By John Gilbert
Back in the 1954-55 season of the fledgling Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Denver brought its powerhouse team to Williams Arena in Minneapolis to face the Minnesota Gophers. With the game on the line, the Gophers were called for two penalties. Out to challenge the potent Pioneer power play came John Mayasich.
Mayasich was from Eveleth, Minnesota, where his scoring had powered Eveleth High School to four straight Minnesota state hockey championships, and he led the Gophers in scoring all four years at Minnesota, setting scoring records that will remain forever. When the puck was dropped for Denver's power play, Mayasich seized possession and circled back, then maneuvered out to the neutral zone, skating in circles and patterns of his own creation, as Denver skaters pursued him, with ever-increasing frustration and determination.
Mayasich looked like he was calmly rink-ratting on a frozen lake back home in Eveleth, as he stickhandled smoothly into the Denver zone, deking one way and then the other, using deft moves and his amazing hockey sense to outfox and escape every Pioneer who came near. Then he'd circle back to center ice, pretty well covering the whole surface. He never lost possession of the puck, exhausting Denver's entire two-man advantage.
The Gophers drew big crowds of hockey purists back in those days to their 7,000 seat quonset, and with the evolving hostility between the Canadian-dominated Pioneers and the all-Minnesota-bred Gophers, virtually all the fans in the seats still claim Mayasich is the greatest American hockey player to ever lace up skates.
Mayasich still lives in his hometown of Eveleth, Minnesota, where the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame is located. He claims he can't recall those exact details of his stick-handling exhibition, because "I'll be 88 on my next birthday," he said in November of 2020, meaning he has earned the right to not remember whatever he chooses. And, there were so many incredible highlights in Mayasich's playing career that a computer would have trouble keeping track.
But for the latest generation of hockey fans, who think that statistics are all that matter, that story goes beyond the goals and assists to explain Mayasich's exploits during the 1950s, the decade when the WCHA came into existence.
A former neighbor and still a close friend of Mayasich is Paul Lobato, who was a witness, and recalls the incident well. "I'm four years younger than John, and I played for Eveleth High School when John was with the Gophers. In those days, they'd bring in high school teams to play a preliminary game, and we got invited," Lobato said.
John Mariucci, another legend from Eveleth, was coaching Minnesota, and Denver also had a couple of Eveleth players. "We were sitting up in the rafters, but we didn't care," Lobato said. "We were all standing, and we were thrilled to be there. When John got the puck on that penalty kill and was hanging onto it, he wasn't racing up and down the ice with blazing speed, but he was so clever he could make Denver guys go right by him with head and shoulder dekes. By the time the penalty was up, the whole arena was standing to give him a standing ovation."
For those consumed with stats, consider that as a freshman in 1951-52, Mayasich scored 32 goals, 30 assists for 62 points in 26 games; as a sophomore, he scored 42-36—78 in 27 games; as a junior, 29-49—78; and in 1954-55, as a senior, he had 41-39—80 in 30 games. The totals are 144 goals, 154 assists, for 298 points in 111 games. The Gophers won league championships — the WIHL in those days — in both 1953 and 1954, and went on to the NCAA final game both years.
There were also a couple of Eveleth players on the Denver team, and Michigan, the dominant team of the first decade of league play, was led by John Matchefts, an explosive scorer, also from Eveleth, and a goaltender named Willard Ikola, who never lost a game in three years in the nets at Eveleth High School, and after sitting out his freshman season at Michigan, as the rules demanded, Ike played every game but one in his other three seasons at Michigan. The Wolverines were 9-3, tied for second in league games, and 22-4 overall in 1951-52; Ike led the league with a 2.66 goals-against average and was most valuable player when the Wolverines won the NCAA. In 1952-53, Ikola led Michigan to a 12-4 league record and 17-7 overall mark, with another NCAA trophy and Ike getting named All-America. In 1953-54, Ike and Michigan wee 12-3-1 in league play and 15-6-2 over-all.
For good measure, Ikola went to Cortina, Italy, with the U.S. Olympic team, coached by Mariucci, and was named outstanding goalie of the Olympic Games after stoning Canada to win the Silver Medal. Mayasich was the U.S. standout up front.
"Johnny Matchefts was one year older than I was," Ikola said, "and Johnny Mayasich was one year younger."
Mayasich said, "Can you imagine how much better we got, having to try to score on a goalie like Ike in high school? On the other hand, Ike got so good by having to try to stop some pretty good scorers all through high school."
There were about a half-dozen Eveleth skaters playing for Michigan in the days when Ikola and Matchefts were there, and later, a pair of brothers from Eveleth, Dave and Gus Hendrickson, were recruited to play at Michigan State by Amp Bessone and later became legendary Iron Range coaches, Dave at Virginia, and Gus at Grand Rapids, where both of them groomed dozens of players for the WCHA.
The first decade of the WCHA was also the first decade when college hockey blossomed into an NCAA national tournament sport, and like the first stage of a space rocket, Mariucci and Mayasich and the small Iron Range town of Eveleth provided the initial thrust that sent the sport into its own orbit, riding on the coattails of programs like Michigan, coached by Vic Heyliger, and Minnesota, after John Mariucci took over.
The Western teams were all loosely bunched, as were the Eastern colleges, and at the end of their seasons, coaches would vote on the two best from the east and west to meet at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs to play a national tournament. Both sides had their pride, but the Western teams soon gained dominance.
Which is to say: Michigan!
The Wolverines had built a successful program even before the WCHA was organized, beating Dartmouth to win the 1948 national title and finishing third in 1949 when Boston College won. Colorado College, another West team, won the crown on home-ice in 1950, with Michigan again taking third. In 1951, the Western teams organized into the MIHL — the Midwest Intercollegiate Hockey League, an early forerunner of the WCHA — and it later became the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League (WIHL) in 1952-53.
In strictly league play, starting with the MIHL, Colorado College won the title in the 1951-52 season, and Minnesota won in 1952-53, then came the switch to the WIHL, where Mariucci's Minnesota team repeated as champs in 1953-54, followed by Colorado College in 1954-55, Michigan in '55-56, CC in '56-57, and a first-place tie between Denver and North Dakota for the '57-58 title. A huge rift in league stability led to the teams not playing in an official league during the 1958-59 season, after which the Western teams all gathered and agreed to play an unbalanced schedule for 1959-60, with Denver claiming the league title.
It didn't matter what the name of the league was, because Michigan kept winning national championships, representing the West, in 1951, '52, and '53, and taking third in 1954, then winning the NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, before taking second to Colorado College in a stunning 13-6 final against CC in 1957. That meant in the first 10 NCAA tournaments, Michigan won six of them and finished second once and third in the other three.
CC was a prime national threat early in the '50s, too, with Ron Hartwell (40-27—67 in 23 games) and Tony Frasca leading to the league title in 1951-52, and the Gophers getting league leading goaltending from Jim Mattson to support three-year league scoring champion Mayasich, and all-west defenseman Ken Yackel. When Mattson finished his glowing career, Jack McCartan stepped in for more All-America goaltending.
McCartan, Yackel and Mayasich gave the Gophers strength, and North Dakota's depth included forwards like Reg Morelli, Bill Reichert, Ben Cherski and defenseman Bill Steenson. Other standouts of the decade were Denver's Bill Masterton and defenseman Marty Howe, CC's Bill (Red) Hay, Michigan Tech's Lou Angotti and Paul Coppo, and Michigan's Mel Wakabayashi and Matchefts. Of course, legendary coaches like Murray Armstrong at Denver and John MacInnes at Michigan Tech would have more than their share of moments in the spotlight of success, following acts like Heyliger and Mariucci.
The WIHL's stormy breakup in 1958 came after Minnesota, with some support from the Michigan schools, accused Denver, North Dakota and Colorado College of recruiting overage Canadian players who had finished junior hockey eligibility at age 20 and then became 21-year-old freshmen at those WCHA schools. Mariucci, who had been a rugged and iconic star defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks, became just as iconic as a coach at Minnesota, taking the reins in 1952 and inspiring the Gophers to the league titles in his first two seasons, and all the way to the NCAA tournament finals both years.
It was painful to lose the 1953 title to arch-rival Michigan, and possibly worse to lose the final 5-4 in overtime to RPI in 1954.
In Mariucci's legacy, however, is that he led the crusade to recruit 18-year-olds from Minnesota high schools, and while being younger and less experienced, they developed a charisma and culture that lifted Minnesota to the pinnacle of U.S. hockey development, leading directly to such achievements as the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic gold medal won by a collection of mostly Minnesota college kids and coached by Herb Brooks, a Mariucci disciple. Amid the hassle over recruiting, Mariucci was blamed for the breakup, although he was only seeking a level playing field for fairness to develop younger American players, although he certainly didn't disagree when his feisty athletic director, Marsh Ryman, refused to schedule Denver.
While the WIHL is considered in WCHA records, the actual WCHA wasn't born until the 1959-60 season, after a one-year interruption, where Western teams played without league affiliation. North Dakota beat Michigan State 4-3 in overtime in the national final that year, anyway. The WCHA skirted the recruiting controversy by starting as a flexible operation where teams may or may not play each other and standings would be decided on a convoluted point system based on percentage. Denver concluded the 1950s by beating Michigan Tech in the 1960 final, and started the '60s off by winning its second title in a row under Murray Armstrong.
If that got the WCHA all back in order to start the 1960s, the old days, dominated by Michigan, was the stuff of legend. Part of it was the great relationship of the coaches, particularly Heyliger and Mariucci in the early part of the '50s, was where Eveleth figured mightily.
After Heyliger finished playing, he coached the University of Illinois, which made a short-lived attempt at a program. When World War II got serious, Illinois lost its arena and its program. Heyliger, a slim, articulate fellow with a cigar almost as long as his forearm, was hired to coach hockey at Michigan. While at Illinois, he wound up with a few players from Eveleth on his team. He had some scholarship money, which Minnesota lacked, so he enticed John Matchefts, a speedy, hard-shooting forward, to leave Eveleth and come to Ann Arbor. A year later, he landed a goaltender named Willard Ikola.
With other Eveleth skaters, such as Pat Finnegan, Neil Celley, Clem Cossalter and a couple others, Michigan was a welcoming home for Ikola, who went on to hall-of-fame coaching for 33 years at Edina High School in Minnesota, and Matchefts, who coached back at Eveleth. and at Colorado College and Air Force Academy.
If Heyliger ever had an edge in his friendly rivalry with John Mariucci, it might have come down to another legend among the stalwart buddies. In the 1953 NCAA tournament, Minnesota, after winning the WIHL regular-season title, beat RPI 3-2 in the first NCAA semifinal. The next night, Mariucci came to the rink to watch Michigan beat Boston University. After the game, the legend goes, Mariucci came down to the Michigan locker room, and Heyliger let him in. Maroosh told the Wolverines how well they'd played but warned them it would be a lot tougher the next night — against Minnesota in the final. He primarily wanted to heckle Michigan's Eveleth guys, whom he forever called "turncoats" for leaving Minnesota, so he mentioned that they wouldn't find success against Minnesota, and Ikola wouldn't fare well against the Gopher scorers. Then he left the room
Heyliger didn't say a word, and the Wolverines were in a bit of shock. The next night, before the game, Heyliger came into the room and said he was not going to give the Wolverines any pep talk. "Mariucci did that, last night," he said.
If that sounds more like a legend than fact, when asked about it, Ikola acknowledged that he remembered the incident, and can still chuckle about it, because Michigan hit the ice flying, and blasted the Gophers 7-3.
That delightful exchange is part of the WCHA's rich lore, and it — plus the Wolverines six national titles — are a big part of the WCHA's first decade.