Glen Sonmor, a former coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team and the Minnesota North Stars whose folksy and enthusiastic color commentary during radio broadcasts of Gophers hockey games made him a fan favorite, has died.
The Canadian-born Sonmor, whose playing and coaching career spanned from the 1940s to the 1980s before he entered the radio booth, was 86.
His death Monday morning was confirmed by Lou Nanne, a close friend and hockey colleague at the NHL level.
Sonmor, who did some amateur scouting in recent years for the Minnesota Wild, retired from his radio duties in 2011 and in 2014 moved from the Twin Cities to eastern Ontario, near his sister’s home. Wally Shaver said his longtime broadcast partner had been battling dementia for several years and was living in an assisted-living facility in Paris, Ontario, at the time of his death.
Nanne, the former North Stars general manager, hired Sonmor not only to coach the club but also helped him land many other jobs in the sport.
“ ‘Hey, Louie, that’s really nice of you. I went through life without working,’ ” Nanne recalled Sonmor once saying after taking on a new hockey opportunity. “That’s what he viewed hockey as.”
Sonmor was “such a charismatic person,” Nanne said. “He was caring but took no guff.”
He noted Sonmor’s frequent run-ins with opposing players, coaches and even fans.
“Glen went right into the crowd in Duluth [while coaching the Gophers] and got in a fight with the fans,” Nanne said.
When coaching the North Stars, Sonmor got into it with Boston Bruins coach and goaltending legend Gerry Cheevers, saying, “ ‘I’ll send your head home in a breadbasket,’ ” Nanne recalled.
When it came to coaching, Nanne said, Sonmor “really, really dealt with the fundamentals; very repetitious. He would not accept not working hard. He wanted players to stand up for themselves and one another another, and he wanted guys who loved to play.”
Sonmor succeeded the legendary John Mariucci in coaching the Gophers from 1966 to 1971. He was named WCHA Coach of the Year in 1970 after leading Minnesota to the conference regular season title. A year later, he led the team to a WCHA playoff title and NCAA runner-up finish. During his time behind the Minnesota bench, he compiled a 77-80-6 record.
He coached the North Stars from 1979 to 1983. He led the team to the playoffs in each of his four years and took Minnesota to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1981.
Before stepping behind the North Stars bench, Sonmor coached the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972-73 and again in 1976-77.
Sonmor, who received the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States in 2006, has also served as an amateur scout for the Minnesota Wild. He was inducted into the “M” Club Hall of Fame in 2007.
A new generation of hockey fans came to know Sonmor as a color analyst during radio broadcasts of Gophers games for 15 years until 2011. His devotion to the Maroon and Gold came through loud and clear in simple terms, often when he found fault with an official’s call against his beloved Gophers.
Shaver said working Gophers radio broadcasts with Sonmor was not only a hockey education but also an adventure.
“It was certainly entertaining,” said Shaver, who worked for a decade with Sonmor, noting that an expletive would on occasion go out over the air “if he saw a breakout going the wrong way. … He kept things lively and was a real joy to work with.”
Travels during the season to destinations such as Alaska and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula found Shaver listening to Sonmor’s tales from rinks across North America. Eventually, those yarns became a between-periods fixture during Gophers broadcasts.
“I’d pick Glen’s brain during our pregame lunch and find a topic,” said Shaver, who had to keep the reins tight on his partner to ensure the story would end before the next period would start. “He’d just start pontificating. He had an endless supply of good stories.”
Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Sonmor played junior hockey in Brandon, Manitoba, and with the Minneapolis Millers of the USHL in 1949-50.
He managed 28 games in the NHL, all with the New York Rangers in the mid-1950s, and tallied two goals as a forward.
His playing days came to a halt, however, when he was in the minors with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League. On Feb. 27, 1955, four days after his daughter Kathy had been born, he took a puck in his left eye from a shot by a teammate. The eye was lost and his playing career was over two months shy of his 25th birthday.
Along with his contributions to hockey, Sonmor also was proud of his defeat of alcoholism in the early 1980s, a battle that he often engaged while juggling his responsibilities to the North Stars.
In 1987, Sonmor set up noon fellowship meetings in a Bloomington hotel in hopes of helping a former player address his alcoholism. Different offshoots grew from that original group, with hundreds of attendees.
Shaver said Sonmor not only helped hockey players get sober but “some big-time celebrities, too. He kept that quiet.”
Funeral arrangements are pending, athough Shaver said memorials were being planned in Ontario and in Minnesota.