Reusse: After 60 years, hockey writing legend still a force for the sport

There was a small pay cut required to go from a part-time copy boy at the Minneapolis Morning Tribune to a full-time staff member for the Duluth newspapers, yet that plunge was taken in late December 1965.

There were two questions that surfaced early on:

A. How to spell those Finnish names when the Esko Eskomos called in their basketball boxscores?

B. Why are they blowing all those whistles at this hockey game in the Duluth Curling Club, since I'd never watched one in person?

To the rescue on Question B came John Gilbert, a Duluth native and in his second year as a sportswriter for the News Tribune and afternoon Herald.

Gilbert and I were similarly located north of the city near the big lake and would alternate driving downtown to work.

When Gilbert was the driver, we would finish the night shift, then go to a late-hours coffee shop down by the canal, where John and like-minded gentlemen would talk hockey nonstop for two hours, minimum.

I also was convinced of the need to get away from Duluth before Gilbert, this hockey evangelist, completely warped my brain.

Four months in Duluth and I headed to the St. Cloud Times to work for my friend Mike Augustin, and the safety of basketball and baseball.

"I had to get out quick, before you turned me into a puckhead," I said to Gilbert earlier this month at the almost-new family home in the woods near Gitche Gumee.

John, now 81, still could be the poster boy for the sly smile, and he offered that and said: "You had to save yourself. I understand."

Hockey Day Minnesota has slowly turned into a three-day event, and it starts Thursday in Warroad, the hockey-est place in our part of the world.

Which got me thinking:

John Gilbert was jumping into a vehicle that he was no doubt "testing" for his car column in the Minneapolis Tribune, and taking readers inside the Roseau-Warroad rivalry in the 1970s, a couple of decades before anyone else in the Twin Cities media thought that was a good idea.

At the same time, he had a stretch where he was simultaneously covering the North Stars, Fighting Saints and Gophers.

Larry Batson, very different dude, excellent writer and sports editor, hired Gilbert from Duluth in the fall of 1967. He was given numerous shifts on the sports copy desk, but was available for any assignment that came up — particularly hockey.

"I started backing up Dwayne Netland on the North Stars beat," he said. "Dwayne loved golf. He would go to the Crosby every year. And the Masters.

"That first season, the North Stars started the playoffs with a series against the Los Angeles Kings, and I was sent out there. I'm walking around the streets, looking at the sights, walking past the Brown Derby — and getting ready to cover an NHL playoff series.

"I was in heaven."

Hockey season would arrive and Gilbert found stories everywhere. And in "the slot," making the decisions on use of the limited space in the Tribune's weekday editions, sat Bud Armstrong, a Marquette graduate and hard-core basketball man.

Stories then were typed double-spaced on 8x11 cheap copy paper and pasted together.

"I'd hand my story to Bud, he would look at it and then write 'trim hard' as his instruction to the copy editor," Gilbert said. "I can still see Bud's handwriting: 'Trim Hard.'"

He was having better luck with Batson. "He called me in after a couple of years, said I like your work, like your ambition, and you're going to be our hockey department," Gilbert said.

"You should look at the schedule that John would map out before the start of the season," said Joan Gilbert, John's wife. "He would get all the team schedules, figure out where he was going to be every day."

It could be the Memorial Arena in Hibbing. It could be Madison Square Garden. No difference to Gilbert. It was hockey.

And in summer, there were the races, at the new Donnybrooke Speedway in Brainerd and points beyond.

Some of us lean toward writing about what the principals have to say about what happened. With Gilbert, it always has been him explaining what went into making it happen — whether every nuance leading to a goal being scored, or the ride and power of a vehicle on the highway, or a race in Brainerd or Indianapolis or Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Which is where Gilbert was with oldest son Jack on May 23, 2022, testing cars with the Midwest Automotive Media Association, and he wasn't feeling well.

He got out of a car Jack was driving, was short of breath and then went down to one knee near the track. "I was in the ambulance they have there one minute later," Gilbert said. "I was told if it was five minutes later, I'd be dead."

As it was, Gilbert was brought back three times from heart stoppage, and he was out for six days. He thought it was a few hours, but when he woke up, Joan and youngest son Jeff, who had driven in from the West Coast, were in the room.

What he has remembered since are the strange, vivid dreams he had when he was in that six-day state.

"Did the Russians beat Herbie in Lake Placid?" I asked.

John Gilbert, now mostly recovered, offered the sly smile and said: "No. None of them were about hockey."

Now that is strange.