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Grand Forks coach Gambucci had an impact, on and off the ice

Grand Forks Central players carry coach Serge Gambucci off the ice after the team won the 1970 North Dakota high school hockey championship. It was Gambucci’s final game as Central’s coach.1 / 3
Legendary coach Serge Gambucci stands in front of some of the hockey trophies Grand Forks Central won during the years he coached at the school.2 / 3
Serge Gambucci3 / 3

When Serge Gambucci coached Grand Forks Central High School hockey, players dressed for success.

On road trips, the Central players were required to wear burgundy blazers. There were no blue jeans, no tacky clothes.

“We always had to dress up,” said Casey Ryan, a 1967 graduate who played on three state champion Central hockey teams. “Serge would tell us that if we didn’t win, at least we’d look good losing.

“But we didn’t do that (losing) very much.”

Gambucci died Tuesday night, five days after he suffered a stroke. He was 91.

Gambucci coached Central teams that won the first 10 North Dakota state high school hockey tournaments. That streak started in 1961. He retired after the 1970 season. He was 10-0 in state title games.

“Serge instilled a lot of pride in kids,” said 1969 Central graduate Mike Bertsch, “not just in the way we played, but also in the way you looked and, especially, the way you acted.”

Gambucci’s Central teams posted a 258-38 record in his 15 seasons as hockey coach. It was an era in which Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers dominated pro football with a simple style — run the power sweep and dare opponents to stop it.

“Serge was a Lombardi-type coach,” Ryan said. “He didn’t do anything exotic or fancy. It was executing the basics, playing good position and staying out of the penalty box.”

Adds Marv Cooley, a member of Gambucci’s first two state championship teams: “Serge was very low key. If you made a mistake, he would chew you out. But he didn’t make issues about things. He wasn’t a yeller. He was even keel.”

That even keel also had a superstitious side.

Central 1964 graduate and standout hockey player Chuck Norby’s birthday is Jan. 11 — the same as Gambucci’s. “I think that helped me make the team,” Norby said. “When he saw that, I think he thought it was a good-luck sign from above.”

Then there was a 13-0 win in a state tournament game. “When we’d get way ahead, Serge would tell us to quit scoring, to work on our passing,” Ryan said. “But, with about a minute left in that game, he told his son, Jim, to go in and score. He didn’t want the score to end 13.”

Winning was a habit for Central teams under Gambucci. He also won three state team titles as GFC’s boys tennis coach. But it wasn’t just about winning.

Cooley said he heard Gambucci proudly talk about the 1962 championship team, on which all 17 players on the roster went on to get college degrees.

“A comment Serge often made was, ‘You can’t eat pucks,’ ” Cooley said. “He wanted kids to do well academically. He was about lifetime lessons.”

Norby recalls a time when he was playing hockey at the University of Minnesota and things were going well for him. He wrote Gambucci a letter about it.

“Serge wrote back and said he was glad I was doing well,” Norby said. “But he said I sounded content, and that I shouldn’t get satisfied or complacent, that that is when you stop getting better.

“Hockey was fine and dandy. But the life lessons he taught were more important to Serge.”

Gambucci’s success was recognized in several ways. He’s a member of five halls of fame.

Gambucci was a charter member of the North Dakota High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He also was a charter member of the Grand Forks Central Athletic Hall of Fame and the Grand Forks Foundation of Public School Teachers Hall of Fame.

In addition, he was selected to the St. Cloud State University Athletic Hall of Fame and, in 1996, was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

But, when Gambucci learned that a new indoor hockey facility, built in Grand Forks in 2004 and connected to Purpur Arena, would be named after him, his reaction was almost as if he didn’t deserve such recognition.

“I remember us contacting his family first to make sure it was OK with them,” said Bill Hutchison, then a member of the Grand Forks Park Board. “We felt he was really deserving. But after his family told him about it, he called me and he was genuinely surprised by it. And he was very humble about it.

“A few days later, I got a letter from him thanking the board. That’s how he was. He never went looking for honors. But, to me, the names on those two arenas, Gambucci and (Fido) Purpur, are the two people who probably have done more than anybody for youth hockey in Grand Forks.”

Gambucci is called a father figure by his former athletes.

Said Bertsch: “Serge had a great impact on a lot of young men. He’ll be missed.”