Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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Any mention of RPI hockey, and I'm back listening on a Zenith console

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: December 3, 2013 - 1:57 PM

Louie Nanne made a commitment last week to play hockey for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., starting with the 2014-15 season. Louie is playing for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL this season.

Any news that surfaces about RPI and hockey is a reminder of when I discovered the existence of the sport.

It was March of 1954, a time when the Twin Cities and the northern climes were Minnesota's lone hockey areas. We might as well have been downstate Indiana as the southwest corner of Minnesota. It was all basketball once the Gophers' football season came to an end.

As an 8-year-old in Fulda, I perused the sports sections of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune and the Minneapolis Star on a daily basis. And there was attention being paid to the fact the Gophers, with a coach named John Mariucci, were among four teams participating in the NCAA tournament in Colorado Springs.

The format for the NCAA tournament from its inception in 1948 through 1976 was to bring together two teams from the East and two from the West. That was it: four teams total in the tournament (which was held in Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs for the first 10 years of existence.

I didn't know any of these things in 1954. I only knew the Gophers were participating, and we were Gopher fans on the prairie.

The Gophers played in the first semifinal on Thursday night and defeated Boston College 14-1. Minnesota's legendary first line of John Mayasich, Gene Campbell and Dick Dougherty combined for 19 points (10 goals, nine assists).

Michigan, the winner of three straight NCAA tournaments, was scheduled to play Eastern upstart RPI on Friday night. A Wolverines' victory was such a foregone conclusion that Dick Gordon, on the scene for the afternoon Star, wrote his main piece for Friday's edition under the headline:

"East Too Weak, Say Puck Chiefs.'' with a subhead readng, "Urge Withdrawal After Gophers Rip BC 14-1.''

Mayasich was quoted as assessing BC thusly: "They were the worst team I've ever played against.''

Vic Heyliger, the Michigan coach, was more harsh: "Thief River Falls (Minnesota's state prep champion) could have beaten Boston College. What if the East withdraws from the tournament? Fine. Then we'll play the Canadian universities and have a much better tournament.''

Mariucci told Gordon: "If the East wants to keep playing in this tournament, it must raise its standards. But why am I worrying? If we make as many mistakes against Michigan, they'd kill us.''

The Gophers had lost 7-3 to Michigan in the 1953 title game. And this stronger Gophers team had been whipped in a two-game sweep at Michigan a couple of weeks before the 1954 tournament.

Even before leaving for Colorado Springs, Mariucci was fretting to the Tribune's Sid Hartman over the pending matchup with Michigan: "The small Colorado rink will handicap us and favor Michigan with its bigger and stronger players.''

And then RPI, in its fifth year with a hockey program, defeated Michigan 6-4. Herb Brooks' Yanks over the Big Red Machine in Lake Placid in 1980? From what I can tell reading the clips, Ned Harkness' RPI Engineers beating Michigan was the equivalent of that in the early years of NCAA hockey.

What I know from an ancient memory is that it sent me to the large console Zenith radio to try to find a broadcast of the Minnesota-RPI title game on Saturday night, March 13, 1954.

This was the first time I ever had attempted to track a hockey game. I recall the signal was static-filled and kept going in and out, making me think the broadcast wasn't on the Big Neighbor, which usually came in well on a winter night.

Maybe it was another Twin Cities station, or one from Colorado, but I hung with the Gophers, even as they fell behind 3-0.

The Gophers rallied to take a 4-3 lead, and then gave up a tying goal to RPI's Abbie Moore late in regulation. And two minutes into overtime, Gordie Peterkin scored to give RPI the second title for the East in the seven years of the NCAA tournament with a 5-4 upset of the Gophers.

RPI's victories over Michigan and Minnesota saved the East as the rivals for the West in the NCAA semifinals.

You can read archived stories suggesting that "Gordie's Goal'' also is what saved RPI as a major program during the tough times that followed Harkness' departure for Cornell in 1963.

And it made a young kid melancholy, listening on the Zenith in downstate Minnesota ... even if he wouldn't see an actual hockey game in person until he went to work at the Duluth News Tribune a dozen years later.

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