One of the greatest events in high school sports is the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament.
Long before that became the event it is today, pioneers such as Cliff Kauppi were busy sharing their passion for the game throughout northern Minnesota.
Kauppi, who earned the title "Father of Grand Rapids Hockey," took a group of kids and began developing hockey in a town which is known today as having high school and youth hockey programs that are among the most successful in the state.
Kauppi grew up in Eveleth and took a lot of pride in that. He saw that community as a progressive one built off new ideas.
"They would be first in this, first in that, and other communities would follow," the late Kauppi, who passed away in 2003, said in an interview with Grand Rapids radio station KAXE 91.7 some years back.
Kauppi credited the mayor of Eveleth at that time as being instrumental in building the city and advancing it with sports. Eveleth created a buzz for hockey as it was mong the to host organized hockey at the Eveleth Hippodrome. That forward thinking would help fuel Kauppi's desire to build high school hockey at every stop he would make in his career.
"Of course, those range towns, there were a lot of ethnic groups," he said. "Slovenians, Italians, Swedes, Fins, most of them worked in the mines. The greatest place to grow up was on the Iron Range. That time, it was booming except for of course, there was the war (World War I), but after that, there was a lot of money there. It was great, you could go out in the woods, you could swim, you could fish, the community had a lot of play grounds, and the range was lively, it was hard to beat."
Kauppi played for the Golden Bears of Eveleth and went on to play hockey in junior college and at St. Cloud Teachers College. Kauppi played semi-pro hockey in Wisconsin and Michigan and began teaching in 1938 where he took a job at hockey-crazed Williams High School just south of the Canadian border.
Even though the depression had stunted the growth of hockey in Minnesota, and in some cases stopped it completely, there was a run of hockey success northern Minnesota that kept on plugging.
“I was up there four years," Kauppi said. "As far as high school hockey, it was almost extinct throughout the state. I think they played a little in the Cities on a kind of club level. Up there, it was Roseau, Baudette, Rainy River, Warroad, Greenbush, Hallock, and later, Thief River.
“Up there was the first, really organized hockey tournament. Up there they'd started hockey early, being close to Canada. Most games were on outside rinks. They used to get a lot of people. People were tough up there, they were outdoor people. Roseau did have a little rink and that is where we would have our tournament.”
Kauppi returned to his roots on the Iron Range where he took a teaching job at Grand Rapids High School and a similar theme was developing as hockey blossomed wherever Kauppi landed.
At the time, Grand Rapids was known as a basketball school and, through a lot of hard work, Kauppi shared his love of the game with some of his students at an outdoor park by the courthouse in Grand Rapids.
"I know they had a rink by the courthouse,” he mused. “There was not too much activity there, but later on I noticed now these kids were playing and I went down there and I was skating around and these kids, my class asked me if I could get a game. So I said, 'Ok," and some of these kids were pretty good. So, I took them over and played Taconite a couple of times. We got in two or three cars and went over there and they didn't do too bad."
The team was not affiliated with the high school and did not have any equipment. They played with sticks and skates. Kauppi did what he does best, and that is build relationships. He developed one with junior chamber had the golf course. Kauppi served as the course manager during the summer and talked a lot of hockey. His discussions were able to land funding for equipment.
They went on to play other range towns, and even took a trip or two to Canada to play. After recruiting kids to play and helping grow the game, Kauppi convinced Grand Rapids school board to add hockey as a varsity sport. In 1949 Kauppi became the first head coach in Grand Rapids history and held that position until 1955.
Kauppi would turn the reigns over to his assistant in 1955 in order to focus on building and developing the youth program. He was instrumental in building and developing a number of outdoor rinks and the IRA Civic Center to serve as the foundation of the youth and high school hockey programs.
What is known as Minnesota Hockey today was originally formed as MAHA or the Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association and Kauppi was instrumental in helping form the governing body for the largest youth hockey association in the country.
He saw the game from the beauty which is enveloped by its skating. "I had a lot of fun with hockey. It was a lot of work but a lot of amusing things happened with kids and adults, great experiences."
His experiences and amusements along the way have crafted many memories for kids who have grown and played in Grand Rapids. The numbers speak for themselves, fourteen section titles, three state championships, thirty all-state selections, three Hobey Baker candidates, five Mr. Hockey candidates with one winner, seventeen NHL players, and seventy-five division I players have all been benefactors of Kauppi's efforts in building hockey in Grand Rapids.
Beyond the successes of Grand Rapids lies the joy of the game that has been brought to every player that has played hockey in Grand Rapids and Minnesota.