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DECC Hall of Fame: Karakas was tough on the ice, loving off it

Eveleth native Mike Karakas, who played for the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL, will be inducted into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame on Thursday. (Submitted photo)

NHL players always have had a reputation for toughness, so perhaps it came as no surprise that Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Mike Karakas played the 1938 Stanley Cup finals with a broken big toe.

After missing the first two games of the final against the Toronto Maple Leafs — which Chicago split — Karakas returned wearing a homemade steel-toed boot to protect the injury and won the next two games to give the Blackhawks their only Stanley Cup championship between 1935-1960.

“It was a steel toe, like the miners wore,” said Doug Palazzari, executive director of the Eveleth-based U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, which honored the Eveleth-raised Karakas by inducting him into its first class in 1973.

The exploits of Karakas, the first American-born NHL goalie, are remembered this week as he is posthumously inducted with four others into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame. The ceremony begins at 6 p.m. Thursday with dinner, followed by the induction program at 7 at the DECC’s Harborside Ballroom.

“I’m sure he’s sitting way up there in the clouds knowing what’s going on, and he’d be very proud,” Joan Karakas, 79, one of his two daughters, said by telephone last week from Narragansett, R.I., a seaside community south of Providence.

Her father died of brain cancer at age 81 in 1992.

GROWING UP IN A HOCKEY COMMUNITY

Though born in Aurora as the third of 11 children, Mike Karakas was raised in an area of Eveleth known as Chicken Town, comprised mainly of Yugoslavian immigrants who worked in the mines. It was there in the mines that his father, Luka, died while his mother was carrying her 11th child.

Three of the six brothers turned out to be goaltenders in a sport dominated by Canadians. But perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising since the small Iron Range community of Eveleth also produced NHL netminders Frank Brimsek and Sam LoPresti, who both joined Karakas in the inaugural U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame class.

Miners’ children played on neighborhood rinks, often using frozen cow pies as pucks. Growing up in a poor family, Karakas needed to wear his sister Kate’s hand-me-down skates.

“He was so mortified, but you just did what you had to do,” Joan said.

Karakas went on to play for the Eveleth Rangers, an amateur hockey club that won the state championship in 1931. He then joined the Chicago Shamrocks of the American Hockey Association, beginning a 19-year professional career.

He reached the NHL in 1935 after Chicago goalie Lorne Chabot was injured during training camp. Since teams didn’t carry backup goalies back then, Karakas became the full-time starter. He became the first goalie to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and was second in Vezina Trophy balloting as the league’s top goalie for posting a 1.85 goals-against average and nine shutouts.

The following season, despite only winning 14 games in a 48-game regular season, Karakas received high praise from Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Eddie Shore.

“Mike Karakas is the best goalie in the NHL,” Shore, of “old-time hockey” fame, was quoted as saying.

CATCHING FIRE AT THE RIGHT TIME

The 1937-38 season didn’t go well for Karakas, who posted a 14-25-9 record and a 2.8 goals-against average in the regular season. But he shined in the playoffs.

He broke his toe in the semifinals and it appeared he would miss the Stanley Cup finals against Toronto, during which the Blackhawks used Alfie Moore and Paul Goodman in goal in the opening two games.

But Karakas returned and completed the storybook ending by winning the next two games.

He became the first NHL player to appear on a Wheaties box and was noted for being the first to use a first-base-style goalie glove, which is still in use today. And he used that glove spectacularly, wielding perhaps the quickest glove hand of his time.

He played in an era before masks were used — Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens was the first NHL goalie to don a facemask in 1959 — and he received an estimated 500 stitches in his head throughout his career.

That just made him more ruggedly handsome, daughter Joan says.

“They were proud of being able to take all that stuff,” she said of the days before facemasks.

The next year the Blackhawks finished in last place and Karakas was subsequently loaned to the Canadiens for five winless games before being banished to play for the Providence Reds of the American Hockey League. He brought his wife, Carol, and daughters Nancy and Joan with, beginning a love affair with the Eastern seaboard.

“When they saw the ocean, they fell in love with it,” Joan said. “He knew from that day forward that someday he would have a boat and go out fishing. It was very calming and peaceful for him.”

Karakas won a Calder Cup championship with the Reds in 1941 and improbably returned to the Blackhawks at midseason in 1943-44 after World War II had claimed the best talent. Again Karakas excelled in the big games, winning a playoff semifinal to return for a chance to win the Stanley Cup. But the Canadiens’ dynasty in the making was too tough, sweeping the ’Hawks in four games.

STAYING OUT EAST AFTER RETIRING

Karakas played two more seasons in Chicago before closing his career back in Providence, where he chose to reside in retirement and become a handyman. He rarely brought up his NHL career to those around him, family members say.

“My dad (Lou) lived with him for a summer and said he’s one of the most pleasant guys you could ever meet,” Kraig Karakas, a White Bear Lake, Minn., product who played forward at Minnesota Duluth from 1990-94, said of his great uncle. “He always had a smile on his face and knew everybody in town.”

Though Kraig Karakas, who sells orthopedic implants for a division of Johnson & Johnson in Duluth and has analyzed UMD hockey games on TV and radio for about 10 years, only met his great uncle a few times at family reunions, he has fond remembrances.

“He was a modest guy,” Kraig said. “I heard more stories from his brothers. My uncle Tom made a book talking about his exploits.”

Kraig’s cousin, Cammy Newman, also remembers those family get-togethers.

“He was always happy and good with kids,” said Cammy, who was born and raised in Eveleth and teaches first-graders there. “He loved the game of golf so Kraig and I got into golf. They took us to the golf course.”

Joan Karakas agrees about his demeanor, and says her dad never tired of hearing positive recognition of his playing days.

“He was modest, a little bit shy, but very, very proud of his career,” she said.

Karakas also was proud of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, one of whom was born shortly before he died and named in his honor. That made him choke up even as he was dying of cancer.

“Uncle Tommy used to say, ‘There’s this tough hockey-player exterior, but he’s mush inside,’ Joan recalls. “He was really quite a soft, caring man.”

DECC Athletic Hall of Fame

What: 2015 induction ceremony

Who: Dan Conway, Zoe Hill, Mike Karakas, Tom MacLeod and Bob McDonald

When: Dinner at 6 p.m. Thursday, ceremony to follow

Where: DECC Harborside Ballroom

Tickets: $35 at DECC Ticket Office (sold until noon Tuesday)