VIRGINIA, Minn. — Whenever Willard Ikola returned to the Iron Range to see his oldest sister, Doris Babiracki, at Edgewood Healthcare in Virginia, Ikola would make a point to also go and see his dear friend and former U.S. Olympic hockey teammate John “Jack” Petroske of Hibbing.
Ikola saw Petroske a couple of weeks ago and noticed a dramatic change in his health, cancer taking its toll.
“You could tell he was slipping,” Ikola said. “He didn’t really communicate, but just listened, and he had lost a lot of weight. I gave him a hug, and he didn’t have much left.”
Petroske has died at 84, just days shy of his 85th birthday. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth.
Ikola remembers Petroske as a great defenseman and “typical Iron Ranger from Hibbing.”
“I had a chance to see him quite a bit, and I was just so sorry to hear that he had this condition,” said Ikola, who turned 87 Monday. “He was a nice guy. Just a good, good guy. I will miss him.”
A special player
Ikola, a goalie, and the likes of fellow Minnesota hockey legend John Mayasich were part of Eveleth’s glory days as a hockey power in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Golden Bears captured the first boys state hockey tournament in 1945, added state titles from 1948-51 and won 79 straight games from 1948-52. Then along came Hibbing and Petroske. The Bluejackets proved to be streak stoppers.
After Ikola and Mayasich had graduated, during Petroske’s senior year in 1952, not only did Hibbing snap Eveleth’s winning streak, the Bluejackets beat the Golden Bears 4-3 in the state championship game as well.
“They were a very fine team, probably the best team Hibbing ever had,” Ikola said.
While Ikola never played against Petroske, he said Petroske’s 1952 state-championship victory gave him the last laugh in terms of bragging rights with his friends from Eveleth.
“Oh, and he let us know about it, too,” Ikola said, laughing.
Petroske teamed with Mayasich and Ikola to earn the silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and later captained the Minnesota Gophers in 1956-57, becoming the second Gophers player to earn the John Mariucci Most Valuable Player Award.
Petroske’s big Olympic break came after defenseman Frank O’Grady suffered a severe shoulder separation during the team’s final game before leaving the states and couldn’t play in the Olympics.
“Frank was a really good player, too, but it was just a bad deal for him,” Ikola said. “And that quick, we had to get another player. We only played four defensemen. Jack was solid, just solid. He got plugged in, and away he went. He was good, he was good. He wasn’t a weak horse in our defense.”
Mariucci, another Eveleth native, coached that 1956 U.S. Olympic team and knew Petroske was available, so less than a week after O’Grady’s injury, Petroske joined the team in Cortina. Despite not going through team camp, it was a smooth transition.
“Mariucci knew him, of course, because he coached him for three years. He knew what he had there,” Ikola said. “Jack was in college, so he hadn’t tried out for the Olympics at all. There were guys from camp who were really good players as well, but Mariucci went with the guy he thought was the best one, and that was Petroske.
“Jack really played well for us at the Olympics. Coach Mariucci paired him up with one of the older defensemen that we had (Ed Sampson of Fort Frances, yes, Fort Frances, Canada), and he was solid. He really gave us good Olympic play. He stepped right in.”
Of the 18 players on that squad, Ikola said 10 or 11 were from Minnesota, including Eveleth, Hibbing, International Falls, Warroad, Roseau and the Twin Cities, mixing with players from the East. Ikola figured that team had seven or eight former college All-Americans and players who were members of national championship teams.
“It was pretty good fun,” Ikola said. “We had quite the crew, but it mostly Minnesota guys.”
Russia won all its games to win the gold, including a 4-0 victory over the U.S.
Mayasich led the U.S. with six goals and four assists for 10 points in seven games, while Ikola was named “Best Goaltender.”
“It was a at ski resort, just like Vail. Beautiful,” Ikola said. “We stayed in the biggest hotel in town, but they didn’t have all the Olympics participants like they do now. It was basically hockey, figure skating, toboggan and ski events.”
Ikola, who went on to coach Edina to 616 wins and eight state championships and continues to live in the Twin Cities, will always remember Petroske from the Olympic reunions they would have at teammate Dick Dougherty’s Thunderbird Lodge on Rainy Lake in International Falls. Dougherty died in November 2016.
“We had a lot of fun, and the wives came, too,” Ikola said. “It was a blast. Everyone was always looking forward to ‘next year.’ But then all of the sudden, about three years ago, we started losing players, and we had to stop it, because there weren’t too many of us left.”
Unfortunately, Ikola said there are only about five from the 1956 U.S. Olympic hockey team still alive, but he will cherish the memories. He said he will do whatever he can to make it up north for Petroske’s final services.
“We’d go up to Rainy Lake in the fall and spend three or four days up there. We’d have a fish fry and just sit around,” Ikola said, before laughing. “By the time we ended up, we were a bunch of Gordie Howes and Terry Sawchuks and what have you. We were always a little better when we were up there. We always had some great reunions, and Jack was always part of that. We just had a ball.”