The Elk River contingent was making its annual fishing trek to Mahkwa Lodge on Lake Seul in northwest Ontario. There was a long backup at the International Falls border crossing.

"We were in a line of vehicles that went back to Rainer," John McLean said. "Paul Ostmoe and I very much needed a bathroom visit. So, we started walking toward the Border Bar ... two miles in the rain."

Steve Ostby also wanted to get to the Border Bar, although more to have access to a whiskey and coke than a restroom.

He got on a cell phone and called Dean Blais' summer residence. One of the children answered.

"This is the Oz," he said. "Look in the phone book and get me a number for a cab."

The Blais youngster obliged, Ostby called the cab and ordered a pickup at the giant gray SUV in the border crossing line.

"Paul and I came in the Border Bar after walking for 40 minutes and there was Oz, sitting on a stool, drinking a McMasters and in deep conversation with a couple of new friends," McLean said. "We looked at each other and said, 'How did he get here?'"

Steve Ostby, 54, suffered a massive stroke last month. On Monday, he was removed from life support and died at 8 p.m.

He had spent two weeks at Mercy Hospital. The daily vigils included dozens of friends -- generations of folks from "old Elk River" and those with connections to Minnesota hockey going back four decades.

To all of them, he was "the Oz," and if Blais or Herb Brooks or you-name-him from hockey was driving through Elk River on Hwy. 10, they would make the turn onto Jackson Street and stop at the Sunshine Depot to see the big man holding court at the near end of the bar.

Elk River still was a small town and well-removed from urban sprawl in the late '60s. Tom Ostby, the oldest son, had been an excellent basketball player. Steve tried hockey, which was in its formative years in Elk River.

"From what I understand, he was a mediocre defenseman, but he loved the game and he loved the Elks," McLean said. "When his kid brother, Paul, came along, Oz was proud to see him playing goal for the Elks, and then for the Gophers.''

Somehow, Steve became pals with Lefty Curran, the former International Falls, North Dakota and pro goalie, and soon the Oz was as well-known in the Falls and in the taverns on the Iron Range as he was in Elk River.

"Oz knew everyone on all ends of the spectrum ... from princes to paupers, heroes to goats," Curran said. "He coached Joel Otto when Joel was a Peewee in Elk River. He broke bread with Herb Brooks and Glen Sonmor, he crooned with John Mayasich at Nick's Bar in Keewatin, [golfer] George Shortridge was one of his best friends, and yet the guys he hung out with every day were Grub, Crusty, Splash, Cotton, Happy.

"Everyone had a nickname, including me. I've been Lefty forever, but to Oz, I was Junior."

His brother Paul was given the name "Putz" at age 5 and still carries the monicker in his hometown.

"I've coached and now I'm in the agent business with Neil Sheehy," Paul said. "I've been in a lot of arenas in Minnesota, and I've never had my own identity. Every arena I walk into, the first thing I hear is, 'You're Steve's brother, right? Say hello to him for me.'"

Along with various fishing trips, Steve had not missed a trip to St. Paul for the state hockey tournament in 30 years. What he did miss were the actual games.

"He would get a room at the Capp Towers or later the Days Inn, and he would be there four days with the door open,'' Paul Ostby said. "Anyone who walked by, he would say, 'Come in, have a drink.'"

Curran recalled a bartender in Grand Forks, N.D., listening to Oz for a while and saying: "You're kind of philosophical."

Oz pointed at his friend Phil Houle and said, "No, he's Phil-osophical. I'm Oz-osophical.'"

Rich Schroeder, "the Friendly Buffalo" to the Oz, said: "The other night, after Oz died, I was in bed and tearing up. And then a minute later, I'd picture Oz holding court at the Depot, or on a fishing trip, remember a story, and I'd start laughing. That went on all night.

"Elk River has changed a lot in the past 25 years, and now we've lost our legend."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. •