John Mariucci was born to Italian immigrants on the Iron Range. The Eveleth boy grew into a young man about the time the Great Depression hit, which might explain why he played hockey with his heart on his sleeve, always ready to take one -- or six -- for the team.
He was an All-American and national champion at the University of Minnesota, then played five seasons in the NHL.
But he would grow into a legend behind the bench, coaching the Gophers from 1952 to 1966. In his rookie coaching season, Mariucci took a team with a .500 record the previous year all the way to the NCAA title game, and was named Coach of the Year.
He'd go on to lead three different Gopher teams to college hockey's final four, twice finishing runner-up. Mariucci would amass almost 200 career wins, but his legacy was to be much larger.
In 1956, Mariucci, who stacked his roster with all Minnesota talent, had 11 Minnesotans on the U.S. team that upset Goliath Canada at the Olympics in Cortina, Italy. American head coach Mariucci would coach his squad onto a silver medal.
His loyalty to homegrown Minnesota hockey talent was the foundation of a tradition that would result in national titles, Olympians, and innumerable NHL players in the decades to come.
His alma mater honored the godfather of Minnesota hockey when it anointed Mariucci Arena in 1985. When the team moved to its new arena across the street in 1993, the name Mariucci Arena traveled with it.
How much the U's athletic department reveres Mariucci came to light Monday. Courtesy of a 14-year, $11.2 million sponsorship deal with 3M, the Gophers will play its first game next season at the newly christened "3M Arena at Mariucci."
Mariucci's legend has taken second-billing to a tape manufacturer.
"Really?" says alum and former Gopher head coach Brad Buetow in disbelief. "Oh, wow. I'm sorry to hear that. That really saddens me. You know, you sell your soul."
Mariucci was one of Buetow's mentors. According to Buetow, who coached the Gophers from 1979-1985, the new name violates tenets of life's honor code.
"I was so happy" when the university renamed Williams Arena to Mariucci Arena, Buetow says. "I'm of the mindset that once you name an arena, it stays that way. It should never change. You might have an arena and then name something, like in the case [of Duke University's] 'Mike Krzyzewski Court,' but not the building. I mean, if you name an arena in honor of a guy, you can't be changing it. It's sad."
Buetow wonders if hockey alum are in an uproar over the announcement. The answer is privately, yes. Publicly, not so much.
City Pages reached five former players yesterday. One declined comment. Three wouldn't speak on the record.
"I gain nothing but headaches by speaking publicly about the subject," says an alum, whose career now involves the business side of the sport. "Do I like it? No. For so long, Gopher hockey stood for things, important things. Commitment, work ethic, team. These were the kind of lessons I took away from the program. Now we have a regime where the university's word, I mean, Christ, you told the man his name would be stamped across the place, means nothing."
Paul Broten takes a more moderate approach. The Roseau native followed the lead of older brothers Neal and Aaron all the way to the first Mariucci Arena's ice sheet. Broten was a member of three Gopher squads in the 1980s that made it to the NCAA Frozen Four.
"You know, when I just heard about it this morning, at first I thought, really? They changed the name?" he says. "Then when I thought about. It's good they're still going to keep the Mariucci name on it."
The university "probably should have" left the arena's name as is, according to Broten, "But it's not like they're taking the name off altogether like calling it something like 3M Stadium. I mean, that would have brought it down a little bit."