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HOCKEY DAY MINNESOTA: Outdoor hockey brings back chilly memories

Spectators line the rink to watch a 1966 Bemidji State hockey scrimmage on a campus rink, with Super John's and Kordel Furniture stores in the background on Bemidji Avenue. (BSU photo)

BEMIDJI -- Long before there was a Sanford Center, or any other heated indoor arena, hockey was played outdoors in Bemidji. While this week’s Hockey Day Minnesota events take the game back outside, some local folks are reflecting on days gone by when stocking caps, long underwear and shovels were required to get the sport going in Bemidji.

Bob Montebello remembers. He taught physical education and coached Bemidji State’s baseball team. But he also served as timekeeper in the early days of Beaver hockey, when games were played outdoors on campus. Montebello rang a cowbell to signal the end of penalties and periods.

“It was so cold around most of those games, I just shivered and prayed for the time to run out -- and I had access to that time running out,” he said kiddingly. “The colder it got the faster the games went.”

Rod Pickett remembers. He was a goalie for St. Cloud State who played here against the Beavers and later refereed local games for two decades after he moved to town and became an insurance agent.

“They started high school hockey the year I got here,” Pickett said. “The only referees were Bill Howe and Dick Kroll, but they didn’t do high school games, so I did all the high school games by myself. Now officials have helmets, but when we were outside and it was cold we wore stocking caps.”

Mike Naylor remembers. He scored the first goal in BHS hockey history as a junior in 1964, but he learned the game on a Lake Irving rink at his family’s home. He and his friends would get home from school and take to the ice, breaking only when his mother rang a dinner bell. Then it was back to the lighted rink until bedtime.

Naylor and his hockey-playing buddies were among those who persuaded BHS to start the hockey program.

“For two years in a row a bunch of us said we need hockey,” said Naylor, who will drop the ceremonial first puck Saturday afternoon when Bemidji’s Lumberjacks face off against Greenway. “A lot of basketball parents and other coaches weren’t for it.”

Jim Smalley remembers. The retired junior high counselor was the Lumberjacks’ first head coach. He put a “first call for hockey” in the school bulletin and gathered hockey hopefuls on Lake Bemidji for practice. He sent the boys out about 200 yards onto the lake and told them to skate as fast as they could toward him, then stop and skate backwards when he blew a whistle.

“It was the strangest practice anybody ever had,” Smalley smiled. “Little did I think of all these kids with speed skates and figure skates. They were all out in front, and when they went to flip around backwards, I don’t think there was one kid standing. They were all tumbling, falling over each other. Now that’s a helluva way to start practice. The only ones who had hockey skates were the ones coming up in the youth program.”

Bob Peters also remembers. The legendary Bemidji State men’s coach, whose teams won 702 games and 13 national championships in 34 seasons, spent his first year out in the cold before the John Glas Fieldhouse was completed.

“Geez, it was cold out there,” Peters said. “One day you had a snowstorm, another day you had melted ice on the edges. And just plain cold.”

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