A 110-foot-long hockey stick—the world’s largest—stands in the heart of downtown Eveleth, Minn. (pop. 3,850). The 5-ton stick, which began as a town project in 1995, is symbolic of residents’ pride in their favorite pastime—hockey.
Known as the Hockey Capital of the United States, Eveleth has produced six players for U.S. Olympic hockey teams and more professional and college players per capita than any American town. It’s also home to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Eveleth’s obsession with hockey began in the iron-mining town more than 100 years ago when mine owners brought in top Canadian players to entertain workers during the long, cold winter months. The sport quickly caught on, and soon local kids were icing the streets and playing hockey every day in the winter. The sport transcended ethnic barriers, giving the English, French, Finnish, Irish, Slovenian and Swedish immigrants who worked the mines a common bond. In the early 1920s, the town built a hippodrome—a 3,000-seat covered brick arena centered around a sheet of ice—now in its third reincarnation.
Today, hockey has become an integral part of the town’s culture. "The hockey tradition gets passed on in this town," says Mayor Calvin Cossalter, who played on the first University of Minnesota national championship hockey team in 1974. "People in Eveleth put a lot of effort into making hockey important, and every year (since 1986), 21 teams come in for Youth Hockey tournaments here. That helps keep the tradition alive."
Cossalter’s son, Nick, played on Eveleth-Gilbert High School’s state championship hockey team in 1998 and his father, Clem, was on Eveleth’s first high school championship team in 1945.
"During the war years, when lots of people went to Duluth (Minn.) to build ships, all we had left were 11 players, and other teams kidded us, ‘Where’s the rest of the team?’" Clem recalls. "But four of our 11 were selected All-State players."
It’s easy for young players to get on the ice in Eveleth. The town maintains five public outdoor ice rinks where kids play impromptu games.
"It’s the unstructured environment that lets kids fall in love with hockey, and they’ve got to fall in love with it before they can become players," says Craig Homola, a former Minnesota North Star and Chicago Blackhawk player who’s now the town’s community recreation director.
"If a kid wants to play hockey in this town, we’ll make that happen," adds Dean Vincent, president of Eveleth’s Men’s Youth Hockey Association. His organization supports youth hockey, each year allowing 120 kids between ages 4 and 15 to learn the sport.
"To put the Eveleth jersey on, well, that’s something a kid has got to be proud of," Vincent says. "To play here requires dedication. A kid has to pick it up a little more."
When it comes to hockey, townspeople get involved, says Eveleth native Mick Wudinich, who recently orchestrated a musical concert and dance to raise money for a sound system in the hippodrome. Similarly, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame came into existence because civic leaders thought the United States needed a shrine to honor the nation’s outstanding players and teams.
Opened in 1973, the 20,000-square-foot hall of fame recognizes U.S. hockey greats, including Eveleth standouts John Mariucci, the former Chicago Blackhawk and University of Minnesota coach (1952-1966); and John Mayasich, who played on eight U.S. Olympic and National teams, beginning with the 1956 silver medal-winning Olympic team.
More than 15,000 people annually tour the hall of fame, which also exhibits hockey memorabilia such as sticks, pucks, jerseys, skates, photographs and team banners.
Life in Eveleth truly is tied to hockey, observes Hockey Hall of Fame Director Tom Sersha: "Around here, after a kid learns to walk, he’s got skates on, and the next thing you know, there is a hockey stick in his hand."
For more information, log on to www.ushockeyhall.com.