Don Roberts - 2009 Legend of College Hockey
This past February, the Gustavus Adolphus College hockey team defeated Hamline University 5-3 in front of a standing room only crowd at Don Roberts Ice rink on the Gustavus campus to win the Gusties first MIAC Playoff title since 1993. After the game, the team retreated to the locker room and celebrated this special moment in the history of the Gustavus men's hockey program. In the midst of the celebration, the locker room door opened and in walked the father of Golden Gustie hockey Don Roberts.
The players erupted with a round of applause and converged on Coach Roberts as he smiled and shook the hand of every player. Then from across the room, current coach Brett Petersen approached Roberts and the two embraced as tears welled up in their eyes. Coach Petersen had waited ten years for the opportunity to share this moment with his mentor and it was well worth the wait. It's been 12 years since Roberts retired as the head coach at Gustavus, however he is still revered on the campus where he built a tradition of hockey excellence.
For Don Roberts, hockey has always been about family, and he has made so many friends since he began coaching hockey, that he could easily fill up the 1,000 seat hockey facility on the Gustavus campus that now bears his name. It is an improbable story about a football player from Appleton, Minn. who after a brief career in the Marines, returned to Gustavus to coach and teach. In 1964, while also serving as the head football coach, he was asked to re-start the hockey program, despite the tact that he could not skate and had not ever played the game. He taught himself how to coach by reading Eddie Jeremiah's books on the fundamentals of hockey and learning from his own players. One of those players, Chuck Linnerooth, who would later become the first hockey player inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame, remembers the early years. "Don did not know a thing about hockey. We'd start practice and he would come out with his boots on, get cold after a little while and go back inside to warm up. Sometimes, during a game, the ref would blow the whistle for icing or offside and Don would turn to us and ask, 'What was that whistle tor^' But, Linnerooth added, Roberts made up for his lack of knowledge the first few years with his enthusiasm and his relentless recruiting. "He knew how to talk kids into coming to Gustavus," Linnerooth said. "And he read everything he could about the game." That first season, the Gusties went 1-14 and finished last in the league, however, the next season, Gustavus went 16-2 and won the first MIAC Championship in the program's history. The team went on to win 11 MIAC titles over the next 12 years and finished second in the nation three times.
As Roberts' legend grew and his hockey teams continued to excel, he never changed his simple approach and he grew to love the game of hockey. He became very involved in the American Hockey Coaches Association serving as its president from 1981 to 1983,as well as serving on the NCAA Hockey Rules committee from 1980 to 1986. He also started the St. Peter Youth Hockey Association in 1966 and it recently celebrated its 43rd year with a current membership of over 200 boys and girls. In 1992, Roberts created the Hockey Buddy program at Gustavus, which matched up hockey players with youth in the community. The players met with their Buddy once a week during the season to enjoy time together playing games or spending some time on the ice and all participants received passes to cheer on the Gusties at all home games. USA Hockey honored the 'program by selecting it to receive its Community Service Award in 1995.
Former Gustavus Athletics Director Jim "Moose" Malmquist, who served as Roberts' boss for the majority of his coaching career credits Roberts for earning the respect of his players and fellow coaches with his honest demeanor. "Don is a forthright guy who likes to deal with people straight on," Malmquist said. "We certainly had our differences over the years but there was never any animosity or hostility. He was well-respected by the other coaches because he had no facade and he told you honestly how he felt."
When asked about his coaching philosophy Roberts said it was simple — make it enjoyable for the kids. "When my kids come back - some of them are now nearing 60 years old and I still call them kids — they never talk about the game they won or the championship they won," Roberts stated. "It's always about the trip where we got snowed in at Concordia, or when we traveled to Alaska, or California, or when we played the U.S. Olympic team. Or they talk about the things that went on in the locker room and all the jokes they pulled on the coach that they thought the coach never knew about. That's what they remember. And that's what I remember too."
For Don Roberts, personal and professional success was not measured by how many games his teams won, but by how many players' lives he positively affected. In either case, his success was overwhelming.