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Michigan hockey's Greatest Generation

Hockey net.
Dean Michaud
Fred Fragner was a parent John U. Bacon met while coaching his son's hockey team.

It’s been a sad week for the University of Michigan hockey program.  Last Friday, Michigan’s first three-time All-American, Wally Grant, passed away, at 86.  Then on Monday, Grant’s teammate, Al Renfrew, who went on to coach the team for 16 years, died at 89.  These two men made great contributions to Michigan hockey’s unequaled tradition.

During World War II, the fortunes of a college hockey team didn’t amount to a hill of beans.  The able-bodied were fighting in Europe and Asia, so Michigan’s roster shrunk.  So did the schedule, from 20 games to eight.  From 1940 to 1943, the Wolverines won exactly five games - total.  The next year, a local newspaper warned, “Michigan May Remove Hockey From Athletic Program.” 

Enter Vic Heyliger, a dashing young coach, and two vital players. 

Wally Grant grew up in northern Minnesota, on the frozen Iron Range.  He quarterbacked the Eveleth high school football team, starred on its track team and scored the winning goal in the first Minnesota high school state tournament. But when he saw the University of Minnesota hockey coach at the state track meet, the coach “wouldn’t give us the time of day.”

So the day after Grant graduated, he and a teammate traveled to Duluth to see if his teammate’s brother could get them work on the docks.  The brother told them they didn’t have any jobs, but he gave them twenty bucks each, enough for one-way train tickets to Ann Arbor and a sandwich along the way, and told them to call the hockey coach when they got there.

The two boys arrived in Ann Arbor with no money, no place to stay, not even a toothbrush.  No one in town knew they were coming -- or even who they were.  They found a pay phone, called athletic director Fritz Crisler at his home, and got in touch with Coach Heyliger.  He got them a room in a fraternity basement, and a job mowing Fielding Yost’s lawn. 

And that’s how the Michigan hockey team “recruited” its first three-time All-American, and opened a pipeline of players from Minnesota to Michigan.  In one decade, ten Minnesota school-boy stars turned down the Gophers for the Wolverines – and it made all the difference. 

Six of them are now in Michigan hockey’s Hall of Fame; five became All-Americans; and three were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.  All ten of them earned at least one NCAA title -- and a total of 15. 

And it’s all because one teenage boy named Wally Grant, from tiny Eveleth, Minnesota, decided he deserved a little respect.

Al Renfrew, grew up in Toronto, and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force before joining Wally Grant in Ann Arbor.  He slept above the locker room in the old Coliseum, on a cot next to a wood stove.   

When Coach Heyliger stepped down in 1957, Renfrew took his place.  Renfrew managed to lure 14 players from Sasketchewan, including their leader, Red Berenson, arguably the greatest player in Michigan history, and now Michigan’s greatest coach.  In 1964, they won the national title. 

Al and his wife Marjorie also started a famed tradition.  In 1962, to give the football players a little boost, Marjorie sewed the first “M Go Blue” banner out of a bedsheet.  When the team upset Illinois, the banner stuck. 

Gordon Wilkie, captain of the 1964 NCAA title team, said, “Rennie would give you the shirt off his back.  ‘Course, a lot of his shirts weren’t worth much.  He wasn’t exactly the world’s greatest dresser.” 

The players’ affection for their coach was obvious when the team played Colorado College at the Broadmoor, a few days before Al’s birthday.  The dirt-poor players chipped in to buy him a new overcoat for Christmas.  Al wore that coat for twelve years, long after the buttons had fallen off. 

“That was a great coat,” Renfrew told me.  “I tell ya, we haven’t had too many bad guys playing hockey at Michigan.” 

No, they haven’t – and that list includes Wally Grant and Al Renfrew.

When people praise the Greatest Generation, this is who they’re talking about.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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