When he was playing hockey, two things were likely to be noticed about Keith “Huffer” Christiansen. He was usually the smallest player and frequently the best player on the ice.
In 1962, Christiansen, who was listed at 5-feet-2 at the time, led International Falls to the state high school hockey championship. Minneapolis Roosevelt coach Bob Johnson, who later coached the University of Wisconsin and in the NHL, told the Minneapolis Star, “International Falls has one of the greatest high school hockey teams I’ve ever seen. In Keith Christiansen, International Falls has a center iceman who belongs in the N.H.L.”
Ten years later Christiansen helped the U.S. hockey team earn a silver medal at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. Coach Murray Williamson told the Minneapolis Tribune that Christiansen, then listed at 5-feet-6, 155 pounds, was “pound for pound the best player in the tournament.”
In between high school and the Olympics, Christiansen was a four-year standout at Minnesota Duluth, leading the Bulldogs in scoring in each of his four seasons. Following the Olympics, Christiansen played professionally for two seasons with the Fighting Saints of the WHA.
Christiansen, who was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005, died Nov. 5 in Duluth of complications from lung cancer. He was 74.
Christiansen was born on July 14, 1944, in Fort Frances, Ontario — across the Rainy River from International Falls. After high school, he began his college career at UMD in 1963 as the Bulldogs were starting their third season as a Division I hockey program.
During his Bulldogs career, he earned first-team WCHA and All-America honors. In 1991, he was a charter member of the UMD Athletic Hall of Fame and he was the first UMD athlete to have his jersey number (9) retired. In 2002, he was named one of the WCHA’s 50 best players from the league’s first 50 years.
Arguably one of the most memorable games of his career was Nov. 19, 1966, at the start of his senior season. The Bulldogs played host to the Gophers in the first game in the newly constructed Duluth Arena. Christiansen had six assists — which still stands as a UMD single-game record — in the Bulldogs’ 8-1 victory.
“Back then, teams would do luncheons on the day of the game with both coaches speaking,” said Pat Francisco, a Bulldogs teammate of Christiansen for four years. “At the luncheon, it was acknowledged that the new arena was having trouble with its ice and there were puddles on the rink. [Gophers coach] Glen Sonmor talked about the standing water and said, ‘I don’t think it will be a problem for UMD, because you all think Huffer can walk on water.’
“Everyone laughed at the joke, but Huffer did kind of walk on water that night.”
Francisco said Christiansen “was magic on the ice. He had these individual skills, like the ability to see the ice, way before they started talking about them, with Wayne Gretzky. He attracted all the attention. We knew if we stayed out of his way, he would create openings for us.
“No doubt he had great skills, but way beyond that he was a great teammate. I was an assistant at UMD and a high school coach and when I wanted to impact my players about being a good teammate, I’d tell them stories about Huffer. I never heard a cross word from him and he never said a negative word to a teammate. He was a model of how to treat a teammate.”
Christiansen, who had lived in Duluth since 1975, was a retired salesman from an auto dealership.
Christiansen is survived by his wife Evie; son, Brad; and daughter Marla Halvorson, and four grandchildren.
Services have been held.