EVELETH — A generation ago, this would have been the strangest sight: a group of old-timers — some from Virginia, some from Eveleth — throwing off Coors Lights and Pabst Blue Ribbons together under the neon lights of Margie’s Roosevelt bar, laughing at the old days when these neighboring Iron Range towns really despised each other.
Keith Hendrickson, a graduate of Virginia High School in 1975, told a story. He was skating during warm-ups for a hockey game at the historic Eveleth Racecourse. Eveleth’s cheerleaders were on the ice, pom poms on the red line. Hendrickson skated past a cheerleader, who yelled at him, “You’re (expletive) going to die tonight, Hendrickson!” So his teammate hit Eveleth’s pom poms all over the ice.
They talked about Jack Carlson, the former NHL player from Virginia immortalized in the movie “Slap Shot,” who was hit with an egg in the face during warmups. They talked about fights — so many fights: on the ice, in the bleachers, in the smoky halls of the arenas and when the goal judge climbed the fence behind the net to fight an opposing player. They snickered about Eveleth fans pelting Virginia buses with rocks after a game.
But the alumni also spoke of a new hockey team set to play its first divisional playoff game: the Rock Ridge Wolverines, which combine these longtime rivals into one. New Consolidated School District’s high school opens in 2023, part of a $190 million project that will bring some of the newest and fanciest schools and athletic facilities the Iron Range has ever seen – and merge these hated rivals. Before schools open, sports teams are already helping each other.
“Can you ever imagine a Hatfield marrying a McCoy?” said Mike Sertich, star hockey player for the 1965 Virginia class and longtime men’s hockey coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “That’s what’s happening here.”
It’s another era on the iron chain. Eveleth and Virginia are half the size they once were, with 3,600 people now in Eveleth and 8,500 in Virginia. The mining accident of the 1980s decimated schools here: Virginia once had more than 300 students in each graduating class, but now hovers around 100. Eveleth-Gilbert High School – Eveleth consolidated with a neighboring town in 1993 – counts 65. Declining population has made it difficult to compete in athletics. We’ve been talking about consolidation since the 1980s, but even ten years ago it was a failure.
Old rivalries die hard
For generations it was the Iron Range version of Michigan-Ohio State, Yankees-Red Sox, Lakers-Celtics. But the enmity wasn’t just left to sports. People from Virginia wouldn’t shop at Eveleth, and vice versa. Eveleth’s parents did not want their children to marry someone from Virginia, and vice versa. Virginia included stoic Scandinavians, Eveleth Eastern Europeans and boisterous Italians, and no love was lost between the two.
But if anything can bring cities together, it’s the sport that has set them apart for generations: hockey.
It is one of Minnesota’s hockey hotbeds. Eveleth won five of Minnesota’s first seven high school hockey championships and is home to the American Hockey Hall of Fame Museum. Across from Margie’s Roosevelt is the Big Stick, a 107-foot hockey stick – the tallest in the world. Virginia is no slouch either and has produced NHL players like Matt Cullen and Matt Niskanen.
With city centers 6 miles apart, the area between the two cities is officially called Midway. But the elders call it the demilitarized zone. Fittingly, the stunning new high school sits there, a literal bridge.
“It’s hard to let go of your identity sometimes,” Virginia athletic director Josh Lamppa said. “Some people find it hard to recover. But the kids are leading the way.”
The first time coach Ben Johnson met with players from his new team, they were all wearing helmets.
It was summer and Johnson, who had coached men’s hockey at Ely, had just been hired as Rock Ridge’s first men’s hockey coach. He wanted his players excited, so he asked the Virginia City Attorney to let them into the soon-to-be-completed Iron Trail Motors Event Center, a $38 million convention center with two sheets of ice. and prodigious amounts of local wood and taconite. The Iron Rangers hope the building, along with an adjacent Marriott hotel, will become an economic engine.
Johnson grew up in Duluth, but he knew the hockey history of those towns. He also knew he had to stay above the fray and away from old personal squabbles. He had to field the best possible team.
One problem: these districts never cut players. Now nearly 60 players were trying out and Johnson only had 36 spots in college and junior college.
“Politics didn’t matter to me,” Johnson said. “You take two communities that hated each other for 100 years and you try to bring them together in a year, it’s hard. They all hated each other a month ago, and now they have to be teammates.”
Consolidation had taken years to prepare. Two years ago, Virginia Superintendent Noel Schmidt revealed the proposed name and mascot for the school after a hockey game between Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert. Although some have called Schmidt a “pack sacker” – an Iron Range term for people not originally from there – the crowd cheered as the players gathered at center ice around a banner Rock Ridge Wolverine.
A few months later, voters approved the plan, perhaps because it came with a big carrot: Minnesota’s Department of Resources and Iron Chain Rehabilitation, which reinvests taxes on taconite in the iron chain, would fund more than half of the $190 million project. But only if the cities collaborate.
With nearly 200 students in each class, the school will operate according to an academy model, unique on the iron chain. Students choose one of three career paths – trades, including engineering or manufacturing; health and social services; and business and technology – with general requirements built into each. There will be more advanced placement classes, better sports facilities, more opportunities.
“People are screaming for workers and they want the kids to stay,” said Willie Spelts, Rock Ridge fundraising coordinator and director of school-work engagement. “It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened here. It’s an opportunity for our children and our communities to have a rebirth.”
This is all very well for children. But the parents and grandparents had to overcome long-standing grudges. Which was not easy.
“We’re only 10 minutes apart, but you guys just didn’t associate with the people of Eveleth,” said Lisa Callister, who had four kids in Virginia’s hockey program. . “We play them in any sport, it was always ‘Kill the bears! “”
Tryouts in November brought tears and hurt feelings as some friends made the team and some didn’t. The season started off rough as the players adapted to new teammates and a faster style. Parents and fans still wore Virginia Blue Devils and Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears gear. Half of the home games were played at the new Virginia Arena, the other half at the century-old Eveleth Racetrack, an arrangement that will continue. The team lost its first three games. The players weren’t playing as a team and didn’t hit .500 until late January.
But by the middle of the season, the Eveleth players had started hanging out with the Virginia players. They went bowling together. At the end of January, something clicked: they won three in a row, lost a few, then went on a four-fight winning streak in February. Rock Ridge’s first playoff game would be a home game.
“Hockey is everything here,” said Nick Troutwine, a senior defenseman for Eveleth. “As a side note, that hasn’t happened in a long time here. If we can win some cups and prove people wrong about these towns coming together, that would be good for this community.”
‘Let’s go Green!’
“Are you ready for tomorrow? the coach asked his players after a skate last week.
The boys sat quietly in their locker room. The next day would be their first sectional playoff game as the Rock Ridge Wolverines. Johnson had won the state with Duluth East in 1995. He wanted his players to experience “the best feeling ever” playing at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.
Johnson pulled out a goalie stick in Wolverine colors and then he told a story. Before the team’s second practice, Johnson received a phone call saying one of his best friends had died suddenly of a heart attack related to COVID-19. Johnson was devastated, but he still had to coach. After telling the story, he pulled out a Sharpie and signed his friend’s name on the stick.
“Think about who you play, what your goal is and write it on that stick,” he said.
The players wrote down the names of the people who mattered most: grandparents and parents, uncles and friends. In the locker room filled with the stench of hockey, however, something was unsaid and unwritten: that these players were playing for their city and for their city’s future.
On Wednesday night, Virginia’s parking lot overflowed. Fans parked on the street and walked to the arena in sub-zero temperatures. Every seat was filled. The student section was decked out in the green, black and white of the Rock Ridge Wolverines. The band – also newly formed this year – performed Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”. Eveleth’s parents sat next to Virginia’s parents, all shouting, “Let’s go, Green!”
They lost. Although Rock Ridge dominated the first period, the puck didn’t go into the net. The game was not without controversy; the referees canceled two Rock Ridge goals in the same shift. But it just wasn’t their night. They lost to another Iron Range rival, Hibbing, 4-2.
Their first season was over. But it was not difficult to glimpse the united future of these cities.
“Children are out, communities are out – zero parochialism,” said Spelts, who has worked on the consolidation project for years. “It was the start of something big. It was the start of the Rock Ridge Wolverines.”