HIBBING — The Hibbing High School boys hockey team has only won two state titles in their history — 1952 and 1973.
In 1985, that could be the state title that got away.
One year removed from a state-tournament berth and a third-place finish, the Bluejackets reloaded and had their sights set on winning the state title, with a team filled with blue-collar workers.
All indications pointed to a possible state title because Hibbing had a perfect balance of players returning.
“Quite frankly, we weren’t the most talented team in the state from a high-end standpoint, but I don’t think there was a deeper team in the state than what we had,” said John Hyduke, who was the goaltender on that team. “That was one of our strengths, and Bill Olson and Bill Techar coached to that strength.
“The forwards, defensemen and goaltending, they were all strong.”
The team was strong because they had that common bond of repeating as Section 7 champions.
“It was unique,” Tom Hanson said. “We knew what we had to go again. It was truly a team of seniors that wanted to get back to state, but win it this time.”
With the number of seniors on that team, Rue said the confidence level was high.
“With guys like (Bo) Nickoloff, Tom and (Jerry) Christoff, we had solid defense,” Rue said. “We had John in nets. That’s a good start right there. Bill (Olson) was a good motivator, and could build up your confidence.
“Bill (Techar) was more Xs and Os. It worked out. They balanced each other out well.”
The 1985 team consisted of Hyduke, Hanson, John Schwartz, Joe Gaustad, Mike Vidmar, Mark Kasner, John Hagen, Paul Gherardi, Mike Grillo, Rich Bryant, Shawn Gaustad, Christoff, Nickoloff, Pat Marolt, Rue, Pete Wohlers, Jim Petrie, Doug Torrel, Steve Torrel and Jim Monacelli.
Hibbing had lost some talented players to graduation, but that didn’t deter this team from trying to repeat as section champs.
“It was a similar team to 1984 as we were running four lines,” said Grillo. “We were strong, with some depth. We lost (Tony) Catani, (Pat) Iozzo and (John) Zezel, but we did replace them with other guys. We had the ability to go with four lines and wear teams down.
“We didn’t have anybody go crazy with scoring. Everybody played their role. They stepped up.”
The framework was put into place on the opening day of practice.
“We had a practice at the Fairgrounds, which we never did,” said Nickoloff. “The coaches came in and said it didn’t matter who was playing well, either the third or first lines, we were playing to win. That was the determination. We had our defensive core and goalies back, with another year under our belts.
“We did a little more team bonding during that season. People were willing to give it their all, to sacrifice, to make it happen.”
That team bonding meant working out together as a group.
“We’d meet at the Pamida parking lot every night at 8:30 p.m.,” Hanson said. “We would run sprints. The whole team did it. It was a united team, and we wanted to get better.
We worked hard to get better.
“We felt that was going to get us better to move ahead.”
The Bluejackets were still stinging from that state-tournament loss the previous year, a 5-1 loss to Edina in the state semifinals, but they knew how talented this team was going to be.
“Because of what our goal was it wasn’t unrealistic to have that goal based on the previous year,” Vidmar said.
That’s how John Rue remembers it, too.
“We were ranked in the top five all year,” Rue said. “Most of those guys had been to the tournament the year before. Most of the team thought we were going back. We were thinking we were going to win it.”
It was only the Iron Range Conference Jamboree, but Hanson thought this team was going to be special.
“We beat Virginia, and that set the tone for the season,” Hanson said. “The work ethic is what made us unique. There were no phones or video games back then. It was all about the game.
“We socialized together. That’s what we did.”
There was only one goal in 1985.
“Our goal was to win the state, no hesitation,” Vidmar said. “We knew based on the previous year, and who we had back, we were a legitimate team in the state.
“We needed to play that way. That was the big difference between 1984 and 1985,”
Vidmar missed part of the 1985 season with a staph infection, but he does remember playing against George Pelawa of Bemidji.
“That (infection) set me back,” Vidmar said. “When I came back, my trajectory wasn’t the same, but as for George, I couldn’t move him from in front of the net. It was crazy.
Later on, I played college football with someone from Bemidji who was friends with him.”
During that Bemidji game, Nickoloff said there was a little extracurricular activity going on down by the locker rooms.
“As we were going down the basement, somebody said something, and things almost got out of hand,” Nickoloff said. “We were going back-and-forth. The police had to come down there and break it up.
“We didn’t actually start throwing anything, but it was getting close. It was quite the game. For us, we were ranked No. 1, and teams wanted to knock us off every game. They were coming at us.”
If there was one ritual that season, it came in the form of the band, “Survivor.”
“We always played “Eye of the Tiger,” Hanson said. “We loved what it stood for. Every time we left the locker room we had to play that song.”
Techar remembers Dr. Ben Owens, who was the team physician for football and hockey.
“We had a great relationship, but he wanted to win so bad that he would come into the locker room in between periods,” Techar said with a chuckle. “Bill and I are in there, and it’s a tight game.
“Doc says, ‘You know, you guys have to get them together and get them going. You have to fire them up. They’re not doing this, and they’re not doing that.’”
The coaches shot back, “Don’t tell us how to coach, and we won’t tell you how to stitch someone up or handle a knee problem,” Techar said. “If he was here now, he would remember that conversation. It was comical.
“We had a great relationship.”
Kasner remembers Doc in another way.
“He was the best,” Kasner said. “He tried to do whatever he could to get me to gain weight. We all loved him. If Doc said, ‘Do this,’ we did it. He wanted me to eat oatmeal. He cared. He would scream like heck on the bench.”
Hibbing cruised through the regular season, and got through the section tournament.
Hanson remembers the lead up to that championship game against International Falls.
“I remember walking into the arena at 4:30 p.m., and the lobby of the memorial building was jam packed,” Hanson said. “They weren’t letting people into the arena yet, but while we were running around the rink, it looked like a mob mentality.
“People were trying to get tickets. I’ll never forget how many people were trying to get into that game. I’ll never forget how loud that rink was. We had our full band, and the Falls’ band was there. All of the Iron Range ended up at that game. It was intense.”
At state, the Bluejackets ran into Hill-Murray in the quarterfinals.
Hibbing was up 3-2 in the third period, and the Bluejackets were out-playing the Pioneers.
The next goal would be huge, and unfortunately, Hibbing didn’t get it.
Hill-Murray scored with 1:05 to play in regulation, which sent the game into overtime.
“We hadn’t lost a lead all year,” Kasner said. “We had a few opportunities to put it away, but we couldn’t do it, then we had a bounce that didn’t go our way. We shouldn’t have been in overtime.”
Just for the record, the Bluejackets were 19-0 when leading in the third period.
“We were supposed to play Burnsville in the finals, but we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain,” Kasner said. “That game got away.”
Hill-Murray would score 20 seconds into overtime to knock Hibbing in the consolation semifinals.
“It was heartbreaking,” Wohlers said. “Our line was buzzing around the net at the end of regulation, so they put us out there to start the overtime. We were all over them. We started with a rush on that first shift, then they came back with a long mid-ice pass and it was done.”
Kasner said, “We had no fear that we weren’t going to win that game. The fact that overtime was over so quick is a head scratcher.”
That ended the Bluejackets’ chances of winning the tournament, but not the memories that game created.
“To win the whole thing, that’s the way we played all year,” Hyduke said. “There wasn’t a deeper team in the state. We probably should have won the state. Over the years, when you talk to everyone, we still feel that way.
“As you get older and get further away from the game that was played, we were a good hockey team. We lost to Hill in that game. A lot of those players have become good friends of mine over the years, and that hasn’t been fun. We let that one get away. We probably should have won that year.”
Richie Bryant, who missed the 1984 state tournament with a broken collarbone, remembers that loss, too.
“We were expecting to win it,” Bryant said. “Hill-Murray, we beat them during the regular season, so we expected to go down there and win. Actually, it was all a blur for me. It was a huge letdown.
“We knew the other teams were good because we played a lot of those teams. Sometimes, it all comes down to the bounce of the puck.”
Olson tried to take the sting of that loss away.
“He said, ‘You know, you guys had a great season. I know you wanted to win the state, but the sun will come out tomorrow,’” Hanson said. “He wanted us to look at the bigger picture. He was right.”
The Bluejackets would win their consolation-semifinal game over Hastings, then they took on Minnetonka in the fifth-place game.
Hibbing would beat the Skippers in overtime for the consolation title
“You win some and lose some,” Hyduke said. “The state tournament showcases the community of hockey. It’s about the people you get to know and play against. They still remember those times.
“Everyone moves on, but when we get together, we chat about the fun times we had. We get a chance to reminisce. Hockey is a great community.”
Rue said, “That was a big boost to end it like that. Steve Torrel scored the goal. He was out most of the year with a knee injury, so that was pretty good.”
John Hagen was the leading goal scorer for the Bluejackets that season, playing on a line with Kasner and Grillo.
The year before, he was diagnosed with mono and missed two of the state games. This time, he played in all of them, but that didn’t take away the sting of losing that Hill-Murray game.
“We were the best team in the state,” Hagen said. “We were talented, but not many of us continued on. Most of us were, and still are, disappointed with how things turned out.”
Vidmar tried to keep things in perspective.
“I was fortunate to play with a lot of good hockey players, a lot of players who had a passion for the game,” Vidmar said. “There was no doubt our goal was to win the state. We should have been in the finals but in sports, things can come crashing down on you.
“You don’t always attain those goals, but you work hard trying to do that.”
Hockey was more than just wins and losses for Hanson, but he admitted that those thoughts cross his mind even when he’s doing what he likes best — hunting.
“The run we made in the 1980s for state appearance and our overall record, I sit in my turkey blind thinking about it,” Hanson said. “As I’ve gotten older, those memories are burned into my mind. They’re great memories.
“They taught me a lot of life skills, work ethic and how to get along with people, skills that are vital in today’s world. When the state comes on, I still get goosebumps thinking about it.”