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Keith "Huffer" Christiansen Interview

Huffer, thanks for sitting down with me today.  As many of us know, you developed your hockey talents growing up in Fort Frances while attending school in International Falls, helping the Broncos win the ‘62 state high school title, earning all team honors, playing junior hockey in Fort Frances for the Royals, before your legendary career at UMD which included rookie of the year, three MVP and four team scoring titles, UMD record by 196 points in 102 games, in ‘66-‘67 captured the WCHA first team all star scoring champion, league MVP and NCAA all American, your #9 was retired upon graduation from UMD, as a member of the US National team from ‘69 and ’71, you co-captained the ‘72 US Olympics silver medal winning squad.  And then you rounded out your career by leading the Fighting Saints to two WHA playoffs, and then finally were inducted in the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005.  It’s quite a resume.  Looking back on that it’s pretty impressive!  

Q. My first question, did you ever dream when you were a young boy living in Fort Frances, Ontario that you’d someday have a successful hockey career in Minnesota, and secondly when did you and your family move to Minnesota from Fort Frances and become an American Citizen?

A. OK, first of all, you know, I guess as a young kid growing up just dreamed of playing hockey in the NHL or something, you know, more than anything, and secondly my family never moved to International Falls.  My family stills lives in Fort Frances.  I went over and I lived with my Uncle and my Aunt in International Falls while I went to high school, and then I became a naturalized citizen in 1971.

Q. This almost sounds like Lou Nanne’s hockey history as well.  The first time he skated in the US was kind of the same path as you, Nanne had told me in a sit-down interview that Herb Brooks helped him get his American citizenship when he came over as well from Canada.  I know Fort Frances is obviously a border town.  I was told by some of the townsfolk at the Bronco Arena, based on dates alone, that the Bronco Arena must have been erected during your high school years in International Falls?   Prior to this I was told that the Broncos played some of their indoor games in Fort Frances?  Is this true?

A. They didn’t have the indoor rink in International Falls.  We played all our games in Fort Frances.

Q. So was it all Minnesota teams that the Broncos played or were there a lot of Canadian teams that International Falls played?

A. Well we played on the Iron Range conference, we played, you know, all through Minnesota, Hibbing, Coleraine, Rapids, Eveleth and Virginia. Everybody that would play us.

Q. Can can you tell us about your time as a child playing hockey in Fort Frances, and I understand your father Whitey may have been an inspiration for you to play hockey?

A. Well my father was a very good hockey player.  He played on the 1952 Canadian Allen-Cup Champions which back then was pretty major league.  It was next to pro level almost.  They were amateur champions in Canada.  So, yea, he played and I’m sure that that’s where I got it from.  Growing up there was probably no different than growing up in a town on the Range; you’re kind of isolated.  We did play some teams in International Falls when we were kids.  In the Kenora Area and stuff but basically it was just growing up and playing in a town of 10,000 people.

Q. That had to have been fun playing hockey in a small town.   I imagine the entire community supported the youth teams and came out and watched your teams play?

A. It’s always been a good hockey town.

Q. As a youngster which hockey players or person did you look up to as a role model?

A. I don’t know.  That’s a tough question.  Back then we didn’t have TV, ya know, god I’m really aging myself. (laughing)  

Q. Hard to watch Gordie Howe on TV?

A. Right, ya know.  We never had the TV coverage that they have now, and you just heard things. Probably more the local players like my dad, because they played some pretty good competition, had teams from all over Canada come into Fort Frances to play.  So it’s that kind of a deal.

Q. Standing at only 5’5” at your time, I’ve read that your playing was dazzling the home crowd, the speed and the puck handling ability, how would you have described yourself as a hockey player, in your playing days?

A. I don’t know I guess I was pretty good. (laughs)  You know, I was kind of a play maker, and obviously I was always the smallest guy on my team, so as I got older and the competition got better and all that stuff, it never seemed to bother me.  It was a known fact, and something you can’t change.

Q. I’ve got this old photo of you guys.  This image may bring back some memories of your 6 assist game where UMD won 8-1 in 1966?

A. That’s the DECC opening game….

Q. Yeah, this is the first game at the DECC vs. the Gophers, I noticed how short you were right away when I saw this photo!  Who were some of your favorite team-mates and who in your mind was the greatest player you ever played with and against?

A. I had some good teammates over the years, you know.  Pat Francisco played four years with me at UMD, Bruce McCleod played a year.  We’re all still friends and we still see each other quite a bit.  But playing against, you know, of people that you would know probably Bobby Hull and Gordy Howe, but then against people you didn’t know would probably be Valeri Kharlamov or Anatoly Firsov that whole Russian Team.  You name em, they were all super hockey players, you know, but the people we know would probably be Gordy and Bobby Hull.
Q. You skated with Henry Boucha as well?

A. I skated with Henry yeah.

Q. Henry, Herbie Brooks, Tim Sheehy, Lefty Curran and numerous others?

A. Yeah, yeah Herb, Timmy as well.

Q. The resume of your entire 1972 Olympic team was a big team loaded with Minnesota talent.

A. We had some great, you know, and we still have some great friendships on that team.  That team gets together quite often.  We meet the guys from out East and we have good times, they were some great teammates on that team too.  Timmy, and Mark Howe even.

Q. One question always is, the accomplishments of the 1960 and 1972 US Olympic teams have always either been called forgotten or untold respectively, why is that?  

A. Oh I think because we never had any coverage.  It was nothing, even to the point it was a little, when we got to receive our medals, they cut the TV off like two minutes before that was to happen.  I mean they didn’t give us, to let the people back home know.  And plus we were in Japan, you know, we were playing in the middle of the night and stuff so they never got any coverage at all.

Q. It is my understanding that you got to take the medal for the entire team and stand on the podium by yourself for the national anthem, that must have been a moving moment in your young career?

A. Without a doubt that’s probably the most exciting thing and the best moment I ever had in hockey.  To be able to stand up there, and hear that.

Q. I asked John Mayasich the same question.  He said it just brought tears to his eyes hearing the national anthem play.  Being that the 2010 Olympics are being played currently.  Do you think that future Olympic hockey format should be amateur or played with professional NHL’ers and if so why?

A. Well, what I, but the pros don’t have to be there as far as I’m concerned, and it’s good they’re there and all that stuff but they miss out on part of the experience, they didn’t get there till a day before the game.  They didn’t go to the opening ceremonies, so it’s more than just going to the hockey tournament, it’s something that how many people in the country can experience, but just an Olympic experience alone is worth it whether you won a medal or not.  But these guys, and I don’t blame them, with the salaries they’re making now and then it’s not that it’s as important to our players and the Canadian players.  It is to Canadians now ‘cause their playing in Canada, but the Europeans this gold medal, it means just as much as anything they can do in hockey.  They’ll go further in their career and life in Europe with a gold medal than they will with winning a Stanley Cup.  Not that that’s bad or good but that’s just the way it is.  So them guys I think they get robbed of something; they miss out on that opportunity to be part of the Olympic experience, to see the other venues and to meet the other athletes, and I’m sure they do some of that now, but…

Q. It is not only to just be in the Olympics but also to be in the Olympic Village you’re saying.  When I hear you give me that answer it reminds me of the current Women’s USA hockey team in comparison to when you guys were in the Olympics.  For the Women it’s kind of the “pinnacle of their career” whom came from Division I hockey teams, like you when you played in the Olympic games.

A. Absolutely and you gotta be proud of that team.  So they only won a silver, well it’s not they “only won a Silver”.  These girls have something they’re gonna remember the rest of their lives!

Q. For sure.  Next question, this may be impossible to answer since you played for some legendary coaches in: Larry Ross, Ralph Romano, and Murray Williamson but who was the best coach in your mind that you played for?

A. That would probably be Larry or Murray.  They both, you know, Larry was good to play for because he didn’t, you know, he was, I got my first taste of a little team discipline.  But playing bantams and midgets and a little bit of junior in Canada and when I went to the Falls was a little more discipline in playing.  And Murray went to a whole new system, changed the way we played, changed everybody.  Maybe better defensive hockey player, cause I wasn’t known for my defense.   I always told him “I get payed to score and not to stop the big guys”! (laughs)  So I would say Murray and Larry probably.

Q. Upon graduation from International Falls, you moved on to UMD where you are often credited with “Bringing the hockey program to National prominence”.  How does this feel given the rich history at UMD?

A. Well I don’t know (embarrassed laugh), I guess I feel good about it.  UMD has a good solid program.  You know, we have a new arena coming next year.  Kinda hard to believe I played in the other one 40 years ago.

Q. Did you ever skate in the Amphitheater?

A.  Not the Amphitheater, but the old Curling Club.  Three years in there and then one year at the DECC, but you know they have a really rich tradition.  Lot of good hockey players have come through our program here.

Q. That’s actually one of my next questions.  In terms of “real estate”, what was it like to play in the Curling Club?  The fact that your senior season the DECC opened on November 1966.  I have read on numerous occasions that it was a freezing cold arena?

A. It was kind of the standard in the league.  I think when I got there the nicest rink might have been Williams Arena or the Broadmoor, but coming up in Fort Frances playing junior in towns like Kenora and all that, we had played in some real barns I guess you would call them.  The Curling Club was better than North Dakota’s.  Ours was cold, but North Dakota’s was freezing! (laughs)  They had a metal Quonset hut.  If it was 10 below outside it was 20 below in that arena.  Now I think an arena might be an important part of recruiting and Dakota’s proven that.  No but, it was no big deal.  But it was nice to get into the DECC also.

Q. The Curling Club burned down after it sat vacant for many years.  In 1962, you took all tournament team honors in the High School Hockey tournament where the Broncos defeated Richfield 4-0, Coleraine 3-2, and defending 1961 State Champion Roseau 4-0.  What was it like coming from northern Minnesota to the St. Paul Auditorium to compete for a State title?

A. Well it was kinda’ scary! (laughs)  Going to a big ‘ol barn that seated what 8,000 or 9,000 people, but holy cow, ya know.  But we had a great team, Lefty Curran was playing goal there.  We had a bunch of guys went on to play college.  You know what’s kind of funny, we were talking about that one day, Lefty and I, and we went undefeated that year and beat everybody, and I think we had nine guys.  But back then we didn’t have the scoring records they have now.  We only played 12 minute periods.  So it was kind of a different game back then.  But we pretty much went undefeated for a year with nine guys with two lines and three defensemen that played regular.

Q. I was looking at the All-Tournament team that year and I saw that Doug Woog was nominated the same tournament as you.  You may have already answered this next question already, but what were some of the best hockey highlights of your career?  What is the 1972 Olympics?

A. Well definitely winning the silver medal, but the greatest thing that ever happened to me was getting to stand on the podium and receive the medal for our team.  I mean that’s something that not very many people can say they did.  And I had a lot of good memories of a lot of good things happening at UMD, and UMD has been very good in honoring me in a bunch of different ways and being elected into the Hall of Fame.  All that stuff is all important to me.  But I guess the key thing is, the most important thing or the best thing in hockey was getting to accept that medal.

Q. What was it like to pull a USA sweater over your shoulders for the first time, being you were born and quote “raised” in Canada?

A. Well yeah, but that’s not like being born in Winnipeg or something, ya know.  We lived on the border.  In fact back then, take Tim Sheehy for example, Tim Sheehy was born in Fort Frances.  Back then International Falls didn’t have a hospital, a lot of the ladies had to go to Fort Frances to have their children.  It was like being Warroad and Roseau.  Neighboring towns and everybody walked back and forth, not like now.  You went to the customs there and you waved to them on your way by.  Now you gotta have a passport and whatever to get across.  So it was no different, you know.  I didn’t have any problem with it.  I felt proud that I was an American and played for your Olympic team.

Q. Obviously to stand on the podium with your US sweater on was rewarding.  Do you think fighting should be allowed in college hockey now the way it was when you played?

A. Well first of all, it wasn’t back then.  You still got suspended for a game.  But I would think now with the event of the faceguard and that, ya know, God, you could take anybody on now, (laughing) you don’t have to worry about.. But I don’t, with the faceguards and that, I don’t think there’s any need for the fighting.  You’ll always have pushing and all that stuff, but.  I think a couple years ago UMD was playing somebody and two guys just decided to take their masks off, there helmets off and set em’ down like gentleman over in the corner and went at it.  Well maybe that should be OK if two wanna go at it, let em go at it,  they’re only gonna hurt themselves.  But fighting will always be hockey and always has been.

Q. That answer also leads into my next question.  Looking at all the old highlight videos of college hockey, it seemed like it was a lot rougher, but do you remember any of the brawls between the Bulldogs and the Gophers at Williams Arena?

A. We didn’t, I don’t know that we had very many brawls.  There’s always a lot of pushing and shoving and stuff like that, but I don’t know that we had any real brawls when I was in college.

Q. The reason I ask that is that I have an old article that was published within an old Williams Arena game program that said the Gophers had some “fierce battles” with UMD at Williams.

A. Well they didn’t like me too much.  They had some pretty big boys that used to take quite a few runs at me.  We had a couple guys on our team that used to take care of me, too.  So they met and talked it over I guess. (laughing)

Q. Oh, that’s great.  If there’s one thing you could change about modern-day hockey, what would it be?

A. These guys are so big now and so strong and with the sticks they shoot so hard.  It is a completely different game, but it’s, one thing I don’t like about the way it is today is the refereeing.  Not the way the refereeing is but I mean I go to UMD games, and too many times, when I played, when you got a penalty you knew it was you.  Now they blow the whistle and everybody looks to see who got the penalty.  You know, they beat the daylights out of each other and nothing happens, and you barely put the stick on another guy’s stick and you’re called for hooking. 

Q. Kind of a “Let em’ play” approach you would rather see?

A. Well ya I mean, I don’t know, I just think that.. they’re trying to change it I think to make it more offensive and stuff, and they should cause it’s…you know.  I like a 6-4 game better than I like a 1-0 game.  For pure entertainment, to see some scoring and see these guys.  The way these guys go now it’s just unbelievable.

Q. Yea, it seems like a lot has changed from hockey back in the older days.  There are so many different all year-round camps, whereas you guys, and a lot of the older hockey players, were multi-sport athletes playing: softball, baseball, they enjoyed golf, whereas now these younger kids are hockey in the summer, hockey in the winter, hockey in the spring, it’s year round.  There are so many camps and things like that today.

A. God, I wish I could find it, I got an email from out east.  Tommy.  It was a letter from Punch Emlock to the defending Standing Cup Champions.  Going into training camp, the letter he sent to the players.  It was so funny.  It was unbelievable.  It was like you will be required to do 20 push ups and 20 sit ups and make sure you bring your golf clubs cause we have golf privileges.  And I know the way it is now, it’s a 12-month a year job.  But back then it was four month job.  But of course, they’re making a million dollars year now too.  It makes it a little different, so.  But ya, I wish I could give that to you.  I’ll see if I can find that.

Q. You look at some of the “most historic” players in the state, Johnny Mayasich, yourself, and even further back; Frank Goheen.  A lot of these players were offered contracts in the NHL but decided not to pursue a career in the NHL.  Was that because of the contract and money?

A. Probably.  You know.  Not for me.  I guess track along the way with the Olympic game and stuff you know, but my size was always against me. Whether or not I could have played out there is hard to tell.  I thought I did an OK job in the WHA.

Q. Plus even back then the NHL seemed against the American player.  I sat down with Duluthian Butch Williams and he said that when his brother Tommy played he was one of the only Americans in the NHL at the time as it was viewed as, and still is viewed as a Canadian game.

A. They still think that way up there I think. (laughs)  They’re learning a little bit this year, but ahh, it’s still probably their game I guess.

Q. Yes, it’s exciting to see the most recent accomplishments of the USA teams.  But it’s not only the teams but the high NHL draft-picks of the American’s and especially Minnesota kids.  USA hockey is obviously here and doing well today!

A. Well that brings up another point in USA, ahh they have kids 13, 14 years playing in tournaments all over the country and all over the world now.  So it’s a whole different situation.

Q. What did it mean to be inducted in the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005 with your former coach Murray Williamson along with Wayne McDonald and Maurice Roberts?  Pretty rewarding?

A. Yeah, what an honor.  You know, It’s something you don’t really think about I guess.  Kind of  maybe hoping a little-bit along the way, you know (laughs).  But not knowing the procedure how they even decide that stuff.  I guess it’s quite an honor.  Something I’m very proud of.

Q. What person or persons had the biggest impact on your career?

A. Probably my father and Larry.  My father and Larry Ross were best friends for many, many years, even many years after I played there and stuff.  Had I not gone to International Falls, I don’t know what would have happened.  Probably wouldn’t have met my wife.  Probably wouldn’t have got a college education.  A lot of different things like that.  So probably them two people, really.

Q. Since Larry was a “family friend”, did he help pursue you to come to the Falls then?

A. Yeah, a little bit (laughs).  It wasn’t a big recruiting thing like a lot of people thought.  But, yea, they were friends, right.

Q. It’s kind of a personal question, but when you look back on your career, what has enriched you personally?  Is it the friendships that you made, the statistics or awards?

A. Definitely not the statistics, definitely the friendships.  You know we are so close to a lot of the college people, that live in Duluth especially and there’s a fishing trip this spring that there’s 12 of us going on, and with the Olympic team.  That’s the closest knit team I’ve ever played on.  We still, ahh, we’ve been Boston three or four times to visit them, we go to the Cape with them and they come here.  We vacation in Florida.  We do a lot of things together.  The team is still close.  It’s quite a crew of guys and it was kinda funny cause they always had, they said they had an “East-West problem”.  We definitely didn’t have an east-west problem.  My best friends, when I look at the team are probably from the east and they’d probably say the same in regards to us here too.

Q. Sure, that’s great.  Lasting friendships forever.  I always like asking that question of former players.  Just like Herb Brooks said “the single best moment of his career was winning the high school tournament with his buddies from St. Paul Johnson was even better that winning gold in 1980.  It is the friends, and memories and to hearing someone say that is special.  How else have you kept involved in hockey and do you still make it to the DECC to see the current UMD squads play?

A. I’m not really involved in hockey.  For some reason, I don’t know why, I’ve never had the desire to coach.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  The other part is, yea, I’ve been a season ticket holder of the Bulldogs since I came back to Duluth, well I never left Duluth.  I’ve always been a season ticket holder and a big fan of the program.  I still think they have one of the best programs in the country.  Their graduation rate is phenomenal and always has been.  It’s just a great place.  I like it.  It’s a small town.  It worked out fine for me anyway (laughs).

Q.  Obviously seeing your #9 hanging up there next to Brett’s in the rafters.

A. No, Brett’s is hanging next to mine. (laughing)

Q. Yours was there first, though!  Well that’s all the questions that I have Huffer.  I can’t thank you enough for your time and agreeing to sit down and answering some of the questions for me today.  I really appreciate it.

A. No, thank you Kyle for including me in your research. Thank you.