By Jess Myers
WARROAD, Minn. — Following the 1992 Warroad Celebrity Golf Tournament, when the winning foursome was introduced by banquet emcee “Mean” Gene Okerlund, the famed pro wrestling announcer heard some playful taunts from a member of the audience. The friendly heckler noted that the golf course owner’s son was among the winners, so clearly the fix was in.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let me assure you…” deadpanned Okerlund in his booming voice. “I would NEVER let myself be involved with anything that could be called ‘fixed’ or ‘fake.’”
Okerlund died in January. But a significant swath of the region’s hockey world will gather at the challenging 18-hole course north of Hockeytown USA. There will still be a throng of fans lurking around each of the greens, politely seeking autographs from national champion college coaches (Brad Berry, Dean Blais and Scott Sandelin), Mr. Hockey award winners (Tom Chorske, Paul Martin and Larry Olimb), Olympic gold medal winners (Bill Baker, Bill Christian, Dave Christian, Gigi Marvin and Buzz Schneider) and a host of other notable names on Saturday.
This summer marks the third event in the second incarnation of this midsummer celebration of hockey, which raises funds for youth sports in Warroad. The community does not charge for ice time in its youth hockey ranks, but freezing a rink and keeping the lights on still costs money, hence the need for fundraising. Bringing big hockey names to town to play golf is a decades-old idea. As of late this week there are 34 foursomes, with participants each paying $250 for a round of golf with a hockey celebrity, and a dinner to follow.
In the wake of the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the Christian and Marvin families helped organize the first Warroad Celebrity Golf Tournament in the summer of 1981, bringing an eclectic mix of U.S. Olympians, NHLers and local college players to town. A few dozen boys and girls from the community would volunteer to caddy (the battle that first year among the kids was who would get to carry Steve Christoff’s bags), earning an autographed scorecard and maybe a $20 tip for their efforts. The golf was always on Saturday, with a banquet that night, and the late Cal Marvin would organize a Lake of the Woods fishing trip and fish fry on Sunday.
Fans quickly learned it was a great place to meet with some hockey heroes in a relaxed setting, and the region’s college coaches found it to be a great way to get access to recruits, especially among Warroad’s talent pool, when the Warriors made it to three straight state tournaments in the late 1980s. Retired Minnesota Gophers coach Doug Woog recalled being peeved in 1987 when he got to Warroad for the tournament only to learn that Olimb, the Warriors’ star defenseman, had been placed in a foursome with then-North Dakota coach Gino Gasparini. Olimb would eventually end up with the Gophers and remains their all-time assist leader.
In 1990, the tournament brought together most of the Miracle on Ice players for a 10-year reunion, and three years later paired the tournament with the grand opening of their current arena, The Gardens. That event drew Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, to Warroad where he golfed, signed autographs, stood at center ice and blessed the new rink, and then caught walleyes.
“The building is beautiful. Please leave it like you found it,” Howe said.
In the 1990s, the golf tournament tradition ended, but it was re-born in 2017 and has quickly attracted a crowd of regular participants and attendees who are treated to a day of fishing — with guides donating their time and gas — and a day of golf.
“There was a group of us that wondered if we could do it, and we felt like our summers were missing that big event that we always had,” said David Marvin, Warroad’s girls hockey coach and one of the chief organizers of the weekend. “We felt like we had new connections and from there things have really fallen into place. It was one of those things like, ‘could we, should we, let’s try it’ and it’s been really well-received.”
Marvin (formerly Marvin Windows and Doors), the Warroad-based building materials company, donates seats on a few of its corporate planes to get celebrities from the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport to Warroad in 75 minutes (as opposed to the six-plus hours it takes by car). David Marvin said the event doesn’t work without the company donating the transportation. Though the community has never paid appearance fees, the celebs get VIP treatment in town, with food and lodging provided.
The day on the links is followed by a banquet and steak dinner held at the arena, and this year the event will be opened to the public after the meal is served so people can witness the ceremony retiring the jerseys worn by Bill and Dave Christian when they were Warroad Warriors. A silent auction and a raffle where winners get their pick of more than a dozen autographed NHL and college jerseys is another highlight.
The fiscal goal for the last two tournaments was to raise $45,000, and David Marvin said the money goes primarily to pay for hockey officials.
“One of the biggest costs in youth hockey, for Warroad and I would imagine everywhere, is referees,” Marvin said. “We’re a town that advocates volunteering and we do pretty good with that, but you still need to pay refs. That’s been a rising cost, so the youth hockey program depends on the golf tournament substantially for operating expenses.”
Additional information is available at https://celebritygolfinvite.hockeytownusa.org/
Note: Jess Myers of The Rink Live and Forum News is a Warroad native and will serve as emcee for the tournament’s golf, banquet and jersey retirement events for the second consecutive year.