Braemar/BIG Manager – Denny May
Well-Connected/Respected Hockey Devotee Passes at 83
(Denny May, long time manager of BIG arena after 36 years of service on his retirement day and 70th birthday, June 30, 2006/photo May family)
Well-Connected/Respected Hockey Devotee Passes at 83
There are not a lot of Minnesota or metro-area hockey players, coaches or arena managers that did not know, or know of, Denny May. The long-time manager of first, Braemar Arena in Edina and second, of Bloomington Ice Garden, affectionately known as “BIG”, passed away peacefully on 12/1/2019, in the company of his loving family.
I had the opportunity to discuss Denny’s life with several members of his family and appreciate their openness and willingness to share his background, family life, and career achievements with MHM’s fans and followers.
Growing Up in Mpls
Denny grew up in south Minneapolis, right across the street from Powderhorn Park.
His mother and her siblings grew up on farms in Cannon Falls MN, and while growing up, Denny would spend many of his summers working there.
Mike, his son, said, “I believe this helped develop the strong work ethic he maintained his entire life. He was very proud to have grown up in Mpls and was determined to raise his family the same way.”
He spent most of his days and nights at Powderhorn Park, playing hockey with the neighborhood kids. Like many hockey players at that time, outdoor hockey was the norm. Denny told stories of how he and his friends would play all winter long until they turned the lights out at night. He always boasted of how they would play all day even when the temperature dropped below zero.
He also enjoyed playing summer sports, many played at Nicollet Field, now King Park. He would play tennis, baseball, and football with his friends.
Danny, his son, said, “He remained extremely loyal to his Mpls background, maintaining friendships from his youth up until his death.”
He played hockey at Central High school, and graduated in 1954.
In the Service of his Country/College
Denny joined the Marine Corps in 1956 and according to Mike, spent two years “risking his life as an artillery spotter at the beautiful Camp Pendleton during peace time.”
Danny commented, “I don’t know a whole lot about his military experience. I do know that he followed a handful of his buddies who joined and then encouraged my dad to go with them. I recall him saying how he told his friends that they were crazy for joining, but he then joined as well and they all served in the Marines together at camp Pendleton. This also demonstrates his loyalty to his friends. I’m sure his military experience helped shape his character, as he was a very honest, hard-working man.”
After his Marine Corps experience, Denny enrolled at the University of Minnesota in a 4-year Bachelor’s degree program in Parks and Recreation Management.
He met his wife, Pat, in 1958 and they married in October of 1960. School was interrupted by the birth of his first two children so Denny started working at local parks Sibley and Keewaydin.
Raising a Hockey Family
I asked the family what it was like growing up in a hockey family with Denny at the helm and how he influenced them.
Danny commented, “Growing up in our house was amazing, especially from a hockey standpoint. Most of my first memories involve playing hockey, whether on skates or playing boot hockey. My dad ran Braemar Arena when I was very young and then started BIG when I was 7-8 years old. We had access to those facilities and were the envy of all of our friends. When there was an hour of unrented ice time, my dad would bring us to the rink and we would play shinny games. We also had the best outdoor rink in the neighborhood in our backyard, which my dad developed and maintained. The entire neighborhood would spend all winter playing boot hockey at our house until my parents turned the lights off at night. Hockey wasn’t our only pastime or activity. We all played T-Ball, baseball and a little football. My dad also bought several boats when we were very young, and we spent many summer days boating and water skiing at Lake Waconia and Minnetonka.”
Mike went on to say, “My dad not only raised 4 kids skating, (3 sons in hockey and a daughter in figure skating), but most of our friends too. Several friends have commented how both our parents made them feel like family. My dad was always taking our friends and line mates with him to the rink to skate and practice, and as Danny mentioned our back yard was a flooded rink for the entire neighborhood. Tom Chorske, (one of my brother Chris’ best friends and line mate) has given my dad several shout-outs for all the ice time. He would load them up in the car and take them to work with him.”
“Our hockey careers started at Braemar in 1965 when my dad was the assistant manager. Open ice family skates started then and did not stop for 40 years. We were always going to work with my dad. We spent LOTs of time at BIG; the rink became our home away from home. In the early years we were lucky to hang-out with the first MN North Stars and Fighting Saints. I will always remember going back to BIG on game nights with my dad, after dinner, when Jefferson, Kennedy and Lincoln would play each other the place would be packed. My brother and I would stay late and sweep the stands and clean up the rink with Dad, stopping at White Castle on the way home.”
“We were lucky our dad’s career helped shape our lives and the BIG was the centerpiece of our family and employees were an extension of that family. My dad truly loved his job and having us kids at work with him made it even more special. When us kids grew up and got our own jobs my dad then brought his faithful black lab name “Sam” to work with him. Sam had quite a legacy of her own at BIG. We were spoiled skating on indoor ice most of the time but we had the best of both worlds. My dad always flooded our backyard rink, put up lights and boards (which were old bleachers from BIG). All the neighborhood kids loved to come over and skate and play boot hockey.”
“When we got a bit older we skated or with pros and college athletes we idolized. We also skated with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Soviet Union players Tarasov & Tretiak, the Edmonton Oilers and 1980 US Olympic team. My dad even got a shout-out from his friend Herb Brooks – during the 1980 boys state tournament – when they asked Herbie what he was going to do now that the Olympics was over he said, “I don’t know maybe I will go work for my buddy Denny May at the Bloomington Ice Garden”.
Hockey was definitely in the Denny May family genes as the following demonstrates:
– son Mike May, Southwest High school / Mankato Mavericks
– son Danny May, Southwest High school / UMD Bulldogs
– son Chris May, Southwest / U of MN Gophers
– son in-law Sandy Smith, Brainerd Warriors / UMD Bulldogs / Played in Europe
– granddaughter Emma Smith, Varsity Brainerd Warriors senior
– granddaughter Alexis May, JV Benilde Saint Margaret freshman
Mike added, “My dad was active throughout his life, golfing, biking the Minneapolis city lakes, tennis, boating, water skiing, baseball and he and my mom loved to travel. They took full advantage of the benefits of having a daughter (Michelle May Smith) who worked for the airlines. They traveled extensively thru Europe and the US. He truly enjoyed family vacations in NY City and the Hamptons to visit his brother Tommy. And after retirement spending winters in Palm Springs (with Marv Jorde and all the hockey guys). He was friendly yet sarcastic, quick witted and loved to give people a hard time in jest. For his mild mannered exterior, he had a short fuse and a lot of passion.”
Braemar & BIG Management – Lasting Connections
Denny worked at Braemar arena in Edina for 4 years starting in 1965, first as an assistant manager, then as the manager. He followed that engagement as the manager of Bloomington Ice Garden for 36 years. During that time he touched the lives of many people and became very well-connected with a broad and expanding hockey community. I asked the family about his contributions/achievements during those years and how it influenced others.
Danny was the first to comment, “I think my dad’s biggest achievement and legacy from the arenas is the reputation he achieved. He spent 36 years at BIG, starting Rink One while it was still under construction. He then participated and helped BIG evolve from one rink into three rinks over his years. BIG and the hockey people who spent time there were like my dad’s second family. He was truly revered by the hockey community, especially from BIG. I’ve never known anyone who truly loved their occupation like he did. He went so far above and beyond what was required of him because BIG was so important to him. He would work all day long, come home and eat dinner with our family and then return to BIG to work the HS hockey games at night. After the games conclusion, instead of going home, he would assist his staff sweeping the bleachers, and stay until every chore was completed. My brother Mike and I often joined him which I truly enjoyed. We learned every job at the rink over the years from selling and taking tickets, selling popcorn, skate sharpening, sweeping, and eventually driving the Zamboni. This helped us develop strong work ethics as well as finding it entertaining while watching great HS hockey games. Dad would reward us for our hard work with rolls of tape and the occasional hockey stick.”
Mike added, “I think my dad’s achievements were two- fold: One – that BIG was and still is one of the best Municipal Ice Arenas anywhere. He and Andy took great pride in the quality of ice, the cleanliness of the arena inside and out. Two – and most of all, he loved getting to know as many people as he could that came thru the doors, be it local, out of state or abroad. He truly enjoyed people, and was genuinely interested in their lives. My dad greeted everyone – he knew just about everyone who came thru the doors.”
Mike provided several touching and telling comments from close friends of the family at Denny’s passing.
- Scott Anderson – Denny was “larger than Life” a true ambassador of hockey and figure skating at the Bloomington Ice garden, When I think of Denny I think of BIG, a great family man and a friend to too many people to count in a lifetime!
- Tim Cortes – Denny was perhaps the kindest man I ever known. The May family treated all their friend’s kids as family.
- Nick Sperides – Profound sadness. Denny was awesome. A true friend of the hockey community.
- Sully – Denny May was the Best of the Best always had time to talk to everyone and anyone and always had a big smile on his face to greet you. Great Man, great family. I will miss our conversations but have many great memories to reflect back.
- Jeff Jungwirth God Bless Denny! You were a great light for the children of Bloomington when they would walk through those BIG doors with wide eyes and big dreams of being the next Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky. A lot of great memories were made at the rink that “Denny” built.
- Tom Papke – Denny was truly & forever in the people mind will be “Mr. Hockey”. I worked at BIG a few years! Grew up in south Mpls. & he flooded my childhood rinks at Morris Park. Never lumpy, always perfect the man was the master indeed. I feel so fortunate to have known this man. Thanks for the memories.
- Pat Hall – the hockey world had lost another great teammate. Denny was a Bloomington icon! In fact Denny was “BIG”. Perhaps the city of Bloomington would consider changing the name of BIG to Denny May Arena.
Hockey World Connections
Denny was a great friend of the senior/adult hockey community and was a close friend to many well-known and prominent players and coaches. I asked Dan and Mike to elaborate a bit.
Danny responded, “My dad had many connections to the hockey world. Over the years he made numerous friendships and was influential in many a players lives. He always stepped up to arrange ice time for hockey players or teams. He would always find a way to fit people into the ice schedule to help them out. He arranged ice time for the North Stars and Fighting Saints in the 70’s when they were unable to skate at the Met or Civic Center. There were many occasions where he would arrange ice time for players who were recovering from injuries, or allow the Bloomington teams to remain on the ice long after their rental time expired. I recall skating with Reed Larson in the prime of his NHL career as he was recovering from elbow surgery, one call to my dad and he set up the ice time. My dad never complained because he enjoyed helping them out, which ultimately would help lead to the players or teams success. He never was paid extra for the hours he spent doing this, he did it because he loved doing so.”
Mike added by providing several names that Denny had close contact with including Reed Larson, Tom Chorske and others. He noted that his dad also be-friended the likes of Kristi Yamaguchi/Bret Hedican and Jimmy/Johnny Johannson.
Roger Buck, owner of Buck’s Unpainted Furniture and GM/Manager of perennial Minnesota State and National Senior A championship teams back in the days of full-contact senior hockey, said this about Denny, “Denny May touched so many lives in his years at the Bloomington Ice Garden. Of all the rinks I went to over the years in Minnesota and all over the country the BIG was by far the best run. After a high school hockey game at 10:30 at night you would see Denny sweeping the stands even though many times he would be back at 5-6 am to open. He was not only an administrator to youth hockey but also always found time for adult and senior hockey. Senior teams Buck’s and Parkers hosted both State and National Tournaments at BIG. Tournaments are always tight budgeted so Denny rather than have additional city paid employees would come in and run the Zamboni so the tournaments could run efficiently. If you’re wondering about his popularity in the hockey world just try to walk around an event such as sectional high school playoffs at Mariucci with Denny. It was like you were with the hottest of Hollywood stars…every 10 feet he was stopped for a chat with someone, and ALWAYS knew their kids names. Our senior team was in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Denny had joined us on the trip as his son Chris was on the Buck’s team. In the bar after the game numerous people were excited to see and talk to him. God Bless, he was a Great American and friend to thousands.”
Tom Chorske, former Gopher hockey star, NHL veteran of 11 years, Hockey Broadcast Analyst and close friend of the May family provided this insight, “I met the May family when my original high school, Mpls West High was closed and I was transferred to Southwest High School my Sophomore year. In the Fall of 1982, as soon as we started skating for Captain’s Practice I found myself playing on a line with Chris May and we had instant chemistry. Soon we became great friends and I learned his Dad, Denny May, managed the BIG and any open ice could be skated on by us. It was a dream come true. Chris’s brothers were playing college hockey (Mike at Mankato State, Danny at UMD) so we would all skate together at times. I think Denny loved allowing us to skate and improve as well as knowing we were hanging out together, and he was making it happen. I spent so much time at the May’s house and at BIG that Denny was like a second father to me. Denny was not only the manager of BIG, but he also acted as an Ambassador for the arena. He always chatted with the groups who were renting ice and the fans who came through the doors. Denny was polite with the people he didn’t know but he “chirped” and barbed all of his friends and us boys as much as he could…he was a wise-ass in that regard. During the 80’s and 90’s many of the state’s biggest games and rivalries happened at BIG (Lake Conference games / Jefferson vs Kennedy) and Denny made sure they went off without a hitch. Denny was very proud of the BIG and of the team he had put together. It’s sad he’s gone.”
Denny May – Legacy
Denny will have a lasting influence on many people. I asked the family how they would want him to be remembered.
Danny provided this comment, “My dad will be remembered just as I would like him to be remembered. The most genuine, friendly, funny, hard-working, loyal, family man I have ever known. I never met a single person who didn’t adore my dad, and I never heard anyone say one bad thing about him. We should all be so wonderful!”
Mike added, “As far as his legacy, first and foremost, is his love of his family and always doing whatever he could to make our lives better. Secondly BIG was truly his baby. He nurtured BIG from the beginning, opening the arena and running it for 36 years. That is where he had his biggest impact on the hockey community. He would want to be remembered as a great guy that worked hard, ran his arena pretty much the way he wanted to, touched the lives of countless people, raised a great family and had a great life.”
Who Knew – Only a Few
Few people knew this about Denny May.
Danny revealed, “My dad was so transparent that I really think everyone knew the real Denny May, very few secrets. I guess the only thing some don’t know is that he was somewhat of a caveman. He viewed luxury or convenience as evil words. He refused to use the snow blower or dishwasher, and seemed to thrive on making things difficult for himself. He wouldn’t spend money on any luxury for my mom and him, at the same time never allowing his children or friends to spend any of our own money on anything. He would always pick up dinner checks, pay for our golf, or any other way he could spend his money on others, but never on himself.”
Mike added, “My dad made friendships and gave purpose to those in need he could sense it. Yet he teased and joked with them too. Andy Baltgalvis who took over as manager of BIG was a Vietnam Vet – who my dad gave a part time job at Braemar before he went to Vietnam and when he returned Denny gave him a home and purpose at BIG, Andy says he owes his career to my dad.”
Finally, Mike confided, “Even in my dad’s final days he was worried who would tell TJ Gannon, a boy with special needs whom he gave a job to at the rink. Back when my dad was at BIG, he listed TJ as an “assistant manager” in a nationwide book of some sort listing arenas – to say this made Tj’s day is an understatement.”
Celebration of Life
A Celebration of Life will be held in Denny’s honor on December 27, 2019 from 4-8pm at the Knights of Columbus on American Blvd in Bloomington.
All are welcome!
Here is an updated Obituary.
Dennis May, (born 6/30/1936 – pasted 12/1/2019 at 83 years of age, wed Patricia Meder 10/8/1960)
Dennis died peacefully on 12/1/2019, in the presences of his loving family. Preceded in death by his father George, Mother Francis and bother Tom. Denny grew up overlooking Powderhorn Park and loved his “hood” until the day he died appropriately at Abbott NW Hospital.
He graduated from Central High in 1954, then joined the Marine Corps and spent two years risking his life as an artillery spotter at the beautiful Camp Pendleton during peace time. He then enrolled at the University of Minnesota for an extended version of bachelors in Park and Recreation, (4-year degree). This was interrupted by the birth of his first three children and working at local parks Sibley and Keewaydin where he developed friendships that lasted his lifetime. After graduation he was hired as the assistant manager of the newly opened Braemar Ice Arena in 1965. Two years later he was promoted to the Manager and was even featured on the CBS Nightly News by the famous Hayward Hale Broun. He left Braemar in 1970 when the City of Bloomington came calling. He accepted the manager position at BIG (Bloomington Ice Garden), a new arena. He spent 36 wonderful years at BIG and formed countless friendships and made his indelible mark on the hockey community.
In retirement he spent winters in Palm Springs with his lovely wife of nearly sixty years and spent summers enjoying golfing and biking the Minneapolis city lakes. He adored his two granddaughters and rarely missed any activity they were involved in, especially hockey. He also loved his yard and kept it impeccable with flowers shrubs and a nicely groomed lawn. Denny lived a wonderful life and enjoyed family ski trips, and going to his brothers’ home in the Hamptons.
Denny is survived in life by his wife Patricia, sons Mike (Jillian), Danny (Stacy), Chris (Ame) and his daughter Michelle Smith (Sandy). Granddaughters Emma Smith and Alexis May. Please join his family for a Celebration of Life on December 27, 2019 from 4-8pm at the Knights of Columbus on American Blvd in Bloomington.