Spurred by challenging mornings at the rink, former Gopher Bill Yon finds his joy in the clouds
Renowned for his skating as a Minnesota Gopher, Roseau native Bill Yon is back in his hometown, loving life as a pilot and helping preserve the history in one of the state's great hockey communities.
“I look beyond these small-town streets and see the world out there. Anyone can carve their road, if they only dare. There’s more for us than giving in and only getting by. They say we’re gonna sink or swim, but we intend to fly.” – “All The Right Moves,” Jennifer Warnes and Chris Thompson.
ROSEAU, Minn. — The aerial view of the State of Hockey is a stunning one. From the lakes and forests of the north country to the expansive fertile fields of central Minnesota to the skyscrapers and bright lights of the Twin Cities, there is much to see from the window of a plane sailing three miles or more above the state’s varied landscape.
That is a view that former Minnesota Gophers forward Bill Yon gets out the window of his “office” once or twice a week, finding an enjoyable career in aviation following his days in maroon and gold. Originally from Roseau, Yon saw much of the country during his early career learning the way of planes and airports, then settled back in his hometown where, at 59, he remains very active in helping the next generation of Roseau Rams find their way to the ice.
Yon is now more than a decade into a job he loves, as a pilot and aviation department manager for Marvin, the Warroad-based window and door manufacturer. Yon works with a team of more than a dozen pilots, mechanics and a scheduler, and a quartet of planes — three turboprops and a jet — which make a few trips per day between MSP and the Warroad airport, as well as to and from Marvin satellite operations in places like West Fargo, Tennessee, Oregon and elsewhere.
Raised on the rink
Long before regional airports and weather forecasts and ferrying building materials suppliers to and from Hockeytown USA was a part of his world every day, Yon was your typical northern Minnesota rink rat, growing up in a town where hockey was the focal point of so many young lives.
“Things were different. The old North Rink was there. We didn’t ever play any games there but we had our practices there and that’s where open hockey was,” Yon recalled of his boyhood in Roseau. “There weren’t all the distractions in the ‘70s, no phones or social media, so we were at the rink. I followed some friends that were a little bit older than me who were inspirational.”
Those friends included future NHLers Neal and Aaron Broten and Bryan "Butsy" Erickson, all of whom made their way from Roseau to the U of M. Neal was an important member of the Gophers’ 1979 NCAA title team — their last under legendary coach Herb Brooks — and then won a gold medal on the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad. When he had the opportunity to follow his slightly older friends to the Twin Cities, Yon jumped at the chance.
He made an immediate impression with teammates in maroon and gold.
“Bill might be one of the nicest people in the world. Just a great teammate,” said former Gophers star Pat Micheletti, who got to know Yon’s kindness even before arriving on campus from Hibbing in the summer of 1982. “He was one of the first ones I remember when I came down from high school. There was summer ice available at Bloomington Ice Garden. I’d met hardly anybody but he was one of the first ones to reach out and say, ‘Hey, if you need anything, let me know.’”
Brad Buetow succeeded Brooks as head coach of the Gophers, and was in many ways a disciple of the hard-nosed, “I’m your coach, not your friend,” approach that had been so successful in the 1970s and earlier. But looking back, Yon admits that kids, and coaching, were changing, and while Buetow had some on-ice success, his authoritarian ways were beginning to fall out of fashion with some players.
If we had a bad weekend, you were putting the wet stuff on Sunday morning and going for a few hours with no pucks.
“Brad was intense. He was in Herbie’s mold and was kind of trying to carry that tradition on,” Yon recalled, while chatting with The Rink Live at the private terminal adjacent to MSP, where corporate planes and pro sports teams load and deplane. “I still feel there was starting to be a transition and players were changing. I don’t want to say we were becoming softer, but it was a different generation coming through in the ‘80s. Some of the older guys responded well to him, and some of the younger guys from places like Roseau and Edina weren’t used to that type of style.”
Still, Yon said one of the first things you learned at the U of M was not in the classroom, but on the ice at the old Mariucci Arena, where the lesson was to move quickly and work hard when you heard Buetow’s whistle. And if your team had a bad outing on Saturday, sleeping in on Sunday morning was not going to be part of the plan.
“When I was playing there weren’t restrictions on how much ice time you could have or when you could skate,” Yon said. “If we had a bad weekend, you were putting the wet stuff on Sunday morning and going for a few hours with no pucks.”
He admits now, in an era where authoritarian coaches are rare and don’t seem to succeed for very long, Buetow’s approach was a lesson — good and bad. When dealing with kids in modern hockey, a different approach is needed.
“You learn how to push buttons, and it isn’t always kicking garbage cans and slamming doors,” Yon said.
Still, those grueling Sunday mornings on the rink, fighting through the pain and the fatigue and finding a way to keep going when your mind tries to tell you to quit, would serve Yon well less than a decade later, when he faced the biggest challenge of his life.
Also, to try and punish Bill Yon by making him skate was akin to trying to teach a fish a lesson in a swimming pool.
“He was one of the best skaters I’ve ever been around in my life. He could skate like the wind,” Micheletti said. “You ask anybody. It was sick to watch him skate. You didn’t want to do drills with him because you’d get left in the dust, and it wasn’t even close.”
You get a more humble answer when asking Yon about his on-ice abilities.
“The older I get, the better I was,” he said, with a grin. “I could hold my own. I had good feet, I could shoot. I thought I had pretty decent hockey sense. I wasn’t very physical but I could move and score a few goals, so I thought I was a good fit for Minnesota.”
Aspirations in the air
Yon put up respectable numbers during his four years as a Gopher, skating in the 1983 Frozen Four and earning a business degree. His father, a Roseau attorney, had been a private pilot and a plane owner, so Yon also picked up his family interest in flight, and started to take flying lessons at about the same time he was finishing college, earning his private pilot’s license in 1986. The choice he made to walk away from playing hockey is one of Yon’s rare regrets, all these years later.
“I had a couple opportunities to go to Europe and keep playing and I didn’t, and I kick myself to this day,” he admitted. “I wanted to finish school and kind of get on with my life and get flying.”
I certainly learned a lot of things about myself. Sports helped, and maybe Brad’s Sunday morning practices got me through that too. I learned you’ve got to keep going.
Three years after becoming a licensed pilot, life was good. Yon was living in Phoenix, working for an airline, logging some hours in the air, enjoying the sunshine. Then a freak accident on the tarmac changed his life forever. Yon describes it frankly.
“I was run over by an airplane. Big one — a 757, and the result was I lost my right leg above the knee,” he said, reflexively patting the leg of his work uniform. “At 26 years old, that’s a life-changing event, obviously. I had all these aspirations to be flying and that just turned my world upside down. I knew I was lucky to live through it, and I had a lot of support from my family and friends to keep me going. It took a while. I had to learn to walk again. I got back in an airplane about two weeks after the accident, illegally, and as soon as I was back I thought, ‘I’m staying with this.’ And I did.”
Years later, he admits that in the darkest moments of recovery, when his body and mind were saying “you can’t do this,” he would recall those Sunday mornings with Buetow blowing the whistle and ordering the players to skate, again and again and again, and was helped by the fortitude he had developed then.
“I certainly learned a lot of things about myself,” Yon said. “Sports helped, and maybe Brad’s Sunday morning practices got me through that too. I learned you’ve got to keep going.”
He moved closer to home, enrolling at the University of North Dakota and working his way through their aviation school. One of the biggest sources of pride in Yon’s life was the day he was hired by Mesaba Airlines as their first-ever amputee pilot. He didn’t play pro hockey, but settling into a cockpit on his first day as an airline pilot was Yon’s version of making it to “the show.”
Return to his roots
The Yons moved back to Roseau in 2007, and Bill found work in the home of the Rams’ archrival, for one of northern Minnesota’s most prominent employers. But driving 22 miles east to work each day and putting on a black shirt with a yellow rose (Marvin’s logo) on it did nothing to staunch the green and white blood that naturally courses through Yon’s veins. He remains heavily involved in the Roseau hockey program’s alumni association, helping organize events like their annual social at the state tournament and to raise funds for projects like improvements to the town’s legendary arena, to show off the region’s hockey history to the scores of visitors who come to Roseau for hockey tournaments each winter.
“It’s been a good group to work with, starting a scholarship program and working behind the scenes to do a lot of rink renovations at Memorial (Arena), which was much-needed,” he said. “I was tasked with pictures and making it more of a historical museum to show the history and the tradition there. We have a state tournament area, a D-I wall, Mr. Hockey and other things that have been very well supported.”
One of the more recent additions to that D-I wall is Zach Yon, Bill’s son who broke with family tradition and played four years at North Dakota. The elder Yon jokes that a son wearing Fighting Hawks colors wasn’t easy for an old Gopher to handle.
“It was a ‘love the player, hate the team’ kind of thing, to be honest,” Yon said, with a laugh. “But I’m very proud of him, and I loved being a hockey dad. Although my intensity level and compete is so hard that sometimes it’s tough to sit back and enjoy it. My wife could never sit with me. I was into it and loved every minute of it.”
That intensity at the rink is in sharp contrast to the calm demeanor that seems to come naturally to the best, safest pilots such as Yon. Weather is the most consistent challenge to an aviator, and flying to and from Fargo and Minneapolis/St. Paul over the past two difficult winters has presented more than a few tough days. But Yon said canceled flights remain very rare, and his experienced team is very, very good at getting passengers where they need to go with speed and safety.
As his 60th birthday nears, Yon said he can see a day where he’s more passenger than pilot, but still loves getting up in the air and seeing that view of Minnesota from a few miles above the lakes, forests and fields.
“I love operating machines and have always been fascinated by flight,” he said. “I’ve never been a good office guy. I need to get up, go somewhere.”