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Jimmy Ross of Duluth holds the 31-inch walleye he caught May 30 near Oak Island on Lake of the Woods. Ross, 71, said it was the largest walleye he had ever caught. Ross, who played hockey for Denver University, joined several former University of Minnesota Duluth hockey players for a reunion at Lake of the Woods in late May. (Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com)

Former UMD hockey players are Bulldogs, and anglers, forever

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OAK ISLAND, LAKE OF THE WOODS — Billy McGann had been fishing for just four minutes when he felt the tap on his jig.

“He smacked it,” said Duluth’s McGann, setting the hook.

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McGann, 72, cranked the fish to the boat. In the twilight of this late May evening, his fishing partner, Billy Halbrehder of Houlton, Wis., netted the fish for him. The 21-incher was too long to keep, according to regulations, and McGann tossed it back to the dark water.

“That didn’t even take five minutes,” McGann said.

Up and down the shoreline of Oak Island on Lake of the Woods, eight other anglers in the party jigged for walleyes with equal success. Every now and then, you’d see someone reaching for a net, and another walleye would come aboard.

All of these guys had a lot of experience around nets of a different kind. Most of this venerable group had been forged in the crucible of UMD hockey 50 years ago. Duluth’s Jimmy Ross, 71, also along for this reunion, played for Denver University at the same time.

The former Bulldogs in the group all played in the early 1960s, when the University of Minnesota Duluth was making its transition to Division I hockey and eventually the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Now in their late 60s and early 70s, the ex-teammates make it a point to gather most summers to rekindle friendships formed on skates.

This year found them at cabins owned by former Bulldog Bob Lund, 73, of Roseau, Minn., on Oak Island, about a 15-minute boat ride from Minnesota’s Northwest Angle. For four days in late May, they caught walleyes, told the old stories and caught up on each other’s lives.

Familiar banter

They may have slowed a step or two over the decades, but these guys have lost none of the spirit that brought them together on the rink. They dropped right back into familiar hockey banter. Forwards denigrated defensemen. Defensemen belittled forwards. Everyone could recall individual hockey games, exact scores and specific events with unerring accuracy.

“Do you remember how many goals we scored in the RPI tournament?” Duluth’s Pat Francisco, 68, asked after dinner one evening.

“Twenty-nine,” former UMD player and head coach Terry Shercliffe of Moorhead, Minn., shot back across the room.

“Twenty-nine,” Francisco confirmed. “We set a record.”

It’s a safe bet everyone in the room could have answered the question.

Simpler time

They had arrived at UMD in a simpler time, when almost nobody dreamed of playing in the six-team NHL. Hockey wasn’t televised. Collegiate hockey at the Division I level was about the most a player could aspire to. The Bulldogs played their home games at the old Curling Club on London Road.

Nearly all of these guys fishing at Oak Island were there when UMD hockey was coming of age. In 1963-64, when several in this reunion group played, UMD was an independent team playing a Division I schedule. They traveled to Michigan and Colorado, and they captured the coveted Taconite Trophy, winning three of four games against the arch-rival Minnesota Gophers.

“Coming out of a non-hockey school (Proctor High School), going on these trips … it was pretty amazing,” said Bobby Bell, 68, now of Duluth.

Most of the athletes at the reunion came from northern Minnesota — Duluth, Proctor, International Falls, Roseau. Shercliffe grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan. Duluth’s Bob Hill and Keith “Huffer” Christiansen were part of those teams, too, but couldn’t make it to the Oak Island gathering.

Although Ross played college hockey at Denver, he’s apparently grandfathered into these gatherings because he and Duluth’s Dick Fisher, 70, were teammates on Duluth East’s 1960 state high school championship team.

Fishing and friendship

The getaway offered plenty of time for fishing as well as reminiscing. That first evening, the anglers brought in 16 walleyes in just an hour or so of fishing. They threw back many more that fell within the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot limit. Other days and evenings were equally productive.

One morning, Ross landed a gorgeous 31-inch walleye on a spinner rig and a night crawler.

“That’s the first bite I’ve had in two days,” Ross said. “It’s the biggest walleye I’ve ever caught in my life.”

The second night at Lund’s idyllic property on the island, Fisher and Ross pulled out a cowboy-sized skillet and fried fillets for most of an hour. After dinner, Lund hauled out his accordion and ran through his repertoire of old standards.

But this trip was as much about friendship as fishing. Throughout the gathering, the bond among these five-decade friends was evident at every turn. You could hear it as the stories rolled out at dinner. You could see it in quiet one-on-one conversations on the deck. You could see it in the way they made sure everyone had a spot in a boat when it was time to catch more walleyes.

One morning at breakfast, Fisher was eating his cereal when Jerry Wherley, a former Bulldog goalie from International Falls, reached over him to spoon some strawberry jam for his toast.

“Pretty good scoop for a goalie,” jived Fisher, a former defenseman.

Wherley, accustomed to Fisher’s barbs, looked at him and nudged a gentle fist against Fisher’s bicep. The two men exchanged 50-year grins.

Lifelong bonds

One lazy afternoon at Oak Island, jigging night crawlers for walleyes, Fisher and Francisco talked about what those formative years had taught them.

“You can take people of totally different personalities,” Fisher said. “What they share is hockey. You learn that not everyone is like you, and it broadens your perspective.”

Francisco said he and his teammates learned not to be self-centered.

“You learn to revere the team guy,” he said.

They probably didn’t know it at the time, but those years would bind them together for life.

“You practice. You improve your skills. Then the game comes, and the arena fills with people to see what you’ve worked on,” he said. “It’s a lot of risk to perform in front of those people. All these people here have shared that risk, that struggle, to perform together. We played at a pretty high level. It was a challenging time, and none of us will ever forget it.”

That’s why they come together at someplace like Lake of the Woods most summers. Walleyes are part of it, to be sure. Everyone loves a good fish fry. But Bobby Bell, smoking his pipe on the deck one evening, got right to the heart of it.

“It’s just about friendship, about when we were young,” he said.

Oh, the hockey stories they tell

When you get a bunch of former UMD hockey players from the 1960s together, the stories flow. Here’s a brief sampling of those told at a recent gathering on Lake of the Woods:

* Defensemen have been known to accuse forwards of being too offense-oriented and not eager to drop back and help out defensively, called back-checking. Pat Francisco of Duluth, a forward, says UMD All-American defensemen Bob Hill of Duluth once told him, “It was three years before I knew you had a face.”

“I just knew him as No. 17,” Hill said in a conversation after the trip.

* As Bob Lund of Roseau, Minn., tells the story, UMD coach Ralph Romano was chewing out defenseman Dick Fisher of Duluth during a game at North Dakota. The conversation went something like this, Lund said, possibly with some expletives deleted:

Romano: “Fisher, you’re playing so bad, I ought to bench you.”

Fisher: “Well, coach, if I’m playing that bad then maybe you should just bench me.”

Romano: “Well, all right, then. You’re benched.”

At which point, Fisher got up and headed for the showers. After the game, some of the players were listening to a post-game radio show. Fisher was named one of the three stars of the game.

* In a particularly heated game at Michigan Tech, UMD All-American Keith “Huffer” Christiansen was headed for a breakaway late in the game and was allegedly being speared by a Tech defenseman, according to accounts by both Bobby Bell and Pat Francisco of Duluth. Christiansen wheeled and retaliated against the defenseman, who had lost his helmet. Blood may have been drawn.

“The Tech goalie came after Huffer, wheeling his stick like a helicopter blade,” Francisco said.

Other Tech players came after him, too, but Christiansen took refuge behind the referees. He was quickly escorted out the end gate. The gate was slammed behind him, saving him from the wrath of Tech players, Francisco said. Tech fans were pounding on the UMD locker room door.

After they had showered, the UMD players formed a protective shield around Christiansen, led to the bus by big defenseman Fisher as incensed Tech fans shouted and jeered alongside.

Once on the bus, the team received a police escort several miles out of Houghton.

“I don’t think any of us have been back there since,” Francisco said. Who was on the trip

Ten former University of Minnesota Duluth hockey players from the early 1960s gathered May 29 through June 1 to fish on Lake of the Woods near the Northwest Angle. They stayed at the cabins of Bob Lund of Roseau, Minn., on Oak Island. Those who attended included:

Bobby Bell, 68, Duluth

Dick Fisher, 70, Duluth

Pat Francisco, 68, Duluth

Billy Halbrehder, 71, Houlton, Wis.

Bob Lund, 73, Roseau, Minn.

Billy McGann, 72, Duluth

Jimmy Ross, 71, Duluth

Duane Rosti, 72, International Falls

Terry Shercliffe, 71, Moorhead, Minn.

Jerry Wherley, 72, International Falls.

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Sam Cook
(218) 723-5332
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