By Louie St. George
DULUTH, Minn. — Nobody could have possibly known it at the time, but Eveleth’s 4-1 loss to Roseau in the semifinals of the 1947 boys hockey state tournament would spur one of the great dynasties in Minnesota high school sports.
“We thought, ‘Well we’re gonna come back and we’re gonna win this thing,’ ” said Willard Ikola, then a freshman goaltender for the Golden Bears.
Big dreams for the slight netminder.
They paled in comparison to what actually transpired over the next three years.
That loss to Roseau, which went on to finish second behind St. Paul Johnson, was the last of Ikola’s dazzling prep career. He and his ahead-of-their-time teammates, who coached themselves while playing youth hockey on outdoor ice around Eveleth — with Saturday morning games inside the hallowed Hippodrome — peeled off three consecutive undefeated seasons (Eveleth made it four perfect winters in a row in 1950-51 after Ikola had left for the University of Michigan).
John Mayasich scored the goals, and Ikola stopped them.
Seventy years later, the man affectionately known as “Ike” still holds the record for most state tournament shutouts with five. Four came in a span of six games in 1949 and ’50. He may have only been 5-foot-7, 145 pounds in high school, but Ikola was a giant between the pipes.
When Minnesota Hockey Hub counted down the top 100 prep players in state history in 2011, Ikola was No. 7. First was Mayasich, who said one of the reasons for his brilliance was the guy he had to try and beat every day at practice.
“The advantage that we had as forwards over three or four years of high school hockey was shooting at a guy like Ike,” Mayasich said.
Ikola, along with five others, was inducted into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame on Wednesday, May 15.
The winning didn’t stop for Ikola when he graduated from Eveleth. Far from it. He accepted an athletic scholarship to Michigan and, after sitting out his freshman season per NCAA rules, led the Wolverines to Division I titles as a sophomore and junior, then third place as a senior.
It’s a loss, however, that continues to torment the 86-year-old Ikola, who resides in Minnetonka, Minn. He was selected for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, where the Americans won a silver medal, with Ikola being named the event’s most outstanding goalie. A 4-0 loss to the Soviet Union prevented them from claiming gold.
“That’s a game I’ve played over and over in my head,” Ikola said. “Nobody remembers who won the silver medal; they only remember who won gold.”
How prolific was the American hockey pipeline that ran through Eveleth? The 1956 Olympic squad included ex-Golden Bears Mayasich and John Matchefts. Matchefts also starred at Michigan.
With all the success Ikola enjoyed as a player, he might be best remembered for the 616 games and eight state championships he won as Edina’s head coach. Ikola coached 33 seasons — first at Edina, then Edina East when the district opened a second high school, then Edina again when an enrollment decline prompted the shuddering of Edina West — before retiring in 1991.
Along the way, he amassed a career record of 616-149-38. His eight titles rank first in Minnesota, while his win total is fourth. Ikola, who’d always wanted to be a prep coach, only had one losing season with the Hornets. It was his first one, and he knows precisely who was at fault for the 4-9-5 eyesore.
That would be the guy in the familiar houndstooth hat calling the shots.
“It was the coach,” Ikola told “Sports Illustrated” in March 1991. “He didn’t know what he was doing.”
Oh, he eventually figured it out.
Ikola estimates that 105 of his Edina players went on to compete at the NCAA Division I level, and nine reached the NHL. His Hornets were fixtures atop the powerful Lake Conference.
What was behind the dominance?
“I think that’s something a lot of people would like to know,” joked former Hornet Ben Hankinson, now a hockey agent who played for Ikola from 1986-87.
Hankinson said Ikola was tough but fair. Things were done his way, no doubt, but the coach also was approachable. He worked tirelessly with a thriving youth program, knowing full well that it would keep his high school team stocked year after year. He never wavered from the high standards he’d set for himself and his club.
And he had a way with parents. Hankinson says one year an upset parent wanted to voice his displeasure, so Ikola said he’d call the next day and the two could chat. Which he did — at 5 a.m.
“Before you know it, the conversation was over,” Hankinson said.
Ikola, a member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, had a knack for wringing every ounce of talent from his players, who begrudgingly warmed to their hard-charging coach, Hankinson said.
“You had to respect him, but I think everyone liked him, too,” Hankinson said. “You couldn’t argue with the win-loss record. He did everything the right way and he made his players better.”
Ikola’s coaching exploits didn’t surprise Mayasich.
“He always had those leadership qualities,” Mayasich said, noting Ikola’s time in the Air Force. “Ike was special.”
It all started on July 28, 1932, in the “Capital of American Hockey.” In a town where basketball was king — at least back then — Ikola and his buddies took up a different winter sport. And they played it on just about any patch of ice they could find.
“We lived on those outside rinks,” said Ikola, who as a kid loved listening to “Hockey Night in Canada.”
That’s where Ikola learned to mind the net. In those days, there were no goalie camps or goalie coaches, at least not for high schoolers on the Iron Range. He just put on the pads and aimed to keep the puck out of the net.
Few have done it better.
Back in those days, Ikola and his teammates didn’t specialize in hockey. They played everything. Football, hockey, baseball … heck, Mayasich even did track and field and tennis. In baseball, Mayasich pitched to Ikola, a terrific backstop.
“I bet at Michigan he could’ve played baseball, too,” Mayasich said.
They simply loved to compete, regardless of the game. More often than not, they came out on top.
“The mindset was to go out and have fun,” Mayasich said, “and winning is fun.”
Ikola had a lot of “fun” in his hockey career.
Louie St. George (@Louiesg3) can be reached at LStGeorge@duluthnews.com or (