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Eric Peterson, Published February 16 2014

Cobbers senior has Olympic hockey ties

Moorhead - Joe Becker was on the Concordia College campus last week with a piece of hockey history in his backpack.

Becker had the blue Team USA jersey his grandpa wore during the 1956 Olympic Winter Games in Cortina, Italy.

“It is pretty special,” said Becker, a senior on the Concordia men’s hockey team, with the jersey sitting on the table next to him.

Willard Ikola – Becker’s grandfather – was the goalie for the USA men’s hockey team that won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympics. Ikola was named the outstanding goalie of the tournament.

When Becker looks at the jersey, he not only thinks about his grandpa – names like Herb Brooks, Mike Eurione, Jim Craig and Mike Modano enter his mind.

“He is forever entwined with all the great names in USA hockey,” said Becker, a 2008 Moorhead High graduate.

Ikola’s hockey legend would only grow after his days playing for Team USA. He became one of the most recognizable figures in Minnesota history, leading high school power Edina for 33 seasons. His teams won 616 games and eight state titles. Ikola – who coached from 1958 to 1991 – was known for his tweed houndstooth hat.

“I was lucky because it was a great job,” said the 81-year-old Ikola, who lives in Minnetonka, Minn.

Ikola, serving in the Air Force at the time, also felt fortunate to represent his country in 1956 at the Olympics. Ikola compared Cortina – which had a population of around 8,000 in 1956 – to Aspen, Colo. All the ice hockey games were played outside in a “beautiful stadium,” Ikola said, called the Olympic Ice Stadium. Ikola likened the rink to a miniature football stadium.

“It was kind of fun to play outside, actually,” he said, even though at times the temperatures were cold.

The opening ceremonies at the 1956 Olympics were also held in the hockey venue with not quite the same glitz as today.

“It wasn’t like you saw in Russia,” said Ikola, who played for two national championship teams at Michigan in the 1950s. “It was very simple and it didn’t last very long.”

Ikola said the athletes marched through the streets of Cortina and into the hockey rink. Ikola recalls carpet being put on the ice so the athletes would not fall. The Olympic torch was lit and a few different people gave speeches. The event was held during the day.

“It was big time for us at that time,” said Ikola, who is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

The games were on TV in Europe, but only on radio in the United States. The U.S. went 4-1 to earn silver, while the Soviet Union had a 5-0 record and won the gold medal.

“A lot of people don’t get to have an Olympic jersey or touch a silver medal … and those are kind of things I just grew up around,” Becker said. “It’s pretty special.”

Deb Becker – Ikola’s daughter and Joe’s mom – was an infant when her dad was an Olympian. She has been around the game for her entire life. Joe is the youngest of her three sons. Her two oldest kids, Bryan and Matt, played college hockey at Air Force.

“When Joe ends that is the end of an era,” said Deb, whose husband, Brad, played at the University of North Dakota. “I have had 58 years of competitive hockey seasons. It is coming to an end. It kind of makes me sad. … We’re a hockey family.”

Through the years, Joe has heard many stories from and about his grandpa. One of his favorites involved legendary goalie Frank Brimsek, who like Ikola, is from Eveleth, Minn.

When Ikola was around junior high age, Brimsek, who was playing for the Boston Bruins at the time, gave Ikola a pair of his old skates. They were too big.

“But they were too nice a skates to give up,” said Joe, relaying what his grandpa told him.

So Ikola wore multiple pairs of socks so he could wear the skates. As his feet grew, Ikola would shed a layer of socks. Joe said his grandpa wore those skates through high school.

“He always had funny stories like that,” Joe said.

Joe also thought it was cool to see a picture of his grandpa around grade school age, playing street hockey with his friends.

“And there are like five or six Olympians in that picture playing street hockey,” Joe said.

Another thing that Ikola remembers about his Olympic experience was the amount of apparel he received – sport coats, sweaters, gloves, boots, ties, hats and pants.

“They gave us a lot of clothes I tell you,” Ikola said with a laugh. “It took me four years to run out of those clothes.”

The memories, however, haven’t run out. He has the silver medal he won displayed in his home. Ikola uses his most outstanding goalie award as a pencil holder. Deb’s family has his blue Team USA jersey.

“You look at it and you wonder how it was, playing outdoors in front of 10,000 fans,” Joe said of the jersey. “My brothers and I are really lucky to have an inspiration like that in that sense.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blog can be found

at peterson.areavoices.com