Mariucci took a team that had gone 13-13 the previous year all the way to the NCAA Championship game. His team was 23-6 that season, and he was awarded Coach of the Year honors. It was the first of many such honors.
The streets of the small iron-ore mining town of Eveleth, Minn., in the 1920s were full of stick-wielding young boys chasing around a frozen chunk of manure. Of course, this was hockey at its most rudimentary level, and the games would often evolve into fist fights. At that time, no matter who started the fight, the last one standing would have been John Mariucci. With a love of competing, of fighting and of protecting those around him, John Mariucci skated out of this small Iron Range town and became the country’s most important figure in the development of amateur hockey in America.
Though his greatest accomplishments would later come as the coach of the Golden Gophers, Mariucci had a stellar athletic career as well. While playing for the University of Minnesota, he became known as the smooth skating All-America defensemen and led the Golden Gophers to an undefeated season and the AAU National Championship in 1940.
His technical skills became secondary in his five years as a Chicago Blackhawk. One of only a handful of Americans in the league at the time, Mariucci became captain of the team by defending his teammates. He was a great draw in Capone-era Chicago for the fights that ensued from his protective spirit. One fight with Detroit’s “Black Jack” Stewart kept the fans cheering for half of an hour, and still stands in the NHL record books as the longest fight ever.
In 1952, Mariucci accepted the position of head hockey coach at Minnesota, replacing Doc Romnes, who had recorded a 52-59 mark during the previous five years. Right away he seemed to produce a unique positive energy. He took a team that had gone 13-13 the previous year all the way to the NCAA Championship game. His team was 23-6 that season, and he was awarded Coach of the Year honors. It was the first of many such honors.
Mariucci was the first coach to stack his roster with Minnesota-bred talent. “This is a state institution and should be represented by Minnesota boys,” he believed. “If they’re not quite as good as some Canadians, we’ll just have to work a little harder, that’s all.”
Going up against teams with older, more mature Canadians, Minnesota captured two second-place national finishes and one third-place finish with Mariucci at the helm. With this level of success, he gave skate-wearing, stick-toting boys around the state something to shoot for.
He threw himself into grassroots development of the state’s hockey program as well. He avidly participated in coaching clinics, attended the opening of hockey facilities in countless cities and towns, helped former players find coaching positions and even encouraged hockey moms to write to city councils to build rinks and develop recreation programs. A good indication of hockey’s growing popularity during Mariucci’s reign is how much the high school tournament grew. Attendance at the tournament increased from 15,523 in 1952 to 46,016 in 1966. He made it every Minnesota boy’s dream to play hockey for the Maroon and Gold.
He gave them even greater sights to focus on as well. Invited to coach the U.S. Olympic team in 1956, Mariucci arrived in his ancestral homeland of Italy with a national team that included 11 Minnesota natives, including three from his hometown of Eveleth. The town of Cortina d’Ampezzo witnessed just how far Minnesota hockey had come, as the team stunned heavily favored Canada en route to stealing a second-place finish and a silver medal.
Without Mariucci’s pioneering work, Olympic gold medals would have been impossible. Both of the U.S. gold medal teams were heavily manned with his progeny, including eight Minnesotans on the 1960 “Team of Destiny.” The Golden Gophers’ own Herb Brooks coached an astounding 12 home-staters who went to Lake Placid and pulled off the 1980 “Miracle On Ice.”
Mariucci built a powerful and loyal dynasty — Minnesota hockey — by believing and protecting those in his “family.” That leadership pushed Minnesota hockey to the forefront of American hockey, and with that, earned the state a seat at the head table of international hockey.
Legend has it that Mariucci got in some scrapes during his Chicago years, and had to meet up with Al Capone for beating up some of the legendary gangster’s thugs. The story may or may not be true, but it’s no wonder that Mariucci came to be known as the “Godfather” of American hockey.
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