July 5, 2009
‘Wheeler Whiz Kids’ made hockey
By Kevin Pates
The Wheeler Whiz Kids won every youth hockey title
in Duluth, attended Denfeld High School together, went in the U.S.
Navy together, and rekindled their rink magic in college as the
Duluth Line — left winger Don Bodin, center Russ Strom and
right winger Bob (Evan) Nyhus.
The three West End neighbors played on an undefeated
Minnesota Duluth team 60 years ago before transferring to the University
of Minnesota for two seasons in 1949-50 and 1950-51.
“We thought we had reached the big time
in Minneapolis. Instead of riding a bus to play Hamline or Bemidji,
we were riding the train to Colorado College and Michigan State,”
Bodin remembered last week. “It was a better experience than
anything we could’ve hoped for.”
The three friends, now in their 80s, stay in touch,
realizing their time as teammates was unique. Bodin, 80, went on
to a career in teaching in Cloquet and South St. Paul; Strom, 81,
owned a pharmacy in St. Paul and Minneapolis; while Nyhus, 81, worked
for a telephone company in Omaha, Nebr. All are retired —
Bodin in Richfield, Minn., Strom in New Brighton, Minn., and Nyhus
in El Centro, Calif.
They got together on the ice for the first time
as 11- and 12-year-olds, and learned the game from Wheeler Field
youth coach Ray Peterson. Their Wheeler Panthers were city champions
in the Cadet, Midget and Junior divisions. Bodin and Nyhus were
part of Denfeld’s first hockey team in 1945-46 as seniors,
a year after Strom graduated.
College was delayed as the three joined the Navy,
starting at the Great Lakes Naval Base near Chicago for training,
and then at the Hospital Corps School in San Diego. Strom encouraged
“We were the closest friends, and when I
told the other two that by joining the service by June 30, 1946,
we could go to college on the G.I. Bill, they saw the benefits,”
They were UMD freshmen in 1948-49 and played on
a 7-0 team coached by Henry Jensen. University of Minnesota coach
Doc Romnes then courted the linemates. They played for the Gophers
the next season, before transfer rules were in effect, Bodin said.
Romnes said in a 1949 Minneapolis Tribune story
that the Duluthians had a chance to be the team’s top line
and they fulfilled that promise as Strom, a former goalie, was the
scoring co-leader and Bodin ranked fourth.
The next year, in 1950-51, the Gophers won their
most games in a decade, finishing 14-12, as Strom and Bodin ranked
4-5 in team scoring. They were aided by another Denfeld graduate,
All-American goalie Larry Ross. Strom played one more season as
Minnesota’s captain in 1952.
“We didn’t skate all that well, but
we passed the puck better than most lines, and we could score,”
said Bodin, who learned to skate on the St. Louis Bay.
Their exploits were noticed by other Denfeld athletes,
such as basketball player Paul Nace, who, as a senior guard, helped
the Hunters earn Duluth’s first state championship in 1947.
He was an avid newspaper reader and put together three scrapbooks
of sports highlights from that era, including stories on the Duluth
A Minneapolis Star story from Feb. 17, 1950, included
a photo showing the hockey trio standing next to a brand-new Williams
Arena rink that was christened in a series against Michigan State,
which the Gophers won 12-1 and 8-0.
“There’s no question that those three
guys were great players,” said Nace, 80, who was basketball
coach and athletic director at Morgan Park High School. “Whatever
stories they tell, they’re all true.”
Bodin kept his hand in hockey as a catalyst during
the sport’s formative days in Cloquet. He taught elementary
school physical education for 12 years, from 1952-64, and coached
youth and high school teams near the end of the outdoor era. He
was followed as high school coach by Don Bordeau and then Bill Kennedy.
Bodin finished his teaching career in 1986, after
22 years in South St. Paul. While his health, and those of his linemates,
has waned, Bodin and his wife of 59 years, Lois, get together with
Duluth friends on the second Thursday of every month at a Minneapolis
restaurant for food and conversation. The exploits of the Wheeler
Whiz Kids likely get some mention.