Reusse: Hockey pioneer at Hill and U let his play do the talking

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2011 - 10:38 AM

Billy Klatt, now in hospice care, starred for the Gophers and Fighting Saints.

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Bill Klatt with the Gophers in the late 1960s.

Harry Caray once said of a future Twins Hall of Famer, "With a name like Rod Carew, you have to be able to hit.''

The same theory could be used on a legendary Minnesota hockey player: "With a name like Billy Klatt, you have to be able to score goals.''

The puck, the sticks, the passes ... clat, clat, clat, across the ice, and then a goal.

Mike Kurtz, a Klatt teammate with the Gophers, said: "Billy was a silent star. He didn't draw attention to himself, even when he scored a goal.''

Denny Grabowski grew up playing hockey with Klatt at Hayden Heights Park on the East Side of St. Paul. Later, they would enroll at Hill High School, the new Catholic school in Maplewood, as part of the Class of '65.

"Bill was very quiet, even as a kid,'' Grabowski said.

Billy Klatt's quiet manner did not change when it became apparent a few weeks ago that his three-year battle with leukemia was coming to end. Grabowski and a couple of other friends contacted Wednesday were surprised to learn Klatt, 64, is in hospice care and close to death at his home in Afton.

Klatt led the WCHA in scoring as a Gophers junior in 1967-68 with 23 goals and 20 assists in 31 games. He scored 36 goals for the Fighting Saints in the first World Hockey Association season of 1972-73. He set an NCAA record for fastest goal by scoring five seconds into a game vs. Michigan on Jan. 13, 1968. He scored the first goal ever in the new St. Paul Civic Center for the Fighting Saints on Jan. 1, 1973.

Yet, if you write Minnesota hockey history from the pickup games through the pros, Billy Klatt can be remembered as the player who turned Hill (and then Hill-Murray) into a hockey school.

"I don't think that's an exaggeration,'' Grabowski said. "Hill opened in the fall of 1959. A couple of years later, we started playing, and we would have games on Sunday afternoons in the old Central Catholic league at the Minneapolis arena.

"We didn't have a team bus. We had to get there on our own. And we were skating two lines and three defensemen.''

Billy Klatt started scoring goals and getting Hill hockey mentioned in the Twin Cities dailies. More hockey players showed up. Ramsey County opened Aldrich Arena, not far from the high school.

"By the time we were done as seniors, we had given Hill hockey a good start -- and it turned into quite a tradition,'' Grabowski said.

As seniors, those early Pioneers lost in three overtimes to Duluth Cathedral in the final of the state independent tournament.

Hill would win a state independent title in 1970 and then another as Hill-Murray in 1972. The private schools were admitted to the Minnesota State High School League in 1974. The Pioneers have 22 state tournament appearances and titles in 1983, 1991 and 2008.

Billy's father, William Sr., played for Johnson High and then the Gophers. Billy might have followed the same path, if the Catholic high school hadn't opened right up the road.

"I played a lot of hockey with Bill and a lot of hockey against him on the East Side,'' Grabowski said. "As a player, he was 'always there' ... one of those special guys who always seemed to know where the puck was going to be.''

Mike (Lefty) Curran was a star goalie for International Falls, and then North Dakota. That's when he first encountered Klatt ... Sioux vs. Gophers.

"In the '60s, there were still a lot of hockey players that hadn't mastered the hook stick,'' Curran said. "Billy was one who had it mastered. He was an average skater, and average size, but he could launch the puck. There was something on it when a shot came off his stick.''

Klatt scored 42 goals in 61 games in his last two seasons for the Gophers. He had 34 goals in back-to-back seasons for the Bruins' Oklahoma City farm club. The Saints got Klatt out of the minors for two seasons. Later, he played four years in Austria, before returning to the Twin Cities to become a successful businessman.

Billy Klatt's name strikes a loud note with Minnesota's long-time hockey followers, including as the pioneer of the Pioneers.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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