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Marv Cooley, left, and Darrell Gilbertson, center, played for Grand Forks Central coach Serge Gambucci on the first N.D. state hockey championship team in 1961. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

1961 state hockey champs return to reminisce, celebrate N.D. hockey

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North Dakota high school hockey was much different when Grand Forks Central won the first state title 50 years ago. What has remained constant is the players' yearning to step onto UND's fancy rink.

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In 1961, the rink of dreams was the original Winter Sports Arena, more popularly known as The Barn. It was replaced by another arena of the same name and then came the opulent Ralph Engelstad Arena in 2002.

"The Barn was our idea of a great rink," said Marv Cooley, a junior on that team. "Whenever we played inside, it was the cat's meow even if it was 20 below."

Grand Forks' lone indoor arena 50 years ago had wooden bleachers instead of suites, natural ice instead of the artificial variety and a temperature the same as outdoors. But it sure beat what the players endured most days.

The rink was deemed plush because Central, then known as the Redskins, practiced outdoors. Part of the team's equipment, Coach Serge Gambucci said, was a gallon jar of Vaseline that was rubbed on toes and cheeks to stave off frostbite. He also would cut up the previous year's uniform socks into headbands to protect their ears.

It also was a time when players didn't wear mouthguards and facemasks and their helmets were made of leather.

The winners of the first state hockey title will be back in Grand Forks this weekend to reminisce. Ten of the surviving 11 players from the 15-player roster are returning for a reunion and an on-ice introduction between periods of Saturday's championship game.

Stories to be told are guaranteed to include practice. "Before we could practice, we had to shovel the rink," Cooley said. "And before we shoveled the rink, we had to kick the Purpur kids off it. They were the original Lamoureuxs."

Cooley of rural Thompson, N.D., and Darrell Gilbertson of Grand Forks are the first champions' only players still living in the area.

It was a talented team as four -- Bill Howard, Dave Palm, Ken Walters and Steve Ebert -- went on to play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. And Gambucci, 88, is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

Tourney helped hockey grow

This season, the state had 18 boys teams and 11 girls teams, with eight from each division advancing to state.

But the first tournament had the state's only four boys hockey-playing schools, Central, Grand Forks St. James, Devils Lake and Fargo Central.

"Adding a state tournament really helped grow hockey in the state," said Gambucci, who went 10-for-10 in state hockey tournaments before retiring in 1970 at age 47.

"We were playing mostly Minnesota teams then. But that's when North Dakota hockey first took off, in 1961 and 1962."

Cooley agreed. "Basketball was more popular than hockey back then," he said. "We didn't even have cheerleaders. The popularity of hockey in Grand Forks was all about UND. High school hockey had little interest.

"But the state tournament changed that."

The state tournament increased to five teams in 1963, when Grafton fielded a team. In 1966, Park River and Fargo North made it seven teams. And, with Bottineau arriving in 1967, the tournament has had a full field of eight teams since.

Central won the first 13 state tournaments before being knocked off 7-6 in the semifinals by Fargo North in 1974. Red River beat North 2-1 in the championship the next night.

The first non-Grand Forks winner was Grafton in 1978 and the first winner from the West Region was Minot in 1992, with a wild 8-7 win over Bismarck.

Grand Forks schools have won 39 of the 50 state boys titles. In Gambucci's 15 seasons at Central, he lost only twice to North Dakota teams in the regular season and never during the post-season. In girls hockey, four schools have won the eight state titles, none of them by Grand Forks.

There's no question that North Dakota hockey has grown in its 51 seasons. In its beginning, there weren't even girls on the ice wearing white figure skates.

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to rbakken@gfherald.com.

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