I'm writing a column on the current state of St. Paul Johnson hockey for Saturday's print edition, in advance of the Governors' game against Luverne in the high school portion of the Hockey Day schedule. I was looking up past articles on the Govs in the Star Tribune's electronic library on Friday morning and ran across a column that I wrote for publication in December 1998, on the death of Wes Barrette.
I felt it captured the hockey spirit that existed through the decades on St. Paul's East Side. Here's the bulk of the column from 12-15-98:
MIKE SCHWARTZ AND a number of his hockey-playing friends were juniors at St. Paul Johnson High in the winter of 1973-74. Most of these young men considered themselves candidates to play for Johnson's varsity team, yet opted to play for the East Side midgets.
"If you grew up on the East Side, you had to play for Wes at some point," Schwartz said, speaking of longtime East Side coach Wes Barrette. "Wes was coaching the midgets, so that junior year was our
only chance to play for him. We played for Wes' midget team that winter, then the next year, 14 players off that team were on the Johnson varsity."
This was a time when Johnson was a powerhouse, and skating for the Governors was an ambition for many young players on the East Side. Still, the appeal of playing for Wes Barrette was so strong for Schwartz and his buddies that they postponed the chance to be a Govie.
"There was a combination of discipline and fun that was unique when you played for Wes," Schwartz said. "Wes was able to get to a kid's heart. You didn't want to disappoint him, on the ice or off it."
Barrette, 70, had started coaching his 45th season of youth hockey on St. Paul's East Side this fall. In recent years, he had been coaching A and B teams in Junior Gold - a division for players ages 16 to 18.
Last Wednesday, the ice at the Harding rink was crowded with players from both teams. A puck came zinging around the boards and Barrette, jumped from its path. Wes lost his balance and fell to the ice, hitting the back of his head.
Barrette went into a coma from which he responded only briefly. "Long enough to grip a few hands," Steve [Moose] Younghans said. "When Wes gripped your hand, you never forgot it."
That's because Barrette was a lifelong bricklayer – working side by side with son Neal on scaffolding right to the day of the accident.
Barrette died Sunday … For Schwartz, the hockey coach at Augsburg, and for Younghans, the hockey coach at Johnson High, and for inestimable numbers of East Siders, this loss was difficult to accept.
"I was out of town and my wife gave me the news that Wes had a bad accident on the ice," Herb Brooks said. "I came home [Monday] and found out he had died. I can't believe this.
"Over the years, he had been so devoted to the kids in that part of St. Paul. He really made his impact with the midgets and the juniors. I talked to Wes time after time and he would say, `It's important to have these kids continue in athletics.' A kid who played for Wes came out with his head screwed on straight."
Barrette started coaching young hockey players on the East Side in 1954. He coached at all levels and followed his son all the way up - from squirts to bantams - in the '60s. Neal was a strong player for Johnson's state tournament team in 1970.
Wes started coaching midgets in the late 60's. The East Siders came close many times and finally won a state midget title for Wes in 1991. The current Junior Gold program is an offshoot of midgets competition.
Younghans said: "He took kids who were 16 and pretty much unwanted. They were kids who were cut from the varsity, or they were academically ineligible, or maybe they had been screw-ups. Wes gave them a second and, if needed, a third chance.''
Schwartz said: "Wes would say, `I love the guys who play for me. If you play hockey for me, you're a member of my family.' "
This branch of the Barrette family had several rules. There was no smoking, drinking or swearing. There were no references to a father or mother as "the old man" or "the old lady." Any player who didn't show up to help flood the rink at Hayden Heights at night needed a very good excuse if he was going to skate on that fresh ice the next day.
"The city would turn on the water at the rinks on Dec. 15th and, if the weather was right, we would have ice at Hayden Heights on the 16th," Schwartz said. "Wes had over 1,000 kids play hockey for him and they all know how to flood a rink.
"You could tell your status on the team by where you were on the hose. Wes always had the nozzle. If you were standing next to him on the hose, you knew you were in good shape.
"The younger guys were back by the shed, in charge of winding up the hose when the flooding was finished. You had to work your way to the front of the hose with Wes."