Hockey pioneer pays back his debt

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Alnwick Castle

Roland Vandell said he hopes his gift will encourage others to give to St. Cloud State University.

Roland Vandell ’35, St. Cloud, made his way through life with the help of others. Today, at age 94, the former professor and hockey coach is returning the favor.

Vandell has created an endowment at St. Cloud State University of $100,000 for men’s hockey scholarships. The Roland A. Vandell Family Endowed Scholarship, according to the Eveleth native, begins to pay back the help he received from a cast of characters that includes two presidents, his mineworker father and a legendary hockey player.

Born to French-speaking immigrants from Quebec, Vandell grew up on the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota. He was raised on pasties, a pastry of meat, potatoes and onions brought to America by Cornish miners. His mother, Jeanette, who never learned to speak English, made them frequently for her husband, Moses, and five children.

In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s federal relief programs helped lift Vandell out of poverty. National Youth Administration monies made it possible for Vandell and other hockey players to attend St. Cloud State Teachers College. Vandell earned 30 cents an hour doing light work with a janitor. The hockey players got the coveted jobs, Vandell said, because George Selke, the college president, supported athletics and loved hockey.

"There were those at the time who said, ‘I don’t think those damn hockey players should be paid,’" Vandell said. "I, in effect, exchanged a pair of skates for an education." One of the highlights of his St. Cloud State playing career was skating defense on the 1933-34 team that included goalie Frank "Mr. Zero" Brimsek, whose Hall of Fame professional career included stints with the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.

In the summer Vandell built bridges between the Beaver Islands on the Mississippi River below campus. The Works Progress Administration job helped, but money remained tight. He recalls his father sending him $15 – much appreciated assistance because Vandell knew it required sacrifices at home.

As college graduation approached, Vandell and some friends went to the president’s office to ask whether they should pursue teaching careers or accept offers to play semi-professional hockey in Chicago. Selke told them to pursue teaching, advice Vandell said he never regretted.

The teaching career that followed began with a $100-a-month job in Clear Lake. It ended with Vandell, now armed with a master’s degree and doctorate, retiring from St. Cloud State in 1971. Along the way, he and his wife Louise, now deceased, raised three children, Judy, Linda and Bobby. Vandell coached the St. Cloud State hockey team in the late 1940s and early 1950s and officiated at college hockey games for 20 years.

The first time Vandell worked a University of Minnesota hockey game he partnered with Francis "Moose" Goheen, a renowned Minnesota hockey player with amateur, professional and Olympic experience. Two nights of officiating earned Vandell $60, less gas, meals and a hotel.

"But it was glamorous. It was fun," he said. "No one was nicer to me than Moose."

Roland Vandell


At 94, Roland "Van" Vandell spins stories with ease, drawing upon a wealth of experience as an athlete, educator and coach.

Few stories match the time John Mariucci skated up to Vandell during a University of Minnesota hockey game. The legendary forward from Eveleth, Minn., told Vandell, who was officiating, to watch closely during the faceoff. The puck dropped and Mariucci promptly shoved his stick between an opposing player’s legs and shoved the player to the ice. Vandell whistled Mariucci for a two-minute infraction. On his way to the penalty box Mariucci said: "Gee, thanks, Van. The coach won’t take me out and I’m tired."

Below are more of Vandell’s musings:

  • "Don’t waste your time being critical of changes. Accept them and get your measure of happiness out of life." 
  • "In retirement there is a tendency to reminisce a lot. And, the older you get, the larger the reservoir of reminiscences."
  • On growing up on the Iron Range among Italians, Serbs, Slovenes and Jews: "I didn’t give a damn what church they went to, if any. We were judged as human beings. We belonged to the same club –
    the Human Race."
  • "I officiated because I knew the game. I was on the ice with skates. I was making decisions in hockey. That was in my blood."

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