Glen Sonmor made it to the New York Rangers for a combined 28 games in the two seasons from 1953 to 1955. There could be nothing greater for a kid from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, than to put a puck in the net for one of the NHL’s six teams, and Sonmor did it twice from his left wing position for the Rangers.
He was back with the Cleveland Barons in the American Hockey League on Feb. 27, 1955. His daughter Kathy had been born four days earlier, and life was good for Sonmor that night, until he took a puck in his left eye from a shot by teammate Steve Kraftcheck.
The eye was lost and his playing career was over two months shy of his 25th birthday.
“The owners of the Cleveland team were great people,’’ Sonmor said. “They got me a job in mortgage banking. My first assignment was collecting on delinquent loans. You would send a letter, then a stronger letter and, finally, you had to visit the person who wasn’t making the payments.
“I made my first house call and the door was answered by a Korean lady in a shabby dress with a baby in her arms. Her husband was in the garage and gave me the darndest sob story you’ve ever heard. I gave him all the money in my billfold, 10 bucks, and went back to work and told my boss, ‘I don’t think I’m a banker.’ ”
Anyone who has had more than a passing interest in hockey in Minnesota over the past five decades can be grateful that the man in the garage in Cleveland was so persuasive with his tale of woe. The hockey scene here would’ve been far less entertaining without the energy, the emotion, the knowledge, the risk-taking and the storytelling — the darndest storytelling you’ve ever heard — from Glen Sonmor.
Sonmor turned 85 on Tuesday. There was a birthday celebration at his senior living center in Bloomington. There were Gophers who played for him, Fighting Saints who played for him, North Stars who played for him, and sober friends who Sonmor has impacted during 30 years of telling “his story,’’ as we non-practicing alcoholics like to say.
Tuesday’s celebration came on the eve of Sonmor’s relocation to Toronto, where he will live with his sister, Jean Devine, and her family. That made this a goodbye of sorts for a man who first came to Minneapolis as a 20-year-old in 1949, to play for the Millers in the International Hockey League. He had a veteran teammate in John Mariucci.
“Literally, John grabbed me by the nape of the neck, took me down to the University of Minnesota and enrolled me,’’ Sonmor said in a past interview. “I went summer sessions for the next six years, and I graduated from the U with high distinction.
“I believe in guardian angels, and John was mine. Where would I have been without that degree after I lost my eye?’’
Sonmor served as the Gophers’ freshman coach under Mariucci. Later, Glen was the head coach at Ohio State in 1965-66.
Mariucci had a falling out with athletic director Marsh Ryman and was asked to resign. On May 26, 1966, Mariucci’s resignation was officially announced and Sonmor was named to replace him.
There were two outstanding goaltenders in the program that fall: Murray McLachlan from Canada and Ron Docken from Minneapolis. They were freshmen, and thus ineligible for varsity competition.
There was an upperclassman with a chance to be a successful WCHA goalie. He was in the agriculture school and was ruled ineligible. “He flunked potatoes,’’ Sonmor said.
The Gophers were 8-20-1 that first winter. Late in the season, booster and hockey man Bruce Telander took Sonmor to the St. Paul Auditorium to watch the first round of the 1967 state tournament.
“I took him to see Mike Antonovich,’’ Telander said. “I said, ‘This kid is going to be your savior.’ Greenway’s warming up and there’s Anton: 5-foot-nothing, skinny, breezers hanging down to his ankles, wearing goggles.
“Glen said, ‘That’s my salvation?’ ”
Sonmor laughed and said: “It took me two shifts of seeing him flying around the ice to say, ‘He is a savior.’ ”
Antonovich enrolled in the fall of 1969. He played two seasons for Sonmor at Minnesota, and was with Glen for all five years of two versions of the Fighting Saints of the WHA.
He’s now the mayor of Coleraine. He made it to Sonmor’s birthday/going-away celebration. The ex-Gophers and Saints and North Stars were thrilled by this. Several had made this observation:
“Anton was a son to Glen.’’
Graduating with high distinction wasn’t the goal with Sonmor’s hockey son. He just wanted to keep him eligible.
“I had to get out of general college and find a program that would take me as a junior,’’ Antonovich said. “They wanted proof that I was a ‘capable student.’ There was a scandal in the recreation department, so they stopped taking ‘marginal’ athletes.
“It didn’t look good, but Glen said, ‘I’ll find something.’ He called the next day and said, ‘I got you in the ag school. You’re a farm major. But don’t tell anyone.’ ’’
How did you do in potatoes, Anton?
“I was eligible but was injured most of the year,’’ Antonovich said. “Glen was putting together the Fighting Saints by then, and he signed me.’’
Sonmor was sitting on a nearby couch. How about Antonovich?
“I’ve coached a few hundred guys that I loved,’’ Glen said. “Anton is my all-time favorite player. The size of his heart on the ice was unmatched.’’
When Glen Sonmor offers an opinion on heart and hockey, you’re hearing from an expert. You’re hearing from a man who gave an eye to hockey, and has spent the next six decades passionately engulfed in the game.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org