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UMD hockey great Christiansen dies at 74

Minnesota Duluth's Keith "Huffer" Christiansen, left, and Jim Branch of Minnesota, right, pose for a ceremonial puck drop with UMD provost Raymond Darland during the first game at the DECC on Nov. 19, 1966. News Tribune file photo

Minnesota Duluth hockey legend Keith “Huffer” Christiansen, who is credited with bringing the Bulldogs men’s program into major college prominence in the 1960s, died Monday morning at the age of 74 due to complications from lung cancer.

His funeral will take place Saturday at the building he christened with a record-setting performance in 1966, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Visitation begins at 12:30 p.m. with a memorial service starting at 2 p.m., followed by a reception, all inside the Harborside Ballroom.

An All-American, Olympian and hall of famer, Christiansen is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Evie; their two children, Brad Christiansen and Marla Halvorson; and their four grandchildren, Peter, Susan, Mya and Leah.

“As I think about my dad and hockey, he loved hockey. There is no question about it,” Halvorson said by phone Monday in remembering her father. “He played hockey right up until he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We knew he was playing even with lung cancer.

“As good of a hockey player as my dad was, he was an even better husband, father and grandfather to us. That’s what really mattered the most to us in the end.”

Christiansen, a Duluth resident since 1975 who retired from Kolar Buick, is a native of Fort Frances, Ontario, but he played Minnesota high school hockey across the border at International Falls. The Falls is where he met Evie, and where he led the Broncos to the state championship in 1962.

Christiansen, who went on to wear No. 9 at UMD from 1963-67, was the first Bulldog to have his number retired, on Jan. 30, 1988. He led the team in scoring all four years, finishing with 75 goals and 121 assists for 196 career points.

The team’s most valuable player award is named after Christiansen, which is fitting since he won it three times. He is also one of just three Bulldogs to be named Team MVP as a freshman.

Christiansen was a charter member of the UMD Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991 and was later inducted into the DECC Hall of Fame in 2004 and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005. He was named one of the WCHA’s 50 best players from the league’s first 50 years in 2002.

“Bulldog men's hockey lost one of our all-time greats today. Keith "Huffer" Christiansen was the heart and soul of his program from the day he first stepped on campus in 1963 though the present with his involvement and support,” UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said. “We will miss you, but not forget you Huffer. Our thoughts and prayers are with Evie and the entire family."

Christiansen was named WCHA MVP and All-American his senior season of 1966-67 after posting 23 goals and 39 assists.

In the Bulldogs' inaugural game at the DECC on Nov. 19, 1966, he totaled six assists in an 8-1 victory over Minnesota. The six assists and six points still stand as UMD single-game records.

“I think we surprised everyone, even ourselves, in the first game at the DECC,” Christiansen told the News Tribune in December 2010 just before the Bulldogs played their last game at the DECC. “We were so excited and then everything went right.”

After playing at UMD, Christiansen captained Team USA to a silver medal at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. He also played two seasons in the World Hockey Association with the Minnesota Fighting Saints.

Murray Williamson was the coach of Christiansen’s 1972 Olympic team. In an email that was shared with the News Tribune by Christiansen’s granddaughter, Susan, Williamson shared the story that most exemplified Christiansen’s role as a leader. It wasn’t from the Olympics, but that first game at the DECC against Minnesota.

“That started his legendary career for the Bulldogs and its elevation to major-college status,” wrote Williamson, a native of Eveleth who was an All-America player for the Gophers. “Coach Glen Sonmor brought the Golden Gophers to Duluth for an exhibition game to toy with the unheralded Bulldogs. The score — Bulldogs 8 and Gophers 1. Huffer Christensen had six assists and gave all the credit for the victory to his teammates. That was Huffer, the unselfish leader of all the teams who were fortunate to have them as their leader.”

The Bulldogs didn’t make their WCHA debut until Christiansen’s junior season and, in the words of former UMD athletic director and WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod — who was a teammate and linemate of Christiansen’s at UMD — he was the one who carried the UMD men's hockey program into the league.

Pat Francisco, who played on the same line with Christiansen and McLeod at UMD, said Christiansen was UMD’s first true superstar and was “the foundation on which the the current UMD hockey program was built.”

“When I think of Huffer, I think of two things. An incredible hockey player — it was an absolute gift for me to be able to play with him for four years — and I think of a really tremendous human being,” Francisco said. “He had a quick wit ... and sometimes some people didn't see past that. But when you got to know him he was really a sensitive, great guy.”

In addition to averaging 1.92 points per game — second all-time at UMD — Christiansen was a fiery player on the ice. He took 95 penalties for 258 minutes in his 102 career games, including 85 his senior year. A couple of those penalty minutes came during a heated game one season at Michigan Tech.

In a story told by Francisco and Bobby Bell to former News Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook during a 2014 gathering at Lake of the Woods, Christiansen was speared by a Tech defenseman on a breakaway and the UMD forward decided to retaliate. The rest of the Huskies then came after Christiansen.

“The Tech goalie came after Huffer, wheeling his stick like a helicopter blade,” Francisco told Cook, who wrote that not only did Christiansen require a protective escort to the locker room and later out of the rink, but the Bulldogs’ bus needed a police escort “several miles out of Houghton” that night.

“I don't think any of us have been back there since,” Francisco told the News Tribune.

That’s a story Christiansen’s daughter, Marla, knows very well. She’s not only heard it told by her father, but by his teammates. Those teammates were her father’s family and what he cherished most about the sport of hockey, she said.

“As much as he loved the game, I think what mattered the most to him were his teammates and the lifelong friends that are still in our lives,” Halvorson said. “They are Bulldogs, they are Olympians, they are Fighting Saints.

“Dad loved hockey, but Dad loved the people hockey brought into our lives.”