Eveleth’s Hippodrome ‘smells like hockey history’
The legendary arena recently marked 100 years of hosting hockey on the Iron Range.
EVELETH — A little after 3 p.m. Tuesday, the Duluth East boys hockey team’s bus pulled up for a game against Rock Ridge in Eveleth.
The players repeated a ritual that’s been repeated by teams for 100 years — they unloaded their equipment and brought it into the Hippodrome, a venue once called the “Madison Square Garden of the Northland,” according to the hockey history website vintagemnhockey.com.
The Hippodrome opened Jan. 1, 1922, when the Eveleth Reds beat the Duluth Hornets 10-6.
The Greyhounds fared better in their 5-3 win Tuesday, but the importance of the Hippodrome to Minnesota hockey was not far from anyone’s mind.
“You walk in and it just —- I don’t know it smells like hockey history for some reason,” Duluth East coach Steve Pitoscia said. “There’s big black and white pictures of guys from back in the day — legends like Willard Ikola and some of those guys that played up there. It’s just everywhere and then you go downstairs underneath and it’s old concrete — it’s an old-school barn in every sense.”
Originally built of wood at a cost of $50,000 by then-Eveleth Mayor Victor Essling, the Hippodrome saw renovations in 1938 that replaced the wood walls with brick and added a lobby. Artificial ice and concrete floors were added in 1950 and new locker rooms and coaches’ rooms were built in 2002.
Rock Ridge defenseman Nick Troutwine said he’s spent almost 15 years skating and playing at the Hippodrome.
“It’s almost like a second home to me,” Troutwine said. “It’s just crazy to think of all the great players that have come from here and all the different great teams that skated on this ice sheet. It’s crazy to think it’s been 100 years since the rink was first built.”
Despite the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame just over a mile away, the Hippodrome offers its own brand of hockey history.
“You start walking around and seeing all of the hockey greats that came out of here and it’s more like a museum,” Rock Ridge coach Ben Johnson said. “It’s just an amazing building for being 100 years old. It’s a fun place to play and we love it here.”
Many of those greats — like John Mariucci, Frank Brimsek, Mike Karakas, Sam LoPresti and John Mayasich — played under legendary coach Cliff Thompson, who coached Eveleth to five state titles between 1920 and 1958 and compiled a record of 534-26-9. Thompson’s teams won 78 straight games and four straight state titles from 1948-51.
Mayasich was on all four of those teams and went on to become the all-time leading scorer for the Minnesota Golden Gophers with 298 points. Hibbing’s Pat Micheletti is second on the list with 269 points. Mayasich also won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympic Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and gold in 1960 in Squaw Valley, California.
Mayasich, 88, said it was a treat when he got to play at the Hippodrome when he was a boy. He learned to play hockey in the most traditional Minnesota way — outdoors. Teams were organized around streets and those streets would become their rinks when he learned to play in the 1940s.
“People up here didn’t put cars in the streets,” Mayasich said. “Most of the people didn’t have cars — we didn’t. That was our rink for playing hockey. We shoveled goals out the snow banks and used a sponge ball or a tennis ball. That’s where we learned our playing skills.”
Mayasich also learned by watching the Eveleth Rangers of the Northern Hockey League play at the Hippodrome.
“I watched some of the players skate and I’d say, ‘I’m going to try to skate like him,’” Mayasich said. “That’s where I learned a lot of my skills.”
And Mayasich’s mythical 12-point game at the Hippodrome?
“It’s true,” he said, with a touch of modesty.
The game came against a Duluth school during Eveleth’s legendary run in the late 40s, but Mayasich wouldn’t say which. Cloquet had just started its hockey program and the team from Duluth manhandled the Lumberjacks 18-0 and Mayasich and his teammates took note.
“It wasn’t me, it was a team effort,” he said. “We said, ‘We’re going to go out and teach them a lesson.’ You should never go out and run up the score on a team that’s still learning the game.”
A new era
Al Ratai, an assistant for Duluth East, played for Virginia — Eveleth-Gilbert’s fiercest rival — in the late 1990s and said the teams had some battles at the Hippodrome from when he was a Peewee skater all the way through high school.
“One of the first arenas I’d ever played inside was here,” Ratai said.
The most memorable game for Ratai between the Golden Bears and the Blue Devils was in 1998 at Hibbing Memorial Arena. Eveleth-Gilbert beat Ratai’s Virginia team 3-2 in the Section 7A championship and went on to claim the Class A state title.
Ratai said there was a “camaraderie” to the rivalry that led to friendships forming between the squads later on.
Now, after generations of heated rivalry between the towns, Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert have consolidated their districts into Rock Ridge. While the two high schools will be separate until the new building in Virginia is completed in 2023, several sports — like football and girls and boys hockey — are already competing under the Rock Ridge name.
“It’s very hard, surreal for me to think of having to play with my biggest rival,” Ratai said. “But I do hope that they have a lot of success and do really well moving forward.”
Rock Ridge already has a new rink in the Iron Trail Motors Event Center in Virginia with an ice sheet as well as dry land practice facilities.
While the new rink is state of the art, Ratai was happy there will still be some games held at the Hippodrome each season.
“I’m really glad that they were able to find a compromise to still play some games here,” he said. “I think it’s important for the history, I think it’s important for the community of Eveleth and having these kids be exposed to the history of hockey. It’s not all about the big, brand new shiny buildings — there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this place.”