Column flashback – NAU ice hockey

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

CAPLE BIG PART OF NAU’S HOCKEY SUCCESS

September 19, 2003

By Ed Odeven/Odds and Evens

A large group of ex-NAU hockey players is holding a reunion this weekend in Flagstaff. It’s a chance for the players to reminisce about their days as teammates and buddies. But more important, it’s a chance for them to honor the man who started the NAU hockey program: Dr. Jerry Caple, a former NAU chemistry professor.

Caple, an International Falls, Minn., native, arrived in Flagstaff in 1966. Five years later, he was convinced NAU should have a club hockey team.

“I got on the phone, wrote some letters and students organized a club,” Caple said during a phone conversation earlier this week.

The club played its first game on Dec. 1, 1971, against the University of Colorado and lost 11-1. The next day it lost 22-0.

NAU was not a doormat team for long. After losing seasons in their first two years of existence, the Lumberjacks posted a 20-3-2 record in 1973-74, the first of five straight 20-win seasons. Before the Skydome opened, the club played outdoors at the Flagstaff Municipal Ice Arena (now called the Jay Lively Activity Center), where “during a game on Cedar Street the place would just get filled up with people there on the snowbanks,” Caple recalled, estimating that 1,500 to 2,000 people would go watch the club squad.

“We built a great ‘club dynasty’ with guys from the Midwest, Chicago and Minnesota, Western Canada, California, as well as guys like myself from Phoenix,” said Fox Sports Arizona broadcaster Kevin McCabe, a former NAU defenseman (1977-81).

Indeed NAU hockey carved out a special following in this town. It was “a hockey program that got reasonably good,” said Caple, who retired as coach after the 1975-76 season but remained the team’s faculty adviser for years. Nowadays, he teaches chemistry at the University of South Dakota.

Jimmy Peters, an ex-NHL player, took over as coach in 1976 and the team continued to flourish. That team finished with a 22-0-1 record. A year later, the Lumberjacks took on the Phoenix Roadrunners, a highly successful Pacific Coast League team and lost 5-3. The game, which attracted a crowd of 4,000 spectators at the Skydome, was tied 3-all in the third period.

“It was a loss, but really a kind of victory,” said Caple, who was also the driving force behind the establishment of the Flagstaff Youth Hockey Association.

In 1981, the program became a varsity team and remained a varsity team, featuring standouts like longtime NHL forward Greg Adams, who led the NCAA in scoring in 1983-84 with 44 goals in 26 games, until it folded in 1986.

Two factors led to the end of Division I hockey at NAU:

In 1986, the Skydome’s rink needed expensive repairs, which were estimated to be at least $1 million to fix. Plus, the state of Arizona cut university funding by 6 percent that year.

NAU restarted the varsity squad and it lasted from 1991 until ’95.

Instead of focusing on what-ifs, i.e., if NAU still had a varsity team, the theme of this weekend is honoring Dr. Caple. And that’s how it should be.

“We the recipients of Dr. Caple’s hard work will attend and honor him (this) weekend, and for me it has been a long time coming,” said Mike “Lumpy” Lemire, an ex-NAU goaltender (1973-75) from Calgary, Alberta. “Jerry’s time, effort and dedication to the hockey program has allowed individuals such as myself to acquire a post-secondary education and further my career. We have taken away great memories and lifelong friendships which I cherish 30 years later.”

Many others fondly remember Dr. Caple’s dedication to the team, including Doug Allan.

“At the beginning of my third year playing with the NAU Hockey Club (79-80) our coach, Jimmy Peters, could not attend our activities for the first few week,” said Allan, an ex-NAU goalie, coach and publicist. “We could not practice or play in the Dome because NAU football was still in season. The best time for us to practice was early in the morning, during the week, at the Flagstaff Municipal Ice Arena. So the only way for us to practice was to have Dr. Caple, who was still the club adviser, open the rink at 6 a.m.

“This memory is still vivid for me. As we skated laps attempting to warm up, I can still see ‘the Cape’ pacing back and forth, in the area adjacent to the boards. Meanwhile his three daughters, all elementary school age, were in the lobby waiting for their Dad to take them to school. Mrs. Caple, (Sharon) due to her responsibilities as a teacher, had already commuted to Tuba City that morning.

“I thought to myself, Dr. Caple and his family are making a huge sacrifice, which allowed us to play hockey at NAU. Here he was, having his children get up early, then get ready for school, then come to rink, then head for school. Not many folks would have made that commitment … and he did it for 10 years!”

Dr. Caple deserves this special weekend. He has earned it.

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