The Magically Hipp
Eveleth’s Hippodrome celebrates 100 years of hockey memories
The Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues played the official NHL Winter Classic game on New Year’s night at Target Field’s baseball stadium, in what was supposed to rekindle colorful memories of when Minnesota kids grew up playing hockey on outdoor rinks and ponds. With official predictions for temperatures of 10 below zero at the downtown Minneapolis ballpark, however, a lot of the romance and color of playing outside were yearning to fly south for the winter.Willard Ikola, who retired as the iconic coach of Edina High School after 33 years and eight state championships, retains vivid memories of playing outdoors, growing up as a goaltender in Eveleth, Minnesota, a small but iron-ore-rich town on the Iron Range, 60 miles north of Duluth. Reminiscing about playing games on well-kept outdoor rinks with Ike is a fascinating study of history, but he quickly points out that a key reason the Eveleth Golden Bears dominated the early years of the state hockey tournament was that they had the luxury of playing at the Eveleth Hippodrome.
The memories remain vivid to all those who have ever played hockey outdoors, but Ikola points out that being able to escape the cold and play in one of the state’s first indoor hockey arenas was a huge influence. “It was a tremendous advantage to be able to play indoors,” Ikola said. “I don’t remember ever losing a game at the Hip.”Ikola grew up in Eveleth in the 1940s, and even today he looks back fondly of being a kid, playing in the Eveleth Hippodrome. It has endured through decades of historic teams and memorable games. There are a lot of good reasons why hockey history books read a lot like “Eveleth, and Everybody Else.” A small but wealthy mining town on the Iron Range, Eveleth had iron ore mines right within the city limits, luring workers from all over the country, and world, for the good-paying jobs in the open-pit mines. If some of them were invited because they were good hockey players, or had sons who were, so much the better to bolster the area’s semi-pro teams to entertain the miners in post-World War II Eveleth. But the biggest reason for Eveleth’s early hockey success was that solid, substantial building known as “The Hip,” a brick fortress that is the Eveleth Hippodrome, built just a block down the hill from the bars and businesses of downtown Eveleth. It opened its doors for the city’s skaters and hockey players exactly 100 years ago — Jan. 1, 1922 — and links Eveleth’s rich hockey history from what is an entirely different world in January of 2022. “The Hip was just down the street from the high school, and I lived about three blocks up the hill,” Ikola recalled. “Every elementary school had a real nice outdoor rink. But when we had the chance to play at the Hip, almost everybody else was playing their games outdoors.”
If you doubt that an indoor rink could have that much influence on a high school program, consider that the first Minnesota state high school hockey tournament was in 1945, and Eveleth earned the right to represent Region 7 in all of the first 12 years of the tournament. Eveleth High School won the first tournament, in 1945, with an 11-0 record, climaxed by a 4-3 championship game victory over Thief River Falls at the St. Paul Auditorium. Eveleth took third place in the second tournament, in 1946, and two years later the Golden Bears won the first of four consecutive undefeated state championships — in 1948, ’49, ’50, and ’51. Advancing to play in the first 12 state tournaments, winning five of the first seven — that’s domination.After that, other towns, communities and suburbs started building arenas and striving to catch up to the standard that Eveleth set in those first dozen state tournaments. Those years also were a magical time for Willard Ikola to come along as a goaltender, too, because while John Mariucci had gone from Eveleth to the University of Minnesota and on to the Chicago Blackhawks, Eveleth was turning out a stream of legendary goaltenders. Frankie Brimsek, Mike Karakas and Sam LoPresti all made it from Eveleth to the NHL at about the same time. Imagine only six teams in the NHL, and three of them — half the league — had goaltenders from Eveleth. “Frankie Brimsek was known as ‘Mr. Zero’ and I idolized him. I had a big picture of him in my room,” Ikola said. “He and Karakas played against each other, and Sam LoPresti joined Mariucci with the Blackhawks, so they were all in the NHL at the same time.” Maybe as important to Ike was that his older brother, Roy, also played ahead of him. “My brother Roy was a goalie too and he played on the 1945 Eveleth team that won the first state tournament,” Ikola said. “He later played goalie at Colorado College for the team that won the first NCAA tournament.” For Ike, an older brother who was a goaltender also meant access to his big brother’s hand-me-down goalie equipment. “I played for the Jackson Street Wildcats,” Ike said. “Every neighborhood had an outdoor rink and a youth team. There were no coaches, we didn’t have jerseys, and there weren’t many hockey gloves. But every Saturday morning, they let the youth teams play in the Hip. It was colder than hell, and natural ice, of course, but the lobby was warm.
“When we were playing Saturday at the Hip, we’d look up and see a guy sitting up in the corner. It was Cliff Thompson, who had come to town to be a phy-ed teacher, and to coach baseball. He ended up coaching the hockey team, too, in boots. When we saw him, somebody would say, ‘Coach is here,’ and everybody picked up the pace, the passes were all tape-to-tape. We all wanted to make a good impression.”Ikola also was blessed with exceptional teammates during his high school years. John Matchefts was a year older, and the legendary John Mayasich was a year younger. And after the long string of great goaltenders, Ike got another break when Ron Drobnik, who played with Ike’s older brother on the team that won the first state tournament, was followed by followed a gap down to Ike, who was an eighth-grader. “Cliff Thompson asked me if I’d practice with the team,” said Ikola. “It helped me a lot to get to play with and against older players. I did that on those Saturday mornings at the Hip too. I had the goalie equipment, so if I got into the rink, I could play against the older guys. I’d bring a sandwich and play from morning until dark.” Ikola also remembers focusing a little extra in practices and warm-ups to not allow his teammates to score on him. “I always thought that since we had a lot of one-sided games, I might not have many important saves, so it might impress somebody if I could keep Matchefts and Mayasich from scoring on me,” he said. The likes of state tournament and Gopher record-holder John Mayasich, and former Michigan standout John Matchefts, highlighted those Eveleth teams in the early state tournament years, right up through the late Mark Pavelich, who was an All-America at UMD and a star for the 1980 Miracle on Ice Team USA that won the gold medal at the Lake Placid Olympics, plus Doug Palazarri, who became an /All-America at Colorado College and later was an executive at USA Hockey and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Others included Wally Grant, Pat Finnegan, and brothers Dave and Gus Hendrickson, who went off to play for Amo Bessone at Michigan State before retiring to coach high school hockey on the Range. Craig Homola was captain at Vermont before coming home to coach the Golden Bears. Then there was the unending string of exceptional goaltenders, including Pete LoPresti, son of Sam, who went on to star at Denver University and then played several years with the home state Minnesota North Stars. They all went their separate ways, but they all had one thing in common — playing their most formative years at the Hip, which became the citadel for hockey in the state, and the entire country. It stands as solid and secure as ever, just down the hill a block from what used to be Mitch’s Bar, and Tuna’s, where the most intense fans might run up between periods for a couple beers and to analyze if the Golden Bears coach was doing OK, before returning to the Hip.
In most arenas, the boards are fastened at the bottom so when somebody gets checked into them, the boards can flex up to a foot or so to absorb the impact. At the Hippodrome, those boards were sunk into concrete and were as solid as running into the brick wall itself. The huge photos reproduced on the walls of the lobby are reminiscent of the classic old facilities like the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens, but the biggest difference is that the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs have moved into flashy new arenas. The Hippodrome stands alone, still in use, although the Eveleth and Virginia schools and athletic programs have merged, along with the various smaller towns around, to form the Rock Ridge Wolverines. Quite a change for the kids from such storied rivals as Eveleth and Virginia, as time and enrollment numbers have changed with the times.“Hibbing was about the only team we played in high school that had an indoor rink,” Ikola said. “We’d play Virginia, Grand Rapids, International Falls and other Range teams, and we’d go up to play Roseau and Warroad. None of them had arenas, so they liked to come to Eveleth and play at the Hip. Up at Roseau and Warroad, it was so cold the referees couldn’t use whistles because they’d freeze up, so they had little bells they’d ring for an offside or penalty.” Ikola set the state tournament record for shutouts with five, recording one in 1947, two in 1949 and two in 1950, during those undefeated state title seasons.That showed a different kind of domination for Eveleth goalies, because Ike’s predecessor, Ron Drobnick, is assured of retaining the all-time tournament record he set in the first tournament, in 1945, of fewest saves in a period, none. And he did it twice in the same game, during which he set the record for fewest saves in a game, one.
Years later, Ikola turned down a chance to play for John Mariucci at Minnesota because the Gophers didn’t offer scholarships and Ikola said his family couldn’t afford to send him there. Vic Heiliger became the new coach at Michigan and recruited Johnny Matchefts from Eveleth, which led to him also recruiting Ikola, who became a two-time All-America and won two championships for the Wolverines in 1952 and 1953 — the formative years of the NCAA tournament. Mariucci held no grudge, and put Ikola on the 1956 U.S. team he coached at the Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy, and later helped Ikola get the coaching job at Edina.But after all his travels led Ikola back to coach at Edina, he never forgot his Iron Range roots. “I always loved to take my Edina teams back up there to play,” Ikola said. “We didn’t have any Lake Conference games over Christmas vacation, so I’d take the team, and the JV, and the Bantams and Peewees and we’d all go up there and play.” Maybe being exposed to games in the Hip, where they could see how important hockey was to the Eveleth kids, wore off in a positive direction for the Edina Hornets, too. Laurie Ikola, Willard’s wife since the two were students at the University of Michigan, would go on those trips, of course, and she remembered after the game going to visit Ike’s mother at the home where he grew up. “We won the game, and we were so excited,” Laurie said. “Ike’s mom said, ‘Did you see, after the game, when Pastor Rohaniemi went down and shook Willard’s hand, right in front of everybody?’ She thought that was more important than the game.” Maybe the Rock Ridge Wolverines will work their way up to deserving a similar place in hockey history. But as legends go, nothing but possibly the Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens can approach the stature of the Eveleth Hippodrome.