Denfeld News

March 17, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

Peterson’s legacy to find home in hockey center
By Chuck Frederick

Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Ray Peterson smiled broadly but reportedly said little 36 years ago this month when the ice arena at Wheeler Field in West Duluth was named in his honor.

With plans being made now to replace Peterson Arena — the building was destroyed two winters ago in a spectacular blaze started when a Zamboni exploded — descendants, former players and others are willing to say as much as possible to make sure Peterson’s legacy isn’t forgotten.

“We have had that fear that his name would be lost now,” said Lois Peterson, Ray Peterson’s daughter-in-law. “He was so instrumental in hockey around here.”

The fears started when Peterson Arena wasn’t immediately rebuilt by the city. The feelings intensified when a grass-roots group announced plans to build the Duluth Heritage Sports Center a few blocks east of the Peterson Arena site, saying that the center’s two indoor rinks and hockey hall of fame would be named for the highest bidders. The selling of naming rights was key, they explained, in raising the $15.6 million needed for the project.

Understandable, but the chances of someone from Ray Peterson’s family coming up with the $1 million or more needed to once again give Duluth a Peterson Arena or Peterson Rink or Peterson Anything seem about as slim as sharpened skate blades. And that means, very likely, Ray Peterson’s 33 years as director of recreational activities at Wheeler Field, his father-like presence in West Duluth and his pioneering work in the development of youth hockey will be allowed to fade away with time.

And that would be too bad.

Forgotten, eventually, could be how Ray Peterson, whose father built bridges for Northern Pacific railroad, worked at the Irving, Harrison and Merritt recreation centers after graduating Duluth Denfeld, a pole vaulter for the Hunters.

How in 1941, he was assigned by the city to Wheeler, where — for three decades — he was rink flooder, baseball field caretaker and mentor to generations of children. “He loved the kids,” said Lois Peterson, who grew up near Enger Tower. “They didn’t have to be good hockey players, either. He just cared how they grew up.”

Forgotten, too, could be how in the early 1930s Ray Peterson created and coached some of Duluth’s earliest youth hockey teams. How he helped the kids wrap magazines around their shins for padding and showed them how to “stand tall, skate straight on the blue line and never let anyone tell you that you are a failure,” as Ray Peterson’s granddaughter, Beth Daigle, said he taught her.

How his West Duluth Highland Flyers won the city hockey championship in 1939.

How his teams never wanted for ice time. “He would load those kids in his car with their sticks and skates and take them all over to play,” recalled his son, Ray Peterson Jr., now 75. “He was good to the kids.”

How at the end of each season, no matter what the win-loss record, Ray Peterson would pose with the kids for a team photo. How he framed all those pictures and later hung them inside the arena that bore his name.

How he started the hockey program at Duluth Denfeld in the 1940s, turning over the reins only after he was comfortable that the team was well-established.

How scores of kids he coached went on to play in college and even the pros.

How scores more went on to become doctors, teachers, orthodontists and successful adults.

In the 1960s, players, grown up by then, hosted a dinner to honor and to thank Ray Peterson. The West End’s All American Club was packed.

Later, when the club, which for years had been a sponsor of Wheeler’s youth teams, needed a new furnace, a former player picked up the tab.

Al Peterson, one of Ray Peterson’s sons, went on to play hockey for the University of Minnesota Duluth, then went on to be head hockey coach in White Bear Lake, Minn., where he’s now retired. Ray Peterson Jr., after playing for Denfeld and after moving to Silver Bay to work in the engineering department at Reserve Mining, helped start youth hockey there — the same way his father had started it in western Duluth. Harry J. McDonald, another former player, did likewise in Eagle River, Alaska, after he moved there as an adult. Eagle River’s Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center is named in his honor.

Yet another former player, Eli Miletich, went on to become Duluth’s chief of police.

“Ray was a guy I’d have to classify as one of my idols,” said Miletich, now retired. “He was the epitome of showing kids the right ways to do things. I always admired him. I think [the Duluth Heritage Sports Center] should be named the Peterson Heritage Sports Center. Don’t drop his name just because of a horrible accident.”

In a recent edition of the Labor World newspaper, editor Larry Sillanpa, also a former All American Club player, recalled that Ray Peterson and his family lived for decades in the Wheeler Fieldhouse’s upstairs apartment. “Ray never had hours, I bet, and probably no savings account, either, but he provided a childhood and a kind father figure for a lot of kids,” Sillanpa wrote. “Thanks, Ray. Fire destroyed your arena and money will replace your legacy, but kids will have a place to play, and that’s what mattered to you.”

Whoa, not so fast about that legacy-lost bit, says Pat Francisco, one of the forces behind the Duluth Heritage Sports Center. “We plan on having a whole display on Ray Peterson. Why would we not?

“And if we get a million-dollar contributor who wants to remain anonymous or if we get a consortium of contributors, we’ll ask them to let us name one of the rinks for Ray Peterson,” Francisco continued. “Ray Peterson will be prominent.”

Promise?

“Regardless of what happens, Ray Peterson will have a prominent display inside the facility,” Francisco said.

Won’t be the same as having a building named for him or even an ice rink. But it’d be something, and as Ray Peterson Jr., said, “Something for my dad — that’s all we want.”

Even if his dad, who died in 1976 at age 67 — three years after retiring and five years after Peterson Arena opened — deserves far more.

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