by Jim Boyle
Retired Minnesota North Star player and general manager Lou Nanne paid a special visit Feb. 27 to the best and brightest students Elk River Youth Hockey has to offer.
Nearly 300 skaters with a B average or better along with their parents and coaches packed into the Elk River High School commons and heard a message about the need for respecting one another and the game of hockey. They were also encouraged to remember that above all the game of hockey is supposed to be fun.
“Have fun playing,” he said at Elk River Youth Hockey’s Annual S.K.A.T.E. Recognition Night. “Enjoyment (of the game) is the most important thing.
“You play hard, you play to win, but you play to have fun! That’s the most important thing you get out of sports, because that’s the reason you’re going to want to play the sport the rest of your life.”
Nanne delivered the message at the annual S.K.A.T.E. (Skaters Keep Achieving Through Education) banquet, which is put on by the Elk River Youth Hockey Association to recognize players, grade one–12, who maintain a 3.0 grade point average or above through the hockey season. This a nationwide program.
Students heard from three high school hockey players, who talked about studying as hard as they play hockey. Nanne talked more about the game itself.
Nanne played hockey until his body no longer allowed him to play. The former Gopher skater, Minnesota North Star and U.S. Olympian from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, told those in attendance he enjoyed playing the game as much as a skater for the Minnesota North Stars alumni team as he did at any point in his playing days.
It wasn’t a parent yelling from the stands or reprimanding him for poor play after a game that took the enjoyment away from him. It wasn’t a coach that didn’t see his potential and kept him on the bench that led him to walk away from the game. And it wasn’t the business of hockey in the NHL that would prevent him from lacing up his skates.
The only thing that took the fun away from him was a new knee doctors inserted into one of this legs. “That was the only reason I quit,” Nanne said.
Nanne encouraged coaches to play the players on their team.
“You never know when they’re going to develop,” he said. “When teaching kids 7 years old to 14 and 15 years old, you have to give them all an opportunity to play. It’s extremely important. You never know when they’re going to develop physically and into a better player.”
Nanne said he grew up with Phil Esposito, who was cut from their bantam team. He eventually went on to be a Hall of Fame center, and one of the great scorers of all time, Nanne said. “Gump Worsley never played goalie until he was 14.”
Nanne further suggested having players test out all positions, not only to find out how the player will respond but also because it gives them a better appreciation of situations and where they should be on the ice.
Nanne asked parents to respect their children’s willingness and ability to play the game. He said players need to be able to play and grow without any undue pressure.
Nanne said he had none of that growing up. His mother didn’t see him play until he was 18 years old. His father saw him as a midget and in an Ontario Championship game before he came to play as a Minnesota Gopher.
His father only saw him six times in college, and his mother never saw him live in an NHL game. She only saw him on television.
Things are different now. Nanne said he watched his children play and now that he has grandkids and is retired he doesn’t miss a game of theirs, either.
“But the players don’t need you yelling from the stands,” he said.
One time while playing in Canada, Nanne’s mother and father saw him flip a guy over his back and the opponent’s skate cut Nanne.
“My father got up to come down, and my mother asked him what he was doing,” Nanne recalled. “‘I’m going to check on Louie,’ he said.
“‘You’re no doctor,’” she said to him and told him to sit down. That was the end of the that.
Despite Nanne’s knowledge of the game, he said he always tried not to put any undue pressure on his children or his grandchildren.
“Remember to tell them what they do right, as well as what they do wrong,” he said. “Give them the opportunity to grow without pressure of them having to be better. Let them reach the level they’re going to reach.”
Nanne suggested keeping dreams in check, too.
“We all dream of making it big and being successful,” he said. “But let’s face it, only a (small) fraction will be (a professional hockey player).”
Nanne had a lot to say to the kids in the room. He talked about the importance of respecting the game, players, coaches and parents. He asked students to recognize that although they as athletes get put on a pedestal, it’s important to remember the real heroes in life.
“They’re the one’s sitting across the dinner table from you at night,” he said. “They
have done everything to give you this opportunity to play.
“They’re the only two people to take you to the games, get up with you, struggle with you, pay for trips and pay for equipment.”
Nanne said the importance of respecting the game itself came into greater focus this year with the tragic accident that paralyzed Jack Jablonski.
“We have to remember how important it is to check properly,” he said.
He compared it to his transition from Canadian hockey to American college hockey. In Canada, players could check all over the ice. But here at the U of M in the 1960s, checking was only allowed from the red line back into the defensive zone.
John Mariucci, Nanne’s coach at the time, asked him one time: “How long is it going to take for you to smarten up? You have to learn the rules of the game.”
“I had to learn how not to check in the offensive zone. It’s the same thing for you, as individuals have to learn to check properly.”
Nanne said he will always remember being told that it is a privilege to check.
“You have to know when to check,” he said. “You don’t just check indiscriminately. You don’t just run around trying to check people. You check someone to remove them from the puck; when you check a person you are taking yourself away from the game. That puck can go anywhere and you might be tied up or knocked down.”
In addition to respecting the game and their parents, Nanne also said its critical players respect their teachers and coaches.
“No one will have a more profound effect on you than these people,” Nanne said. “(If you respect them), you will have an enjoyment at all points through life.”
Nanne said hockey coaches are there for a purpose, and these volunteers have a right to do their job with both the respect of the players and their parents.
“The coaches are your teachers,” he said to the kids.
Nanne must have respected Mariucci. He learned the American game well.
In 1962–63 he led the WCHA in scoring with 43 points in 29 games and was named to the conference all-star team and the NCAA West first all-American team. This was followed by four high scoring years in USHL with the Rochester Mustangs.
After becoming a U.S. citizen, Nanne joined his new country’s national team in 1967, then scored four points in seven games at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics in France.
He signed with the Minnesota North Stars in March 1968 and got a couple of big league games under his belt before preparing for training camp.
Beginning in 1968–69, Nanne spent a decade wearing a North Stars uniform. He scored 21 goals in 1971–72 but was predominantly a playmaker and penalty killer. Of his 225 career points, 157 were assists.
After hanging up his skates, Nanne was named the North Stars general manager and coach.
The Stars improved from 68 to 88 points in 1979–80 and reached the Stanley Cup final the following season.
They also reached the semifinals in 1983–84 and were one of the most entertaining teams in the league for several years.
In his book, “A Passion to Win,” Nanne chronicles the highs and lows of his career and life, including his harrowing struggle with a disease that nearly overcame him He also shares memorable anecdotes.
Given a chance, Nanne would love to step out on the ice to play again.
“Hockey is the greatest sport to play,” he said. “It is the most fun.”
Play hard, study harder
by Jim Boyle
Balancing homework and hockey has meant many late nights and reading a fair number of textbooks on rides to and from games for Jeff Anderson.
And along the way he took some gentle ribbing from some teammates. Playful or not, the high school senior said he did not let it discourage him from pressing on.
Anderson, a senior at whose at the top of his class at Zimmerman High School, was one of three student speakers to open for Lou Nanne at the annual S.K.A.T.E. (Skaters Keep Achieving Through Education) on Feb. 27 at Elk River High School.
The member of the Elk River Youth Hockey Association’s Junior Gold Black team carries a 4.08 grade point average and is looking forward to narrowing down his choices for college.
“I know how hard it can be to juggle sports, school, family and friends,” said Anderson, who has been playing hockey for 14 years. “But not all of us will be able to play in the NHL.”
All three student speakers congratulated the students on their academic success and encouraged them to thank those around them — such as their parents.
Cassey Petrich, a member of the Elk River girls varsity hockey program for the past five years, said it’s important to work hard on the ice and even harder in the classroom.
For her that has meant not shying away from taking Advanced Placement classes and a foreign language.
“I didn’t want to take the easy way out,” she said. “I can do things now that I never thought I could.”
She is ranked 15th in her class of 409 students at Elk River High School with a G.P.A. of 3.976.
Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking everything came easy for her, she said.
She learned a lot about herself in an AP calculus class. She got her first C on a test and then followed it up with an F.
“At that moment I knew some things were going to have to change,” she said.
She stayed after class.
She spent more time on her homework.
And she asked more questions in class.
It all paid off with her final grade in the class.
“Things take time,” she said, noting to grasp something, it might take two days, two weeks or two months. She encouraged students to stick it out however long it takes.
She said she dreams of playing college hockey, and noted for everyone in the room that college hockey coaches will want you more if you have talent — and good grades.
Adam Watzke, a senior at Elk River High School who has played two years of varsity hockey, said he has been playing hockey for 13 years.
He also encouraged students to challenge themselves in school. He has taken College in the Schools, foreign language and Advanced Placement art classes. His G.P.A. is 3.688 and his class rank is 83.
“They teach you more about the chosen subject and also more about yourself,” he said. “With hard work comes great reward.”
Watzke said by going beyond what people expect of you is being a leader both on and off ice.