This article, written by Mary B. Read, begins with Milwaukee Country Day School (one of three forerunners to the University School of Milwaukee including Milwaukee University School and Downer Seminary), which opened its doors in September of 1917 on the present site of the Karl Jewish Community Campus in Whitefish Bay.
According to the Green and Gold Arrow, the school yearbook, the winter of 1919–1920 was the first time in the history of the school “that a serious attempt was made to play hockey and develop some semblance of team play. Be it said, however that hockey will never be a popular school sport until we are more certain of favorable skating conditions and until we arrange competitions with outside teams.”
Fortunately, the school was soon able to obtain city water to flood an area of land near the field house, initially causing water pressure problems for the community. The second issue was more serious. While the problem of reliable ice was solved in 1919, there still were neither schools nor teams near the campus at this time. So the school had to rely on its inter-club games for competitive enthusiasm.
The 1921–1922 Green and Gold Arrow yearbook described hockey as a pastime rather than a sport. “Any account of Country Day hockey must mention a perfectly natural lack of interest on the part of the seniors due to the greater importance of basketball.”
The bitter cold winter of 1921–22 was good for the sport and the school recorded its first game against outside competition. “This game was lost by a very one-sided score. Our opponents who hailed from Lake Forest were a well-balanced, well-drilled combination that displayed astonishing knowledge of the finer points of hockey.”
By the 1926–27 school year, the Country Day hockey team played five games against outside teams, two against Shorewood and St. John’s Military Academy and one against West Allis. One game was hampered by heavy snowfall where the puck was often lost in the snow, while the final game was described as both a water polo game and swimming meet due to the poor ice conditions. Country Day shut out Shorewood 2-0 and won the second contest 9-2. The school beat St. John’s 4-2 and 4-0 and shut out West Allis 2-0.
In the 1930s, four foot-high boards were added around the rink and a chicken wire fence was built behind the nets. December 15 marked the start of the season when the school flooded the field. The team helped put in the ice every year. Five or six players had to hold up the hose to prevent it from freezing to the ground. Games were not played until December 20. According to Tom Tuttle, class of 1945, “the hockey guys played football, then touch football, then prayed for cold weather.
A February thaw was a huge problem. We always hoped the ground hog would see his shadow, guaranteeing six more weeks of winter.”
The snow had to be shoveled off the ice before every practice and game. The players wore no helmets or shoulder pads. Their equipment consisted of skates, shin guards and gloves.
Revival of the Program
Hockey began to slip in popularity in the mid-1950s, so Bill Church was contacted to help resuscitate the program. A distinguished member of the faculty and one-time headmaster, Church played a major role in reviving the program at Milwaukee Country Day along with hockey parents such as Geoff Maclay*, Henry Uihlein**, Dave Wright, and Hobey and Pete Pierson.
According to the 1959 Arrow, “a significant addition to the athletic facilities was made this year when alumni and friends of the school planned and underwrote the rebuilding of the old hockey rink. Through major donations from the Wright and Pierson families, the area was graded and new boards and a heated warming house were put up and lighting for evening skating was installed.” The renovated rink was named the Wright-Pierson Skating Rink. Thanks to the devotion of many people, Country Day “had one of the finest natural rinks in the state in 1959. ”
The most spectacular facility change in 1959 was the installation of a series of nylon curtains strung across the rink 12 feet above the ice. These curtains were used to provide shade on days the air temperature was below freezing but the temperature in the sun was above 32 degrees. Henry Uihlein eventually convinced the school to cut holes in the curtains as the strong wind created under the curtains almost pulled the boards out of the ground!
Artificial Ice Installed
In 1961, it was time to consider artificial ice at Country Day. In those days, several families had invested in a team called the Milwaukee Falcons, a forerunner to the Milwaukee Admirals. This team played at State Fair Park but eventually folded. The investor group then focused its energy toward the design and construction of a renovated rink at Milwaukee Country Day.
The group hired Art Nicholas, a former figure skater and expert on artificial ice surfaces, to work on the new rink. Nicholas later went on to create the present USM rink, the Bradley Center, and assisted in the renovation of the Dartmouth College arena as well.
The ledger from the minute books shows the cost of the rink to be $76,000, most of which was raised by hockey families. Numerous items including the electrical controls and pipe valves and fittings were donated by local businesses.
Youth Hockey Program Developed
The first youth hockey program, named the Milwaukee Winter Club, was officially organized on October 15, 1962. The founding directors were Harry Leadingham, Edith Maclay, Sandy McCallum, Roland Mueller, Marion Read, and Henry Uihlein. The Articles of Incorporation were based on those created by Cranbrook School where Sandy McCallum had taught previously.
The developmental program of the Milwaukee Winter Club has been instrumental to the success of the Milwaukee Country Day/University School of Milwaukee hockey program to this day.
In 1963, a heated warming house to be used by Winter Club members and game spectators was built thanks to a generous gift from Marge Klode, a hockey parent. In an effort to efficiently and inexpensively resurface the ice, a Globe Union engineer, Ken Jones, was hired to design a machine to be used instead of a Zamboni. The end result was the Husky 360, which not only resurfaced the Winter Club ice, but replaced the Zamboni in the Chicago Blackhawks Stadium. The Zamboni Company eventually brought a patent infringement lawsuit against the Winter Club. To avoid protracted litigation, the Husky 360 design was sold to Tenant Industries. The Zamboni Company ultimately bought the Husky 360 design from Tenant to eliminate a competitor.
Hockey Almost Eliminated
Hockey was nearly eliminated as a sport in 1963 after a game between Milwaukee Country Day and its archrival St. John’s Military Academy. During the game, Dave Wright Jr., class of 1965, gave a clean, hard check to a St. John’s player. The player’s mother did not appreciate the check and as Dave Wright skated near the boards, she whacked him with her handbag. Wright was knocked down and dazed, and a brawl ensued. County Day headmaster, Warren Seyfert, cancelled the game and threatened to terminate the sport at the school. Needless to say, the hockey program continued, but the game marked the last game between the two schools.
Tony Fritz came to Country Day in the fall of 1964 as a result of a communication between Dave Wright, Sr. and George “Punch” Imlach, the general manager and head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Fritz was a 19 year-old rising star in the Maple Leafs when he tragically lost an eye in a game, ending his playing career. At the time of injury, he was considered to be one of the top five NHL prospects in Canada.
Thus, began a 14-year coaching success story. Fritz’s winning attitude and camaraderie with his players quickly made Milwaukee Country Day/University School of Milwaukee hockey among the best in the state. The 1967–1968 team remains the school’s only undefeated team in state competition. In 1978, Coach Fritz went on to become a successful college coach at Lake Forest College. In 2007, he was inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame after accumulating 334 career wins in 29 seasons.
A roof was built over the South Campus rink in 1965. The roof protected the ice from snowfall, but the wind blew the snow in from the northwest. The problem was eventually resolved by the complete enclosure of the rink in 1973.
The 1967–1968 team held the best record at 18-2-0 for 33 years, losing only to two Minnesota teams. The team gave up only 19 goals in 20 games. The team was led by senior Phil Uihlein who went on to play at the University of Wisconsin and later for the Milwaukee Admirals. Standout juniors Chris Wright and Robin Uihlein also played for the Badgers and junior Jeff Servis lettered at St. Lawrence University.
In 1978, former NHL player, Lowell MacDonald became the school’s athletic director and head hockey coach. MacDonald continued the school’s winning ways capturing Wisconsin Independent School titles in 1983 and 1984. One of Lowell’s sons, Lane was a member of the 1988 USA Olympic hockey team and capped off his college career at Harvard, winning the Hobey Baker Award in 1989. Lane MacDonald was inducted into the United Sates Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005.
When University School sold the South Campus in the mid 1980s to the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, there was some controversy about building a new rink at the North Campus. At the time, Henry Uihlein was a member of the Village of River Hills Building Board. He headed off any doubts.
The New Arena is Built
The old hockey families supported the new rink, and Henry made sure the village would approve it. The 1985–1986 season was the first played at the new rink on the River Hills campus. The facility included an indoor rink, complete with locker rooms, and unique amenities for any high school rink in the state. A third private school state championship was won in 1992.
In the fall of 1997, the private schools joined the WIAA to compete in the state hockey tournament series. University School qualified for the state tournament six consecutive years from 2001–2006. In 2001, standout defenseman Evan Salmela won the first Mr. Hockey Award, a prestigious honor “to a senior who exhibits outstanding performance on the ice, high academic achievement and who is a role model in his community.”
One of the most thrilling post-season sectional games was the 2003 contest against archrival Milwaukee Marquette. The game was tied at the end of regulation and remained tied into a record setting fourth overtime before a tension-filled packed house at Eble Ice Arena. Just before midnight, star forward Jeff Christiansen flipped the puck past the Marquette goaltender.
During the 2005–2006 season, the University School of Milwaukee boys’ hockey team, in its seventh trip to Madison since 1998, won its first WIAA state title. USM was the first private school to do so. The team was lead by Coach Cal Roadhouse in his eighteenth season with the program. Co-captain Cole Holmes scored a school record 94 points on 42 goals and 52 assists and earned state tournament and team MVP honors. Holmes was named Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Player of the Year and the High School Hobey Baker award. A second title followed two years later.
The University School girls’ team that began in the late 1990s has appeared in the state tournament three times. In 2015, the team won its first state title.
*Geoff Maclay was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.
**Henry Uihlein was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978.