UND set to honor Al Pearson during series opener
For nearly 50 years, Pearson organized fan buses for UND fans to take on road trips.
GRAND FORKS — In 1973, Al Pearson made his first UND hockey road trip to watch a series at the University of Minnesota.
Four of them organized that trip.
It sparked an idea — one that became a fixture among the UND hockey program for a half century.
Pearson, along with his daughter Joanna's help the last 10 years, organized fan buses for UND hockey road trips. He booked hotel rooms, lined up tickets and the transportation for UND fans, who have become known for filling opposing teams' arenas.
"He's family," UND coach Brad Berry said. "He's there at all the games, the road games, different events — Al, Joanna and his friends — they're always around. Al's a loyal, devoted fan, but he's more than that. He's part of our family."
The 85-year-old from Thunder Bay, Ont., is scheduled to be recognized Friday during UND's regular-season game against Minnesota Duluth in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
It is called 'Al Pearson Night' at The Ralph, an idea from the arena's general manager, Jody Hodgson, to honor Pearson.
"UND hockey means everything to him," Joanna said.
Pearson has been a fixture at home and road games, even though he's battled Parkinson's Disease for the last 17 years.
"Being active and living like he doesn't have it is what's kept him around," Joanna said. "It never stopped him. That's the biggest thing. Every doctor we've had has said he's done better than people who are just finding out, just a year or two in, and a lot younger. People sometimes get embarrassed about their movements or speech and they kind of shut it down. That's the worst thing they can do. Getting out there and being stubborn has kept him around."
It has become challenging in the last year.
Pearson's final bus ride was last March to Omaha. UND made it a special one — they won a third-straight Penrose Cup that weekend on an overtime goal from Tyler Kleven.
This season, Al has made last-minute decisions on attending home games, depending on how he's feeling.
"We just take it one minute at a time," Joanna said.
On Thursday, Al was admitted to the hospital due to blood clots in his lung. He was kept overnight due to oxygen levels. But doctors are expected to release him in time to attend the game — with an oxygen tank if necessary.
"As I'm leaving the hospital (Thursday) and saying goodbye after a 12-hour day, he says, 'Now, go home and call' . . . he starts listing players. . . 'and tell them I'm in the hospital and they've got to win one for me,'" Joanna said, laughing.
Some already knew.
Joanna said coach Berry visited Al in the hospital and brought dinner.
Word also got out about 'Al Pearson Night.'
Although Joanna planned to keep much of it a surprise to Al, they went out to eat this week and someone mentioned it to him.
Al has also received a video from 2016 NCAA Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player, Drake Caggiula, and a phone call from 1982 NCAA Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player, Phil Sykes.
"UND is pretty fortunate to have fans like Al, who put their time and effort into organizing fan buses to make UND hockey so special on road trips now," former UND captain Andy Schneider said. "That starts with people like Al."
Al's idea 50 years ago to start the fan buses turned into a fixture.
"I think he thought the bus trips were a good way to pay his way, get other people there and still get to attend the games," Joanna said. "He kept it going. The hours he put in. . . I can't even imagine, because I know what they took from the last 10 years of doing it. It's just a phenomenal amount of time to do that and build relationships with hotels and everything. We stayed at the same Holiday Inn in Duluth for 37 years."
The Pearsons are looking forward to the special night at The Ralph.
"I'm elated they're leaving a legacy behind," Joanna said, "especially for my nephews.