One of the surviving members of Rhinelander High School's first hockey team, Delore Deau, recently sat down with theRiver News. Between his time on the ice and his time running the family's business, Pat's Tavern, Deau had plenty of stories to share about the early days of Rhinelander hockey and how things have changed since then.
Rhinelander's first high school hockey team took to the ice in 1946, but Deau remembers being on the ice long before then. Being from the south side of Rhinelander, Deau lived in close proximity to Pioneer Park, where skating was a major recreational event in the winter.
"The biggest share of us kids were all kids that lived on the south side," Deau said of his teammates on the first high school team. "These kids lived on the south side and they had the opportunity to skate on an ice skating rink. The west side, at that time, the only facility that they had was a pond behind the west side school. We had the big rink and had the small hockey rink. The thing is, when we were kids, we hardly had the opportunity to play on the hockey rink because there was always someone chasing us off the rink."
Just as kids play horse, lightning and one-on-one on the basketball court, Deau said that his friends played pick up games on the ice when they could.
Deau remembers Ced Vig, then RHS principal and the team's first head coach, and Al Baker being influential in forming the school's first team.
"The reason they formed a team was to give us the opportunity to skate and play hockey," he said. "We played a little bit on the hockey rink, but we never had an organized game. We were always 3-on-3.
We never played three periods or stuff like that. They gave us the opportunity and that's one of those things that I'll never forget."
Those two are immortalized on two signs in the Rhinelander Ice Arena, along with ice maker, Happy Stafford.
"When we were kids, Happy Stafford would let us pull the hoses, hook up the hoses, but he was the guy that flooded the rink," Deau recalled. "He always had the end of the hose crimped, for that fine spray, and I don't know what it was about him, but when he got done flooding the ice, it was like a picture glass."
Deau recalls a different time when he skated for Rhinelander High School. Eagle River was the team's biggest rival, mainly because it was the team the Hodags faced most often.
However one time, Rhinelander and Eagle River headed down state to face some different opponents.
"The biggest share of the time, we were playing Eagle River, but the one year we went to play in Milwaukee against Country Day and Shorewood and I think that was the first time I had ever been outside of Rhinelander," Deau said. "We went down in an old bus... the team from Eagle River rode down with us to help share expenses."
Deau added that most of the equipment was either homemade or handed down. He said that the sweaters the team wore in the first year were old sweaters from Rhinelander's city team. He played his without specialized hockey gloves. Pictures show that players did not have much in terms of padding in those days and that helmets were not part of the wardrobe.
Pioneer Park hosted Rhinelander's home games back then. Playing outdoors was a much different experience.
"All I remember is when we played in Rhinelander, it was all outdoor ice and standing in that snow bank freezing your hinder off," Deau said.
While the first RHS team played in the 1946-47 season, Deau remembered that it took a while for the team to receive recognition from the school.
"Just before I graduated in the spring of '48, they came out with some ruling that because I played two years of hockey at Rhinelander High School, I could get two letters," he said. "So they gave me a letter jacket with the Rhinelander 'R' with hockey on it. At first, they didn't think it was a sanctioning type deal."
Deau would play for a time with the Rhinelander Hornets, the city's traveling Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association team. He was on the team that took the title in 1952.
But for the most part Deau spent his time at Pat's. He recalled several times when coach Baker would reconnect with his players and students with the tavern serving as the meeting place.
"I had the opportunity to know Mr. Baker my whole life," Deau said. "After he retired as a teacher, he used to come down, sit by the tavern and have his two beers. He was one of them guys where that was it, two beers and then he went home. But if some kids happened to come in that tavern that I knew that came out of Rhinelander High School, I'd lug him down by Al and he could recall every kid by his first name. He had a memory (like that)."
During the 1980s the movement began to construct an indoor hockey facility in Rhinelander. The "Dough Boys" hockey club was formed and helped raise nearly $17,000 to help bring the Rhinelander Ice Arena into existence.
Deau said that helping to ensure the gift of hockey to future generations was more rewarding than the championship he won with the Hornets.
"Every time I walk into that ice arena today, I never thought we ever have something as nice as we've got it," he said.
"It's more rewarding in this respect - it gives the kids that are coming up the opportunity (to play). A championship is short lived. You win or you lose and you get a trophy out of it."
Deau said he hopes that the children and parents who utilize the building today appreciate what they have.
"When you're a youth, you take a lot of things for granted. But every time I walk into that rink, I just think how fortunate are the kids today and (wonder) whether they really appreciate the facility they have," he said.
Going on 82, Deau has seen many of his friends, teammates, customers and acquaintances laid to rest. His conversation with the River News earlier this week was delayed as he attended services for the wife of a longtime friend.
Deau retired from the bartending business after 51 years, but still tries to stay busy. He has held a summer job at Musson Bros., doing janitorial tasks, the last 10 years and hopes to be back on the job this summer.
"That's the whole secret," he said. "In my life behind the bar, I saw too many guys retire and then all of a sudden, they were gone. I think they didn't know what to do with themselves."