AICs hockey captain, senior Bryant Christian, comes from a family with a remarkable history in the sport. His Minnesota hockey heritage includes a grandfather and grand-uncle who won Olympic gold in 1960, an uncle who skated with the “Miracle on ice” Olympic champions of 1980, and a cousin now playing in the national hockey league. Oh, yes, another grand-uncle played on an Olympic silver medal team in 1956.
Three members of his family—Grandpa Bill, Grand-Uncle Roger, and Uncle Dave—have been elected to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. Bill was enshrined in 1984, Roger in 1989, Dave in 2001. Bill and Dave form one of the few father-son combinations to be so honored.
Wait, there’s more. Bryant’s father, Edward, played on an NCAA Division I hockey championship team at the University of North Dakota in 1982. The Fighting Sioux beat Wisconsin 5-2 in the Frozen Four final at Providence, Rhode Island.
“Yeah, our family has just about done it all in hockey,” Bryant said. “All we need now is for my cousin (Brock Nelson of the New York Islanders) to win a Stanley Cup.”
Bryant’s family hockey history also includes his maternal grandfather, Duane Glass, who grew up in Thief River Falls, a northwestern Minnesota hamlet 70 miles from the Canadian border. He played on an underdog team of buddies who had skated together since age four. As high school seniors, they performed their own version of a miracle on ice, marching through four favored foes to win the Minnesota state championship.
Glass, a burly defenseman, gave an all-out performance in the state final as Thief River Falls beat International Falls 3-2. He was one of the holdovers from a team that had lost a grinding 11-overtimes semifinal to Minneapolis South in the 1955 tournament. They vowed “next year,” and kept that vow.
“In my home state the high school tournament is huge,” said Bryant, a native of Moorhead, Minnesota. “Entire towns shut down and everybody goes to the games. The semifinals and finals will draw 20,000 people—there’s just nothing like it. So, for a team from a little place like Thief River Falls to win it all—hey, they were the “Hoosiers” of hockey. Walking into St. Paul and coming away with the state title? Fantastic, really.”
In 1995, Mary Halverson Schofield told the Thief River Falls story in her book, River of Champions. Her first interview was with Duane Glass, who told her, “That was a very special experience, almost spiritual.”
In hockey-hungry Minnesota, having a state champion in the family would be glory enough, but in Bryant Christian’s family that wondrous 1955-56 season merely served as a prelude to even greater accomplishments on the ice.
The rest of the story shifts farther north in Minnesota to Warroad, a town of 1,700 just five miles from the Canadian border. Located along the shoreline of the Lake of the Woods, Warroad is known as “Hockeytown USA”—in large part because of the Christian family’s accomplishments.
In 1956, the year that Thief River Falls was winning the state high school crown, Bryant Christian’s Great-Uncle Gordon—a native of Warroad—skated for his Uncle Sam’s silver medal team in the Winter Olympics at Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy. The Soviet Union took gold with a 4-0 victory.
Four years later at Squaw Valley, California, Bryant Christian’s other grandfather—Bill Christian — teamed with his brother Roger to lead an underdog Team USA to its first gold medal in hockey. Those victorious 1960 Olympians had West Point’s Jack Riley as their coach and a roster consisting of nine players from Minnesota and eight from Massachusetts. The Bay State contingent included Gene Grazia of West Springfield, the only Western Massachusetts player ever to win Olympic hockey gold.
In a preliminary round 6-3 victory over Sweden, Roger Christian had three goals and brother Bill three assists. In the semifinal round against a highly-favored Soviet squad, Bill Christian took over the game in the second period with Team USA down 2-1. After scoring the game-tying goal late in the second, Bill teamed with his wing-mates, Roger and Tommy Williams of Duluth, Minnesota, to beat Russian goalie Nikolai Puchkov on a breakaway wrist shot at 14:59 of the third period. Team USA stood strong the rest of the game to advance to the gold medal round against Czechoslovakia.
“In my room at home, I have a big photograph—maybe 24 inches by 12—of my grandfather scoring that winning goal against the Soviets. It’s one of my most prized possessions,” Bryant Christian said.
In the 1960 gold medal game, the fatigued Americans fell behind 4-3 after two periods, but then Roger Christian went on a three-goal spree, leading to a decisive 9-4 victory.
Bill Cleary of Harvard led Team USA in Olympic scoring with 12 points and his brother Bob added eight. Roger and Bill Christian had nine points each.
“I think it’s kind of cool that the 1960 team had two sets of brothers, the Clearys and the Christians,” Bryant said. “When my grandfather talks about that team, most of his stories have to do with the camaraderie they achieved during their training camp at West Point. He also talks about how the Clearys were added to the roster at the last minute, and how important they turned out to be.”
In 1980, Warroad’s Dave Christian became one of 12 Minnesotans to play for Herb Brooks, a St. Paul native who was coaching at the University of Minnesota when he got the call to lead Team USA into the Olympics at Lake Placid, New York. His roster also had five Massachusetts players, including goaltender Jim Craig and winger Mike Eruzione, whose two third-period goals gave Team USA a stunning 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union. With that, the Americans advanced to the gold medal game. They won it 4-2 over Finland to complete their “Miracle on Ice.”
The Soviets had won seven straight Olympic hockey golds since 1960. That alone made the U.S. victory a huge upset, but it became magnified because it happened at the height of Cold War tensions between the two nations.
Coach Riley of the ’60 team did not appreciate all the attention given to the ’80 victory, commenting that, “We performed the first miracle 20 years ago.” Meanwhile, in Warroad, townsfolk reveled, pointing out that “Hockeytown USA” had representation on both gold medal teams.
Like several of his teammates, Dave Christian went straight from the Olympics into the NHL. He signed with the Winnipeg Jets, who had selected him in the second round of the 1979 draft. It didn’t take long for him to make NHL history. He scored seven seconds into his first shift—still the record for fastest goal for a player in his first NHL game.
Dave went on to a 16-year career, skating for Winnipeg, Washington, Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis. In 1,009 games, he posted 340 goals and 773 points. He had his most productive season in 1985-86 when he had 41 goals for Washington.
With the 1989-90 Bruins, he reached the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, won by Edmonton in five games.
“My uncle Dave is like my grandfather when it comes to talking about his Olympic experience,” Bryant Christian said. “He’d rather talk about what happened with the team leading up to the Olympics. He seems to miss that camaraderie with his teammates more than the actual games.”
The next generation of the Christian clan has produced another NHL player in Brock Nelson, a smooth centerman. His mother, Jeri, is Bill Christian’s daughter. Brock, now 26-years-old, had a starry career at Warroad High School, then played for the University of North Dakota. In 2010, the Islanders drafted him in the first round.
Fans who attended American Hockey League games in 2012-13 at Springfield’s MassMutual Center had the opportunity to see Brock in action as he skated for the visiting Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Over the last three seasons with the Islanders, he played 243 of a possible 246 regular-season games.
“The whole town follows Brock’s career closely,” Cousin Bryant said. “My grandfather texts him before every game.”
Nelson is the fifth NHL player to come out of Warroad, a town whose slogan is “Skate every day.” Henry Boucha, an Olympic silver medalist in 1972, was the town’s first player to reach the NHL. Then came Dave Christian, Alan Hangsleben, Nelson and T.J. Oshie, who is currently with the Washington Caps. Oshie led Warroad High School to state titles in 2003 and ’05.
In addition to the five NHLers, Warroad has produced seven Olympians and 80-plus Division I college players. To follow the family tree to its next branch, however, we have to travel about 200 miles south to Moorhead, Minnesota, hometown of Bryant Christian.
“After high school, I played junior hockey for the British Columbia Spruce Kings for two years. My coach there knew about AIC and told me I should take a look at it,” he said. “I liked what I saw—a small campus and a hockey program that was growing. It turned out to be a good fit for me.”
Second-year coach Eric Lang sees AIC ultimately committed to the process of becoming an Atlantic Hockey championship contender.
“We have to continue to be process driven,” he said. “We can’t allow ourselves to get near-sighted in our pursuit of excellence. We are playing 14 to 15 underclassmen, which is a prime example of our commitment. AIC will be a better program for investing in the development of our younger players.”
Bryant Christian lauds an AIC decision to make the MassMutual Center its home rink, a change which took place in the 2016-17 season.
“I think the move downtown means a lot for our team. It’s as good a college hockey arena as you’ll find, and it should help AIC’s program to continue to grow. For me personally, I love the group of guys we have, and I enjoy the unique challenge that comes with being team captain.”
As a schoolboy, Bryant played for Moorhead High. In his senior year, his team lost an overtime semifinal in the state tournament—a night he will never forget.
“That’s how it is when you play high school hockey in Minnesota. The state tournament is so big, there’s a waiting list for tickets. That game we lost? We played before a crowd of 19,700—amazing,” he said.
One of Minnesota’s major high school rivalries pits Warroad against Roseau, a neighboring town. Roseau’s most famous hockey son is Neal Broten, who played with Dave Christian on the 1980 Olympic team.
As for the older generation of the Christian family, they kept right on skating. Bill and Roger played for two decades with the Warroad Lakers, a successful senior hockey team operated by another local legend, Cal Marvin, known as “the godfather of Warroad hockey.” (His granddaughter, Gigi Marvin, plays for Team USA and has Westfield’s Kacey Bellamy as one of her teammates.)
When the Christian brothers were kids, they played with second-hand hockey sticks refurbished by their dad, a carpenter by trade. Soon after the ’60 Olympics made the Christian family name very big in the hockey world, Bill and Roger were encouraged by their brother-in-law, Hal Bakke, to open a hockey stick manufacturing plant. Bakke’s slogan—“Hockey sticks by hockey players”—was a winner from the start. Christian Brothers sticks, made in Hockeytown USA, became a thriving business, leading to expansion into a new plant only five years after the first one opened.
Olympic gold in 1980—this time with Dave Christian part of the cast and playing with a Christian Brothers stick—brought another spike in sales. By the mid-’80s, the company’s sales of its “made in America” sticks had gone from 350,000 a year to 500,000. The business later declined as Canadian competition and an inflated U.S. dollar became too much, causing the brothers to make a decision to sell in 2002.
The story of Christian Brothers wooden sticks only adds to the immense sweep of hockey history in the family.
“There’s so much of that to look back on. I love being part of it and talking about it with my dad and my grandfather. Minnesota is the best hockey state, but Massachusetts is pretty darn good, too, and I’m happy to be here at AIC,” Bryant Christian said.
According to Coach Lang, “The Christian family is USA hockey royalty. They have an amazing pedigree of winning and leadership. We are extremely lucky to have Bryant Christian as an integral part of our program. His level of commitment and leadership is evidence of him growing up with an outstanding hockey background.”
-By Gary Brown ’55
Featured Photo Credit: Seth Kaye