EVELETH, MINN. – Larry Sagen was showing his grandson around the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last month when another visitor caught his eye.
A man wearing a commemorative Hall cap. Pale blue eyes. White sideburns brightened by a tanned face. Large Slavic nose.
“You look familiar to me,” Sagen said.
The man extended his right hand, big and strong.
Sagen, an Eveleth native who lives in Washington and was visiting the Hall for the first time, turned to 13-year-old Gabriel and said, “You get to meet the legend.”
Four-time high school state champion with Eveleth from 1948 to 1951. Never lost a high school game and holds 10 individual state tournament records. The Gophers’ all-time leading scorer, and only player in program history whose number (8) is retired. Most career U.S. national team appearances (eight). Silver medalist at the 1956 Winter Olympics. Gold medalist four years later.
Though Mayasich never played professionally, “Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr would have been in John’s league,” said former Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, who played with Mayasich at Minnesota and on the 1956 Olympic team.
At the time of his gold-medal triumph, Mayasich already had laid the foundation of his life’s work. He and his wife, Carol, were raising five children in Green Bay, Wis., where he served as player/coach for the amateur Bobcats for 12 seasons while working as a radio station sales manager. He moved to the Twin Cities in 1974 to join Hubbard Broadcasting, rising to general manager and president of the radio division until he retired in 1997.
With Carol’s health waning, they returned in 2002 to Eveleth, where she died in 2009. These days, Mayasich lives in an apartment built on the site of the playground where he first skated as a kid.
Walking out of the hall of fame, the man who was inducted 37 years ago said he has yet to visit alone.
Happy to oblige autograph and picture seekers, he is too much in a hurry for reminiscing. With a new hip and knee, Mayasich, a spry 80, spends his summers golfing and winters curling. His companions are twin brother Jim and a group of friends who laugh and lounge their way through most days.
“I’m not really dialed into any hockey,” said Mayasich, who last skated in 1993 at a Gophers alumni game at Mariucci Arena, named for John Mariucci, another Eveleth legend and Mayasich’s former coach. “I have some interest, but I’m not what you’d call much of a follower.”
But he hasn’t lost another passion since high school. The five-sport letterwinner at Eveleth High School also sang in the choir. He sings with the funeral choir at Resurrection Catholic Church and takes a solo turn on karaoke nights at Nick’s Bar in nearby Gilbert.
His go-to karaoke songs? Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
He also is something of a civic leader, lending his name, business connections and personal wealth to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the once-booming Iron Range town he said gave him so much.
“He hasn’t forgotten where he comes from,” Jim Mayasich said.
When the twins turned 80 in May, John surprised Jim with a new car, a story that makes Jim tear up when he tells it.
“He really has been a good brother,” Jim said. “I’m glad he is spending his final years with us.”
‘Mr. Patience’ he’s not
Mayasich spends just enough time in his Lincoln Place apartment to sleep and watch guilty-pleasure television shows on the History Channel. The walls of his second bedroom display highlights of the former rink rat’s career: A framed Gophers jersey. An action shot from his college days. The jubilant 1960 Olympic hockey team.
One block north and just around the corner on Summit Street sits the original Mayasich house, where parents Frank and Mary, immigrants from what is now Croatia, raised six boys and five girls.
Neither Frank, who worked in the nearby mines, nor Mary ever saw their son play hockey at any level. But Mayasich still can recall the time he looked up from a road hockey game and saw his mother open the curtains to watch.
Mary never gave birth in a hospital, and it is unknown which of her twin sons was first into the world. Their personality traits offer some clues.
“He’s real claustrophobic; he won’t sit in the back seat of a car,” John said of Jim. “So we figure that started with him being the last one out.”
Being first out would have suited John, known as Mr. Patience by his friends. His oldest son, Mike, claimed, “I didn’t learn patience from my father.”
“Back in April he called one day and said, ‘Let’s go to Florida,’ ” Mike said. “But he doesn’t like traffic or even going out to eat and having to wait for a table. He preferred to walk along the beach and look for shells.”
Simple pleasures and a return to his small-town roots suit Mayasich. But he remains competitive. The two golf foursomes he plays with always wager $1 for a nine-hole match. In curling, a team’s best player is called the skip. Despite his brother’s lack of curling experience, Jim said, John “wanted to be the skip right away.”
Wonders about a pro career
While Mayasich was forging his business career in Green Bay, Eveleth kids such as Sagen grew up trying to recreate his magic on the ice.
Sagen, who played youth hockey, remembers skating “across Highway 53 to the outdoor rink. Your toes and your fingers would be frozen, but we stayed out there pretending we were the great Eveleth players. I’d be John Mayasich. He was the local hero.”
His fame achieved as an amateur, Mayasich holds no bitterness about never playing professionally. But he does think about whether he could have succeeded in the then six-team NHL whose stars were mostly Canadians.
“After I finished at Minnesota, they claimed Mariucci had a contract from the Chicago Blackhawks, but I never saw it,” Mayasich said. “But he was coaching the Olympic team in ’56 so I don’t know. After the Olympics, a scout for Boston said they had interest, but I was never contacted.
“You wonder, ‘Could you have?’ ”
Those who saw Mayasich play answered with a resounding yes.
“He was one of the premier hockey players to come out of Minnesota in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Lou Nanne, who played for the Gophers and North Stars.
In those days, Nanne said, Canadians dominating the NHL “weren’t paying much attention to the amateur American player. But you could tell by how he played international hockey” that Mayasich could have played professionally.
How the slapshot was born
He was a deft stickhandler, perfecting his game with a light, sturdy stick on outdoor rinks. “We didn’t have boards growing up, and you didn’t want to shoot the tennis ball into the snow and lose it,” he said.
Working in the mines one summer with friend and former Eveleth teammate Willard Ikola, Mayasich watched as Ikola provided the verbal cues for the as-yet unseen slapshot. Mayasich perfected the technique to score in bunches starting the next season at Minnesota. His 144 career goals and 298 points still stand as Gophers records.
Last season, Mayasich met with Benilde-St. Margaret’s players during a two-game road swing up north just before Christmas. Grant Besse, who bettered Mayasich with a five-goal performance in the 2012 Class 2A championship game, watched as Mayasich “picked up a composite stick and was in complete awe of how light they are,” Besse said.
Encouraged by the strong skill sets of today’s high school player, Mayasich is critical about aspects of the game. He considers the tougher penalty structure for dangerous hits, such as the one that paralyzed Jack Jablonski, “more for penalizing the [offending player] than prevention.”
Mayasich, who never wore shoulder pads as a college player, said, “Prevention means you don’t keep track of takeouts. A guy passes the puck and you ram him into the boards. Why? For what?”
Legacy of work, fun, love
Three generations removed from the start of the glory years, how does Mayasich want to be remembered?
Growing up in Eveleth, where fine hockey players and iron ore were the chief exports, Mayasich is proud to be immortalized in the lobby of the Hippodrome rink.
“This is Eveleth hockey,” said Mayasich, moving from large photos of Mariucci to NHL goaltenders Frank Brimsek, Mike Karakas and Sam LoPresti.
One to keep it light wherever he goes in town, he also points out that his photograph hangs near the ladies’ room entrance. His unofficial office sits just inside the door of Margie’s Roosevelt Bar, kitty-corner from the “Big Stick,” which at 110 feet and five tons ranks as the world’s largest free standing hockey stick.
Considered a legend of similar scale, Mayasich wrestles with defining his legacy.
“It’s something I worked my butt off for,” Mayasich said. “I think I achieved what I did because I loved the sport and I always wanted to improve. I never knew it would end up what it did, and maybe I still don’t realize it. But I had the right coaching and teammates, and I had a lot of fun doing it.”