A Success Story: Mayo’s Grosso, Albert Lea’s Nystrom Achieve Greatness in Friendship as Much as Hockey
Mayo’s Grosso, Albert Lea’s Nystrom Achieve Greatness in Friendship
as Much as Hockey
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Albert Lea City Arena’s Nystrom Rink, with its multi-colored seating, reminiscent of Met Center’s glory days, is a classic barn-style arena with its high, arched wood ceiling supporting rows of fluorescent lights and the center-hung four-sided scoreboard suspended from it. Fans on stools line the corners of rink nearest the concession stand, resting their beverages on the small plastic bar rail installed level with the dasher board caprails.
A quick trip upstairs into the arena’s climate-controlled viewing area overlooking the east end of the rink finds a solitary man watching through the glass as Albert Lea’s varsity boys hockey team warms up for its Big Nine Conference tilt against Rochester Mayo. His full head of salt and pepper hair and matching mustache tell you he’s been around the block a few times, but you wouldn’t guess this is his 71st birthday.
He sits in the middle row of a three-row stadium seating setup acquired by the arena from the city’s Marion Ross Performing Arts Center. Yes, it is indeed named for Richie Cunningham’s mom who spent what surely were some happy days of her childhood in Albert Lea, Minn.
It’s not long, however, before a couple of men sit down nearby and he strikes up a conversation with them. “There’s that drill we were working on yesterday,” the man in the blue nylon jacket with ‘Tigers Hockey’ stitched near the left shoulder says pointing to the far end of the ice.
As the teams exit the rink and head to their respective dressing rooms, Roy Nystrom, one of the state’s winningest high school hockey coaches of all time, rises from his seat and departs to prepare his Albert Lea Tigers for the 984th time in his storied career. Meanwhile, a few steps down the hall, fellow 71-year-old Lorne Grosso is making similar preparations to ensure his Rochester Mayo team is, too, ready to play in this Saturday matinee.
They Go Way Back
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he two Minnesota high school coaching icons first met playing under John Mariucci at the University of Minnesota in the mid sixties. A life-long friendship was struck between Nystrom, an Eveleth native, and his linemate, Grosso, who had followed his cousin Lou Nanne from their native Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in coming to Minnesota to become a Gopher.
Grosso served as Nystrom’s set-up man at Minnesota for most of his 38 goals in two sesons, a fact that did not sit well with Grosso’s mother. “My mother said, ‘Why are you passing him the puck? You need to get some goals,’” Grosso said. “I said, ‘Mom, because he never scored when he was a kid so I felt sorry for him.’”
The two have led nearly parallel lives ever since with Grosso in the midst of season No. 46 behind the Rochester Mayo bench and Nystrom in year No. 41 at Albert Lea after 94 wins in seven seasons, including three straight state titles, in North Dakota to launch his coaching career. With Nystrom’s North Dakota achievements factored in, the pair has combined for 1,341 wins with Grosso’s 674 victories making him Minnesota boys’ high school hockey’s all-time leader and Nystrom’s 667 wins overall total not far behind Grosso nationally.
“I don’t think either one of us ever thought we’d be in this situation,” Grosso said. “We’ve been so close; he’s just like my brother.”
Fittingly, Grosso and Nystrom will be inducted together into the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame in March when the MHCA holds its annual convention in conjunction with the boys’ state hockey tournament.
Mark your Calendars
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen the high school hockey schedules are complete, fans and players alike carefully study the list in seeking out the marquee matchups, circling the ones personal schedules are to be arranged around. As conference foes, the Albert Lea Tigers and Rochester Mayo Spartans boys’ hockey teams square off twice per season in a pair of circle-worthy meetings celebrating a mostly civil rivalry built on friendship and mutual respect.
“There’s a lot of intensity because, I think, a lot of it has to do with Lorney and I having known each other for so many years and we played together at the ‘U’,” Nystrom said. “And I know he’s telling his guys, ‘Hey, you’ve got to beat that guy,’ and I’m telling my guys the same doggone thing and sometimes we beat them and sometimes they beat us.”
Rochester Mayo defenseman Tommy Fjelsted, a senior captain, said the players on both benches understand the significance of the friendly rivalry between the two coaches.
“It’s always a game to look forward to; it’s a real fun game,” Fjelsted said. “All the guys, we always talk about it, even on the ice with Albert Lea, it’s a fun deal.”
Fjelsted said he enjoys the effect these little reunions have on coach Grosso’s demeanor.
“He’s always got a smile on his face, it seems like, when he comes into this rink,” Fjelsted said of Grosso. “When he meets up with coach Nystrom it’s always kind of a funny thing to see because they’ve always got some handshake they do or fake punch each other in the gut or something, but he’s always in a good mood around this time.”
This season’s first meeting, a 6-1 shellacking of the Tigers by Mayo at Rochester’s Graham Arena on Dec. 21, gave the Spartans their sixth win in the series’ last nine meetings (6-2-1) dating back to 2009. “They had us down 4-0 before we even put on our skates,” Nystrom said of Mayo’s four goal first-period barrage, including three in a span of just 18 seconds.
But the Tigers entered the Feb. 1 rematch in Albert Lea riding a four-game winning streak and were seeking to complete a five-day Rochester trifecta, having dispatched of both Century and John Marshall in that span. As with any hotly-contested rivalry, however, no matter how you draw it up on paper, the games are never bound by the script.
Living the Dream
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n all, four games, boys and girls varsity and junior varsity were the featured events of the eighth-annual Albert Lea Hockey Day. The day-long celebration of hockey featured youth skills competitions, a hockey mom shootout, an essay contest for the kids and a smorgasbord of raffle drawing offerings. Those walking up to the arena were greeted with and tempted by the season-defying scent of hot dogs and brats grilling at the tailgating tent.
No celebration of hockey in Albert Lea would be complete without Roy Nystrom whose name is eternally synonymous with Tigers’ hockey. So much so, in fact, two years ago the Albert Lea City Arena renamed its Red Rink for Nystrom, the only coach to have guided the Tigers in the building’s history.
Not bad for a guy for who, initially, hadn’t intended to make such a long-term commitment.
“I figured I probably would be here for a few years and then maybe move on,” Nystrom admitted in a 2011 interview. “But the way it turned out, my kids got involved in the school system and it just got to be a situation where they liked it so much and I liked it so much that we just decided to stay and I’ve been here ever since.”
Dubbed by Nystrom the southern-most point in hockey, Albert Lea—a southern Minnesota urban oasis just 10 miles from the Iowa boarder with a wrestling-rich tradition and working-class values— indeed grew on the born-and-raised Iron Ranger and his wife of nearly 48 years, Jan. By the way, not only is Jan Nystrom Roy’s biggest fan, she doubles as his public relations representative, much to her modest husband’s discomfort.
Raised in the hockey haven of Eveleth, Minn., a breeding ground for such hockey icons as John Mayasich, Willard Ikola, and John Mariucci, Nystrom was a multi-sport star growing up but, like most range boys at the time, hockey was his passion.
Although Nystrom excelled as a hockey player, opportunities to play the sport beyond college were not nearly as abundant as they are today, particularly for American-born players, so his coaching aspirations were sparked at a fairly young age with help from an extraordinary source.
“I lived across the street from the rink in Eveleth and I can remember going over and looking out my bedroom window and I saw Johnny Mayasich skating on the rink with his Gopher jersey on,” Nystrom said in 2011. “I must have been about nine or 10-years-old at the time and I got my stuff on and I went over there.
“He and I passed the puck around and he showed me a couple of things. Ever since that moment I guess I just wanted to be a hockey coach. That was my dream all the way through.”
More than six decades later on a sunny Saturday afternoon nearly 300 miles due south of his hometown, Nystrom was still living his dream with his best friend doing the same just feet away on the opposing bench as they had done dozens of times before.
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom the opening draw, the Tigers came out with an intensity the Spartans could not match. Albert Lea’s aggressiveness forced Mayo turnovers and Alex Claassen’s unassisted goal put the Tigers in front less than four minutes into the game.
Just under six minutes later, Claassen shoveled the puck under Mayo goaltender Eric Gibson for a 2-0 lead as he was hauled down from behind by Rochester’s Jake Billings. Albert Lea made the most of the ensuing power play when Lucas Peterson extended the Tigers’ lead to 3-0 near the 11-minute mark.
“That’s how they started against us the first time we played them,” Nystrom said. “We kind of turned it around on them a bit today but it was one of those games where Albert Lea and Mayo get together and they have just a barn-burner of a game.”
The Spartans would bounce back on goals by Austyn Renn and Tommy Hanson to make it 3-2 early in the second as Mayo had Albert Lea on its heels for much of the period. But the Tigers got the back-breaking goal when Andrew Thompson hit Matt Cheever in stride flying through the neutral zone on the weak side and the senior center roofed the puck over Gibson for his seventh of the season.
Thompson’s empty-net goal late in the third capped the scoring as Albert Lea earned a season split with Rochester Mayo thanks in no small part to goaltender Garrett Matz’s 36 saves.
“In hockey you can have a friendly rivalry by playing hard against each other, just playing your game,” Fjelsted said of the hard-fought but not chippy game. “I think that’s what we had today and the game before, just both teams playing their hardest and trying to keep it as clean as you can, but it’s a contact sport.”
No Sign of Quitting
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter sharing a brotherly embrace at center ice at the end of the handshake line, Nystrom and Grosso slowly made their way down the ice toward the open door. A curious reporter asked about their conversation.
“He keeps trying to tell me that, ‘I told my kids its Roy’s birthday so let up a little bit,’” Nystrom said, eliciting laughter from those within earshot.
As the long-time friends chatted after the game you’d have had a hard time deciphering who won if you hadn’t seen the game. Coach Grosso and coach Nystrom had been abandoned somewhere on the ice while Lorne and Roy each spent quality time with his good friend.
The final question for them, although not surprising, begged to be asked: How much longer can you keep this up?
“As long as I enjoy the game and I’ve got good kids to work with and my health is good, which it is, I’ll stick around as long as I can,” Nystrom said. “It’s fun, especially when you win. Now if you’d have asked me if we’d have lost tonight how long am I going to stay around, I might say tomorrow I’m going to turn in my resignation.”
“My cousin’s Lou Nanne and Louie’s been doing the Minnesota state high school [tournament] for what, 48 or 49 [this will be his 50th] years?” Grosso said. “When he quits I’ll quit. My coach from back home (in Sault Ste Marie) is 82-years-old and he’s still working in hockey so, if he’s 82, we’ve got 11 years.”
Nanne said if Grosso is waiting for him to quit he’s got a lot of coaching in his future.
“He’s got a lot of enthusiasm for what he does, he loves what he does and he’s got a terrific personality to work with kids,” Nanne said. “It’s a great friendship, a great relationship and it’s good that they’re still able to compete at that level.”
Fjelsted was asked if the Albert Lea/Mayo rivalry would survive without Grosso and Nystrom and, without hesitation, he said, “Definitely.”
“I think just because the thought of them always being here, they’ve always been here, it’ll always stay with Mayo and Albert Lea.”