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Hobey Baker Award ‘Born’ at Right Time

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April 1, 2020


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This month the Hobey Baker Award celebrates its 40th anniversary of honoring college hockey’s top player. The three finalists for the 2020 award will be announced tomorrow. Next week, on April 10, the winner will be named on the NHL Network.

John Justice was one of the key organizers of the award from its inception in 1980. The Edina resident owns Iron Horse Root Beer (advertiser on this site) and once held an executive position with Pepsi in Burnsville, but few experiences in his life compare with helping to launch the Hobey Baker Award.

“Absolutely one of the top three or four things that I’ve ever been involved with,” Justice told Sports Headliners Monday. “And it’s…because there were so many people that played a part. That were willing to take a role and then fulfill it, and took a lot of pride in it. It’s hard to do when you’re talking about trying to pull that many volunteers together to do a lot of work.”

Justice was not a volunteer. He had the title of operations officer and athletic director at the old Decathlon Club in Bloomington, located across Cedar Avenue from the Met Center which the Minnesota North Stars called home. His boss, Chuck Bard, was chief executive officer. It was Bard who one day came home from southern California with the idea of creating an award similar to college football’s Heisman Trophy, or college basketball’s Wooden Award. Bard had met with a make-things-happen guy named Duke Llewellyn who ran four clubs in southern California and had convinced UCLA coaching legend John Wooden to lend his name to the annual Wooden Award honoring college basketball’s premier player.

Bard wasn’t a hockey guy but Justice has always loved the game and found ways to be involved. Back from California, Bard shared his idea of having the Decathlon Club create an award honoring college hockey’s top player every year and for his prestigious facility to host a banquet to celebrate it. “It really piqued my interest immediately,” Justice said.

The first step was to establish an exploratory committee that included influential hockey and business leaders. Like any new major project, there were challenges and frustrations including approval from the group of volunteers whose roster changed. “It seemed like we spent a good part of every meeting just trying to bring new people up to speed on where we were and what we have done, and what’s next,” Justice said.

His job was to put “all the pieces together” and part of the early process was gaining the support of college hockey coaches from throughout the country. Justice spoke to most of them at a coaches meeting in Jacksonville, Florida. “The reception (reaction) was kind of amazing to me. It was like they were silent, and I think it was because they were so surprised at hearing the scope of what this award was going to entail that they just couldn’t get it through their heads…until people started asking a lot of questions.

John Justice

“I think that goes to the fact they (the coaches) always felt themselves as kind of second citizens on the list of priority to the media. You know, behind the basketball awards, (and) obviously the Heisman Award and things like that. I think it took them a little while to understand that what we were really talking about was trying to start immediately to become a nationally known award.

“To me it was breathtaking to watch them go from silence to just very…interested in knowing more and more about it. We had some coaches that really stood up and really voiced tremendous support for us.”

In the process leading up to the first winner being chosen in 1981, Bard made a trip out East and learned about a man named Hobey Baker—a Princeton legend who was considered the first American college hockey star, per Wikipedia. Baker died in World War I and even though he was still a young man he had exhibited both the hockey excellence and personal character that made him worthy of having his name on the award the Decathlon group was developing.

Justice was supportive because he thought it would be a mistake to name the award after someone from Minnesota, when the intent was to have the honor be a national endeavor. “I thought it (the Hobey Baker name), was a wonderful idea,” he said.

The name worked, and so, too, did the timing of the first award. The U.S. Olympic hockey team shocked the world at Lake Placid, New York in 1980 with its upset win over the Soviet Union. The U.S. team of amateurs had been put together in short order while the Soviet group had veteran players and was considered the power of international hockey. In a time of wounded American ego both at home and abroad, the U.S. victory over the “Evil Empire” was a game changer in spirit for the homeland.

Neal Broten, a Minnesotan and Golden Gopher, was one of the contributors on that 1980 storied team. He would also be chosen by the Hobey Baker selection committee comprised of coaches and writers to be the first award recipient. He created excitement for the sold out banquet at the Decathlon Club.

“We happened to have a Minnesota winner. He also happened to be off the Olympics,” Justice said. “We ended up with a very…ideal winner, and he turned out to be a very good representative of the award. He was charming in the sense that he was so calm and so quiet, and very quick to acknowledge the other nine people who were in the top 10 finalists.”

Justice thought Minnesota media treated the first years of the award “with modest interest.” He contrasted that with a different experience out east including when he did an interview on an NHL game televised by ESPN in late 1980. “I heard from so many people on that, and there were writers that were talking to me after that interview, and (it was) very different than here,” he recalled. “It was almost (locally) like, you know, we’ll see what happens kind of a deal. I think after a couple of years of the award…that the local guys who were covering hockey, all of a sudden, realized this is not a regional event.”

Justice looks back fondly on those formative years when the Decathlon Club and its membership were so supportive in adding another piece of Minnesota hockey lore. He said the committees were so important, and Bard was always coming up with creative ideas, and public relations specialist “Patti (Riha) was just phenomenal.”

Former Gopher and North Star Steve Christoff was among the many Minnesotans that helped, too. He served as the model for the Hobey Baker Award figure sculpted by Bill Mack. In the summer of 1980 Justice called to see if Christofff was still on for the next day’s photo shoot. Christoff was good to go except for one not so minor item: he had no hockey uniform to pose in, and his gear was locked at the Met Center.

Justice did some last minute scrambling and things worked out. “How could that have been put off to the last minute?” Justice asked with amusement. “But he was wonderful to work with, Christoff. He was very generous of his time. I am sure he’s gotten a kick out of it over the years that he was the guy that modeled, but he was almost the guy that modeled… in street clothes.”

After the Decathlon Club burned to the ground almost 20 years ago, the Hobey Baker Committee established the Hobey Baker Award Memorial Foundation to run the finances and the overall administration of activities. Justice hasn’t been involved for a long time but he appreciates the growth in prestige of the Hobey Baker Award and development of college hockey.

“I can’t believe it’s 40 years,” he said. “I mean if you told me it was the fifth year, it would be easier to believe that. The game of college hockey has come so far. The coverage of college hockey by the media is infinitely more developed and more professional than it was at that time. The number of schools that play, the facilities that they have. Everything is such a step up.

“I keep going back to that 1980 Olympic team. That was an adrenaline shot that we got that no one could have predicted. It was such good fortune for that to happen. It doesn’t always happen with awards. …This caught the fancy (of people).”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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