Back where he started: Curt Giles returns to Duluth this weekend to have his UMD number retired
DULUTH — The city of Duluth and University of Minnesota Duluth campus will always hold a special place in the heart of former Bulldogs defenseman Curt Giles, and not just for everything he accomplished on the ice.
It's the memories — good and bad — made off the ice that Giles holds dearest. Duluth is where he met his wife, Mary Pat, during freshmen orientation and where he last saw his father, Jack, alive.
Giles returns to Duluth this weekend, along with his wife, two children and two grandchildren, to be honored by the Bulldogs during an NCHC series against Western Michigan at Amsoil Arena. Puck drop is 7:07 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, and Saturday, Nov. 11, with Giles' No. 4 being raised to the rafters during a pregame ceremony Saturday.
A native of The Pas, Manitoba, Giles joined the Bulldogs as a 16-year-old defenseman in 1975 and went on to be a two-time captain, two-time All-WCHA first-teamer and two-time All-American. The 5-foot-8 defenseman totaled 36 goals and 135 assists in 143 games and during his senior season of 1978-79 helped the Bulldogs achieve their highest finish in the WCHA to that point — third — while also leading the program to its first No. 1 ranking.
While many credit Giles and his teammates of the late 1970s for bringing the Bulldogs to national prominence and setting the stage for the success of the early 1980s, Giles credits Duluth for molding him into the person he is today.
"There were a couple key things that happened during my four-year career at UMD. They both happened off the ice," said Giles, the veteran Edina High School boys hockey coach who played 14 seasons in the NHL. "The last time I saw my dad alive was at UMD. It's where I met my wife, who I'm currently married to today and have been since 1979. Two major things happened in my life at UMD during that period of time.
"I couldn't be more fortunate. I couldn't be more appreciative. I couldn't be luckier than to go to a school like that, live in a city like that and meet my wife. We have two great kids, two great grandkids. A lot of good things came from Duluth."
Dad always thought ahead
The last time Giles saw his father alive was when Jack dropped young Curt off for college in Duluth. In November, just a couple weeks before Curt turned 17, Jack, who drove a truck, was killed in an accident.
Mike Sertich, then a first-year UMD assistant coach under first-year head coach Gus Hendrickson, helped break the news to Curt along with athletic director Ralph Romano.
"I remember the day the call came and I remember going into the AD's office, meeting with Curt and breaking the news with him and making the arrangements to get him home. That was a tough time," Sertich said.
"His dad instilled in him such a confidence and such a belief. His dad was his biggest fan. That was the sad thing about it. His dad dreamt he'd play college hockey and his dad knew he was going to be a pretty darn good player, but he never got a chance to see him play."
Giles left The Pas when he was 14 to play junior hockey for Humboldt in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. It was during his second season in Humboldt, playing in an all-star game in Swift Current, that Giles was recruited to UMD by then-assistant athletic director Bruce McLeod.
Giles said he didn't know much about college hockey at the time, but his father did. They jumped on what Giles said was he and his father's first plane ride to see the Bulldogs play Michigan Tech in Duluth.
Giles said he loved the band, loved the enthusiasm inside the DECC and fell in love with the UMD campus. Jack Giles, meanwhile, fell in love with the opportunity for his son to receive an education and play hockey.
"My dad, his biggest thing was he wanted me to be successful as a man," Giles said. "He always knew very few people had a chance to make a living playing hockey. His whole thought process was if we can cover a couple different areas at one time where you have a chance to play great quality hockey and get an education at the same time, it only made sense.
"He always thought ahead for me. He thought of my future and not just what I was doing that day," Giles continued. "I think his thought process was that, 'You know what, you are five and a half feet tall,' — he never said it, but I think he thought it — 'we best get you an education here because that other job you're working hard at might not work out for you.' "
Size never mattered
Sertich said he spent a lot of time on the road recruiting as an assistant with the Bulldogs, often coming in contact with professional scouts. Nearly all of them said the 5-8 Giles was too small for the NHL, but two — one being legendary former Minnesota Gophers coach John Mariucci — were convinced Giles would play in the NHL some day.
There was a third man who believed Giles would be a pro hockey player — Jack Giles — Sertich said.
"It was a classic definition of 'I can do it,' " Sertich said. "His dad did such a great job instilling that into him. 'You're only 5-foot-8, but you don't get measured by the size of your height, you get measured by the size of your heart.' That to me was his strong suit. That to me said everything about him was his heart, his competitiveness."
Giles played 998 games in the NHL, including 852 games over 12 seasons with the Minnesota North Stars, who he captained in 1989-90 and '90-91. He played in the Stanley Cup Finals twice in Minnesota in 1981 and 1991.
Giles said he never thought about being smaller than everyone on the ice. It wasn't until he visited UMD for the game against Tech that he realized size was an issue.
"I got interviewed in between periods up in the press box during the game and one of the radio guys turns to me and says, 'So I understand you play defense?' " Giles said. "I go, 'Yup, yup.' And he goes, 'Well you're kinda small for a defenseman, aren't ya?' To tell you the truth, that was the first time I ever heard that. I never considered myself small."
While short, Sertich said Giles was built strong and stocky like his father, Jack. Sertich said the younger Giles never backed down from anyone. He took on all comers, something Giles' former teammate, 1980 Olympian John Harrington, remembers well.
"He as a player was a great combination of defensive ability and offensive ability and toughness," Harrington said. "He was just tough. For a guy that wasn't that tall, he could move. I haven't played with anyone or seen anyone that I played against that could go from moving backwards to moving forward and closing on anybody with a body check as good as he could. He was a tremendous player."
Family comes first
Giles said being a 16-year-old in 1975 on a hockey team that featured grown men with wives and children was never an issue because everyone went out of their way to make sure he was comfortable and accepted.
The same was true when his father died. Everyone — teammates, coaches and the administration — was there for Giles.
"Duluth took me in and the people at UMD took me in like family," Giles said. "It was a big part of my life. It's a place I have the highest respect for and I have the highest respect for that city."
Giles said he's tried to bring much of his experience at UMD to the Edina High School boys hockey program, where in 18 seasons he has 357 wins and three Class AA state titles (2010, 2013, 2014). He wants upperclassmen to look after underclassmen. He wants the Hornets to be a family, like his Bulldogs were.
"We care about you, you're part of our family," Giles said. "This is family, there is nothing more important than family."