Neal Rubin has never been to Duluth, but he liked the team name "Duluth Denfeld Hunters" and wanted to provide a treat for Northland readers, so he penned it into the Gil Thorp comic strip he writes.
Readers of the strip noticed the Denfeld Hunters reference in the News Tribune on Monday (strip at right) and Tuesday.
The strip's fictitious Milford High plays teams in the Valley Conference but, like most schools, they also play nonconference games and in tournaments against other teams.
"It occurred to me early on that I can either make names up or do a little bit of research and find actual schools in the areas where people read Gil Thorp," Rubin said by phone Tuesday from Detroit. "It's fun for me. I hope it's fun for readers. It just gives people an opportunity to point at the newspaper and say, 'Hey, that's us.' "
Rubin, 51, is a columnist for the Detroit News. He took over writing the 48-year-old strip in 2004. "Gil Thorp" is syndicated and distributed by Tribune Media Services. Rubin estimates it's published in about 50 newspapers around the country and also appears on the Chicago Tribune Web site, he said.
The strip was created by Jack Berrill, who died in 1996. He named it for two of his heroes -- Olympian Jim Thorpe and Brooklyn Dodgers baseball star Gil Hodges. Berrill wrote and drew the strip. Frank McLaughlin draws the current strip, with Rubin providing the words.
Rubin said he received a "nice e-mail" from Denfeld boys basketball coach Jeff Nace on Tuesday, asking him about the Denfeld reference. Nace couldn't be reached for comment late Tuesday afternoon. The real Hunters were on their way to Hibbing to play the Bluejackets on Tuesday night.
"He [Nace] was wondering the same thing you were wondering -- was this a coincidence?" Rubin said. "I have a list of cities where Gil Thorp runs. I just thought I haven't done anything with Duluth and the Internet makes it so easy. I went online and started poking around. I like the name Denfeld. It's distinctive and, bless its heart, it's also short. Hunters is also unique and it fits the space in the strip. I made sure to use Hunters just to make it ring more true with people who know Denfeld."
Denfeld principal Ed Crawford said he was amazed to see the school mentioned in a national comic strip.
"I think it's a positive thing," Crawford said. "We actually announced it to the students as part of our daily announcement. The kids and staff really got a kick out of it. They were being inquisitive about how we came about having our name mentioned."
The Hunters aren't mentioned in today's strip, but readers can see that they knocked off the Gil Thorp-coached Milford Mudlarks.
Rubin was working for a newspaper in Las Vegas when he applied for a position with the Detroit Free Press in 1984. As part of the hiring process, he was asked to critique the newspaper, including its comics section.
"At the time, they were running Gil Thorp and Dondi," Rubin said. "I thought, for God's sake, let's at least join the '70s. [But] there was a huge Gil Thorp fan base at the Free Press and, within a month, I was swept in. It got to the point that when Gil and Mimi, the girls coach, got married, we had a wedding reception at the paper for these cartoon characters. So basically, I joined the cult pretty quick."
Rubin, a feature writer at the time, half-joked that he started looking for excuses to write Gil Thorp stories. Every time a new Thorp product was produced, he would write a story about it.
Rubin proposed to an editor that he write a story about a Gil Thorp calendar. "He looked at me and said, 'Didn't we have a Gil Thorp story last year?' I said, 'Yeah, but you've got to understand that, next to Chicago, we're the largest market in the country for Gil Thorp merchandise. He gave me one of those, 'You're an idiot' looks and said 'That's because you keep writing about it.' "
When Jerry Jenkins, the man who followed Berrill in writing the strip, decided to devote his time to writing Christian books, the syndicate gave about a dozen writers auditions to become the new voice of Gil Thorp, Rubin said. He won the tryout by writing a proposal, some story lines and an actual strip. "When the ink spots cleared, I wound up with the strip," he said.
Rubin revealed that Thorp's Milford cagers soon will play another Northeastern Minnesota team, but asked that the team not be named beforehand so readers of the strip can be surprised.