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Willmar notebook: All-day skaters brought Willmar glory

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Peter Stahnke, 1983 Willmar grad and 2006 Cardinal Pride HOF inductee, returns to his hometown Saturday evening with a hockey team in tow.

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His prep team is 3-1-1 after skating to a 3-3 tie at Crookston on Tuesday night. The Panthers play Northern Lights at Pequot Lakes tonight. I asked Peter this week what exactly we may call this confederation of communities along State Highway 34 south of Lake Itasca. Is there acceptable shorthand form for Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley? You can call us Park Rapids/Walker Area, he said, which is where most of the players originate and home games are played.

This should be a fine matchup. These Cardinals skate all out as if every period might be their last. Peter said his team plays much the same way. He credits his Willmar counterpart Dan Tollefson for getting the game on the schedule, just as “Tully” brought his former Cardinal teammate Dave Aus and his Blaine Bengals here in 2010.

This is Stahnke’s 11th year heading up the varsity hockey team. He’s a businessman by vocation. He and his wife Elizabeth operate the Dairy Queen in Park Rapids, which Peter bought 18 years ago.

Peter Stahnke, considered one of the greatest all-around athletes in Cardinal history, lettered four times in hockey. He broke through as a freshman under Bob Glaesman who grew the modern hockey program from its beginnings in 1972 at the “Garfield Civic” on Eighth Street SW to its debut at the new Willmar Civic Center on the open prairie northeast of town in early January, 1980.

It was Feb. 11 when Willmar hosted Hutchinson, with Litchfield its fiercest rival. The Cardinals were 0-2-2 in the new building still chasing that first win in its new digs, where the changing rooms weren’t immediately ready.

“I remember the first few home games we dressed in the basement warming house at Garfield, back by the boilers before going to the Civic Center,” Peter said.

The Tigers and Cards fought to a 5-5 tie through three periods. In overtime, sophomore Steve Olson carried into the Tigers’ zone and threw the puck over to senior captain and stocky defenseman Tom Rabiola. He fired a shot off the chest of Hutch goalie Eric Skeie that caromed out toward the right circle. In a flash, Stahnke, the freshman defenseman, snapped the puck over the goalies glove for the game-winner.

The moment was captured by a Tribune photographer shooting from the press box at center ice showing No. 20 watching the puck find the back of the net. Besides the victory, the best thing was realizing this already-muscular kid would be around for three more years to also star in baseball (catcher) and football (linebacker/fullback).

The Cardinal hockey team finished 7-12 in 1980, 7-14 in ’81 and 13-9 in ’82.  Willmar’s hockey greatness was on the doorstep.

Glaesman retired after the ’80-81 season and would become athletic director, succeeding Russ Adamson. A young Wayne Eklund took over as head coach. The Cardinals would win the next three Central Lakes Conference titles, the third of those under Pete Aus, who had come over from Litchfield.

Crowds were huge at the Civic Center, sometimes surpassing one thousand those years. The breakthrough came in the Region 5 playoffs at the Bloomington Ice Garden when the Cardinals upended high-seed Minneapolis Roosevelt (then recognized as a hockey powerhouse)  3-1, after nudging Benilde 7-6 in the first round. Beating the Teddies thrust the Cardinals against  Bloomington Kennedy in the semifinals at the Met Center, the home ice of the North Stars.

This was heady stuff for an unknown program from farm country. In the 1980s, Bloomington, along with Edina, was the epicenter of school boy hockey. The Eagles’ superior depth trumped Willmar’s determination and athleticism 5-1 but Willmar now was on the hockey map.

The boys on those teams in the early 80s grew up together on outdoor rinks at Lincoln and Garfield: the Nelson brothers, the Marciniaks, the Coles, the Boonstras, the Bateses. In summer, they played street hockey.

Barry Nelson would play pro hockey in the New York Rangers organization. Brian Nelson landed a scholarship at Minnesota-Duluth and would play on a line with Brett Hull before the 1984 WHS graduate’s career was ended by bad knees. Lee Smith (’84), originally an Eastsider like the Nelsons, has been head coach at Eden Prairie since 1993. Doug Marciniak, the oldest of the three brothers who lived just a block from the Garfield rink, has a son Ryan who is first-line center for the Alexandria “Blackbirds.” Peter’s classmate and teammate Paul Tinklenberg has a son, Josh, on this year’s Cardinals. There’s a VanDenEinde on both the ’83 and ’13 teams. 

“As kids we were at the rink as soon as school let out until they shut off the lights and all weekend long,” recalled Peter wistfully. The traveling teams were mentored by former Cardinals from the first years of Cardinal hockey when home games were either played outdoors at Garfield or over at Litchfield’s new arena: Steve “Sharky” Sharstrom, Dennis Boonstra and Mac Habicht, among them.

Times have changed here, at Park Rapids, everywhere.

“There are so many other things for kids to do now days,” said Peter. “Outdoor ice isn’t popular anymore. It’s sad.”

But the boys haven’t changed. Skills and commitment are about the same, the head coach said. Today players have the advantage of lighter and safer equipment and skates.

The skill level still depends on the individual, he said. “We had a kid, Zach Clark, who now at plays Minnesota State in Mankato. He reminds me of Brian [Nelson]. I couldn’t believe the things Brian could do with the puck. Still can’t.”

To Peter his friends growing up in old Willmar were “like brothers.”

“It was the best time to grow up. I feel so fortunate. It was a blast.”

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Rand Middleton

Covers Willmar and area high schools and Ridgewater College, plus amateur baseball, stock car racing and fitness events in summer. Writes weekly column since 1980. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 

(320) 214-4334
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