Gloves off in jersey dispute between Minnesotans, Hockey Hall of Fame

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2011 - 1:09 AM

When a fabled father and son donated their Olympic jerseys, were they gifts or loans? The Hall says they're keeping the historic relics.

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A jersey on display in Toronto

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The president of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is digging in his edges over a dispute with one of the most storied father-son duos in Minnesota hockey history.

Hanging in the balance -- or more accurately in a display case at the hall's international wing -- are a couple of old hockey jerseys that Bill Christian wore in 1960 and his son Dave Christian donned 20 years later for gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams.

The Christians gave the historic shirts off their backs 30 years ago. Whether those donations were gifts or loans, well, that's the crux of a good old-fashioned hockey fight turned international border battle. The Christians want them back as family heirlooms, but the Hall of Fame said Friday: Not so fast.

"I think it's a dangerous precedent to start returning items we believe were validly donated," said Jeff Denomme, the Hall of Fame's president and chief operating officer. "We don't want gaps in our collection and our duty and responsibility is to protect our collection, not only for the present but for future generations."

The greater good, Denomme argues, is better served if hockey fans from both sides of the border and around the world can catch a glimpse of "sweaters that commemorate two of the greatest moments in hockey history.

"It's unfortunate that we're in this situation, and we have no ax to grind," Denomme said in an interview. "Most people say: 'Give them back, it's their moment.' But on the other hand, our mandate is to collect, preserve, exhibit and promote the history of ice hockey. That's what museums are all about."

The whole brouhaha frankly surprises Dave Christian, 52, who grew up in Warroad, Minn., and played 15 years in the NHL after the 1980 "Miracle on Ice." He now lives in Moorhead and works as a quality manager for a window insulation company.

"It's not that complicated," he said Friday from his office in Fargo. "We loaned them. They belong to us and we'd like them back. Simple as that."

Not quite, says Hamline University School of Law Prof. Joseph Daly. He said the legal doctrine known as "laches" prohibits pursuing claims after an unreasonable delay.

"If you sit on your rights too long, they're gone," Daly said. "I think it's too late. Even if there's some validity to their argument that the word 'donation' didn't mean they were gifting and giving up all their rights and title, the concept of laches just overwhelms their case."

The law professor says the international border between the Christians and the Hockey Hall of Fame "absolutely complicates matters because two bodies of law would be applied" -- even though both Canadian and U.S. law stem from English Common Law.

Denomme said a guy named Maurice "Lefty" Reid served as the Hall of Fame's chief collector in 1981. He asked Bill Christian for the jerseys and sent a letter confirming "the donation." That "legally effective manner," Denomme said, makes them the hall's property.

If the Christians sue, as they're threatening, Denomme insists "a Canadian court would take that under consideration in support of our position.

"Over the past 20 years there has never been a suggestion until now that they were anything other than a gift," he said.

Daly said if the Christians lent the jerseys, terms and conditions would have been spelled out.

"I'm not a lawyer and neither is my dad," Dave Christian said. "We were always under the assumption and believed we loaned them. We always knew where they were. We just decided it was time to ask for them back."

In fact, he said, he never gave his jersey to anyone, even his father, and was busy playing in the NHL when his dad sent them to Toronto. Bill Christian is now 73.

"He's getting older, he's had some health issues and we decided about five months ago we'd like them back to pass on to my children," Dave said.

When he first called the Hall of Fame, an official asked for some time and said they'd need to replace them with something.

"They are an important part of our collection," Denomme said. "We don't have any other jerseys from those two teams. And what kind of can of worms would it open if we started giving back items in our collection simply because donors have a change of heart?"

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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