This happened 50 years ago almost to the day, but I remember it down to the overcast skies outside and fading autumn light of that late afternoon in northern Minnesota. There were about 30 of us aspiring young hockey players gathered in the classroom that day, and it’s safe to say that none of us were particularly concerned about the quality of the afternoon light. But there was a mood of expectation nonetheless because we were about to meet the new hockey coach at Crookston Central High School.
His name was Mike Lundby. Just the autumn before, he was beginning his senior year as a defenseman for the University of North Dakota hockey team. UND was and is a perennial power in Division I hockey, and young players from my hometown regularly made the 25-mile drive to the North Dakota campus to watch the team play. UND hockey players were like gods to us and now one of them would be our coach.
The room fell silent as Mike strolled into the room that first day, wearing his cream-colored UND hockey letterwinner’s sweater. But there would be no loud exhortations to athletic glory from our new coach. Instead, in his quiet and slightly high pitched voice, Mike simply said this.
“Hockey players are special people.”
I’ve thought often about that moment over the years, never more so since Monday morning, when Mike’s daughter, Ali, called with the news that he had died at the age of 72 after a long, painful and noble journey with cancer. So yes, from his very first moment as a coach, Mike had called his players to something higher, to be special people. He didn’t spell out what he meant by “special,” but even a skinny 15-year-old like me could kind of figure it out. And all anyone had to do was observe how Mike lived his life.
He was a very quiet person, not shy, particularly, but extremely humble. He was a great tactician and teacher of hockey fundamentals, but what I remember most was his poise behind the bench during our games. He rarely lost his temper, but apologized whenever he did, and he constantly reminded us that it was a privilege to be a high school hockey player in Minnesota, and that all these younger kids were hanging around the edge of the rink, watching our every move, on and off the ice.
Before practice, Mike always strapped on his skates in the locker room with us, smiling at our juvenile antics and banter but never joining in. Years later, he told me he did that because his college coach had been so aloof and Mike wanted his own players to know that he cared about them.
I adored Mike from those earliest days and hung on his every word. There weren’t that many of them. He was very sparing with both his criticism and his praise, which might partially explain why his short sentence to me early in my senior year hockey season had such an impact on my life.
I had very little confidence as a person or an athlete at the time, and felt that once again, during a preseason scrimmage, I had failed to measure up. But Mike walked by me outside our locker room, and almost in passing, said, “You played very well today.” I remember that moment down the smell of the ice. That season, I went on to become an all-conference player on a very good team. It might seem strange to think that those few words could make that kind of difference, but they did and they do.
It never occurred to me in those early years just how young Mike was when he became our coach. On the day of our first meeting, he had just turned 22 and I had yet to turn 16. I mention this only to say that in our friendship that followed, we had the luxury of years.
Two years after I graduated from high school, our small town suffered a great tragedy when one of my classmates was tragically killed. I spent the day I heard the news wandering from one end of our town to the other, wondering how exactly a person should go about this business of grieving.
Somehow, I found myself on Mike’s doorstep. I guess I knew intuitively that he would be solid in a storm. We drove to a pub that day. On the way, he said that when he was going through his own hard times, he was always amazed that people would still be lined up at the gas pump, doing something so mundane as filling up their cars. It was his way of teaching me that life always goes on. I don’t remember what else we talked about that day, but I remember the safety and comfort I felt just being in Mike’s presence.
While I was in college, Mike and I actually became teammates on our town’s semipro hockey team. Decades later after I had moved to Texas, I took up coaching hockey myself because my son had fallen in love with the game. I coaxed Mike and another Minnesota hockey coach friend of mine, Tim Bergland, to join me down south for a summer hockey camp I was running for my kids. In the winters, when I took my Texas teams to Minnesota to play against the nation’s best, Mike joined me on the bench. That was very meaningful for us both.
The decades passed. In middle age, Mike found the love of his life, a gentle and lovely woman named Barb. Mike had suffered a good bit in his life, but his time with Barbie was absolutely golden. They loved their winters out of the northern cold, surrounded by a large group of friends at their winter home in Arizona.
One thing Mike was no good at was staying in touch, which was why I was a little surprised to receive his call that morning about five years ago. For the first time I could remember, Mike seemed shaken. He said he had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.
Suddenly, we would no longer allow years to pass between conversations. Our friendship took on an intentionality and intensity because we both knew then that it would not last forever. Though I lived in Texas and Mike in Minnesota and Arizona, we made it a point to see each other at least once a year. On those visits, we spent a lot of time discussing the Twins or the Vikings or, particularly, North Dakota hockey, which remained one of his greatest passions in life. But we talked about a lot of other things, too.
He always asked after my wife and children. Mike had a keen intellect, was very well read and a student of history and he was pleased that one of his old players, as an author and journalist, had gotten caught up in the swirl of larger events. Mike was also particularly delighted that, at age 60, I had formed a classic rock band called the Love Starved Dogs. At that he just grinned and shook his head.
This hit me just today. Mike was proud of me. He was proud of the person I had become and what I had achieved in life, and I think he took pleasure in knowing that he had such a significant a role in that. In the words of my friend, Fred Rogers, Mike knew that he had been one of those who had, “loved me into being.”
For Mike, the last few years have been excruciating. He lost Barbie a year ago after a long illness. The medical treatments he endured could only forestall the inevitable. But he never complained. He turned again and again to a bedrock faith in God and frequently reminded me that none of us are in control.
Our last few conversations at his home in Minnesota were quiet ones, soft voices and long silences, wistful and grateful. We talked about sports, of course, but also about the love and delight he felt for his children and grandchildren and his siblings who covered him with love at the end of his life. The last time I saw him, a few months ago, we said goodbye without actually saying the words. This phrase has come into my awareness recently, and it is particularly true in this case. Mike and I left “nothing unsaid.”
I am deeply sad. But Mike’s death has inspired in me and so many others an ever deeper appreciation of the mystery and majesty of life and love and friendship. As he did in that first meeting so long ago, Mike once again has quietly called us to our higher selves. In that regard, it seems that my dear friend, brother and coach, had one more lesson left to teach.