Call me a silly Minnesotan if you wish, but I really enjoy taking to the road on a frigid winter night and doing some exploring. That was the plan on Tuesday: leave home as the sun was dipping below the horizon, drive south while the temperature danced just on the positive side of zero and drive past country homes all decked out in holiday lights.
The objective was a boys’ hockey game in Rochester. If all went well, history would be made. But getting there – and home again – is half the fun for me, and that was the case this time. Again, feel free to call me goofy, but spending time on the road, tuning the iPod to Johnny Cash (name that tune: “I've been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota … Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota … Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma … Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma …”) and just driving is fun. A clear road, a good game, watching the garage door open up to greet me at 11 p.m. and writing until well after midnight; this is the business we have chosen. And business is really good.
Tonight’s focus was Albert Lea coach Roy Nystrom. He came into Tuesday’s game against Rochester John Marshall with 616 career victories. Former Edina coach Willard Ikola, one of the game’s legendary figures, also won 616 games before ending his 32-year coaching career. Nystrom is in his 45th year of coaching, but there is another fact to his victory total that gets some folks a little riled up.
Nystrom’s first 94 victories came while he was coaching in North Dakota. There’s the rub for the Minnesota hockey purists. They argue that Ikola won more games in fewer years and all of them were in Minnesota. Those arguments hold water, but as Nystrom said after his boys beat John Marshall 7-4, “617 is 617 no matter where you got 'em.” (That's Nystrom in the photo, getting a congratulatory hug as the game ended.)
On a national scale, there’s no arguing that Nystrom now ranks ahead of Ikola. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations record book, here are the top five:
1. 897 Bill Belisle, Rhode Island
2. 695 Edward Burns, Massachusetts
3. 623 Ron Baum, Michigan
4. 617 Roy Nystrom, North Dakota and Minnesota
5. 616 Willard Ikola, Minnesota
Close on their heels is Rochester Mayo coach Lorne Grosso,who got his 610th win earlier this week. Grosso and Nystrom are great friends who were linemates at the University of Minnesota.
In 32 seasons, Ikola’s record was 616-149-38. His Edina teams won eight state titles (1969, '71, '74, '78, '79, '82, '84 and '88) and finished second twice. Nystrom has won 523 games in 38 years at Albert Lea, with the first 94 coming in seven years in North Dakota. He has taken three teams to state tournaments (2004, 2005 and 2007).
The connection between the two coaches goes all the way back to Eveleth, Minnesota, when the Ikola and Nystrom families lived a few blocks apart. Ikola is 11 years older than Nystrom, who remembers watching Willard play goaltender for Eveleth High School.
“He was a great goaltender,” Nystrom said after Tuesday’s game.
Nystrom (talking to his team during a timeout in the photo below) said he takes more pride in his coaching longevity than the number of wins. “My biggest accomplishment is lasting that long. Those 45 rank ahead of 617.”
He coached in Grafton and Grand Forks, N.D., before moving to Albert Lea. “A North Dakota teacher’s salary was not what you would call lucrative,” he said with a smile. He had opportunities to leave Albert Lea over the years, “but I never really considered leaving,” he said.
His coaching staff includes his son David and Jon Breuer, the leading scorer in Albert Lea hockey history. Roy Nystrom said he has no plans to retire, but he will know it’s time “when my son and Jonny have to carry me out and show me where the ice is.”
--A tip of the hat to John Marshall athletic director Paul Cox and his crew for a classy move Tuesday night. Before the game, this announcement was made to the crowd at Rochester Recreation Center: “Tonight, we have a special announcement. John Marshall High School would like to congratulate Albert Lea’s head coach, Roy Nystrom, on his successful coaching career and tying Willard Ikola as the winningest coach in state history.”
After the game, this announcement was made: “At this time, we would like to congratulate Albert Lea head coach Roy Nystrom on becoming the winningest coach in state history. Congratulations Coach Nystrom!"
--I saw two things fall from the sky during the game. The first was a puck, which came over the glass near where I was sitting and rattled around before I leaned over and grabbed it. I am holding it hostage until I can have Nystrom autograph it for me. Why didn’t I think of that before I left the arena? Darn good question. I also saw popcorn raining down. I was sitting at my laptop in the scorekeeper’s area. The fans are stationed about 10 feet above that spot, and someone spilled a little bit of popcorn near my spot. Could have been worse. Could have been liquid.
--On the way home I smelled a distinctive odor as I stopped at a red light on Highway 52. The windows were rolled up tight and the heat was blasting, so this was one strong smell. Skunk. Big skunk. Dead skunk. Big stinky dead skunk. I’m lookin’ at you, Cannon Falls.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 261
*Miles John has driven: 5,531
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