Ah! Our Winona Hornets. The visiting Mustangs of Rochester were adorned in red and black. They looked fierce and quick and ready to engulf our team of locals. Even though they had the full adornment of complete hockey uniforms and a swagger of those who had practices in a heated indoor arena in a more cultured city, our guys had the strength of the small town hills and farms on their side. Nobody wore a helmet – not even a stocking cap!
On cold, crisp Sundays, young and old alike lined up on the snow banks at rink side. Each observer took his life into his own hands - since body checks into the boards were a constant. Players, sticks and flying pucks were often dumped into the crowd. The hockey rink was bounded on all sides by a strong, white, wood post-and-board fence built each season to take the shock waves of colliding players. It worked to protect the observers from some harm. Snow was tossed over the boards by the shovelfuls as the rink was cleared - to give stability to the fence and to form a frigid bank on which observers stood. The ice on the rink was thick and smooth and alluring - maintained on a daily basis by rec. center workers, coaches and players.
“Popeye” Wychram and Elmer Harders, “Moose” Beeman and Roger Neitzke, Joe Bambenek and so many more! There were so many flying players and airborne pucks over the years. Hornet blue-and-gold jerseys shimmered in the sunlight as the team warmed up on clear, sub-zero Sunday afternoons on the ice at Athletic Park. Roger was the leading scorer of the league, Moose the meanest and toughest defenseman of any. Joe and Chet could absolutely fly! Popeye was a steady force in the nets - ably backed by Jimmy, one of the neighborhood kids who made good on the hockey rink. They were a formidable team of ruffians who had grown up on the lake and shot pucks at one another since the age of five. With a few missing teeth and a scar or two to evidence their collisions and their resolve to fight on, they were our team. Fights and spilled blood on the ice surface were a part of the game.
For each of us, the bitter weather was a challenge to the toes. We kicked at the boards to try to get back some circulation. Between periods, the players retired to the warming house. If there was space in the small green warming house, we ventured into the sweat-laden environment for the respite in front of the wood-burning stove. Team members huddled in the corners making adjustments in their equipment and their game plan –soon to be on the ice for the next period. At the beginning of the third period, a couple of volunteers walked the banks of the perimeter to “pass the hat” - in lieu of paid admission.
It was the place to be.
A murmur of a hockey team being formed in Winona was heard in January, 1914. “There were three ex-Canadian hockey players and two former college players among the ranks. They have already received letters from two or three teams in Minneapolis asking for games.” But the ice must have melted first. In 1922 the first reported hockey game was played between the Winona sextet and the American Legion as part of the Ice Carnival, with Lawrence Biltzen as star player.
Hockey “never thrived in Winona before” - but was “about to make a debut,” Coach A. J. McVeigh of the Winona Hockey Association stated in a series of three Republican-Herald articles in 1926. His was a sincere attempt to build interest in the game of hockey in a new unspoiled, environment. A college star at McGill College, Coach McVeigh continued; “It is a striving, whirling game of cyclonic action; it’s a game where men skate with terrific speed at a whirring puck and again and again – a hundred times again – they go crashing into oncoming skaters.” “….unless he is exhausted or badly injured, a hockey player will not take time out.”
With lots of energy from team members, a dedicated coach, and the lumber provided by a local merchant a call went out for “25 men and boys” to show up on a Saturday of December of that year to build a 200 by 85 foot rink at Athletic Park. It was constructed by the end of the day, with lighting soon to be added. Once complete, water and labor for flooding the rink were donated by the Fire Department, with electricity provided without cost by the utility company.
There was organized hockey action in Winona!
Newspaper Ad for game against Rochester
The team of 1926-27 was composed of Gordon Closway (Business Mgr.), Arnie Mentes (goal), Harold Goodwilly (wing), Eddie Ziegler (center), Emil Bitzen (defense), Bill Welch (defense), Chester “Chetter” Eldredge (wing), Charles “Chicken” Eldredge (wing), Kenney Guthunz (wing) and Capt. Charles Cowan (defense). Coach McVeigh played full games at goalie. Others mentioned as team members: Lawrence Bitzen, Richard O’Bevan, Arthur Hengel, Harold Prigge, Gordon Ostrom, Douglas Glidden, Harold Frey, William Cole, Clarence Olsen, Art Brown, Lawrence Jung, Ray Hendricks, Pete Johnson, Joe Martin, Lewis Alberts, Douglas Gentz, Merlo Lundeen and Harold Rogge. They finished third in the Southern Minny League with South St. Paul, Rochester and Mankato - having begun an uphill battle on a flat sheet of ice. The sponsor of the team was A. L. Roberts, owner of some area hotels. He said, “Hockey, with its speed, its thrills and its excitement appeals to every lover of red-blooded spectacular sport. It is the fastest game played by civilized men - quickly becoming one of the most popular sports of the day.” How right he was. This team of 1927 had new “Costumes by Roberts” with “W”- emblazoned wool jerseys and matching striped leggings. They played ten games in their flashy outfits and had the highest attendance of any team in the league, finishing the year with a cash balance of $20.00.
The final game of the year for the Winona Roberts Hotel team was Feb. 19 against the Rochester “Queen Citians” at Athletic Park. Although the Winona team had not had a victory, the Rochester team brought in some ringers from the “Hook ‘Em Cows” team of South St. Paul to fortify their team and attempt to overwhelm the Winona locals. However, with “stellar teamwork and almost inhuman endurance” the Winona team scored a victory over Rochester. Featured on the team were Charles Cowan, Eldredge, Ziegler, Harold Goodwilly (center) and Arnie Mentes in goal. Cowan and Emil Bitzen were very strong on defense. Goodwilly dashed down the center and scored unassisted to win 4-3. Winona has 29 shots on goal versus Rochester’s 19. Two teenage teammates and “favorites of the hockey fans” were Harold and Arnie - students of St. Paul Mechanic Arts High School at the time. During the year, the Rochester “Medics” played the Roberts team in Winona’s first-ever night hockey game under the lights. Arnie was a “big star” and Kenney Guthunz was “brilliant” at wing.
One of the most ardent supporters of the team through these early years was Father A. L. McGreevy, pastor of the Catholic church of Lewiston. A Winona Hockey Club director and a practicing Southern Minnesota hockey league referee, he wrote ten articles on hockey in the local paper, concluding his writings in January of 1928. In one of the articles he suggested his personal strength when he said, “The referee has complete charge of the play and his word is final.” A well-formed nucleus of Winona business leaders gave the team a boost after that first successful year, working hard to sell 250 season tickets for the new season. With full uniforms, the team was centered around Cowan, Clarence Olson, William Welch, Goalie Mentes and the Eldredge twins, former of the St. Paul Mechanic Arts High School and soon to be members of St. Mary’s hockey team. On December 24, 1927 the Roberts team played its initial game in the Southern Minnesota League.
With Coach Galligan at the helm, Winona defeated a strong St. Paul team in January to become touted as one of best teams in the state. They added three strong football stars from St. Mary’s to the team – all with backgrounds in hockey from northern Minnesota. With Tony Prelesnik, Bud Kinney (Eveleth) and Matt Lahti (Eveleth) the Roberts team had an impressive record as Southern Minnesota champions, with a “perfect record of 6-0” and outscoring opponents 45 goals to 6. They also faced Waterloo, Owatonna, Rochester and the Faribault Fairies. They were invited to the state tourney at Hibbing due to success, but may not have made it due to weather and conditions of the tournament.
Winona Hockey (1939-1940)
The Neighborhood Gang
After a strong start in those first years - and a great team with sponsorship - something tailed off. In the early 1930’s, sponsorship was gone and a “neighborhood gang” of “south-side boys” continued the action toward semi-pro hockey in Winona. Boys who lived near the lake grew up playing “shinney” stick hockey. In darkening winter afternoons they went after one another as their predecessors had done in the Middle Ages when they played a game called “colf” - using curved bats and a ball. Their Canadian neighbors took over the stick and ball game in the 19th century when British soldiers and immigrants came and refined the sport.
“Puc,” a Gaelic word meaning “to poke” may be related to the ancient statement found,” The blow given by a hurler to the ball with his caman or hurley is always called a puck.” Nevertheless, the first puck was dropped at an indoor game on March 3, 1875 in Montreal by McGill University (Coach McVeigh’s alma mater) students. There were no boards, so the puck was used to contain it to the space. By the 1890’s there were hundreds of teams and leagues across Canada. McVeigh said “the only stable rule in hockey at the time was that ‘each man shinny on his own side.’ As long as a player abided by this rule, he could do about as he liked.” The first United States collegiate ice hockey game was played between Yale and Johns Hopkins University in 1896. The University of Minnesota played its first official game in 1922. The National Hockey Association was formed in Montreal in 1910, predecessor to the National Hockey League (1917) - and the rest is history.
In Winona, the boys took over the action. With homemade sticks, a battered puck and an overload of energy, they created their own warmth in after-school forays playing early, informal ice hockey. Hockey was usually played in areas “sufficiently cold” for natural, reliable seasoned ice. Their rink on Lake Winona qualified as an appropriate setting, with toes warmed only by fast action and a small fire of reeds pulled from the side of the lake.
They soon moved to regional competition. In leather and sheepskin helmets, the Carrolls and the Beemans, the Bambeneks and the Hajicek boys started Winona on a path from lakeside to stardom. Organized a bit as the Winona Hockey Club, they may have bought their supplies at the Out-Door Store on East Third Street - where hockey skates were $4.95, sticks were 25, 49 or 75 cents - and pucks cost 25 cents. With proper equipment, they were soon off on a run.
During that time (in 1932), a St. Mary’s College (Winona) hockey team played Brown, Harvard and Yale. Playing admirably, they beat Brown 3-0. To do so, team members made a 3800-mile auto trip in the dead of winter, played St. Nick’s at Madison Square Garden and returned 3-3. It was touted that St. Mary’s (rated nationally as #11 in 1930) was to become the “Notre Dame of Hockey.” The Eldredge brothers of the 1928 Winona Hockey Association team became St. Mary’s players. One of the players for St. Mary’s from 1929 to 1933 was Oscar Almquist (goalie) of Eveleth, team captain and All-American in 1932. He missed the Winona Roberts team, but went on to play with the St. Paul Saints in 1934 as a signed professional. He is best known for his winning exploits as coach of the Roseau High School Hockey team.
Without a major sponsor, the 1932-33 Winona team played as the Hurry Back (Pool Parlor) Team and played LaCrosse for the championship on Lake Winona in February, 1933. Dorn, Harders, Sievers, Hittner, Hoover, Glidden, and Hajicek were members of the team. They were in extremely “home” territory as they played for the prize on the lake where they had grown. The following year they apparently played in the LaCrosse area league, defeating the Onalaska Aces 7-0 while allowing only two shots on goal. Dorn had three goals. With used jerseys from the Winona Merchants basketball team and loaned equipment from St. Mary’s, these pretentious youngsters went on to face both the St. Olaf and St. Thomas college teams. They were known as the Lake Side Vicinity Hockey team and played LaCrescent and others at the lake rink.
In 1935, a Winona city league included “Irv Gappa’s Team.” Seen as members of this rag-tag team were Don Dorn, Bill Hajicek, Russ Boland, Hittner, and Jim Glidden – all forerunners of the team to follow. Max Wolfe, formerly of Dartmouth, bolstered the team in their new sponsor-emblazoned, maroon jerseys with matching socks. They also played that year (with Johnny Newman) as the Lakeside Vultures and Owl Motor Co. (Ford) team and won the regional hockey title, beating Owatonna and Faribault. As a part of a Winona WPA project, rinks were constructed at the Lake and Athletic Park sites.
Now changed into young men supplied with the “real” stuff of hockey, this gang of lakesiders moved on to play in the Interstate Hockey League from 1936 to 1940. LaCrosse, Onalaska and two Eau Claire teams were full members of the Minnesota-Wisconsin connection. The boys of the lake were undefeated in games across the region, including Iowa cities and the Marines team of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Chet Breza scored four goals against LaCrosse in the first game of the season as part of the Republican-Herald Team.
In 1938, the team played at Wabasha with Captain Donald Dorn at center, Elmer Harders at left wing, Jay Hoover in goal, Art Hittner at defense and the three Hajicek boys – Al, Harvey and William. Harold Gatz was the manager. The undefeated Winona team (6-0) also played Red Wing and LaCrescent that year. They beat LaCrescent 8-0, with only six players on the Winona team!
The 1939-40 team arrived in new scarlet uniforms and spun out a colorful whirl of hockey moves to confound their opponents. They finished 8-0, scoring 46 goals to opponents’ 12! In February of 1940 the team and 40 fans traveled by bus to Waterloo, Iowa for a tournament where Winona faced off against Cedar Rapids. The admission for four games was 25 cents! Upon return they played the undefeated North Mankato Vikings at home. For home games, the “ice on Lake Winona was in fine condition.”
North Mankato Vikings (1947-1948)
The War Years
The Winona Hockey Club operated in 1940-41 under the management of Coach Silver Perry, who led a meeting in the fall at the Labor Temple to announce the season and send out a plea for players. His outstanding team played games with Rochester, Red Wing, LaCrosse, Onalaska, Waterloo, Eau Claire and Wabasha to continue an unbelievable winning streak started in mid-1936. Playing against Sparta, Wisconsin they won their sixth of the season by 15-0. Dorn had four points, the Hajiceks had nine - and Harders assisted everywhere. They played home games at the Lake Park rink and were at 24 winning games in a row when they were to take on Rochester to finish the season. They played into March, cancelling with Rochester due to weather.
With WWII looming, some of the boys were off to service; with Al Hajicek and Carlton Dorn specifically called. In 1941 the hockey club attempted to continue. Members requested that the city take over management and maintenance of the ice rink, including lighting. William and Hilet Hajicek and Manager Sam Polrier represented the team at the city meeting.
In 1946, the 14 boys of winter returned to the ice with an opening victory over Rochester and a finish to the season as champions of the Southern Minny League, with a 7- 1 record. New members of the team were Frank Gostomski and Don Benson. The club received a donation of $500 to build the rink. Their last home game was against Chippewa Falls in March,1947. The next season saw sponsorship by the Boland Manufacturing Company - becoming the Boland Blues - with Manager Russ Boland. Joe Bambenek led the league in scoring with 11. For three years they were league champions and state tournament participants, with a 7-0 record in 1948-49. They went on to win 16 straight games, but lost an Ice Carnival game to St. Thomas in February (6-2).
With the start of the 1949 season, professional hockey rules were adopted. The Blues were not only league champs, but beat the league’s all-stars in February, 7-6. Harold “Popeye” Wychram was “sensational” in goal – a true “sensation” at age 15! He was “All-Star” in the league, facing all the charges of seasoned hockey players and WWII vets - and outperforming the best of the league. Don Benson, age 16, was equally youthful and strong, scoring seven goals in 1948. Joe Bambenek scored a record four goals in a game and led the league with 11. Myska, Carroll, Chet Breza, wing and Leo Voelker were all mentioned.
In a “Memo to the Editor” from Steve in 1949, we learn a bit about the Bolands and the team that had an unbelievable twelve straight victories. “They have attracted the attention of radio and press throughout the state. They didn’t exactly come from out of the great blue yonder. They were orphans, if you know what I mean. No one seemed to give them a hand. Yet, they were plenty good. Then Russell Boland, a hockey player himself, took them over two years ago. The team started with a bunch of boys cleared off a rink on Lake Winona. They had a knack of teamwork and the flair of playing accurate hockey. They developed into the Lakesiders. Some have played together more than ten years.”
Some of the team members went to the Boland Plastics Company seeking a $10 handout for team expenses. According to Steve, Russell Boland “says to his brother, ‘Stanley, Let’s take over this hockey team’.” The team with a “swell sponsor” began to develop.
Winona Harold “Popeye” Wychram & Don Benson
The Hornets Buzz
The Boland Blues were serious winners yet, after the 1950-51 season, Don Dorn retired after 19 years - received a gold watch - and the team disbanded. Following a two-year absence, the team resumed in 1953-54, through the impetus of Ray Beeman, Frank Took and Joe Bambenek, leaders of the 1946 team as the Winona Hornets. They were soon to be helped out by some of the Winona Midgets to advance themselves to regional competition. A few who would moved upward to keep the blue jerseys flashing were Roger Munson, Wayne ‘Hoot’ Noeske, Jim Larson, Roger Benson, Don Beeman, Jim Langowski and Eddie Ratajczyk. In January, they were 1-1 in competition, with Rochester leading the pack.
As Hornets, they were now part of a league featuring the Rochester Colts (the Mustangs of 1946), Owatonna, North Mankato Vikings, Albert Lea Merchants and Austin Packers. Nobody was paid. Whatever money was collected at games around the rink’s snowboards between periods went to pay for gas for their cars to away games and for parts of uniforms. They played without helmets, but found the need for good, strong gloves due to the frequent contact with opposing team members and the boards. When the fights started, the gloves flew off. These were the boys of winter who were committed to hockey for the love of the game - and to the enthusiasm of their fans. One of the boys who tossed his gloves for the Hornets was 137-pound Johnny Harper (of Boston) who sidelined for several years as a Golden Glove competitor. He won his last boxing match by decision in his fourth allowed year of fighting at a match in Rochester in 1954. He kept practicing on the ice rinks of southern Minnesota during the winters of 1948-54.
Ice hockey is a full contact sport and there is a high risk of injury. Players are moving at 20 to 30 mile per hour and the game revolves around physical contact. The likes of Johnny Harper and his fisticuffs were as common as the unshorn heads of hockey players in competition. A whack from a stick (a penalty called “high-sticking” that drew a 2-minute penalty) could cause a shallow cut on an unshorn head resulting in large losses of blood. Collisions, skate blades, hockey sticks, fighting (a common occurrence in hockey yet today) and the use of shoulders and hips to force a player “to the boards” is only short of legalized maiming.
The 1953-54 year was exciting with the games and the spirit of the players. Roger Neitzke, a “rookie” who had starred at Winona High School, led the league with 16 points, closely followed by long-term stars Joe Bambenek and Johnny Harper with 12 each. The Hornets even wanted to bring back old-time star and favorite Chet Breza for some games to rival the flashy Neitzke at center. Dick Larson was a star in the nets, often saving over 40 shots per game. Roger would come through again with his “hat trick” – the scoring of three goals in a game. Moose would block out the charging herd. Popeye or Jimmy would put in another stellar performance and make over 50 saves.
They finished 2nd in their returning season. Team members included Joe Bambenek, Chet Breza, Roger Neitzke, Dick Larson at goal, Frank Took, Zig Glaunert, Lyle Halliday, Johnny Harper, Bud Lande, Jim Glidden, Bob Beeman, John McCallum, Bob Carroll, Rich Carroll, Jim Langowski, Ken Meinke, Jim Sullivan, Ray Beeman, Bill Hamernik, Dave Meska and Russ Schmidt. Art Brom was the spirited coach. Bambenek was the elected president of the Winona Hockey Team. They were shown to practice as many as three nights per week at Boller Lake in Goodview.
Sponsors for the new year were evidenced by names on the front of jerseys including; Arnie’s Lounge, Coca-Cola, The Hub Bar, Springdale Dairy, Swede’s Bar, Fountain Brew, Briesath Shell, Winona Tool, Graham and McGuire, Vater Motors, and Peerless Chain. Roger wore the Springdale Dairy jersey. (March 27, 1954)
Hockey continued in fits and starts for some years thereafter. Some of us left town for our own new beginnings. We would occasionally catch a game if we were in town, but the allure of other indoor ice venues and the “busy-ness” of our more adult social lives took us away from youthful hero worship. A.J. McVeigh had started us on our way. The Bolands jumped in with both feet to keep us in contention in the post-war years. Mr. Roberts, Gordon Closway, Father McCreedy, and Winona’s august community leaders rolled up their sleeves and hammered together a rink and a plan. “Steve” and others kept the message before the community - keeping the dream alive. Today as we look out on the frozen acres of Lake Winona, we can close our eyes and imagine the real heroes at play – those Lakeside ruffians. They brought us the most significant quarter century of exciting sport Winona has ever seen. These hometown champions gave their all for the sport, the community and for on another.
Winona Roger Neitzke
The team played 10 games total, with membership in the Southern Minnesota League.Standings of Jan. 27 show South St. Paul Cowboys at 2-0, Rochester at 2-1, Mankato Purple and White at 1-1, and Winona at 0-3. Arnie Mentes, goalie, was the pitcher on the St. Paul Mechanics Arts High School team. Articles by A.J. McVeigh on the game of hockey had a subline identifying him as a “former McGill college star.”
Roberts team won league championship with a perfect record (6-0), outscoring opponents 45-6. Invited to state tournament at Hibbing.
Winona Hockey Club did not sponsor a team, according to Gordon Closway, business manager.
No information on team. St. Mary’s first year of hockey. Both Elredges and Almquist on team.
No information on team.
No information on team.
Organized as Winona Hockey Club. No games shown in 1933. Record from 1933 to 1941 33w, 3 losses, 3 ties.
Played as Owl Motor Co. Owls.
Winona Joe Bambenek
Southern Minnesota League organized with charter teams of Owatonna, North Mankato, Albert Lea, Austin and Northfield. Winona Owls played St. Thomas (lost 2-1) and St. Cloud Teachers (lost 7-0). Lost in semi-finals of ERA tournament in Minneapolis.
Played Onalaska (won 9-0), played LaCrosse.
Apparently not in Southern Minnesota League from 1930 – 1941. From 1936-41 the team had 27 straight victories.
Opened season against La Crosse. Had record of 6-0, with two wins over Owatonna.
New scarlet uniforms, a record of 8-0, with total goals 46 vs. opponents 12. Scores: LaCrosse, 4-1, Winona Jrs. 7-0, Eau Claire Flyers 2-1, Eau Claire Teachers 3-2, LaCrosse 4-3, Cedar Rapids 11-0, Waterloo 3-1. Wabasha 8-2.
Had “7 Victories in ’40-’41 season,” playing first game of year in January. Scheduled, but didn’t play St. Paul. Record; Wabasha 6-1, Eau Claire 3-1, Wabasha 11-1, LaCrosse 2-1, Eau Claire 3-2, Owatonna 4-0, Wabasha 2-0, North Mankato lost 2-1, Owatonna lost 3-2, North Mankato tied 3-3.
“Organized a dozen years ago” Record since then 45-10-2. Harders at wing, Wychram in goal at age 15. Became Boland Blues.
Played and beat Rochester Mayo City Colts 6-1, played Chippewa Falls. Won Southern Minnesota League Championship. Record 5-0 in December 1948. Protest filed against Austin.
Won Southern Minnesota League championship (2nd consecutive.) League record of 6-2-2 and overall record of 10-2-3, including the state tournament.
Won Southern Minnesota League championship. (3rd time) Since 1947, record for team of 62 wins and 8 losses. “The most outstanding hockey record in the state.” Standings for year: Winona 7-0, North Mankato 4-2, Rochester 4-3, Owatonna 2-6, Albert Lea 0-8. May, 1951–Russ Boland, team manager elected Chairman of Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association.
Out of league. “Not enough players due to war and moves.”
Standings as of January 1954: Rochester 3-0, Owatonna 2-1, Winona, Albert Lea and North Mankato all 1-1, Austin 0-3. Roger Neitzke led league with 14 goals including two hat tricks.
All research conducted via Winona Newspaper project at Winona State University by author. Searched items for McVeigh. He was in Winona hockey in 1926 as goalie/coach. Said he was ‘knowing of professional players – having gone to school and played with them in bygone years.” Employed as sales manager for McConnon Co. He signed some corporate papers. Was active with wife in golf and as president of golf club, winning many tournaments through 1930+. In Curling club with Winona community leaders, President of Lions Club in 1930, member of Masons in 1933. Gerald McVeigh is shown on high school football team in 1935 (son?) Robert McVeigh on Chicago professional hockey team in 1928.
Story Submitted for use by: Kent O. Stever, former Winona MN resident