South St. Paul has reached 28 state boys hockey tournaments without taking the title. Twenty-five of those came from 1947 through 1990. There are many gut-wrenching defeats to be remembered for Packers historians over those 44 winters of persistent excellence.
The one I had heard about most often came not in the state tournament but rather in a 1982 regional final against the rival then called Henry Sibley. This was Phil Housley's last high school game, before he would go promptly to the Buffalo Sabres as an 18-year-old rookie.
Sibley defeated South St. Paul 5-3 with an empty-netter. According to Packers coach Doug Woog, the packed house was standing and screaming throughout the third period as Housley made rush after rush in pursuit of the tying goal.
A few days ago, I was told about another of those Packers losses — also in a regional, and in a more-shocking circumstance.
Jim Carter, a legend of South St. Paul athletics, died in late November from the effects of melanoma. He was best known as a powerful fullback for the Gophers and middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, but I've always been intrigued by tales of this 6-foot-3 brick as a defenseman in hockey.
Carter's partner for two seasons with South St. Paul was Terry Abram, a high school great and then an All-America for North Dakota. Abram graduated in 1965, a year ahead of Carter.
"We were also the halfbacks for [coach] Steve Silianoff's single-wing offense," Abram said. "I ran left, he ran right. And nobody liked it when they had to tackle Jim."
The 1963-64 Packers, with Abram as a junior and Carter as a sophomore, lost twice during the hockey regular season.
"We were ranked No. 2 in the state when tournament play started," Abram said. "Our first game was against Mahtomedi at Aldrich Arena. We kind of had this attitude, 'Why do we have to go over there to play this game?' "
Abram paused, then came the punch-in-the-gut line: "We lost to Mahtomedi … 3-1. Their goalie had 56 saves. I hit four pipes myself. Worst bus ride ever, back to South St. Paul."
The Zephyrs' hero in the net was Craig Thaler.
Abram and Carter went to the state tournament with their pals in 1965 and lost to International Falls' dynasty 5-1 in the semifinals. Carter was back in 1966, when the Packers again lost to the Falls 2-1 in the semifinals.
That was Abram's freshman season for North Dakota, and they were not eligible for varsity competition at that time.
"I came down to the old Mariucci to watch our series with the Gophers," Abram said. "Bruce Larson was playing for the Gophers — 'Boots.' I grew up with him. I was in the stands, rooting for Boots and the Gophers.
"I got back to Grand Forks and our coach, Bill Selman, called me into the office. I had been seen cheering for the Gophers. Selman said I was off the team permanently if that happened again."
Those South St. Paul bonds were tight, and remained so through the decades — although not to the point for Carter to inform Abram and other old Packers that he had a short time to live.
"Jim was the best of our athletes, but he never acted like it," Abram said. "He never big-timed anybody.
"He was a private guy. I talked to him not long ago, and he didn't tell me how bad the situation was with cancer. I was very surprised when I heard Jim had died."
Carter's popularity with the other Packers — Green Bay's — was very different than in South St. Paul. Ray Nitschke was running on fumes when he was benched by Dan Devine in 1971 in favor of Carter (drafted in 1970).
The Lambeau fans were 100% hooked on the glories of Vince Lombardi then — and for about 20 more years. The crowd was quiet when Carter made a play and, when he missed one, the fans booed and called for Nitschke.
Carter's career ended in 1978 and he didn't return to Lambeau for 30 years. He was inducted into the Gophers' M Club Hall of Fame in 2013. He became a close friend with Jerry Kill and also Tracy Claeys after they came to the Gophers in 2011.
"I loved the guy," Kill said, when asked about Carter in a text message.
Carter was as offended by the P.J. Fleck spiels about changing culture, Year Zero, etc. as Kill. Even without the Kill friendship, Fleck's over-the-top salesmanship would have offended Carter.
I was talking with a Carter close acquaintance last week and we had a laugh over having had the same thought:
Too bad Jim didn't last another 72 hours to enjoy Fleck being humbled one more time in his dreadful seventh Gophers season.
As Abram summarized: "If Jim Carter liked you, you knew it. And if he didn't like you, you knew that, too."