‘Huffer’ to be inducted into Hall of Fame

It’s believed that luck is the intersection between preparation and opportunity.
As in there’s no such thing as dumb luck. You put yourself in a position to be lucky, thus, if you are lucky, you are good.
And to be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, a person must not have been just good—he or she had to have been great. But Keith “Huffer” Christiansen, recently announced as one of this year’s inductees, dismisses notions of such grandeur.
“I’ve been pretty lucky,” he says.
A lot of people would call it skill?
“Ahh, whatever,” the Fort Frances native chuckled back.
Christiansen’s modesty is almost maddening, but thankfully there are those who know him that have clear thinking.
“A very exciting player.” “A heck of a play-maker.” “Really good with the puck.” “Could really see the ice.” “Wasn’t very big, but very heady.” “A player that really stuck out.” “A star.”
These are just a few compliments given to Christiansen, including some by Art Berglund, also from Fort Frances and himself an inductee for his extensive contributions to the development of U.S.A. Hockey.
He said the honour is much-deserved for Christiansen.
“I think it was a no-brainer,” said Berglund, who sits on the voting committee.
Fort Frances native Bruce McLeod, commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and a voter for the Hall of Fame, was one of the central figures in lobbying for Christiansen’s induction.
“I was surprised,” Christiansen said from Duluth, where he now lives and has been a car salesman for 25 years. “There had been some talk about it before, but you don’t know about them things.
“You’ve got people from all over the country voting, so I was pretty excited and it’s going to be a nice weekend.”
Christiansen, 61, will be inducted Nov. 5 in Duluth (the Hall of Fame itself is located off Highway 53 at Eveleth).
Those who don’t know who Christiansen is probably are asking what has he done to be given such an honour? Well, pull up a stool, order another round, and listen up for there’s a tale to tell.
Let’s travel back to 1972. The Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan are underway and nothing is being expected from the 20 players that make up the U.S. hockey team.
Eight teams are part of the tournament, which also will act as the world championships. But with the gold medal already being conceded to the powerful Russians, the race is on for silver.
Canada isn’t in Japan because of the country’s boycott of international competition in protest of Russia’s use of professional players and that’s a big reason why Canadian-born “Huffer” Christiansen is part of the team.
The Americans consider themselves lucky to have the star player from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he garnered 196 points in 102 games (a Bulldog school record), not only along for the ride, but leading the pack as team captain.
After a sixth-place showing at the previous year’s world championships, U.S. head coach Murray Williamson—also a Canadian—knew changes had to be made and spent his time during the spring learning from legendary Russian coach Anatoly Tarasov, who preached off-ice conditioning and using ice-time only for the development of skills and working on team systems.
The daily routine features a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercises, including basketball, racquetball, and weight training, and then they’d hit the ice (they also do this on game days).
And though the players were skeptical, they went with it because they knew they would need to be in the best shape of their lives.
Heading into the ’72 Olympics, the U.S. team had played 47 games that included testing themselves against collegiate, professional, and international competition. Among them were five games against the powerful Russians, where they were outscored 51-14.
It was now time to see what they could do at the Olympics.
Switzerland is up first in a “win you’re in, lose you’re out” game with the winner going into the medal bracket (the tournament is observing a round-robin format with no playoffs).
And though the Americans win by a score of 5-3, it was anything but a walk in the park as Swiss goalie Gerard Rogolet played sensationally.
Christiansen, 28, and his teammates only will have 16 hours until their next game against the Swedish team, which is emerging as a world power, and the lack of rest probably contributed to the American’s 5-1 defeat.
But there’s no time to think of that loss because the Czechs are up next in a game the Americans must win if they have any hopes of flying back home with a medal around their necks.
The Czechs are an offensive juggernaut and unload shots whenever and from wherever they can, so a strong presence in goal is necessary. And that’s why Mike “Lefty” Curran is given the call.
Curran was on the U.S. national team from 1969-71, so he’s no stranger to playing in big games. But the 26-year-old wasn’t part of this year’s team until the Olympics began since he was not on the original roster.
But after stopping 51 of 52 shots in what is one of the greatest goaltending performances in U.S. hockey history, Curran and his teammates sleep with smiles on their faces after a 5-1 win.
“‘Lefty’ stood on his head,” recalled Christiansen, who won a state title in 1962 for the International Falls Broncos hockey team, which is where Lefty is from (Christiansen played for the Broncos because Fort Frances didn’t have a high school team until 1964).
But the Big Red Machine is up next and the Americans leave bruised and battered after a 7-2 loss to give them a 1-2 record (not counting the play-in game). They follow that, however, with a 4-1 victory over Finland and a 6-1 win over Poland.
That gives them a 3-2 record, but they still need help to get a medal because the Czechs are 3-1 heading into their last game while the Swedes were 2-1-1.
They need both teams to lose. The Czechs most likely will lose to the Russians (they do by a score of 5-2), but it’s unlikely the Finns can beat the Swedes.
Finland does by a score of 4-3.
“We got a break when Finland beat Sweden to give us the silver, but we had to win some games along the way,” said Christiansen, who is one of the leading scorers on the team that averages only 22 years of age, but are entertaining, disciplined, skilled, and could fill your notebook in 15 minutes.
“I got to do something that not many people in this world get a chance to go,” noted Christiansen of receiving the silver medal. “I got to stand on that podium as the captain of the team and accept a medal for the United States.
“Do you know what that’s like?”
The only problem is no one gets a chance to see them accept those medals. NBC, which is broadcasting the Games, pulled the plug on the day’s coverage just minutes before the medal ceremony was about to begin.
“We had tears in our eyes when we were given those medals,” said Christiansen. “We wanted to win a medal, but really we didn’t expect to win one.
“Those countries had some great teams and that Russian team is considered to be the best team ever.”
But despite that blip in judgment by NBC, everything worked out happily. The way it happened was theatrical, but it wasn’t staged. There was nothing planned, nothing tawdry, no pre-arranged billing to disfigure the simple reality that the Americans had shocked the hockey world.
It has been 33 years since Sapporo and many have forgotten about that team that’s been dubbed “The Team that Time Forgot.” And that doesn’t sit well with the captain.
“We’re the team that everyone forgot about. We won a silver medal and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Christiansen said. “We were picked last in that eight-team tournament and we came second and surprised a lot of people.”
But the combination of the ’72 Summit Series, which took place a few months after the Olympics, and 1980 gold medal-winning American team that beat the heavily-favoured Russians in what’s been dubbed “The Miracle of Ice”, has left that 1972 team coughing on dust.
Until now, that is.
Christiansen also will be inducted with Williamson (“It’s long overdue for Murray,” says Christiansen) and so the team that time forgot now will always be remembered.
Members of that team still meet every spring in Florida (“It’s as close a knit team now as it ever was”).
But there is more to the man known as “Huffer” (“I’ve had the name all my life, and everyone asks me what it means and I really have no idea”) than just captaining that 1972 Olympic team, though that was one of the highlights of his life.
Christiansen is the only male Bulldog athlete to have his jersey retired (#9) and rightly so after being named the WCHA’s Player of the Year in the 1966-’67 season, when he also was named to the NCAA All-American and All-Western first teams.
He was voted the team’s MVP three of his four years and racked up 196 points in 102 games (1.92 points per game, which is second all-time). And the opposition would always focus their game plan around Christiansen because of what he was capable of doing.
“We spent all week practising how to keep ‘Huffer’ out of our zone because once he got inside your blueline, you were dead,” recalled Terry Ogden, who played for the University of North Dakota at the time.
“He was a real play-maker, so if you could keep ‘Huffer’ off of the score sheet, then you had a chance.”
“He was a very exciting player,” noted Christiansen’s older brother, Ken, a good player in his own right and longtime assistant coach for the Muskie boys’ hockey team.
“He was really good with the puck and was a heck of a play-maker, and he could really see the ice and was a good team man,” his brother added.
In the fall of 1967, Christiansen took part in a Philadelphia Flyers training camp and was offered a contract—not with the Flyers but with one of their feeder teams.
But it seemed like Christiansen was going to be put on the 1968 Olympic team roster and receive an American passport, so he turned down the contract from the Flyers.
Alas, the passport never came through in time. “It’s a long story, and I kind of thought I was done,” Christiansen admitted.
But it was really just the beginning as he played for the 1970 and 1971 U.S. national teams.
After the ’72 Olympics, he signed with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the newly-formed World Hockey Association and helped lead the team to the playoffs in 1973 and 1974.
He then headed over to play one season in Switzerland before retiring.
“I didn’t think my WHA [career] was going that well, it’s a long story,” said Christiansen. “I could’ve went back to the Fighting Saints, but I had decided that I didn’t want to play for them.”
The Hollywood writer would have had “Huffer” bowing out under more dramatic conditions, but he is happy with the way things have turned out.
He’s has been together with his beautiful wife, Evie, for 40 years and have two children—Bradley, 38, and Marla, 36. They also have four grandkids to spoil.
Would he have made some changes? Of course, who wouldn’t? A person can think of at least a dozen things they could have done differently during the course of day, but Christiansen doesn’t have regrets.
“There are some things that I wish I could’ve changed along the way, but I’m a pretty lucky guy when I think about it,” said Christiansen, who admitted he would have played a little longer and perhaps got into coaching like his younger brother, Kelvin.
“Brush” has been recognized as one of the top coaches in the U.S., having received the John “Smooks” Kelley Founder Award (given to those who have contributed to the development of hockey in the U.S.) in 2001 for his 17-year tenure with the Alaska-Anchorage university team.
He now coaches high school hockey in the area and has won three state titles.
The Christiansen family is one of the best hockey families Fort Frances has produced and it all was spurred by their dad, Walter (a.k.a. “Whitey”), who was a member of the storied 1952 Allan Cup-winning Fort Frances Canadians.
“Kenno,” “Brush,” and “Huffer” were engulfed by the game.
“You have to remember that we grew up right when Fort Frances won the Allan Cup and hockey was big in town,” said Christiansen. “They were the champions of Canada and it was huge.
“I was eight years old and my dad played on that team, and we knew everyone on the team,” added “Huffer,” who visits his dad, who still lives in Fort Frances, whenever he can and still goes up to his cabin on Redgut Bay every summer.
“We didn’t spend our nights watching television—we played hockey.”
The whole family will be there for his induction, which will be held at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Centre. What’s ironic about the location is that it was “Huffer” that christened the DECC back on Nov. 19, 1966.
“It was the first college game at the arena and it was packed. We were playing the [University of Minnesota] Gophers, who you could call our arch-rivals—it was quite a night,” he recalled.
That it was as Christiansen had six assists in the 8-1 victory, which is still a Bulldog record for most points in a game. But that isn’t the reason why he’s excited about having the ceremony at the DECC.
“It’s downtown and it takes me 10 minutes to get there from my house,” he laughed.
His modesty is maddening.