Mike Cowan originally wrote this column for the Wisconsin Hockey Exchange following the 1981 season. Cowan, a former Superior Cathedral graduate and Wisconsin Badger, is currently retired.
By Mike Cowan
Special Thanks To The Superior Daily Telegram
“We are Superior! We are Superior!” Whether the state high school tournament was at Hartmeyer Arena or Dane County Coliseum Madison, or Brown County Arena in Green Bay, the Spartans from Superior Senior High School proclaimed their superioroirty in high school hockey with this play on words. Until 1979 each March, the Spartans and their followers journeyed south to display their hockey talents. The Spartans usually sent a well-coached, balanced hockey team that prepared for March by skating against Minnesota’s best. Whether the Spartans were 16-2 or 10-8 against Minnesota foes, they expected each March to return North with the championship. Hockey Exchange will attempt to trace the development of amateur hockey in Superior.
Hockey in Superior traces its beginnings back to the late 1920s. Neighborhood teams competed against each other on an informal basis. The city of Superior is divided into eight district neighborhoods. These neighborhoods provided an identity that helped stimulate athletic competition, not only in hockey, but baseball, football and basketball as well. Almost every neighborhood had its own public and parochial grade school that further promoted this athletic competition. South Superior, Allouez and Central Park were three of the leading hockey neighborhoods. In 1931, the Central Park Hornets — a team of 12 year olds, beat the Seventh Street Flyers. Siinto Westman played center for the Flyer team. In another game, the Hornets defeated the 21st Street All-Stars 5-2 at the Central Park rink. Hughie MacDonald was the star for the winners. The Superior adult teams also participated in a county league with teams from Solon Springs, Poplar and Webster. According to the Superior Evening Telegram, the Webster program involved cooperation between the local hockey club and school officials. “Preparation is being made for a large skating rink near the high school building. The rink will be electric lighted and a warming room has also been provided. The hockey club is cooperating with Principal W.T. Calhoun in getting the rink into readiness. E.A. McPherson, manager of the club, anticipates a busy hockey season.” McPherson, a native of Minneapolis, was a one-armed hockey player. Other inter-city competition involved playing Duluth city teams. In 1931, South Superior defeated Arco Coffee of Duluth 3-1. This was considered quite an accomplishment. One of the first games against outside competition involved the South Superior Athletic Club playing Marquette University, coached by former Superior Central High School athlete John Hancock, which usually made a holiday swing to play top Minnesota teams. In 1930, Marquette defeated the Superior club 14-2 at the Duluth Amphitheater. This loss demonstrated that Superior hockey needed much improvement. Throughout the ’30s, Superior hockey involved these neighborhood teams. Some of the better senior teams competed in a county league and occasional games against Duluth teams. Four levels of youth hockey were organized, Cadets, Midgets, Juniors and Intermediates. In 1940, Superiorite Bob Murphy, sophomore goalie at St. John’s University, was selected All-MIAC goalie. In terms of publicity and fame, hockey in Superior ranked third behind two other very popular ice activities. Two curling clubs flourished in Superior along with an excellent Figure Skating Club that produced national celebrities Bess Ehrhardt and Bobby Specht, two ice Follies performers. As in other areas, World War II halted the hockey program in Superior. Following the war a slow revival began. According to the Jan. 11, 1947 issue of the Evening Telegram, a meeting was being called by Bill Boya, “long one of Superior’s most active hockey supporters,” to explore the possibility of getting a surplus army hanger to use as an hockey arena. In 1970, when new ground was broken for the new Siinto Westman Arena, former Superior college coach Wally Akervick recalls that Bill Boya cried. Those tears of joy were the culmination of a 20-year struggle to revive a hockey program in Superior. Boya’s efforts in 1947 to secure an old army hanger failed. A hockey revival began, though, as Boya recruited a senior team to compete in the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Championships. Milwaukee defeated the Superior Gitchinadji team in the championship game 5-4. Charlie Podvin was the goalie for the team. A state senior championship was one goal that Boya put aside for a later date. The hockey revival in Superior was slow. Without artificial ice or an indoor building, the program depended on the outdoor rinks and the good Lord providing suitable winter weather. By the middle of the ’50s, neighborhoods again began their inter-city rivalry. Junior, midget and cadet youth teams competed in some areas, hockey rinks were not used. Instead, the snow banks of the skating rinks served as boundaries and the warming house logs served as goals. Lifting the puck was one skill that was not needed as few young players wanted to spend time in the snow looking for the puck. Neighborhoods such as South Superior, Central Park and Allouez had the first set of boards. Eventually, each neighborhood rink, with the cooperation of the Park and Recreation Department, had its own set of boards. Some of the better teams even ventured to Duluth for competition. In 1956-57, the Superior Coop, coached by Bill Kaiser, had a top-notch goalie in Bill Halbrehder, who eventually played for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Halbrehder eventually went on to coach at North St. Paul High School. In the middle of the ’50s, the Superior State College also sponsored a team, playing against Northland College, Carleton College and area senior teams. The Superior Police, led by Bill Axt, Art Scharte, John Aaini and Roy Martinson (ex-Superior Police Chief), played an annual game against the Duluth Police. At one stretch, the Superior Police won six consecutive years. On Dec. 6, 1958, the Superior Hockey Association was formed. A four-team senior league (M&C Oilers, South Superior Merchants, Allouez and Wade Bowl) was organized along with neighborhood youth teams at three levels. The SHA and the Park and Recreation Department, under the direction of Joe Leszcynski, jointly sponsored the program. Just as Superior was developing its youth hockey program in the late ’50s, other Wisconsin communities like Eagle River, Green Bay and Madison, were doing the same. In 1961, Superior participated in its first state hockey tournament at Madison’s Hartmeyer Arena. The Superior AAA Flyers defeated Beloit 7-0, Green Bay 6-3 and the Madison Lakers 4-1 enrout to the bantam championship. The team then went on to finish third in the national tournament held in Marquette, Mich. The following year, Superior returned to Hartmeyer and lost to the Lakers and its goalie, John Anderson, 1-0. The Superior-Madison hockey rivalry had begun. This first group of hockey players that grew up in the late ’50s and early ’60s eventually became the nucleus for the first high school teams. This group benefited from the installation of a hockey rink in the Superior Curling and Skating Club, a municipal building operated by the Superior Park and Recreation Department and the local curling club. An indoor, natural rink extended the hockey season at least one month. The rink itself, locally referred to as “Muni” provided a 160-foot-by-90-foot hockey rink. It took over 10 years to get that “old army hanger,” but hockey in Superior was developing in the ’60s, youth hockey was still organized on a neighborhood basis with teams playing each other on the outdoor rinks on Saturdays and on Sundays at “Muni.” Usually, each neighborhood team had about eight to nine players and toward the end of the season an all-star team was formed to compete against strong Duluth teams and at the state tournament. In 1965 hockey was revived at Superior State University under coach Wally Akervik. In its first two years, Superior split two two-game series with another developing college team — the University of Wisconsin Badgers. By 1965, the Superior Amateur Hockey Association and the Park and Recreation Department cooperated to install and artificial ice unit at “Muni.” Under the guidance of Joe Lanctot, the project took an entire summer and fall to complete. Artificial ice brought stability to an program previously dependent upon weather conditions. Boya’s army hanger became a 20-year project. Still, the 160-foot length at “Muni” posed a serious problem, particularly at the high school and college levels. Furthermore, the program had expanded to the point that two indoor rinks were needed. In the early ’70s, when small colleges in Wisconsin were expanding, the university and the city cooperated to build the Siinto Wessman Arena, a million dollar arena named after a Superior businessman, who was a University of Wisconsin Board of Regent. Wessman Arena brought Superior into the modern era. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Superior youth hockey teams regularly won state championships. The squirts won state titles in 1971 and ’72, the peewees in 1966, ’67, ’69, ’73 and ’74, and the bantams in 1968, ’69, ’74, ’75 and ’76. The 1973 peewees hosted the national tournament while the ’74 peewees won the district title and finished among the top four teams in the national tournament. The ’74 Bantams participated in the national tournament in Cranston, RI; the following year the Bantams finished in third in the nation, losing to eventual champions, Detroit Ceaser 4-2. Meanwhile, the Superior Spartans in a 10-year period from 1968-78, finished first five times, second three times and third twice. Two of the second places were overtime losses in ’77 and ’78 to Madison Memorial. In 1974, in addition to hockey titles at the peewee, bantam and high school levels, Superior also boasted state curling and high school basketball championships. Superior was truly the “Sports Capital of Wisconsin.” But something happened after that as Superior went seven years until winning another state championship in 1981. Also during that stretch, Superior had not won a youth championship. The answer probably includes a combination of factors. With the development of excellent youth hockey programs in communities like Green Bay and Fond du Lac, it was no longer sufficient to beat only the top Madison teams. The era of one or two hockey associations dominating in youth hockey is gone. The competition has gotten much better. To top that off, Spartan coach Gary Harker resigned in 1977 to become coach at UW-Superior. Superior advanced to the state tournament in 1978, going 0-1, but then failed to make it back to Madison in ’79 and ’80. With the new indoor arena available in 1970, many of the hockey players of the ’70s actually received less ice time that those of the late ’60s. The rink rats of the ’60s utilized the outdoor rink while the players of the 70s became more dependent upon the one or two hours of indoor ice per week. Often times the outdoor rinks were neglected. The rinks received ice late in the season and were not kept up and the Hockey Association had some internal problems. While in the ’60s most state tournament teams were end of the year all-stars made up of the best players from the neighborhood rinks, it was eventually decided to form the traveling teams earlier in the season in order to develop a better team. Consequently, the neighborhood teams lost their best players, the association started losing players and some areas had a difficult time icing teams. In addition, while the success of some of the teams at the state level led to national competition, the cost of participating on the national level shocked some people. Eventually, the Association decided to limit its teams to state competition. In 1979, the Superior Hockey Association regrouped and instituted some new policies: • Free fall clinics were held for all players. • A draft system was set up for the neighborhood rink teams to balance teams (actually there were no longer neighborhood teams, but house league teams). • The champion of each house league advances to state tournament play at the “B” level. • The traveling teams, selected at the start of the year, play in a Minnesota League and participate in “AA” level in Wisconsin. To provide more and better ice time, two outdoor rinks were built next to “Muni.” These rinks were resurfaced with the indoor resurfacer. On Oct. 17, 1974 Boya passed away. To illustrate Boya’s involvement in Superior hockey, one only has to look at some of the Superior players who have played college hockey, including UMD’s goalie (Halbrehder); two members of the 1961 bantam championship team (Mike Cowan and Mark Fitzgerald) lettered at Wisconsin in the last ’60s, and John Santori, the most valuable player in the 1971 state squirt tournament, played at UMD. Over a period of 15 years, Boya coached all of these players. Many other Superior players have gone on to play college hockey especially at UW-Superior, which won the 1976 NAIA national championship. UWS’s top two all-time leading scorers are Superior natives — Scott VanDamme and his brother Casey. The one goal that alluded Boya was a state senior championship. In 1980, the Superior East End Tavern team, with the majority of the team former Superior High School players, captured the state senior crown and placed third in the nationals. Many of these boys had their skates sharpened at Boya’s. The Superior hockey program is alive and very well, according to Association president Dick Berthiaume. State championships may not come as often as in the past, but they will come.