before the Ralph, before cable tv, even before the interstate highway. It was UND hockey in the Barn. Except in those days, the Barn was not a barn. It was an indoor sheet of ice when there were not many. In Gilby, we drove to the games in pick-up trucks; real pick-ups. Not the pick-up trucks of today, with their all-wheel drive, sun-roofs, satellite radios, and heated steering-wheels. These were the old pick-ups with tool boxes and diesel fuel-tanks in the back. The kind that carried Red River Valley dust 12 months of the year; inside and out. The kind with one seat; which sat six people, sitting on top of each other on game night. We were not necessarily tougher then, but it was a different time.
One time in January,1966, UND was playing at home. The temperature was freezing; hovering near 30 below zero. My dad was adamant that we were not leaving home when it was that cold. My brother and I kept after him to go to the game. He finally relented and said we would go if it got to 20 below. My brother took my mom’s cigarette lighter outside and lit up the bottom of the thermometer trying to warm the mercury. I never knew if that actually changed the reading on the thermometer, but my dad finally relented and we did drive to the game in our old Dodge pick-up. UND also beat Michigan Tech.
The Barn had two warming rooms on either side of the rink. After the period, the stands would empty into each side to warm up for 20 minutes. In the Barn, warming was more than an adjective. It was always a packed madhouse between periods as the fans smoked cigarettes and drank flavored coffee and kids tried to avoid being stepped on. It was a time when Michigan Tech was a powerhouse. Denver was and still is Denver. But the Gophers were just the gophers and remained so until Herb Brooks arrived on campus.
One spring play-off game, UND played Michigan Tech. Tony Esposito was the star goalie for Tech. UND also had a great goalie in Joe Lech. We lost a tough game. After the game, my dad and my uncle Johnnie stopped at King Leo’s and got us kids hamburgers to go so they could stop at the Bronze Boot for a brief respite.
Mick and Ruth, Clark and Harriet, Johnnie and Joyce, Jack and Yvonne, and my mom and dad, were regular fans for all of these past 50 years. As in most families during the teen-age years and particularly during the 60’s and 70’s, there were tensions between fathers and sons. Our family was no different. Changing times, changing attitudes, changing politics, all combined to change how we looked at each other; even how we talked to each other. However, UND hockey was the one constant in our family. At a time, when my father and I could not speak a civil word to each other, about the only thing we had in common….was UND hockey. We still went to the games together. When I went away to college and law school for seven years, I still came home every Christmas and spring break and my dad and I went to every UND home hockey game. It was the one connection that survived those difficult years.
I cannot tell you how many great players and great teams I have seen. Sometimes, the consistency and brilliance is almost seamless. A standard for excellence was set in the very beginning and this current team is no different. They certainly have earned the right to be where they are.
I do not have a crystal ball. I cannot tell you how this season will end; on the ice. But I can tell you how this season will end for me. It won’t. It never has. It never will. UND hockey is a constant. It is a moment of our youth that we carry forever. Some people say that it is shameless, the love that grown men have for their teams. I don’t agree. The love we have for this team, is the love we have for all that we have known and been a part of. To love this team, is to love what we once were and what we always could be. It is to love where we are from and where we are going. And so, in the games that are to come in this next great contest, I shall be wishing, and praying and cheering for this team. I don’t know if they will hear me. I don’t even know if it will do any good. But I shall cheer nevertheless. When we get older, it is good to remember, at least a part, of what we loved as a child. And growing up in Gilby, a part of that love will always be this team; this great and enduring UND Hockey Team.
And so, it is more than the painted faces, and it is more that the jersey-clad spectators. UND Hockey is part of who we are. And in some of us, that it is the very best part. And so when that young reporter asks you “Why?” Why do these people love this team so much? You can tell her, that we love this team just because we always have and we always will.
See you in St. Paul.