March 17, 2007
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
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.”
“Regardless of what happens, Ray Peterson
will have a prominent display inside the facility,” Francisco
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.