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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum Communications Co., Published November 27 2009

UND professor recalls having started the Ohio State hockey program

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – University of North Dakota associate professor John Vitton plans to sit in Ralph Engelstad Arena tonight and watch an Ohio State men’s hockey program that he built from scratch 53 years ago.

The program was his idea – one that he came up with while sitting in a Columbus bar in 1955. He’s the one who found the players – largely by flipping through the school’s directory and calling people from Canada or American hockey hot beds in hopes that they had played the game before. He scheduled the games and sought school support.

For eight years, the program was sustained through grassroot efforts. Vitton was the ringleader for the first two. The school began sponsoring the program in 1963.

By then, Vitton had been deployed as a member of the U.S. Air Force. But his efforts didn’t go ignored. An article that appeared in Hockey Magazine in 1964 – a year after Ohio State started sponsoring the hockey program – praised Vitton for his work.

“(He) contributed an astounding amount of time, effort and money to overcome such formidable obstacles as no college ice facilities, no financial support from the institution, no equipment, no coaching and nobody caring whether (Vitton) succeeded or not,” the article stated.

A much more evolved Ohio State program will visit Ralph Engelstad Arena for the first time ever this weekend as part of the Subway Holiday Classic. The Buckeyes will take on UND (7:37 tonight) and Bemidji State (4:07 p.m. Saturday).

Vitton, who grew up in Michigan’s upper peninsula and now works in the management department at UND, can recall nearly all of the details of the program’s beginning. He also has kept detailed records, including scheduling letters and newspaper articles.

He recalls how the first-ever club game in 1956 was delayed because Ohio State’s goalie didn’t have goalie pads. “The Troy Bruin International League hockey team not only furnished the pads that allowed the game to commence, but also provided ice time without charge,” Vitton said.

He remembers wearing Ohio State football jerseys, provided by men’s basketball coach Floyd Stahl.

Vitton also recalls scoring the program’s first goal.

“Chuck Baillie and I rushed up the ice on a breakaway,” Vitton said. “He pulled the goalie over to the post and passed it to me. I had a wide open net. I could have put it in with a dustpan.”

Ohio State played four games during the first season and eight the next. The number of games gradually increased until the Buckeyes were playing 20 in 1966-67. They joined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in the 1970s.

Vitton has been in Grand Forks for years, continuing to stay involved in hockey. He and Serge Gambucci evaluated officials at the old Ralph Engelstad Arena for a number of years.

“I always sat up in the press box at those games,” he said.

Tonight, he’s planning to find a spot in the stands, though, and watch and his old program that has grown along with the sport of college hockey.

Brad Schlossman is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.