Denfeld News

May 17, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

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 rink.

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 chosen.”

Ray Peterson

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, Lois Peterson.

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.”

Rip Williams

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 Hockey Association.

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,’ ” he said.

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.”

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