BEMIDJI -- Hockey is a way of life in Minnesota, and Bemidji is no exception. The Lumberjacks have Jim Smalley to thank for that.
Smalley began the Bemidji High School boys hockey program in 1963, and, in turn, formally introduced a basketball town to a new love.
“He opened up more opportunities for more people to participate in athletics,” said Mike Naylor, a member of the inaugural team and the program’s first-ever goal scorer. “Anytime a guy like Smalley could open up more opportunities for more people to get involved, it was a really good thing.”
Smalley died on Monday from natural causes. He was 92.
Smalley’s impact, however, will continue to live on. He coached BHS for 10 seasons, through the 1972-73 campaign, and compiled a career record of 121-92-8. A Duluth Denfeld High School graduate and a World War II veteran, Smalley later put down roots in Bemidji and worked as a junior high guidance counselor.
“We always had an (end-of-year) exit talk with the guidance counselor about things in the school,” Naylor said. “One of the questions he asked was, ‘What does this school need?’ And, of course, there was a bunch of us who said, ‘A hockey team.’ And he was the guy who started it.”
Smalley himself played in high school for the Hunters, but he first joined Bun Fortier’s basketball coaching staff and Red Wilson’s football staff for the Jacks. Since he had a background in hockey, though, he was asked to lead Bemidji’s jumpstart program in its infancy.
“Bun made a statement, and I really respected him for it,” Smalley told the Pioneer in 2019. “He said, ‘If we believe athletics are good for kids growing up, if we have another sport that will allow more kids to experience it, how can that be wrong?’”
The Jacks reached the state tournament twice in the Smalley era, which came in his final two seasons. Naylor, however, remembers more than final scores or region championships.
“He was definitely a positive influence. He ran the team very fairly,” Naylor said. “He taught me respect for the game, No. 1, and respect for the other team. … It was a tough fight in the meantime, but at the end, it was just a game. I think he instilled that in a lot of us.”
Nearly 60 years later, opening faceoffs in Bemidji are still a common occurrence wherever there’s ice to be found. It’s the kind of culture Naylor said Smalley envisioned.
“We had a ragtag, meet-at-the-rink team (before the high school program began),” Naylor said. “There were a lot of people involved in that, a lot of parents. … It was pretty much just a local deal on Saturdays at the rink outdoors. I think Smalley saw that the possibilities were there to have a team in working order fairly quickly. Once realizing that, he took advantage.”