“The whole of anything,” the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle said, “is greater than the sum of its parts.” However, one cannot deny the sadness felt when one of the parts is with us no longer.
One of Warroad’s greatest hockey legends and lifelong resident, Gordon “Ginny” Christian, passed away on Friday, June 2nd, at the age of 89. The loss of, not only a great hockey player, but a neighbor and friend is being felt throughout the community.
In the 2016 Warroad Visitors Guide, the Warroad Chamber of Commerce celebrated “60 Years of Silver,” an article about Ginny and the 1956 U.S. Olympic silver-medal win. As a tribute to Warroad’s very first Olympian, here it is again.
60 Years of Silver
by Kim Hruba
1956. Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. The U.S. Olympic team poses for a group photo on a sunny day outside of their hotel with the snowy Southern Alps in the background. The man holding the black and white photograph points to random players and says, “This is Bill Cleary. He’s from out east, Boston. Ed Sampson’s from International Falls. Jack Petroske, Hibbing. Dick Dougherty’s from the Falls. And this is O’Grady, he was from Boston. And Danny, he’s from Williams. And this is Burtnett he’s from Boston area. Gene Campbell from Minneapolis. John Mayasich from Eveleth. Wendy Anderson was governor of Minnesota; he’s from Minneapolis. And that’s me. Rigazio, he’s a goalie; he was from Boston area. Dick Meredith, he’s from Minneapolis. And this is Kenny Purpur – that’s Fido’s brother, the youngest of the family – from Grand Forks. Johnny Matchefts was from Eveleth, Weldy Olson was from Michigan, and then this is Rodenheiser – he was from Boston area. And this is Willard Ikola. He was our goalie. He was a coach at Edina for years. He’s pretty famous in Minnesota. He’s from Eveleth. And that’s the team.”
While the hockey world will likely remember first and foremost the “Hockey Sticks by Hockey Players” slogan of the Christian Brothers hockey sticks manufactured by Billy and Roger, it was the eldest of the Christian siblings, Gordon “Ginny” Christian, who could arguably be credited as the first of the family to take to the ice thus beginning the Christian family legacy as Warroad’s very first Olympian.
The oldest of six children, Ginny was born November 21, 1927, in Clear River Township just south of Warroad. His father, Ed Christian, was a carpenter and contractor, who oversaw the building of the WWII Memorial Arena – Warroad’s very first indoor arena. Like nearly every other Warroad kid, Christian skated and played hockey on the river which, at the time, was “the only place to skate.” During the 1940-41 season at the age of 13, he was already playing varsity hockey for Warroad. Along with fellow Warriors Bob Murray, Wes Cole, and Cal Marvin, Christian went on to play for the University of North Dakota in 1947. This seminal team was UND’s first in the WCHA league, shaping the hockey program and solidifying its presence as an NCAA Division 1 team. One of Christian’s favorite UND memories was when they defeated Michigan at Ann Arbor on January 9, 1948 causing Michigan to lose its first game of the season. Christian played from 1947 – 1950, tying for scoring leader on the team in both the 1947-48 and 1948–49 seasons. In 1949, he was named MVP and an All-American selectee in hockey.
Christian then went to California with Ralph Engelstad where they joined a carpenter’s union, built houses, and played for the semi-pro team San Bernardino Shamrocks. Shortly thereafter, Christian was called in by the National Guard and went to Camp Rucker, Alabama where he served 13 months of active duty. During this time he made a trip to Minneapolis to try out for the 1952 Olympic team but didn’t make the cut. Once his national duty had been fulfilled, Christian returned to Minnesota and took a job with Erickson Lumber Company in Hibbing. There he played with the Hibbing Flyers and for the Warroad Lakers as needed. “Cal [Marvin] would call me when he was short players,” Christian said, chuckling at the memory.
In 1955, he played for the U.S. national team at the World Ice Hockey Championships in West Germany. Christian recalled his initial impression of post-war Europe, saying, “Things were pretty tough over there. You were lucky to be an American.” The team placed fourth and seven of its players were invited to try out for the 1956 Olympic team. This time Christian made the roster making him Warroad’s first ice hockey Olympian.
Led by Coach John Mariucci (from Eveleth), perhaps the first notable thing about this team was that 11 out of the 17 players were either from Minnesota and/or had played for the University of Minnesota or UND. (Although technically not from Minnesota, Ken Purpur of Grand Forks is not to be dismissed, being a hockey legend from a hockey family in his own right.)
In the first round, the Americans beat Poland, 4-0, but lost to Czechoslovakia in a narrow defeat of 4-3. However, as the games progressed, the U.S. team blew out the competition, crushing the United German Team (UTG) 7-2, the Canadians at 4-1 (which had never been done before in the round robin divisional play), and Sweden 6-1. Unfortunately their winning streak was upset by the Soviets, who took the Americans by surprise with their never-seen-before style of play.
According to the article, Memories Of A Silver Feat Still Shine in USA Hockey Magazine, “…the Americans saw a team that had taken the skating- and checking-based game and made it into one of puck control, crisp passing and mistake-free defense. ‘To this day, I can draw on a board exactly what they did to score their first goal,’ said [John] Matchefts, who went on to coach at Colorado College and the U.S. Air Force Academy. More than one American player estimates that the Soviets controlled the puck for 70 percent or more of the game. The Soviets won, 4-0, and got the eventual game-winner on a power play with Matchefts in the penalty box. ‘It’s amazing how clever they were,’ he recalled. ‘They just passed and passed and passed, then tipped the puck in. That was the game, right there.’”
After this disappointing loss, the U.S. team got some small redemption with a chance to get sweet payback against the Czechs with a smashing 9-4 victory. At the end of the games, the Americans won the silver, with Christian noted as being only one of two Americans (the other being John Mayasich) in the top ten of leading scorers with five goals and three assists. Christian’s teammate, Dan McKinnon of Williams, MN, accepted the box of medals on the team’s behalf.
Looking through Christian’s personal collection of pictures and commemorative team photos, hockey programs and rosters, dedication plaques, awards, and newspaper clippings – one thing becomes clear. These testaments to time celebrate not only great hockey, but a camaraderie that has spanned a lifetime across local, state, and national teams; men who have been playing either together or against each other since they were teenagers. Christian remembers with fondness these times, not only in Cortina, but afterwards as they continued their respective hockey careers either playing for national and amateur teams or coaching winning teams – and sometimes both. Nearly all of these men have been honored in some way for their contribution to the sport of hockey. Christian himself was inducted into UND’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1980 and Warroad’s in 1996.
But perhaps the greatest joy has been found in their friendship. Over the years, Christian and his teammates, especially from UND and the 1956 Olympic team, have gathered for numerous reunions and special occasions to catch up on life events and to reminisce their collective achievements. As 2016 brings with it the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Winter Olympics, Warroad pays tribute to its very first ice hockey Olympian, Gordon “Ginny” Christian and his team.