A Game Lost in Memories

This short story written by Bruce Brennan recalls a senior men’s hockey game between Wausau and Green Bay in the early 1960s. The facts may not follow the actual events, but the game is seen in memories through the eyes and enthusiasm of youth.

I recall certain events from a memorable hockey game long ago when the Wausau Vets played Green Bay at Marathon Park’s outdoor rink. At the time I was barely a teenager, all excited to see my heroes play again. It was Sunday; a dark, cold day deep in February. I was standing on top of the packed snow banks along the boards to watch the game with my friends. The snow banks helped support the boards and gave fans a better view. However, you had to be attentive to avoid an errant puck or getting clubbed by a swinging stick.

Mr. Andringa from Rib Mountain took care of the rink and always had it ready for play. He used a farm tractor with attachments for sweeping off the rink after each period. He whisked the snow into windrows against the boards. Volunteers (including my friends and me) would then go slipping and sliding out onto the ice in our street shoes to shovel the windrows over the boards so the players could resume the game with a clean sheet of ice. If someone back then would have mentioned “Zamboni” to me, I wouldn’t have known what they were referring to and probably would have thought it to be an Italian dish with a hambone!

The Park had two separate antiquated warming houses; one for our team and one for the visitors. Each was equipped with a potbelly stove. Seasoned hardwood logs were always jumbled into a precariously high pile near the stove. Saw dust and bark remnants filled the cracks of the wood floor. Usually you could see neat trails of fine wood particles and dust made by an ineffective worn out witch’s broom that testified to someone’s futile attempt to tidy up. The smoky scent of burning wood drew cold individuals nearer to the glowing stove with hands held out as if worshipping it.

The warming houses had an unmistakable odor that all hockey players and fans could identify, even if blindfolded. The smell of black-fibered electricians’ tape wrapped around the blades of Northland sticks was the epitome of everything “hockey” to me, both aromatically and visually. A good hockey stick was expensive, so you had to protect the business end the best you could.

There were several great players on the Wausau team. I recall names such as Danny Ristow, Billy Melanson, Wayne Walters, a guy named “Jughead” Jorgensen, the Pergolski boys, Bill Huntington, and others whose names have faded from memory. George, Neil, and especially Turk Flory were the most outstanding players in our minds. All the players and us young-uns looked up to them both on and off the ice. We thought Turk had all the makings of a pro player. His abilities, hustle, demeanor, and plain presence on the ice commanded the attention of all players and spectators.

There were also three ruggedly talented Ringwelski brothers (Dickey, Junior, and Buddy) playing on the Wausau squad. They lived down the street from my family. We all grew up playing hockey in driveways, on any frozen pond and down the banks onto the ice of the secluded sloughs of Lake Wausau. My pa forbade me to play hockey and threatened to not sign baseball and football authorizations, but I could not resist sneaking off to play whenever I got the chance. That was not nearly enough practice to become good at the game. I regret now that I did not pursue honing my skills like the Ringwelskis did. Eventually, I came to love the sport of hockey more than any other.

On this particular Sunday night, Green Bay came to town seeking revenge for their last loss to our hometown boys. They had a very good team but in our minds they had to play dirty to win. Of course, Green Bay’s fans probably thought the same of our team! The visitors had one particularly skilled player that was slightly balding, about 5′ 11″, and well built for those times. He had a mouthy, insulting attitude and did a lot of nasty things to his opponents in close quarters when digging for the puck. For instance, he was well known for using the butt end of his stick as a weapon to inflict pain on opposing players.

Back then the only sane ones that wore helmets for Wausau were Bill Huntington and Neil and Turk Flory. Sometimes, opposing team players would poke fun at their sissy helmets. After a couple shifts, they seemed to forget about any Wausau players being sissies.

During the first period of the game, Danny Ristow assisted in two quick goals. Danny had a rare finesse while handling and passing the puck. The player from Green Bay with the attitude decided to go after Danny to slow him down. He used the butt of his stick as accurately as a pool cue and chipped one of Danny’s front teeth. There was just one referee on the ice that game. It was hard enough for the one ref to monitor all the action, let alone this guy’s dirty antics. “Mr. Little Attitude” got away with the infraction. The same player was later called for a blatant slash on Ristow and went to the penalty box. Danny stayed out on the ice, making a pass to Ringwelski skating in on the goaltender. With a deke and a quick backhand flip, Mike Ringwelski scored and Danny got his third assist. This guy from Green Bay flew out of the penalty box and right up to Danny, trying to antagonize him to drop his gloves and fight. Turk Flory jumped in with the ref and broke it up. Wausau led 3 to 2.

In the second period there was a lot of hitting as Mr. Little Attitude followed Ristow around trying to intimidate him for everyone to witness, like the bully at a school playground. It worked, as Green Bay tied the score. After that goal there was more pushing and shoving and provoking by Little Attitude, directed mostly toward Ristow.

The period ended shortly after and the teams separated to their respective warming houses. We kids were always allowed into the warming house so we wanted to be there to take in all the excitement as the coach and players discussed the play and that devious player from Green Bay.

We watched Danny as he sat on the bench far from the stove, loosening his skate laces, then staring at the wood floor. It seemed to us that his normal composure was competing with and building up ANGER. Surely this was due to the uncalled-for physical intimidation and the bold confrontations for two periods. Finally, one of the players spoke up, then others joined in accusing the opposing player of getting away with too much and “someone needs to set him straight.” This was all said in vulgar language that caused us kids to be ejected by one of the players who thought our young ears should not be taking in these unusually colorful, animated tirades!

We reluctantly headed for the cow barns now converted to a curling rink because we had not yet had a good chance to get warmed up. We used to go there to get out of the elements only as a last resort. Once warmed up, it was time to get back, shovel up windrows on the ice and position ourselves to watch the third period.

After the faceoff, and some neat passing, Turk Flory skated into the open. He did a head fake, got around the goalie and scored the fourth goal as the netminder strained to look back at the unguarded goal. After spotting the puck in the net, he fell flat on his back in disgust. The hometown cowbells were clinkity-clanking and we were pounding and kicking on the boards in a complete frenzy. Wausau was ahead 4 to 3, as our anticipation for a win was exercised with unrelenting noise and an array of verbal encouragement!

Unfortunately, Green Bay immediately scored to close the gap. Within 12 minutes, Green Bay rampaged with four straight additional goals, now leading 8 to 4! This really took the wind out of our sails. But then, we got new life as Turk Flory and his brothers managed the puck down low along the boards as Turk slammed home his second goal! An additional goal by another Wausau player made it 6 to 8! The Vets were facing an impossible comeback.

With only seconds left on the clock, Danny Ristow skated out to center ice for the ensuing faceoff. The Green Bay player with the attitude skated out to challenge him for the toss-down. Before the puck was dropped, the two of them got very vocal and were pushing each other back and forth. The ref warned them and quickly got them positioned and dropped the puck before anything could escalate. Danny won the draw and turned toward the boards to hopefully receive the puck from a wing and take it quickly across the blue line.

The puck was nowhere near Danny when Little Attitude glides over and cross-checks him in the back and knocks him face-first onto the ice. With time expired, Danny got up, dropped his gloves and they squared off in boxing fashion. Danny ducked a big round-house right and then hit him with his own right cross and then a left and then another right that put this guy to his knees. The ref and everyone else were letting them fight, hoping to get rid of the tension. Unfortunately, that was not gonna happen. The Green Bay player quickly got back up with a bloody nose and comes at Danny, grabbing each side of his sweater collar. In turn, Danny grabbed the other guy’s sweater. They both freed their right hands as they skated in tight circles punching and faking punches at each other’s face. Danny was missing some but getting in mostly clean punches. The other guy tired and resorted to trying to use knee blows because Danny was ducking most of his jabs. Our players and most of us spectators were furious to witness such a cowardly ploy. The guy finally slipped and fell to the ice and we thought that would be the end of the fight.

That is when I saw the worst, intentionally evil thing ever on ice. While Danny was leaning forward struggling to pull his sweater back over his shoulders, this guy (now lying on his back) takes several wild kicking swipes at Danny’s head with his razor-sharp skates. Some of them missed when suddenly one powerful downward slash connected! The blow knocked Danny out while the blade edge followed through and sliced the center of his head wide open. This all happened very fast. I do not believe anyone expected even this guy to use his skates as weapons to intentionally inflict injury! Danny fell and laid facedown, motionless while his blood gushed and melted deep into the ice. The ref and all the players from Wausau rushed over to Danny as “Mr. Small Attitude” skated away without anyone paying much attention to him.

Danny was in big trouble! It was rather chaotic and hard to see who was attending to him other than the ref. Soon the ambulance showed up with two police squad cars. The Green Bay players were in the warming house undressing by now. To us, they did not show much concern or emotion for this criminal act. We all watched the ambulance speed off with lights flashing and sirens echoing off the fairground buildings. It was very eerie as the sirens’ urgent shrills faded away into the city.

Sadness turned to rage in the hometown warming hut. Turk Flory chucked his helmet in the corner, headed past the police and entered the Green Bay warming house. The other Wausau players and we kids followed after Turk. When someone opened the door, it became a loud signal for the Boys in Blue to get into that warming house… and fast! Turk had punched Mr. Small Attitude and he was down for the count. We got to see Turk standing over that vile slug in triumphant retribution before the cops removed Turk to avoid a real donnybrook! I turned toward a bunch of shouting voices as the police lead “Mr. Attitude” off in handcuffs.

Fans gathered in groups, discussing the gruesome circumstances. I was speechless and finally wandered back onto the rink. To my disgust, there was a spot of Danny’s bright red blood flash-frozen deep into the ice, resembling a huge extra faceoff circle dot. The blood stayed there for the rest of the season under several layers of ice as an ominous warning to players.

Danny recovered but did not play anymore that winter. He came back the next season and skated his game like nothing unusual ever took place. The red spot of course, was gone with the spring thaw, so he never had to look at it like the others did. Every time he got close to the boards during a game, fans focused on his scar; a long angry scar of courage. Turk was the real valiant one in our eyes. We all admired him even more, not only for his fantastic play and durability but also for the potential to mete out fearless, justifiable punishment to any future despicable violators.

Every time I attended the Wisconsin Valley Fair in those years, I went over to the area where the hockey rink had been located six months earlier. As I stood there sweating in the August heat, I happily envisioned that in a few months this patch of ground would transform again with cold ice and hot-spirited excitement. It seems unfair that such a memorable era has been lost for local sports fans. But, that is how our lives work. Good memories can only last so long and are rarely chronicled. At least now in a small sense, I’ve made this event “historic” to the best of my recollection.

Bruce Brennan grew up in Wausau from 1950 until entering the Air Force in 1969. He played football for Win Brockmeyer and baseball for Jack Torresani at Wausau Senior High School. His career with the Air Force started off in Air Operations at Patrick AFB, Florida involving Apollo 12 through 17 missions, the first Skylab, and myriad launches testing ICBMs supported by specialized aircraft. He then spent one year with the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Udorn Thani, Thailand. His final tour was at Kincheloe AFB, Michigan with the Strategic Air Command Air Operations 449th Bombardment Wing.

He returned to Florida, working for the Department of Defense at Patrick AFB. He retired in 2012 as an Operations Engineer with a combined total of 33 years of government service. He continues to live with his wife Sandy in Satellite Beach, Florida and enjoys his lifelong passions of hunting, fishing, writing, painting wildlife scenes, woodcarving, and sculpting. The above story is the one that inspired Randy Zarnke to look up his hometown heroes.