Bill Kennedy was the coach at Cloquet High School and was pushing hard for an indoor ice sheet to develop the city's hockey program. The residents went to the polls in the late '60s and voted against the bond issue.
"All the hockey guys were at the bar that night, drinking too much and complaining about the locals turning down the arena,'' Bruce Plante said. "Kennedy finally said, 'The heck with 'em, we'll build it ourselves.' And the rest of us said, 'Yeah, yeah. You're right, Bill. We'll build it ourselves.'''
Plante paused and added: "Then we all woke up the next morning with our hangovers, and found out that Bill meant it.''
Cloquet wound up with a wooden barn for this reason: The good folks at Potlatch Corp. donated the wood.
"We got an old Finlander on board as the only carpenter, and he showed all of us volunteers what to do,'' Plante said. "My claim to fame is that I put up the first upright pole at Cloquet's hockey barn.''
There's also some fame for Bruce as the coach of ClassA powerhouse Hermantown, but that first indoor venue in Cloquet — the Pine Valley Ice Shelter — still puts a chuckle in his voice.
Modest though the structure was, the early generation of youth hockey players to have the use of the ice shelter in Cloquet produced tremendous talent. No young man received more attention than Corey Millen, small in height but solid, fast and always on the attack.
"I coached Corey in bantams,'' Plante said. "I would get calls from hockey fans across the northern part of the state, from the Twin Cities, asking, 'Do you have a game coming up around here? I want to see Millen.'''
Steve Jezierski did play-by-play on Cloquet radio for Lumberjacks athletics.
"You could get 1,000 people in that barn if the fire marshal was in a good mood,'' Jezierski said. "When Corey, Jim Sprenger, Jim Plankers and Brian Durand and the rest of those guys were playing, you had to get there two hours early to get in.''
Millen took his legend to the Gophers in the fall of 1982. Pat Micheletti, a rival from Hibbing, arrived at the same time. Brad Buetow's recruiting class would have been the best ever, if Scotty Bowman had not decided to sign South St. Paul's Phil Housley and put him in the Buffalo Sabres lineup as an 18-year-old.
"South St. Paul stopped in Cloquet one winter,'' Plante said. "It was officially a 'scrimmage.' It was the greatest scrimmage ever. Housley flying, Millen flying, the building jammed. You didn't see many tournament games more intense than that scrimmage.''
Millen played his freshman season for the Gophers in 1982-83, then was on the Olympic team that had a seventh-place finish in Sarajevo in 1984.
"There was a lot of attention on us after Lake Placid in 1980, and we didn't live up to expectations, for sure,'' Millen said.
Millen came back to the Gophers and put together three tremendous seasons. He went to three NCAA Final Fours in his career, and finished with 119 goals in 149 games. That's still the third-highest total for the Gophers, behind John Mayasich (144) and Micheletti (120).
He became part of another Olympic effort in 1987-88. The team that coach Dave Peterson took to Calgary was more fun than the State Fair, with its attacking style, but it played no defense and again the Yanks finished seventh.
Millen's pro career took him to five NHL teams in parts of seven seasons, and then he spent six years playing in Europe — mostly for the Cologne Sharks in Germany.
He helped bring junior hockey to Alaska as coach of the Wasilla Spirit in 2005-06, ran an all-star program for youth hockey there, coached the Alaska Avalanche in the junior NAHL, and then came home to Cloquet to coach the Minnesota Wilderness in that same league.
And now Millen's hockey odyssey has him back at the University of Minnesota, three decades after he left, and attending classes as a 52-year-old.
"For a long time, I've had the thought that I would like to be a college hockey coach,'' Millen said. "The first question when you ask about a job is, 'Do you have a degree?' I didn't.''
Gophers coach Don Lucia and Millen encountered one another at junior hockey events. They had a discussion at one of these and Lucia said to Millen: "We have something for you. Come back, get the degree, and help us out.''
Millen joined the Gophers as an undergraduate assistant for this season. He's pursuing a degree in recreation, parks and leisure.
"I was in General College in the '80s, and that's long gone,'' Millen said. "The academic people had to figure out what credits carried over and which ones did not.
"I got a few double-takes when I walked into classes in the fall, but the college-age students I've met … they are terrific.''
Millen played at the old Mariucci (now the Sports Pavilion). He's now working with players at the second Mariucci, with its big ice, new locker rooms and other upgrades.
"It's quite an improvement, for sure, but I loved playing in that old barn,'' Millen said.
He was referring to the old Mariucci, although it could have been a reference to the Pine Valley Ice Shelter, where Corey Millen made his legend.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. email@example.com