May 17, 2008
Founders of Duluth hockey honored with
Heritage Sports Center mural
By Brandon Stahl
Their names are almost synonymous with youth hockey
in Duluth’s neighborhoods; Robert and LaVerne Fryberger in
the east, Rip Williams in the center and Ray Peterson in the west.
To be sure, there are others who should be given
credit for helping start youth hockey in the city, but those four
are known for being the impetus and leaders. Together, they combined
for more than a century of coaching and mentorship for hundreds,
if not thousands, of kids.
The four will be honored as the “Founders”
of Duluth hockey at the Heritage Sports Center arena today at 3
p.m., with a mural of their pictures put up in the main arch lining
the walls of the rink. Many of the founders’ descendants will
be brought on the ice for a photo and an honorary skate around the
While donations were crucial to making the Heritage
Center a reality, the mural on the arch will be placed in memoriam.
“We wanted to recognize the three major
sections of Duluth and bring them together,” said Pat Francisco,
the Heritage’s fundraising committee chairman. “We can’t
say that picking these three was scientific, but there aren’t
too many who would disagree that these were the right ones to be
For 33 years, Peterson was the director of activities
at Wheeler Field, assigned there by the city in 1941. Each year
he flooded the rink there and coached hockey. In the 1940s he also
created the Duluth Denfeld hockey program. Kids from his teams went
on to play at the college and pro level; others went on to become
doctors, teachers and successful professionals.
“He was one of the reasons so many youths
became so successful in their endeavors,” said his daughter-in-law,
Three years ago, when the building bearing his
name in West Duluth burned down, family members feared that Peterson’s
name would be lost to time. With the Heritage Center honor, that
shouldn’t be a problem.
Lois Peterson said she believes her father-in-law
would have been honored to be named as one of the Heritage “Founders.”
“I think he’d just be floored to have
his picture in a place like this,” she said. “It’s
wonderful they chose to honor him this way.”
Williams’ Duluth hockey roots can be traced
to 1915, when he started skating on the city’s first rink
on Lower Chester. His son, Butch, said Williams graduated through
the city ranks and became a semi-pro player, even though he had
no fingers on his left hand. He then turned his attention to coaching
youth hockey, becoming the incorporating president of the Duluth
His time coaching on the ice was spent mostly
at the rink on Lower Chester on 15th Avenue East and Fifth Street,
where he began forming teams in the late 1940s and ’50s and
coached them almost until his death in 1991. The rink was renamed
for him in the 1980s
“He quit coaching a year before dying,”
Williams said. “Even up until that time, he was taking care
of Lower Chester.”
Two of Williams’ sons, including Butch,
went on to play in the National Hockey League, along with other
kids he coached, Williams said.
“He was devoted to developing youth players
to the best they could be,” he said.
His son remembers that whenever his dad wanted
to inspire him, he pointed to his hand.
“He said, ‘If I could do what I did
with one hand, think about what you could do with both,’ ”
Bob and LaVerne Fryberger
Their children, Bob and Jerry Fryberger, remember
hockey as simply a way to keep them busy during the long winters
in Duluth. Their parents flooded a patch of yard at their home on
Waverly Avenue in Woodland, and later moved it across the street
when they needed more room. That created a rink that has remained
there for the past 61 years, and has been the training ground for
two NHL players and four Olympic hockey players, including one from
the fabled 1980 U.S. men’s team.
In 1951, Bob Fryberger assembled a group of kids
from the neighborhood, “just a ragtag group,” Jerry
said, which he would go on to coach and win the national Pee Wee
championship that year. The following year, the team repeated.
“That championship team really accelerated
hockey in Duluth,” Jerry said. “And to some extent in
Minnesota, because people could see what fun it could be and what
those kids could do.”
When Bob died in 1957 after a car accident, LaVerne
kept up the tradition of flooding the rink and supporting youth
hockey, and in 1958 helped set up a fund and organize a team that
won another national championship in Lake Placid, N.Y., her sons
said. She died in January 2002 at the age of 91.
“They were instrumental in providing a healthy
atmosphere and activity in those days for young boys,” Bob
said. “There was no intent on generating pro athletes. It
was just a matter of creating good citizens, responsible citizens.”