Don Micheletti arrived at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1976 to play hockey for the Gophers. As a freshman, he was a teammate with older brother Joe. As a junior in 1978-79, he scored 36 goals and was a big part of Herb Brooks’ third national title team.
Brooks, Neal Broten and others from that championship team were occupied with the U.S. Olympic team in the winter of 1979-80.
Micheletti was back in Minneapolis, serving as captain of the Gophers. He had a cast on an injured ankle for a time as a freshman and on his left knee as a sophomore, yet Micheletti entered his senior season with 99 games played and 54 goals scored for the Gophers.
He suffered a wrist injury in a series at Michigan in early November and kept playing with a splint. Then, at the end of the month, Micheletti reinjured his left knee and was forced out of the lineup.
Don’s return was scheduled for the Jan. 23-24 series vs. Michigan at Williams Arena. Americo and Mary Micheletti, his parents, and younger brother Pat (a Gopher-to-be) climbed in the family’s well-used Lincoln Town Car to make the 200-mile drive from Hibbing to Minneapolis.
“My dad hated having to make the drive — hated being down here,’’ Pat said on Saturday. “We would watch the game and drive right back home.’’
On this Friday night, the Gophers and the Wolverines were out for the early skate, passing and shooting pucks at their ends of the ice.
“There were 100 pucks out there … seriously, maybe 200,’’ Don Micheletti said. “Steve Ulseth loses a puck and, for some reason, Ulseth skates way down to the Michigan end to retrieve the puck.
“The Michigan players start chirping at him, and then he gets a push, nothing much, but I’m the captain, so I figure I better go down there. Then, Dave Richter, Michigan’s 6-5 monster of a defenseman, strokes me on the shin pad with his stick, so I throw the gloves down.
“Back then, nobody wore helmets in the pregame, and you could land clean punches. I hit him with maybe six of my best punches. He wasn’t fazed at all. And then he started. I didn’t know he was a lefty, and he got me good.
“We went up and down the length of the arena, wrestling, throwing punches, for what must have been five minutes.’’
Dick Haigh and Dewey Markus were the officials. They still were in the back of the arena in civilian clothes when alerted of the fight.
“They came out on the ice in their street shoes,’’ Micheletti said. “They were breaking us up and Dickie Haigh was saying, ‘You better not bleed on me, Micheletti.’ ’’
Haigh and Markus gave out game misconducts, which eliminated Micheletti and Richter from both the Friday and Saturday games.
Twenty minutes later, the scratches were being announced to the crowd at the same time Americo, Mary and Pat Micheletti were walking into the arena:
“And for the Gophers, Donnie Micheletti has received a game misconduct and will miss tonight’s game and Saturday’s game.’’
Americo learned that his son, after missing nearly two months because of injury, had been in a pregame fight. “My dad waved us right back to the car and we headed back to Hibbing,’’ Pat said. “He was so steamed at Donnie … my mom said she wanted to ride in the back with me.’’
A Michigan-Minnesota hockey game could stir up such passions in the winter of 1980. Two seasons later, the Wolverines had left for the CCHA. There were showcase games, and four NCAA tournament games (2-2), but a grand hockey rivalry had died.
This weekend, Michigan and Minnesota are playing in a conference series for the first time since Jan. 23-24, 1981. For this Big Ten hockey to be palatable, the Gophers need an archrival other than Wisconsin; they need a conference foe to play the role of North Dakota.
“Absolutely, I think Michigan can be that major rival,’’ Pat Micheletti said. “They are two winning programs with a tradition of competing against each other for titles. They share a great style of play.
“I think the rivalry can heat up as soon as the first Big Ten tournament in March. Once the fans get the feeling Minnesota and Michigan are really playing for something, this thing will start to build.’’
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.