50 years later, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame right where it belongs
Starting its 50th season since opening in 1973, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum remains treasured by the Iron Range town that built it.
EVELETH, Minn. — A person could write a book about the history of hockey in this single town of 3,500 that greets arrivals to the Iron Range.
In miniature, the book would tell a good story of American hockey from start to where the game is now.
“We’ve had hockey here since the late 1800s,” said Doug Palazzari, Eveleth native and one of the townsfolk for whom hockey was a passport to the world outside the range.
“We’ve had an indoor rink since 1917,” Palazzari continued. “So many players came out of here it was incredible.”
Palazzari is the executive director of the Eveleth-based U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum. Built by a local contractor in 1972, and draped in flags bearing images of some of the country’s best men and women, the museum is situated — like a point defender ready with a slap shot — at the top of the city along U.S. Highway 53.
It’s been 50 years since the opening of the hall in the middle of the summer in 1973. Not to be confused with the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, the U.S. hall draws 12,000 visitors annually. Open daily in the summer, the hall receives busloads of youth hockey teams during its weekends of operation every winter.
The teams crawl across three levels of exhibits, leave puck streaks on the interactive shooting displays, and, generally, fill the museum with sounds that harmonize with echoes of the past.
“In the winter, teams come all the time,” Palazzari said. “In the winter, it’s mostly hockey teams.”
Palazzari and hall of fame board members Bob Pazzeli and Cal Cossalter guided this reporting crew through the hall in June, two weeks after it had hosted 400 guests for an open house.
“That was really special,” Pazzeli said. “Eveleth is a proud hockey town. We’re so honored and proud to have the hall of fame here to honor the American men and women who played this game.”
Like Pazzeli, retiring Iron Range state Sen. David Tomassoni played at the University of Denver after his prep career. Tomassoni, living with ALS, was in attendance at the recent open house. He called the museum “a national shrine,” and said it’s been his duty as a former player and state legislator to support the hall and see it through tough times, including its closure for a year beginning in 2006.
“It means the world to me to be a part of that and the fact that Eveleth is the birthplace of American hockey makes it that much more appropriate,” said the Chisholm native whose jersey for the Italian national team is displayed in the hall.
“Hockey gets in the blood,” Tomassoni added. “The outdoor rinks and the tenacity of the sport makes all hockey players members of that small world of the hockey player fraternity.”
As he points out items like an antique push-cart ice resurfacer, early skate sharpener, and, sheepishly, his own plaque among the hall of fame’s wall of inductees, Palazzari, who played on national teams and once led USA Hockey as its top executive, demurred on selecting a single jewel in the hall’s collection.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to put one thing over anything else.”
Among the hall’s prizes on display:
- The annual Gretzky Award, given to a foreign influencer — and American Herb Brooks — who makes an impact on American hockey. “When 'Herbie' died they pretended he was international,” Palazzari said of the legendary coach. “Other than that, they’re all foreign.”
- The 1980 Team USA upset of Russia at the Winter Olympics is televised on loop at the hall, allowing visitors to relive Al Michaels uttering “Do you believe in miracles?” with 3 seconds left in the game.
- Televised footage of the 1960 U.S. gold medalists playing in the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics in California.
- A majestic powder blue flag from the 1980’s Lake Placid Olympics hangs above the main gallery.
- Flags of the retired numbers of former Minnesota North Stars. “Those are from the old Met Center,” Palazzari said.
- One of the Vezina trophies won by Eveleth’s Mr. Zero, the late Frank Brimsek, for being the NHL's best goaltender.
During its financial struggles earlier this century, USA Hockey arranged with the museum to take over annual induction ceremonies, moving them around to places like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas and Buffalo.
It’s been a boon to the museum.
"The beauty of it is we don't have to pick them," Cossalter said. "We just celebrate them."
USA Hockey, based in Colorado Springs, described it as an ideal partnership.
“The group up in Eveleth and beyond: kudos to them,” said USA Hockey’s chief spokesperson Dave Fischer. “They were well ahead of their time. It’s a wonderful celebration of our sport and a shrine to the heroes of American hockey and its history.”
USA Hockey is working with the Minnesota Wild to bring the next induction ceremony back to the state in December. The latest classes of honorees will be announced in August.
“We wanted to share the inductions with the country and it’s been good — we’ve been all over east and west,” Fisher said. “But for the 50th we’re looking to come back to Minnesota.”
The thought tickles Palazzari, who, in 12 years of leading the museum, has never raised ticket prices beyond the current $8 general admission.
“If you go on our website you can get a half-price coupon,” he said. “You can’t beat that.”
He’s helped shore up financing by also partnering with the Wild and Minnesota Historical Society. An annual golf tournament in August is the museum's major fundraiser, along with men's and women's Face-Off Classic hockey games that rotate around the country and feature collegiate powerhouses squaring off.
“I only see good,” Palazzari said when asked about the future of the hall. “We have the right people involved who want to make it great long-term, and it is. We have a really good product, and we want to just keep making it better and better as time goes on.”
Palazzari noted an upcoming exhibit in the hall will honor sled hockey and wounded veterans.
Coincidentally, the city of Eveleth’s Hippodrome, where so many of the city’s hockey stars drew the region’s attention to the ice, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, too.
Margie Koivunen is an Eveleth native and longtime owner of the Roosevelt Bar downtown. Long ago, Hamm’s Brewery financed the wooden bar Koivunen stood behind. She’s selling sweatshirts for a Hippodrome fundraiser behind the bar, and her place is the site of many team and class reunions.
"Hockey is its own little community," she said. "And they're all intertwined."
She helped cater the open house for the hall of fame museum, which at one point decades ago was debated to be housed in Boston.
“It’s where it should be,” Koivunen said. “It’s definitely where it should be. The group that’s involved right now has done a fantastic job promoting it, and this is definitely a hockey community.”