Anybody who thinks nostalgia is a waste of time should stay clear of Julian Brunetta.
“A friend asked me why I keep living in the past,” said Brunetta, one of four Fort Frances natives who were part of the 1958-59 University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux hockey team that captured the NCAA crown and was inducted into UND’s Hall of Fame last month.
“I said if you had a past, you would live in it, too.”
While that title run of 44 years ago has faded from the minds of many, it still remains a source of immense pride for Brunetta and his teammates.
Along with fellow players Ron King and Guy LaFrance and team manager Ted Kotyk, Brunetta was part of the local contingent that carried UND to the first of its seven national hockey championships.
He and LaFrance earned scholarships to UND for the 1955-56 season, but the Fighting Sioux still were looking for players to fill out their roster.
“I suggested they invite [King] down,” recalled Brunetta, a sturdy defenceman who played alongside King and LaFrance on the very successful Jaycees Juvenile Club of Fort Frances earlier in the ’50s.
The trio helped UND reach the NCAA’s “Final Four” in 1957-58, where they lost in the final, with Brunetta as co-captain and King, a spirited left-winger who wasn’t afraid to crash the crease, named a first-team all-star for the tournament.
“Many of us were coming from families who didn’t really have the money to send their kids to university,” said King. “When we got there, we wanted to make the best of it.”
The following season, Brunetta was promoted to captain and the Fighting Sioux went on an unprecedented thrill ride that ultimately ended in celebration.
“We had to win eight of our last nine games just to get into the NCAA tournament,” Brunetta said. “We had all lost some major game previously, but we all came from championship teams, as well.
“We were hungry.”
UND, which won seven games in overtime that season, captured both the semi-final and final games at the tournament in extra time by identical 4-3 scores.
LaFrance, who previously was inducted individually to the UND Hall of Fame in 1997, scored the winning goal in the semi-final over St. Lawrence University, before the Fighting Sioux knocked off the Michigan State Spartans to claim U.S. college hockey’s ultimate prize.
“We were honoured to be part of it,” said King. “It was an opportunity we were given. We had few stars, but mostly hard-nosed journeyman hockey players who won with persistence.”
The $104-million complex which houses the Fighting Sioux these days is a far cry from the antiquated arena that Brunetta and King remember playing in—or the accommodations they were provided, for that matter.
“We thought it was great,” reminisced Brunetta. “They cover our tuition, we got $25 for books, and a place to stay in the football stadium.
“The locker rooms were converted into dorm rooms, and the football players stayed at one end of the facility and we were at the other.
“It was a status symbol if you lived in the stadium, but then again, you had to walk what felt like half-a-block to go to the [washroom], too,” he chuckled. Both Brunetta and King pointed to the legendary Fort Frances Canadians, who won the Allan Cup national senior men’s hockey championship in 1952, as inspiration for the feats they would go on to accomplish at UND.
“When we were younger, we’d watch the Canadians beat all those [Iron Range] teams, and they showed us what it meant to learn to play together,” noted King.
The pair also are proud of the hockey legacy involving Fort Frances residents they helped begin south of the border, which carries on to this day.
Some of the bigger names that followed the path carved by Brunetta, King, LaFrance, and Kotyk are Bruce McLeod, current commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, U.S.A. Hockey senior director Art Berglund, and recent Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame inductee Bob Peters, whose 744 wins are the most by any head coach with a single team in college hockey history.
Kelvin “Brush” Christiansen, son of Allan Cupper Walter Christiansen and brother of current Muskie assistant coach Ken Christiansen, was inducted into the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Hall of Fame in October.
His other brother, Keith “Huffer” Christiansen, was a well-known pro with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the now defunct WHA. He also played on the 1972 U.S. national team that won silver at the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.
More recently, Chris Lindberg skated with the UMD Bulldogs before going on to the Canadian Olympic team that won the silver medal at Albertville, France in 1992.
Wayne Strachan, now assistant general manager with the Borderland Thunder, also had a fair share of shining moments south of the 49th parallel as a two-time NCAA national champion with the Lake Superior State Lakers in 1992 and 1994, and being a supplemental draft choice of the New York Rangers in 1993.
“We feel good about every kid who comes out of Fort Frances to go on and do well in hockey somewhere else,” said King.