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Buckeyes founder returns to roots at Holiday Classic

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University of North Dakota associate professor John Vitton plans to sit in Ralph Engelstad Arena tonight and watch an Ohio State men's hockey program that he built from scratch 53 years ago.

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The program was his idea - one that he came up with while sitting in a Columbus bar in 1955. He's the one who found the players - largely by flipping through the school's directory and calling people from Canada or American hockey hot beds in hopes that they had played the game before. He scheduled the games and sought school support.

For eight years, the program was sustained through grassroot efforts. Vitton was the ringleader for the first two. The school began sponsoring the program in 1963.

By then, Vitton had been deployed as a member of the U.S. Air Force. But his efforts didn't go ignored. An article that appeared in Hockey Magazine in 1964 - a year after Ohio State started sponsoring the hockey program - praised Vitton for his work.

"(He) contributed an astounding amount of time, effort and money to overcome such formidable obstacles as no college ice facilities, no financial support from the institution, no equipment, no coaching and nobody caring whether (Vitton) succeeded or not," the article stated.

A much more evolved Ohio State program will visit Ralph Engelstad Arena for the first time ever this weekend as part of the Subway Holiday Classic. The Buckeyes will take on UND (7:37 tonight) and Bemidji State (4:07 p.m. Saturday).

Vitton, who grew up in Michigan's upper peninsula and now works in the management department at UND, can recall nearly all of the details of the program's beginning. He also has kept detailed records, including scheduling letters and newspaper articles.

He recalls how the first-ever club game in 1956 was delayed because Ohio State's goalie didn't have goalie pads. "The Troy Bruin International League hockey team not only furnished the pads that allowed the game to commence, but also provided ice time without charge," Vitton said.

He remembers wearing Ohio State football jerseys, provided by men's basketball coach Floyd Stahl.

Vitton also recalls scoring the program's first goal. "Chuck Baillie and I rushed up the ice on a breakaway. He pulled the goalie over to the post and passed it to me. I had a wide open net. I could have put it in with a dustpan."

Ohio State played four games during the first season and eight the next. The number of games gradually increased until the Buckeyes were playing 20 in 1966-67. They joined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in the 1970s.

Vitton has been in Grand Forks for years, continuing to stay involved in hockey. He and Serge Gambucci evaluated officials at the old Ralph Engelstad Arena for a number of years.

"I always sat up in the press box at those games," he said.

Tonight, he's planning to find a spot in the stands, though, and watch and his old program that has grown along with the sport of college hockey.

This weekend's action will start with a rematch from the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four semifinals - Miami-Ohio vs. Bemidji State.

Miami knocked Bemidji State out with a 4-1 decision, ending the Beavers' Cinderella run.

"That's crazy how that worked out, isn't it?" Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. "Obviously, they were a well-balanced hockey team. They're only going to be better this year. We know we're going to have our hands full."

Six of the seven players who tallied points in that game for the RedHawks are still on the squad this season. So is goalie Cody Reichard, who held Bemidji State to one goal on 25 shots.

"We lost a lot more than they did," Serratore said.

One men's hockey ticket also gets fans into both the afternoon matinee and the night game at the Subway Holiday Classic in Ralph Engelstad Arena. As of Thursday, tickets were still available for all events.

UND freshman forward Mike Cichy was the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's rookie of the week after his first two college hockey games. Since then, Cichy hasn't scored. But last week in Denver, the New Hartford, Conn., native was a dynamic presence.

"Mike just needs a couple of things to go right for him offensively," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "(Last) Friday night, he had three great scoring chances. He set up a great scoring opportunity for Corban Knight that went off the post and out.

"I thought he played quick. I thought he played with confidence and played with good intensity every time he was on the ice. He has to keep doing that. If he does, eventually, he'll get a bounce or two to go his way. That will loosen him up a little more and springboard him to bigger or better things."

Miami student manager Brendan Burke, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, gained international attention this week after an ESPN.com story revealed he is gay. He informed Miami's players and coaches last April.

Miami coach Enrico Blasi told Brendan that it is a blessing to have him as part of the Miami hockey program and the rest of the players and coaches shrugged off the announcement like it was no big deal.

Burke's father has been supportive of both his son and Blasi.

"Can a gay man advance in professional hockey?" Brian Burke said to ESPN.com. "He can if he works for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or Miami University hockey. God bless Rico Blasi. And I am certain these two organizations are not alone.

"I wish this burden would fall on someone else's shoulders, not Brendan's. Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe. I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him."

All four men's hockey games will be available on webcast at FightingSioux.com. Fighting Sioux Sports Network will broadcast only the Sioux games.

Locally in Bemidji, the games can be heard on the radio on The Mix 103.7 FM.

Brad E. Schlossman is a sports reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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