By John Gilbert
When all of the Western college hockey teams gathered to form a league that soon evolved into the WCHA, "all of them" totaled only seven — Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College. Those same seven schools finished their first decade of the sometimes-stormy 1950s and carried on into the 1960s. No changes, but change was coming through the '60s.
Hockey was also intrinsically popular at the small college level in Minnesota, where UMD — the University of Minnesota Duluth — won six out of seven championships in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, four in a row during the tenure of U.S. Olympic coach Connie Pleban. Ralph Romano took over in the 1959-60 season became athletic director as well, while winning two more MIAC titles, including romps like 17-0 over Macalester, 10-0 over Augsburg, 16-0 over St. Mary's, 17-0 over Concordia, 11-1 over Gustavus Adolphus and 19-0 over Augsburg.
Romano, a goaltender who had moved to Duluth with his family from the Thunder Bay area, was a much better organizer than goalie when he attended UMD, and he led the charge to try to get the program up to Division I stature and into the WCHA. It would be a long and grueling process that spanned four years as a Division I independent, but the Bulldogs were able to play most of the WCHA teams, with some of them visiting the Duluth Curling Club, which was a unique old stone building with curling rinks on the first floor and a tight and tiny hockey arena upstairs, reached by either of two winding staircases.
The Bulldogs had already played some WCHA teams in exhibitions, and the transition time gave Romano the chance to recruit some of the top players from the region, including a half-dozen from Duluth East, which had just won the 1960 Minnesota State High School Tournament, and other prospects from the Iron Range, and Canadian players from Thunder Bay and Fort Frances. Several skilled forwards from East and several defensemen, including Dick Fisher and Bob Hill from East, and Bill McGann from Duluth Central.
His top recruit was a pint-sized 5-foot-6 centerman named Keith (Huffer) Christiansen, who grew up in Fort Frances, Ont., but snuck across the border to attend International Falls High School, where he led the Broncos to the 1962 state title. Whistleblowers succeeded in getting Christiansen ruled ineligible for his senior year, when International Falls lost a heartbreaking overtime final to St. Paul Johnson, which the Broncos made up for by winning three straight state titles. By then, Christiansen was carving out a larger-than-life image at UMD.
"I played at Duluth Denfeld, and Falls beat us 5-1 in a regional game when Huffer was there," recalled Pat Francisco. "We both came to UMD the same year, and at the first practice we ever had, Ralph put me at left wing with Huffer. He never broke that combination up, and I consider myself the luckiest player around because I got to play every game on his wing for four years.
"Everyone always asks about comparing players from then and now, and there are so many great players with size and speed and athleticism nowadays it's hard to compare. But it's a different game now, with a lot of stress on defensive play. In our day, there was a lot speed and skill, but there also was a lot of theater in the games, and Huffer was a showman. He could dial up the crescendo and he always played with great nuance. They don't get any better than he was.
"How many players do you see who can control the whole game? Mark Pavelich could do it, and Scott Perunovich can do it, but there aren't many. And Huffer was the best at it."
Coming a decade after Johnny Mayasich exhibited those qualities at Eveleth, other Minnesota high school players followed with some of those same creative attributes, such as Mike Antonovich, a future Gopher star from Greenway of Coleraine, who grew up watching Christiansen's style in high school and at UMD, and future Gophers like the Broten brothers from Roseau, and Larry Olimb from Warroad, who followed the legendary Henry Boucha at that tiny border town, and future hometown UMD recruits like Phil Hoene at Duluth Cathedral, and Derek Plante at Cloquet. But Christiansen wrote the book from which they all created chapters.
"I wouldn't say Huffer built the Duluth Arena," said Francisco, "but they built the Duluth Arena because of Huffer."
Bruce McLeod came in from Fort Frances when freshmen weren't allowed to play, and he was installed at right wing, in the spot where Mike Tok of Greenway had flourished for three seasons with Christiansen and Francisco. McLeod, who went on to become UMD athletic director and then commissioner of the WCHA, and is now retired and living in Denver, echoed Francisco's comments.
"You can teach players how to play defensively," McLeod said, "but try to teach guys how to score. I used to love to watch him play, and when I was going to school at Fort Frances, we'd always go across the river to watch him play for Falls. I think he was the best player I ever saw, but I'm worried I might be prejudiced."
A slick and clever playmaker, Christiansen led UMD in scoring as a freshman and sophomore as UMD made the transition for the huge jump up to the WCHA. Part of the move hinged on the City of Duluth building a new arena, which was part of an arena-auditorium complex harborside downtown. It was a fantastic deal, $6.1 million for an arena that would seat 5,700, an auditorium for concerts and plays, and enough large conference rooms to hold any size conventions. As it was being built, UMD combined its first season in the WCHA and its last season in the Curling Club in 1965-66, finishing dead last with a 3-15-2 record (7-19-2 overall), while Michigan Tech won the league title over Minnesota and North Dakota — archrivals who tied for second. Christiansen made a definite impression, however, and he stood out as a stocky little guy because he wore oversized hockey breezers up almost to his armpits, so in case he got into a jousting match that might involve a few spears, he wouldn't get hurt. And the way Christiansen played, he never avoided congestion, which led to all sorts of penalty box ventures.
As the decade started, Denver won its second WCHA title in a row, and the NCAA title, then Michigan Tech, Denver, Michigan and North Dakota took turns at the top. As UMD joined to round out the eight-team WCHA, upstart Michigan State won the 1966 NCAA title. But UMD wasted no time proving it belonged in the elite WCHA, and was set to also prove in the 1966-67 season that the Duluth Arena was without question the brightest, flashiest hockey facility in a league filled with aging but colorful rinks.
The season opener brought Minnesota -- already UMD's "Big Brother" arch-rival — to Duluth, for the WCHA opener and the Arena christening, and 5,700 fans filled every seat in anticipation. It was more than just the largest sports event ever in the city's history, it was the stuff of legends.
Huffer Christiansen, a senior now, had hometown senior winger Pat Francisco on his left, and sophomore Bruce McLeod on his right. Christiansen, wearing his usual No. 9, did a hockey impression of the Pied Piper, skating with his unmistakable quick, darting moves to lure increasing numbers of Gophers out of any semblance of position in their frustrated attempts to chase and contain him. Christiansen, toying with the Gophers, then repeatedly fed perfect passes to the goalmouth, for after goal, after goal.
When it was over, Huffer Christiansen had registered six assists and UMD had stunned the proud Gophers 8-1. That epic performance won the hearts of all of Northeastern Minnesota, and six assists still stands as the most assists and points in a single UMD game.
Almost as if still facing initiation, UMD finished that 1966-67 season in sixth place, ahead of only Michigan State and Minnesota, but in Christiansen won the WCHA scoring title, McLeod was second, and Francisco challenging for third. Christiansen, who was team captain, was all-WCHA and All-American, and was named most outstanding player in the WCHA. If there had been a Hobey Baker Award back then, he'd have won that, too.
He also was a forceful leader as captain. He was special, and he knew it. Opponents might get enraged at his ability to turn games around, but instead of shying away from any rough stuff, Christiansen usually initiated it. Doug Woog, a center at Minnesota, recalled years later the first time he played a shift against Christiansen. "We both went into the corner for the puck," Woog said, "and I figured I'd find out how good he was. I reached for the puck and the next thing I knew I had been punched twice in the face and he was gone with the puck."
When Christiansen's line got too cute and plays didn't click, he had no trouble expressing his impatience. McLeod said, "We came to the bench and Huffer said, 'Would you guys quit (bleeping) around out there? Get to the front of the net, put your stick blade on the ice, and I'll do the rest."
And he did. While teammates joked about how he'd bounce pucks in off his wingers, Christiansen recorded exactly two points for each of 23 WCHA games at 15-31—46, expanded to 23-39—62 in all games. His runaway scoring title in league games outdistanced runner-up McLeod's 14-13—27 and Francisco's 12-11—23. For his four years, Christiansen showed 75-121—196 in 102 career games.
Christiansen was captain and primary architect of the 1972 U.S. silver medal team at the Sapporo, Japan, Winter Olympics, then he went on to perform his playmaking magic for two years with the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the old World Hockey Association, where defecting NHL standouts like Dave Keon, Shakey Walton, and former North Stars Wayne Connelly and Ted Hampson could only shake their heads and say they had never seen anyone pass the puck with such deception, precision and shootability. He came back to Duluth with his wife, Evie, whom he had met when he attended International Falls High School, and they raised their kids with total dedication. Christiansen sold Toyotas for years until retiring.
His legacy is assured, however. His No. 9 jersey was the first one to be retired by UMD and while it has been joined by others in recent years, it seemed appropriate that No. 9 stood alone for several decades, above it all. Always affable and an incisive observer of the game, and promoter of UMD, Christiansen died in November 5, 2018, after a shockingly brief bout with lung cancer.
A memorial service was held, appropriately, at the renamed Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, and it attracted an assortment of Christiansen's former teammates and rivals, from high school, from UMD, from the 1972 Olympic team, from the Fighting Saints, and from throughout the Hockey World.
The addition of UMD gave the WCHA eight teams, so the irregular scheduling could be alleviated, but it took until 1973-74 before the league went to 28 game schedules for every team. The '60s continued to go by percentages and a system calculated by how many games a team would play. But the individual standouts were everywhere, and the chance to see them in their traditional old buildings was something special for aging fans.
"Denver was really good, with Keith Magnuson, Cliff Koroll and Jim Wiste," said McLeod. "And Tech had Tony Esposito and Rick Best, who alternated in goal, and great defensemen like Bruce Riutta. North Dakota was also pretty good every year and they always had competitive teams."
Tech also had Lou Angotti among a strong crop of forwards, but their goaltending scene was possibly unexcelled. Tony Esposito went on to stardom in the NHL, but at Tech, he would play one game and Rick Best would be in goal the other, every weekend, up to and through the NCAA finals. Best might also have been a great pro, but he hated flying and actually left the game rather than put up with the torment of air travel.
In 1964-65, Esposito led league goalies with a 2.00 goals-against average and he also was first team All-WCHA, All-America, and was named to the NCAA all-tournament team after leading Tech to the title. But he only played 10 games! In 1965-66, Esposito again led Best by a slim edge with a 2.00 and played 12 games, as Tech won the regular season crown. In 1966-67, Esposito was first-team All-WCHA and led the league with a 2.45 goals-against, playing 11 games, and both goaltenders were named All-America despite neither playing more than a dozen games.
Consider, however, that before Esposito and Best went to Houghton, they had a fellow named Garry Bauman. He was first team All-WCHA in 1962, 1963 and 1964, and All-America in 1963 and '64 and played at least 20 games every year. Michigan Tech won three league titles and three NCAA titles during the '60s, and legendary coach John MacInnes confided that, "pound for pound, "Huffer" Christiansen was the best player I've ever coached against."
Michigan found a superstar in Red Berenson, who won the league scoring title and MVP awards in 1961-62 and was named All-America for the second year in a row before embarking on a long and colorful NHL career that eventually brought him back to Michigan as long-term coach. The Wolverines also had Mel Wakabayashi and Gordon Wilkie, and a monster defenseman in Tom Polonic in that decade. In 1963-64, Michigan won the WCHA title at 12-2 and won the NCAA title at 24-4-1, and Al Renfrew was named coach of the year, with Gary Butler and Polonic named All-America. When Berenson was named All-America in 1962, he and Michigan State goaltender John Chandik were outnumbered by Henry Akervall, Elov Seger, Lou Angotti and Jerry Sullivan — all from Michigan Tech's league and NCAA champs. Tech won the NCAA final 7-1 over Clarkson, fittingly in Utica, N.Y.
Minnesota had Lou Nanne, a defenseman who was a rare Canadian recruited by John Mariucci, was the first defenseman to win a league scoring title (9-23–32) and was named All-American. Speedy forward Gary Gambucci was an All-American who also advanced from the WCHA to the NHL. Murray McLachlan, an outstanding goaltender from Toronto, came to Minnesota under coach Glen Sonmor, and he was sophomore of the year in the league in 1967-68 and the WCHA most valuable player as a junior when a youthful Gopher team finished fifth. McLachlan's cool and poise earned him Gopher MVP honors all three years he played, and he was twice All-WCHA, and both all-league and All-American in 1969-70, when he backstopped the Gophers to a surprising league title at 18-8 — sparked by a hustling, scrambling and fearless freshman named Mike Antonovich, plus four future 1972 U.S Olympic silver medalists, Craig Sarner, defensemen Frank Sanders, Bruce McIntosh and All-American Wally Olds. The Gophers performance earned coach of the year for Sonmor in that 1969-70 season.
North Dakota's wellspring of talent started forming national powerhouse tendencies under R.H. Bob Peters, who left after two big seasons to guide Bemidji State to Division II championships, and Bill Selman, who directed the Sioux to the upper reaches of the league. Standouts such as Dennis Hextall, Terry Casey, Bob Munro, Dave Kartio, Jerry Lafond, and rock-solid defensemen such as Don Ross. Terry Abram and John Marks, plus the often-spectacular goaltending of Mike (Lefty) Curran, all accumulated honors for the Fighting Sioux. They who won league titles in 1965, under Peters, and 1967, under Selman. Curran, from International Falls, was a once-and-future teammate of Keith (Huffer) Christiansen, as they reconvened to lead the U.S. Olympic team to silver in 1972, and were teammates again with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, and Curran provided a strong push for Christiansen's induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Selman went from Grand Forks to Duluth to take over the UMD program from Ralph Romano for the last two seasons of the decade, finding standout defensemen like All-America Ron Busniuk and Rick Newell already in place. He recruited some star Canadian forwards like Murray Keogan and Walt Ledingham, both of whom became All-Americans, and hometown star Phil Hoene from an outstanding program at Duluth Cathedral.
Amo Bessone pulled off one of the biggest coups in college hockey history when he marshalled his Spartans from a sixth-place, 9-11 league season for a run at the playoffs. They upset Michigan 3-2 in the first round of WCHA playoffs, then knocked off league champion Michigan Tech 4-3 in the second round to gain the final four. The NCAA tournament was held in Minneapolis, and Michigan State defeated Boston University 2-1 in the semifinals, while Clarkson surprised Denver 4-3, then the Spartans hammered Clarkson 6-1 for the title. Gaye Cooley, Michigan State' goalie, was named all-tournament and was joined by teammates Don Heaphy on defense and forwards Mike Coppo and Brian McAndrew. Cooley was named outstanding player of the tournament. The big gun for the Spartans was Doug Volmar, who had, without a doubt, the hardest shot in the WCHA at that time. He led the league in scoring with 18-23–41 in 20 games and provided an obvious threat as Michigan State became the only team to finish below .500 and win a national title.
To end the decade, Colorado College made a resurgence behind the explosive scoring of Bob Collyard, a speedster from Hibbing, Minn., who was all-WCHA three years in a row and All-America in two of them, 1969 and 1970.
That 1960s decade ended with a lot of significant happenings for the WCHA, and one of the biggest was the addition of a ninth team, the University of Wisconsin. The Badgers had hired Bob Johnson, a Minneapolis native and Gopher player under John Mariucci, from Colorado College. Almost immediately he became forever known as "Badger Bob" Johnson, and he organized a powerhouse team to immediately challenge once attaining the WCHA. The rivalry between Johnson and Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor was well in place for their "Border Battles" when Wisconsin entered in 1969-70, and was heightened the year before, because Sonmor had the WCHA championship in his sights, and All-America goaltender Murray McLachlan in the nets. McLachlan was voted league MVP both his junior and senior years, as well as All-WCHA, and he added All-America to his trophy case in the 1969-70 season.
Sonmor always sympathized with Ron Docken, whose destiny was to be all-day back-up to McLachlan for three years. "His only mistake," Sonmor would say, "was being born the same year as McLachlan." Sonmor had taken his team to Madison in previous years, much as his mentor, John Mariucci would do to inspire a team to improve its program, and the 1968-69 season would be more of the same, with Johnson behind the Wisconsin bench. McLachlan and the Gophers had beaten the Badgers 5-1 early in the season, and the teams tied 3-3 at the Big Ten Tournament, held at Minnesota's Williams Arena in December.
Minnesota was scheduled to go to Madison's new Dane County Coliseum to play Wisconsin again, on a Wednesday, January 8, 1969, in the thick of the league race. Minnesota had split with North Dakota on the previous weekend, January 3-4, losing 3-2 and winning 5-2, and were scheduled to face the Fighting Sioux again, in Grand Forks, the following weekend, January 10-11. That made the exhibition game at Wisconsin a nuisance for the Gophers, but Sonmor took his contending team on the bus trip. It was the perfect opportunity to give McLachlan the night off and give the loyal and eager Docken the start in goal. Badger Bob, an outstanding coach and a master manipulator, leaked the news to a Madison columnist, who promptly wrote an inflammatory column ridiculing Minnesota for insulting the Badgers by holding out some regulars, including McLachlan. The big crowd, enjoying on-site beer at the Dane County Coliseum, was stirred to a rowdy and hostile pitch, and the inspired Badgers blasted the Gophers 7-3.
Sonmor was incensed, and he, and his assistant, Herb Brooks, were thrust into a rivalry that only grew in intensity over the next decade and beyond. The football and basketball games between the two schools paled in comparison, right up to the 21st century.
Wisconsin entered the WCHA in 1969-70, finishing fourth, at 12-10, as Minnesota won the WCHA at 18-8 behind McLachlan. But the Gophers lost 6-5 to Michigan Tech in the Duluth Regional, the day after knocking off UMD 3-2 in overtime, while the Badgers beat Michigan 2-1 and upset Denver 3-2 in the West Regional at Denver, and they went to the final four where they beat Michigan Tech 6-5 in the third-place game. All of that merely enhanced the blossoming of one of the most intense rivalries in the WCHA and in all of college sports.
Still, the decade of the '60s can still best be highlighted by the brilliant plays of a number of quick, clever playmaking centers — such as Collyard at CC, Bob Munro and Terry Casey at North Dakota, Vic Venasky at Denver, Gary Gambucci, Mike Antonovich and Doug Woog at Minnesota, and Murray Heatley at Wisconsin. But the template for all the success of creative playmaking centermen was established by Keith (Huffer) Christiansen at UMD.
Bruce McLeod, now living in Denver as the retired commissioner of the WCHA, and former athletic director and Christiansen's right wing at UMD, said his perspective of his impact on UMD's hockey history was revised a few years ago when he ran into Tony Esposito at a hockey function.
"Tony asked me if I ever played hockey and I told him I did, and he asked where I played," McLeod said. "I told him I played for Duluth. Esposito said, 'Duluth! You played for Duluth? … What was the name of that little (bleep)er who used to play for them?'
"That shows how much of an impact I made. He remembered Huffer after all these years in the NHL, but he didn't even know I played against him."
On the other wing, Pat Francisco mused about his four years on Christiansen's wing, and the skill blended with showmanship, charisma, and the ability to control the nuances that turn normal circumstances into success. Francisco said, simply, "We always knew we were going to score."