Photo credit: Mark Sauer/Mesabi Daily News
Years ago, hockey legend Willard Ikola visited his hometown of Eveleth and was listening to local bar patrons pondering what happened to the former hockey dynasty.
“One of them said, ‘When the Eveleth boys went and married Virginia girls, that’s what screwed up Eveleth hockey — all the mixed marriages with Virginia,’” Ikola said.
Ikola had those and many other Golden Bears faithful on his mind last week, when administrators at Eveleth and nearby Virginia announced the consolidated school districts would be known as Rock Ridge and its sports teams would be the Wolverines. The new high school is set to open in 2021-22.
“I’m sure a lot of Eveleth people turned over in their graves,” Ikola said with a laugh. “And vice versa with Virginia.”
Ikola harbors no ill will. In a bit of irony, his sister married a Virginia boy. Plus, Ikola hasn’t called Eveleth home in forever. A former hockey teammate of equal legendary status, John Mayasich, does live there. He attended the Jan. 23 hockey game a few blocks away at the Hippodrome, where the hockey teams from both schools unveiled a green and black banner featuring the Wolverines logo.
“It had to be done,” Mayasich said. “But it’s tough to give up those traditions.”
Pride runs deep in alumni from both schools, especially among hockey players. The Iron Range Conference ruled Minnesota high school hockey from 1945 until 1980. Eveleth set the early standard by winning five of the first seven state tournaments. Ikola and Mayasich were teammates on three of those teams (1948-50) and Mayasich won again as a senior in 1951.
Keith Hendrickson fell short of leading Virginia to the state tournament as a player in 1975 but coached the Blue Devils to their first appearance in 2005. He called the consolidation “a sign of the times” on the Iron Range, where mining and related jobs are no longer plentiful and populations have dwindled. He believes “the priority should be education” and supports the new school.
But a twinge of sadness remains.
“Yeah it’s sentimental, emotional,” Hendrickson said. “It’s not a question of right or wrong. It’s just a feeling you get. Those rivalries were a big part of the tradition.”