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50 years later: Superior’s first-ever WIAA boys hockey championship

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SUPERIOR, Wis. -- The Superior boys hockey program has a rich history of success at the WIAA state tournament.

13 titles, and 37 total appearances speak for themselves. The Spartans have boasted the most successful program in the state of Wisconsin.

But 50 years ago, a special group of young players got everything started.

"I felt they had what you need to be successful in high school hockey, and that's numbers and facilities," said Gary Harker.

Harker had just taken over as head coach of Superior's varsity hockey team. He was young- just 24 years old, and fresh out of college.

"It really was a dream high school job. That's what I remember first. Then of course, I'm a rookie coach, and I've got this team that's had a lot of success, and they're going to play for this young whipper-snapper who's got all these ideas and strong discipline."

Harker was replacing Tom Saterdalen, who left Superior to take a job as an assistant under Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota. Saterdalen would later go on to become a historically successful Minnesota boys hockey coach at Bloomington-Jefferson.

"It was a tough spot for him, it really was," said captain Mike Johnson.

But the hiring of Harker wasn't the only major change for the Superior hockey community that year. Wessman Arena, an expansive new facility had just been constructed next to the high school.

The fresh look Spartan hockey program was thriving in Wisconsin's north woods, over 100 miles away from another in-state school their size.

Geography, combined with competition incentives, drove them to play a Minnesota based regular-season schedule.

"The Iron Range, you'll cut your teeth on those guys. They showed us how to play hockey, as well as Duluth, same thing," said Johnson.

Harker didn't want to play other Wisconsin teams, because he knew the Minnesota schools would provide a tougher test for his new team.

"That put us at a real advantage playing against the Wisconsin teams," said assistant captain Greg Rajaenen.

Superior finished the regular season 18-3, showing they could play with even the best teams that Minnesota had to offer. They blew through the playoffs, and advanced to the first official WIAA State Tournament.

"The anticipation of it being the first official state hockey tournament, I think that just built, and built, and built as the season went on," said Harker.

They took a school bus to Madison Wisconsin, where they awaited Janesville Craig in the quarterfinals at Dane County Arena.

Upon arrival, the Spartans took in a Wisconsin Badgers hockey practice, who at the time were preparing for a matchup against North Dakota in the WCHA Tournament (which they would later win).

"Walking into the Dane County, it was just like woah, the Dane County, it was just huge. There was a lot of ahh there," said Johnson.

Superior dominated their way past Janesville, followed by Madison East and Madison West. They outscored their opponents 34-6, still the most goals ever scored at a WIAA State Tournament.

22 of those goals came against Janesville, in a game where captain Mike Johnson, somehow, did not record a point.

March 6, 1971, was the day that the Spartans claimed the first-ever WIAA State Hockey title.

"It really was special, and not because I was coaching, but it was special because it was the first official state hockey tournament. And there can only be one of those, right?" said Harker.

Now 50 years later, some members of the team have stayed in the Twin Ports area, while some have moved away.

Rajaenen became a high school coach himself, and is currently working for the NHL as a midwest scout, based in Minneapolis.

Harker also spent some time as an NHL scout, and currently resides in the Twins Cities area. Johnson has retired, and lives near Lake Nebagamon, WI.

1971 SUPERIOR HOCKEY ROSTER

HEAD COACH: Gary Harker
ASSISTANT COACH: Dick Torrence
MANAGERS: Dennis Terry, Walt Sannwald
PLAYERS: Mark Wellman, Tom O'Brien, Tim Sullivan, Tom Aro, Mark O'Brien (goaltender, assistant captain), Mike Simon, Greg Rajaenen (assistant captain) Rick Plasch, Woody Budnick, Jon Wojciechowski, Gary Waint, Dave Erickson, Tom Laberdie, Bob Berg, Mike Mattson, Mike Johnson (captain), Greg Austreng, Mike Peterson, Mark Olson

Matt Halverson

Sports Anchor and Reporter

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