LUVERNE, MINN. – The tiny burg of Magnolia in Rock County was known to all Minnesotans from before World War II through the 1950s for one reason: It was the hometown of Cedric Adams, the reader of the news on the mighty 830 signal of WCCO radio and a columnist/humorist for the Minneapolis Star.
There was a statewide period of mourning when Adams died in 1961 at age 58.
Magnolia High School also had one of the state’s best athletes in the late ’50s: Lloyd Voss, a muscular 6-4, 250 pounds. He was a football and basketball star, recruited by Nebraska, and was a sophomore lineman when Bob Devaney arrived in 1962 for an instant turnaround in Cornhuskers fortune.
Voss was a first-round draft choice and played nine years in the NFL. He died in 2007.
“My father, Jim, was a freshman in football practice at Magnolia when Lloyd was a senior,” Chad Nelson said. “Dad said he ran into Lloyd once and thought he broke every bone in his body.”
Jim’s, not Lloyd’s.
Jim Nelson later coached football and basketball at Magnolia, and he started a farm. Cedric and Lloyd and even Jim probably would have agreed on this in the 1950s: Magnolia, with its population in the 200s, was among the last places above the Mason-Dixon Line where it could be expected to find a Division I hockey recruit. Or, for that matter, to find another 8 miles away in Luverne, perennial basketball power and 1964 one-class state basketball champion.
Yet, that’s what we have as hockey continues to spread its footprint across North America: Jaxon Nelson, Jim’s grandson, from a farm just outside of Magnolia, is among the 12 freshmen for Bob Motzko’s Gophers; and Chaz Smedsrud, the son of an insurance agent in Luverne, is among a dozen freshmen for Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.
Magnolia closed its high school in 1981 and most of the youngsters in the area wound up at Luverne. Jaxon was always tall, now 6-4 with an athletic frame, and he would have been a perfect example of a Luverne basketball player, a modern-day Del Jessen.
And Smedsrud, 6-2, would have been a nice wing player, one of those relentless Cardinal types willing to press all night long.
What happened, though, is that Dan Smeins, not a notable athlete, got a hockey itch in the late ’60s watching NHL games on Sunday afternoons on NBC.
“Then, I went to college at Bemidji State, and that was a hockey school, and I kept thinking, ‘We need hockey in Luverne,’ ” Smeins said.
Smeins and his hockey friends were able to go to the Luverne City Council in 1975 and get $1,000 to build an outdoor rink. The local Optimists Club — including Don Amos, a transplant from Montreal — was a big part of the hockey movement.
There was a youth team assembled for the winter of 1979-80, with Smeins as the coach. Two young men on that first team were Chad Nelson and Steve Smedsrud.
They were wearing uniforms rescued from a basement in nearby Adrian, where a youth team had skated for a couple of years on an outdoor rink before disappearing with the winter wind.
“We took the ‘Adrian’ stitching off the front and played in those jerseys the first year,” Smeins said.
Thirty-four winters after their dads started organized hockey playing in those reclaimed uniforms, there were their sons, Jaxon and Chaz, skating in brilliant red-and-white Luverne uniforms on the same line in the Xcel Energy Center, taking on powerhouse Hermantown in the first round of the 2014 Class 1A state tournament.
The hockey players and boosters created in the ’80s were able to get Blue Mound Ice Arena built in 1991. The high school program started in 1998-99, with Smeins as the coach in the early years.
Jaxon Nelson was an eighth-grader and Chaz Smedsrud a sophomore on the second line of that first state tournament team. They last played together in a high school game in 2016, each scoring a hat trick in a 7-6 upset loss to Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato in a section final.
Nelson already was committed to Don Lucia and the Gophers and scored 70 goals as a sophomore. He played his last two years while in high school 35 miles away with the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede, while continuing to attend Luverne High. He was 16 in his first USHL season, the youngest player in the league, and struggled.
Was it a mistake to leap into the nation’s best junior league at 16?
“I don’t think it was a mistake,” father Chad said, “as much as Sioux Falls wasn’t a good fit.”
Nelson played last season with Omaha and had a strong USHL finish with 19 goals and 21 assists in 52 games. Motzko had replaced Lucia before the 2018-19 season and Nelson officially signed with the Gophers last May.
“We had great success with players that were big goal scorers with the nontraditional hockey schools at St. Cloud State,” said Motzko, referring to the team he formerly coached. “I’m optimistic that Jaxon will be one of those players for the Gophers.”
Nelson will be starting his time in maroon and gold with a heavy heart. We had a conversation at the Luverne arena in late August and Jaxon talked of the importance of his grandfather, Jim, to him. Soon after, Jim Nelson died in his sleep (on Sept. 3) at age 70.
“Shock for all of us, and very tough for Jaxon,” his father said.
Smedsrud’s route to Division I hockey was a longer grind. He played through his senior season at Luverne, spent two years in the Saskatchewan junior league with the Notre Dame Hounds and then last season with Madison in the USHL.
When asked, “Why Union?” Chaz was candid:
“It’s the only Division I program that offered me,” he said. “I knew about Union, obviously, from when it beat the Gophers in the national championship game , but I spent three years in juniors waiting for this chance.
“They contacted me and I said, ‘Yes,’ without visiting the campus.”
How about a Gophers-Union rematch in a future NCAA tournament — you against your Luverne linemate Nelson?
“We’d both love that,” Smedsrud said.
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