Richard Vraa was a champion figure skater.
Yet he's probably best remembered as the revered teacher for thousands of aspiring skaters throughout the Twin Cities and the onetime skating coach for the Minnesota North Stars.
For nearly 40 years, Vraa taught figure skating and hockey, most notably in Golden Valley and St. Louis Park, where each spring and fall he taught a popular hockey skills course that spanned generations.
"Dad touched his share of lives," said Vraa's youngest son and fellow instructor, Robert Vraa of Brooklyn Park. "When you think about it, people had a lot of confidence in his ability to teach their kids. That says a lot."
A second-generation skater, Vraa began skating at age 4 on the Red River in Fargo, N.D. He won a national figure skating title at 12. It was around that time that he began spending summers in Minnesota with the Rochester Figure Skating Club.
Vraa moved to Minnesota permanently in 1957 as a pre-business student at a Rochester junior college. After morning classes, he and his coach, Helen Black, would drive twice a week from Rochester to Minneapolis, where he would train for competition.
"Dick is one of the few completely natural skaters I've coached," Black told the Minneapolis Tribune in 1958. "He has excellent coordination and power and is a very high jumper."
Following a brief professional skating career, Vraa began teaching his skills to others in 1961. Around that time, he met his first wife, Karen Howland, also a champion skater. She was an alternate on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team.
Like Vraa, she won medals in dancing, figure skating and free skating. After they married in 1963, the couple began teaching thousands of students -- from ages 2 to 62 -- starting at the Golden Valley Ice Center, then in St. Paul, Minneapolis and elsewhere in the metro area.
"He didn't do it for money," Howland said. "It was because he wanted his students, particularly his younger ones, to succeed. He gave a lot of himself for almost nothing in return."
Char Martin of Maple Grove said Vraa had such a father-like influence on her that she too became a skating instructor. She began taking his classes at age 12.
"He was very warm and gentle, but the classes were very intense," said Martin, director of the Parade Ice Garden in Minneapolis and co-director of the St. Louis Park ice arena. "He'd always say in practice, 'C'mon, you can do it. I know you can do it. Just show me.'
"And you'd want to show him that you could do it. There was never an end at the rainbow. He was always a motivator."
Vraa told the Minneapolis Tribune in 1964 that teaching took discipline and psychology. "You've got to keep on the ball. We go to every competition to watch the trends of skating," he said.
One trend that Vraa is credited with creating is the art of "power skating," which his son Robert said has now become a universal way of instruction.
"Dad broke down the mechanics of skating right down to its core," said Robert Vraa, who taught with his father for 16 years. "He could pinpoint a skater's problem -- skating stride, posture -- within minutes. Not only could he do it, but he could communicate it effectively."
Perhaps that was why the North Stars appointed Vraa as their skating coach in 1978. For five seasons, Vraa helped players with their technique and help them recover from injuries.
"I wondered at first would it work, because Dick came from a figure skating background," said former North Stars head coach Glen Sonmor. He said some players and teams now carry special skating instructors. "But it worked because he knew what he was talking about. He didn't have any problems getting their respect. He had such a positive personality."