The following is an excerpt from best-selling sports author Ross Bernstein’s newest book entitled “Sixty Years & Sixty Heroes: A Celebration of Minnesota Sports.” In it, Ross chronicles our state’s greatest sports heroes and sporting events through a very unique format.
Each chapter represents a year, going from 1948 through 2008, and features the top three events from the world of Minnesota sports. Those events are then tied into interviews, biographies, stories, and where-are-they-now’s of our greatest hometown and homegrown heroes. Proceeds from the sale of the book benefit the Herb Brooks Foundation.
John Mayasich: A Hockey Star
In 1951, the boys from Eveleth came down to the State High School Hockey Tournament at the St. Paul Auditorium with the title of “three-time defending undefeated champions” in front of their names. These Iron Rangers were somewhat of an enigma with the Twin Citians, who by now had heard of them much like they had heard about Paul Bunyan and Superman — with a sort of mythical God-like connotation. The team was guided by one of Minnesota’s greatest all-time coaches, the legendary Cliff Thompson, who coached the Golden Bears from 1920 to 1958, finishing with an astounding 534-26-9 record.
Led by AIl-Staters John Mayasich, Ron Castellano, and Dan Voce, the Bears came into the state tourney riding an amazing 66-game winning streak. And, they were fresh off of yet another undefeated 16-0 season in which they scored 179 goals while yielding only 30.
The Bears began their title defense by taking on Williams in the quarterfinals. There, in a replay of the 1951 title game, the Bears came out smoking. John Mayasich scored just 57 seconds into the game and didn’t stop until he had scored three more in that first period alone. This one got ugly early as Eveleth went on to hammer the Wolves, 12-0, and advance onto the semifinals.
In the semis, Mayasich showed why he was the greatest ever, scoring an unbelievable tournament-record seven goals against Minneapolis Southwest. After a quick goal by Eveleth winger Dan Voce, Mayasich tallied three quick ones in the first period to get warmed up. Southwest then rallied back to make it interesting behind three goals from the Meredith brothers. That was just the wake-up call Mayasich would need, though, as he scored again in the second and added another hat trick in the third. The Castellano’s each added one as well for the Bears, as they cruised to an 11-5 victory.
That put the Golden Bears into the title match against St. Paul Johnson, who had beaten Thief River Falls in the other semifinal contest by the score of 6-2, thanks to a pair of goals each from Bob Youngquist and Ray Youngberg.
Four Straight Crowns
So, on Saturday, February 24th, 1951, in front of 7,163 Auditorium fans, Eveleth hit the ice to try and make it four-straight crowns. Johnson’s own legendary coach, Rube Gustafson, knew that he would have to get a near-perfect performance from his boys if they were going to have a chance. There was speculation before the game as to what kind of defense the Governors were going to throw at the Bears. Some teams had achieved a marginal level of success against them that season by running a “1-5” defense, in which one skater stayed at the blue line, and the other four hung around the goalie.
Or, perhaps he would just have the other four hang around Mayasich? Deciding to play it straight and take their chances, Johnson came out strong and held the Bears scoreless through the first on tough goaltending by Johnson keeper Warren Strelow. But, just a minute into the second, who else but John Mayasich beat Strelow to put Eveleth up 1-0. Ten minutes later, he scored again and decided to add two more in the third just for good measure. His fourth and final goal of the game was a beauty, beating Strelow on a 20-foot blast from the point. Johnson’s Bob Schmidt added a goal late in the third, but by then it was too late, as Eveleth and Mayasich prevailed, 4-1.
For Mayasich, who finished with 15 goals and three assists for 18 points, which is still a tournament record, it was as sweet as it gets. He would finish his storied prep career with four consecutive state tourney titles and an unbelievable all-time prep record of 69-0.
St. Paul Johnson Game
“I remember that St. Paul Johnson game was a tough one,” recalled Mayasich, “and there was a lot of pressure on us to keep the winning streak going through that fourth year. As far as the streak went, every year, we were expected to play better than the one before, so I looked at it that way and played that way myself. When it was all over, we couldn’t believe what we had done. It was very special.”
“When we were growing up, we didn’t think about college hockey or the Olympics or the pros,” he added. “We thought about making the high school team and getting to the state tournament. Eveleth had won the first state tournament in 1945 when I was in sixth grade, and that gave us something to strive for. In Eveleth, you were expected to win, and it was just assumed you would. As a result, we didn’t take any time for sightseeing when we came down to St. Paul. All we did was watch and play hockey.”
Minnesota’s Best Ever
John Mayasich has long been regarded as one of the finest amateur hockey players ever produced in the United States and is without question the greatest to ever lace em’ up in Minnesota.
Mayasich grew up playing hockey in Eveleth. “We got our start learning hockey on the ponds and outdoor rinks in the city,” he recalled. “The older kids would pick sides, and the younger kids would learn from them. It went on from generation to generation. When the ice melted, we played street hockey and broomball. We had a lot of fun, and we learned a lot playing those sports as well.”
Eveleth has often been referred to as the birthplace of American hockey because of its wonderful puck traditions and roots that can be traced back to the sport’s American beginnings. That’s why the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame is situated in this relatively small town on the Missabe Iron Range, an hour’s drive north of Duluth. Many hockey greats came from this hockey Mecca, names that ooze with tradition: Mariucci, Brimsek, Karakas, LoPresti, Matchefts, Ikola, Finnegan, Dahlstrom, and Palazzari, among others.
After high school, Mayasich headed to the University of Minnesota, where he would join up with another Eveleth hockey legend, Gopher Coach John Mariucci, who had taken college hockey by storm after playing in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks.
In 1953, Mayasich’s sophomore year at the U of M, the Gophers won the Midwest Conference championship and went all the way to the NCAA Finals in Colorado Springs. In the semifinal game, they knocked off R.P.I., 3-2, only to get upset in the championship game by rival Michigan, 7-3. That next season, they made it to the NCAA Finals once again, this time crushing Boston College, 14-1, in the semis, only to lose this time to their old nemesis, R.P.I., in a 5-4 overtime nail-biter for the title.
A Painful Loss
“It’s a loss that sticks with me still today,” said Mayasich on the loss to R.P.I. “To lose in overtime was bitter. It’s not the ones you won that you remember. It’s the ones you lost. To me, that was probably my biggest individual disappointment in all my years of hockey.”
Before his career was over, the perennial All-American had tallied Gopher records of 298 career points and 144 goals. His totals worked out to an incredible 1.4 goals per game average for nearly three points per game. (To put it into perspective, Pat Micheletti, the next Gopher player on the career goal-scoring list, had 24 fewer goals despite playing in 51 more games.
In other words, in his 162 games, Micheletti would have had to amass 435 points just to match Mayasich’s per-game average. That’s an additional 166 more than his career total!) Mayasich also holds the records for most goals and most points in a single game. In his senior year, he had an incredible six-goal game against Winnipeg and also tallied eight points against Michigan that same season as well.
A New Level of College Hockey
“John Mayasich brought college hockey to a new plateau,” said John Mariucci. “He was the Wayne Gretzky of his time, and if he were playing pro hockey today, he would simply be a bigger, stronger, back-checking Gretzky. The words to describe him haven’t been invented. When I say he’s the best, that’s totally inadequate.”
At the end of his playing career with the Gophers, Mayasich fulfilled his military obligations and then went on to play with eight U.S. Olympic and National Teams. He was also a member of the 1956 silver medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team in Cortina, Italy. The highlight of that tournament came against perennial power Canada, which had won seven of the eight Olympic gold medals since the Games had begun. There, John played an incredible game, scoring a hat trick, en route to leading his squad past the mighty Canucks. The Americans played tough in the tournament but wound up losing the gold to the Soviets.
The most celebrated of his Olympic events, however, was the first “Miracle on Ice,” the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, which won the gold in Squaw Valley, California. The U.S. team beat the mighty Russians for the first time that year, and, in the process, put hockey on the map across the United States.
“At the time, we were thinking it would be a great accomplishment if we could win bronze. We had no idea we would win a gold,” he said. “Beating the Russians was amazing and very similar to the 1980 team victory as well. I think for both teams, playing at home, in America, was a big factor, because it’s nice having the fans there to support you. This was probably one of the biggest thrills of my life.”
John Mayasich was a “velvety-smooth skater,” with a keen, sixth sense into the psyche of opposing goaltenders’ every move. He is credited as being the first college hockey player to develop the slap shot, a new weapon that instilled fear into an already perplexed group of goalies who had been trying to stop him. John was an artist with his stick, and his stick-handling skills were legendary. On opponent’s power-plays, he could kill penalties by toying with opposing defenses. He used to take the puck and simply weave around the rink without ever passing to a teammate until the penalty had been killed. With amazing ability like that, it’s hard to believe that he was often criticized for passing too much.
“The camaraderie was the best. Those friendships go back 40 years now,” recalled Mayasich on his playing days at the U of M. “Playing with the players who I had played against throughout my high school career was really exciting. We had great Gopher players like Dick Meredith, Dick Dougherty, Gene Campbell, Ken Yackel, Wendy Anderson, and Stan Hubbard. I got to see the world through hockey, and the purity of the game is the bond that keeps those friendships together today.”
“It was quite a time to be involved with the Gopher program as it was just taking off back then. It made me proud of the fact that I was there when all of this was happening. Now, to see what the program has grown into today and to think that maybe, in a small way that I had something to do with it, is incredible. My time at the U of M was great.”
Declining professional hockey opportunities in the then six-team NHL, Mayasich devoted his remaining pro hockey career to the minor league Green Bay Bobcats. After his hockey career, John went into business with his old Gopher teammate Stan Hubbard, where he worked as an executive for KSTP Radio for the next several decades.
Mayasich received numerous honors during his hockey days, including being the first Minnesotan to be voted into the National High School Athletic Hall of Fame. In 1976 he had a homecoming of sorts, being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in his native Eveleth, and in 1998 John received the coveted Lester Patrick Award for his outstanding contributions to American hockey. In addition, in 1998 John became the only Gopher ever to have his number retired when his No. 8 was hung into the Mariucci Arena rafters forever.
Things have changed in the world of hockey since Eveleth’s incredible run. While the attendance for the entire 1951 high school tournament was 18,582, the attendance in the new millennium exceeds 120,000. However, in all those years, no one has come close to topping Mayasich’s records, nor his legend. He remains the best hockey player ever to hail from the Gopher State and is a real living legend. But as great an athlete as he was, so is his humility. Often in the limelight, he is always quick to share the credit and the glory with his teammates and coaches. That is what makes the man so beloved by those who know and respect him.
As for his hockey legacy, John remains as humble today as he was all those years ago. “I was blessed with the opportunity of playing with and against some great players,” he said. “I was at the right place at the right time with the right people, and made contributions through a lot of hard work and effort.”
Mayasich’s State Tourney Records
The most for these stats:
All Time Total Points: 46 (1948-1951)
All Time Total Goals: 36 (1948-1951)
Consec. Games Scoring: 12 (1948-1951)
All Time Hat-Tricks: 7 (1948-1951)
Points One Tournament: 18 (1951)
Goals One Tournament: 15 (1951)
Points One Game: 8 (1951)
Goals One Game: 7 (1951)
Points One Period: 5 (1951)
Goals One Period: 4 (1951)
About Ross Bernstein
Ross Bernstein is the best-selling author of more than 40 sportsbooks and has appeared on thousands of local and national television and radio programs over his career, including CNN and ESPN, and was even recently featured on the covers of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
As a sought after motivational speaker specializing in the topics of passions and legacies, Ross speaks to corporations and groups around the country about the inspirational legacy of the late hall of fame hockey coach Herb Brooks. To honor his friend and mentor, Ross speaks about the influence Brooks had on the world of sports and about the impact of the now legendary “Miracle on Ice.” Putting many of the life-lessons and ideologies he learned from the fiery coach into a practical business application, his presentation aims to inspire others to follow their dreams and maybe, just maybe, even create their own miracles.