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John’s Journal: A Circle Of Gold Is Complete

Historic 1945 Hockey Championship Medal Is Back Where It Belongs

Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 5:10 PM


Phill Drobnick of Eveleth was the coach of the 2018 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning men’s curling team. His late grandfather, Ron Drobnick, was the goalie on the Eveleth High School team that won the first MSHSL state hockey tournament in 1945.

Phill owns a large gold medal for his Olympic accomplishment. His grandpa was awarded a small gold medal as a 1945 state champion, but somewhere over the years Ron’s medal went missing. But as of today, a mystery gold medal that was given to one of the members of the 1945 Eveleth Golden Bears -- and was found by a Minnesota native in 2018 in a Goodwill store in Texas -- is in the hands of the Drobnick family, completing the circle of gold.

We don’t know if the medal once belonged to Ron Drobnick, who died in 2007. When his widow, Margaret, died in 2013, the family went through their belongings. They located Ron’s third-place medal from the 1946 state tournament but the gold medal from 1945 was nowhere to be found.

How it came to be in my hands since October 2018 is quite a tale. I wrote about it during the 2019 boys state hockey tournament. Here’s an excerpt…

After the championship game, the Eveleth Eleven were awarded gold medals. The medals were small, about the size of an Iron Range thumbnail, hanging from small blue ribbons with pins to attach them to a shirt or a coat.

From there, one of those gold medals traveled a circuitous path to end up in my possession all these years later, and back at the state tournament in St. Paul. In October I received an email from retired MSHSL associate director Dorothy McIntyre. Dorothy said a friend of hers, Janet Carpenter, was in possession of a medal that Janet's son, Guy Griffiths, had found in Texas. 

Janet is famous in her own right. She was a 1952 Olympian (then Janet Gerhauser), competing in pairs figure skating with John Nightingale. Janet is only the second female Winter Olympian from Minnesota, and she also was an Olympic team leader and Olympic judge. She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2008.

Dorothy wondered if the MSHSL would be interested in the medal (and a couple others that don't hold quite as much historical significance). She put me in touch with Janet and before long a package arrived in the mail. 

I also was able to trade emails with Guy, a graduate of Sibley High School who now lives in Austin, Texas. That's where he found the 1945 medal. Here are email excerpts from him: 

"I bought a collection from a man who passed away. They were part of a silent auction at Goodwill. He must have lived here. The man was also military. I believe he played basketball, too. Glad they are in good hands. Pretty special. I recognized the value and had to bring those back to my home state."

Between periods of one of the 2019 boys state hockey tournament games, I displayed the medal and talked about it on television with Tom Hauser on KSTC-TV's in-arena set in the hopes that someone would know who it belonged to. Tom, like everyone else who has seen the medal, took some photos of it. Little kids and grandparents asked to see it, hold it and be photographed with it. That little medal, and what it represents, is magical.

It turns out that one of Ron Drobnick’s sons was watching that interview. I contacted Phill Drobnick – whom I had never met -- on Wednesday after he posted a Tweet that read, “76 years ago my Grandpa Drobnick & the @egbearshockey team won the 1st MN State High School Hockey Tournament. Every March my Grandpa spent his winter vacations in St. Paul for the annual @MSHSL Hockey Tourney! I sure miss his stories.”

Phill’s Tweet got me thinking about the medal that had been sitting in my middle desk drawer. I sent him this private message on Twitter: “Hi Phill. Saw the Tweet about your Grandpa. I have a gold medal from the 1945 state hockey tournament; I've had it for a few years and have been unable to find its original owner. In honor of your Grandpa, would your family like to have it?”

Phill’s reply was magical: “Oh my gosh John that would be amazing! When my Grandpa passed away we looked all over for it. I found his 3rd place one from 1946 and many other things from State Hockey Tourneys. However, we never found the 1945 one. It would mean so much to us to have both with the team picture in a frame. That is so nice of you to offer that. This absolutely has made my day!

After Phill and I connected, he phoned his father, Tim Drobnick, and his uncle, Gary Drobnick.

“I told them about it and they were like, whoa,” Phill said Thursday after he took possession of the medal. “My uncle remembered that he had actually heard about it on the news or at the state hockey tournament. He said for some reason he didn't put two and two together. They both were really excited and I told them that I was going to meet up with you and they said that would be great.”

Phill told me that Milan Begich, another member of the 1945 team, was one of Ron’s lifelong friends.

“I grew up going to the hunting shack with Milan and my grandpa, so I heard the stories from the 1945 and 1946 tournaments every deer camp. You'd hear the stories again and again, and you know as the night went on they usually got more exaggerated.”

The state hockey tournament was a big part of Ron Drobnick’s life, as is clear from the opening sentences of his obituary:

Ronald Frank Drobnick, 78, of Eveleth, died Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007, in the Virginia Regional Medical Center. He was born May 26, 1928, in Eveleth to Frank and Myrtle (Fredrickson) Drobnick. He was a 1945 state high school hockey tourney champ and still holds a state record. In the years to follow, he enjoyed going to state high school hockey tournaments, where he showed great hospitality to all Iron Rangers.

To this day, Ron still holds the state tournament record for the fewest saves in one game. He made one save (one!) when Eveleth defeated Granite Falls 16-0 in the 1945 quarterfinals. The Bears beat St. Cloud 12-0 in the semifinals and captured the first state championship with a 4-3 victory over Thief River Falls.

There are a couple of different team photos of the 1945 Golden Bears. One includes 11 players; the 11 who went to state. Phill has learned that backup goaltenders didn’t usually travel with the team, and Eveleth’s backup goalie (who is the 12th player in another photo) was Eddie Mayasich, older brother of all-time legend John Mayasich.

Phill and I met Thursday afternoon at Training Haus in Eagan, where Phill, 40, coaches the USA Curling men’s team as it prepares for the 2021 world championships in Calgary in April. I handed Phill the small cardboard envelope in which the medal was shipped to me. It was wrapped simply: in a napkin inside a Ziplock bag. Wearing an Eveleth Golden Bears hat and a T-shirt that paid tribute to the 1945 inaugural state champions, Phill slowly unwrapped the package and held the medal in his hands.

I told him the story of the medal being found in Texas, but none of us know if it once belonged to Phill’s grandpa. It seems unlikely. Ron was drafted into the Navy after graduating from Eveleth High School in 1946, but never spent time in Texas. He did like to go to Florida during winter.

The main point is that Ron Drobnick’s gold medal was missing, and now a gold medal is back in family hands.

It’s a great honor for us to have this in the name of that ‘45 team,” Phill said.

And it’s my great honor to see it go home, where it belongs. The golden circle is complete.

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at jmillea@mshsl.org

“I grew up going to the hunting shack with Milan and my grandpa, so I heard the stories from the 1945 and 1946 tournaments every deer camp. You'd hear the stories again and again, and you know as the night went on they usually got more exaggerated.”
Phill Drobnick

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