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HOCKEY GREAT DOUG PALAZZARI COMES HOME
At 5-foot-5, the Eveleth native was the shortest player in the NHL when he entered the league as a rookie in 1974 with the St. Louis Blues. He was only two inches taller than Roy “Shrimp” Worters, a goalie who played during the Depression years, who is generally accepted to be the shortest player in NHL history.
“I was always the smallest guy on the ice,” Palazzari said.
Despite his size, Palazzari didn’t back down from anything or anyone on the ice, playing parts of four seasons with the St. Louis Blues and putting together a prolific college and minor league career.
“I worked pretty hard and was in pretty good physical condition,” said Palazzari about his ability to skate with the big boys.
“I was short, but I wasn’t small. I was built pretty well. There were a lot of big players in the league back then, but not nearly as big as they are now.”
His years as the smallest guy on the ice took a physical toll, however, and at the age of 30, he hung up his skates. Naturally he continued his hockey career, coaching with his alma mater Colorado College before moving over to USA Hockey, where eventually he spent a six-year stint as executive director.
Now Palazzari’s career has come full circle. After four decades away from his hometown, the 1970 EHS graduate is back. After hearing about the possibility of an opening at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on a summer trip to the Range last summer, Palazzari applied when he saw the posting for the position. He was hired and on Jan. 1, he took the reins as the executive director of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum for the departing Tom Sersha, who continues as the museum’s curator as an independent contractor.
“It’s a great area with great people. It’s good to get back home. We loved Colorado Springs, but we love it here, too.
“I came back here because it’s a good opportunity, and I am dedicated to seeing this museum succeed.”
Palazzari was inducted into the Hall back in 2000, and he finds it a bit ironic to be running the place where he is enshrined.
“It’s funny to be up on the wall with all those great players,” he said. “It was a great day (when I was inducted) in 2000 (at the Xcel Energy Center). My whole family was there. It was quite a moment.”
With the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum’s Annual Golf Classic being held next weekend at the Eveleth Golf Course (register for or sponsor the five-person, 18-hole scramble by calling 800-443- 7825), Palazzari reflected on his hockey journey, his homecoming and his hopes for the Hall.
Palazzari was born on Nov. 3, 1952. His father Aldo had a brief NHL career, playing 11 games with the Boston Bruins in 1943-44 at age 25 before being traded for $3000 to the New York Rangers around midseason. He scored six goals in 24 games with the Rangers, but a severe eye injury in training camp the following year brought his career to an end.
“It was a great place to grow up if you wanted to be a hockey player,” Palazzari said. “Eveleth will always be home.”
Palazzari was on skates practically before he could walk. After a standout high school career with the Golden Bears, Palazzari took off to play for Colorado College, where as a sophomore and senior he was the team and WCHA MVP and an All-American. He finished his career there with 228 points, third all-time for the Tigers and averaged nearly two points per game for his career. In 2001, he was honored as one of the WCHA’s 50 all-time greatest players.
He was also a member of the U.S. National Team in 1973 and 1974 and played for the U.S. in the inaugural Canada Cup in 1976.
Undrafted, Palazzari signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues and played his entire rookie season in the NHL, scoring 14 goals to go with 17 assists.
Palazzari remembers his first fight in the NHL, a run-in with Rangers great Steve Vickers, who stood seven inches taller than him.
“He was probably one of the top five fighters in the league,” Palazzari said. “I ran into him at center ice. He dropped ’em, so I had no choice. I hit him with a good left, and he just picked me up and threw me to the ice. I might have got him again on the way down, but it didn’t last long.”
That fight can still be found on YouTube in grainy black-and-white footage. Some of the announcers’ lines include: “Oh that was a mistake. …He just picked the wrong fella in Vickers. He’s just not that big. He’s tough maybe, but he’s not that big. …I think the applause is the appreciation of the fans that Palazzari did not get killed.”
He would only get the opportunity to play parts of three more seasons with the Blues, but became a Central Hockey League legend, mostly with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles. He was the league’s leading scorer in 1977-78 and 1979-80 (101 and 109 points, respectively) and its MVP. In 1980 and 1981, he spearheaded the Golden Eagles to back-to-back CHL titles. Palazzari had a careerbest 11 goals in 10 playoff games in 1982, but decided to call it a career after that.
“My body had had enough,” he said.
Palazzari’s body bears the scars of a life in hockey. He has a two-inch scar running down from his bottom lip where a skate sliced him wide open and left his lip hanging.
“That was in practice. I always seemed to get hurt in practice, not in games,” Palazzari said. “I had some pretty good injuries. I broke my jaw in six places, lost 11 teeth. Luckily, I had a great dentist.”
He finished his minor league career with 204 goals and 277 assists, and in 1997, The Hockey News named him the greatest player in CHL history.
As Palazzari was exiting the stage, another little guy, Theo Fleury, who went on to achieve NHL fame with the Calgary Flames, was entering the scene - at Salt Lake of all places.
“The comparisons between (Fleury and I) were funny,” said Palazzari, who spent two years as marketing and public relations for the Golden Eagles immediately after retiring.
“That’s all people could talk about. I was a fan of his. I always root for the little guy.”
After his time in Salt Lake, Palazzari rejoined his alma mater Colorado College where he served as an assistant coach for six seasons. He then moved over to USA Hockey (also located in Colorado Springs) where he spent eight years running the youth and education programs and supervising the officiating and coaching programs. He also coached several teams, including the Select-16 Team in 1991.
In 1999, Palazzari was elected as executive director of USA Hockey, a post which he filled until resigning in 2005. He and his wife raised two sons, Blake and Drew, in Colorado Springs.
When the opportunity to come back to Eveleth arose, Palazzari jumped on it, even though there were some hurdles along the way.
“We were moving up here, and the house we were going to buy fell through,” Palazzari said. “So we were stuck with a semi trailer full of stuff with no place to go. It was great how people responded though. A local businessman cleared out his storage for our stuff and all these people came out and helped us.
“We were so appreciative of all the support people showed us. We finally found a place over in Gilbert, but it was great to have all that help.”
Palazzari said the transition to taking over the everyday duties at the Hall was made easier because of Michelle Putzel, who has been at the museum for 20 years now.
“With just the day-to-day stuff, she’s been a great help,” Palazzari said. “She knows how everything is supposed to be around here.”
The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum opened its doors in Eveleth in 1973. It has survived some turbulent times, including talk over the years of relocating it to the metro area.
It was dedicated as “The National Shrine of American Hockey” and has since inducted 148 members, including 93 players, 26 coaches, 22 administrators, two player/ administrators, a referee, a physician and three teams. This year’s class includes Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk and Gary Suter, all former NHL stars, Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, and Mike “Doc” Emrick, who will be the first broadcaster inducted.
Besides the “Great Wall of Fame” which features plaques of all the inductees, the museum also features a new “Tribute to Herb Brooks” display, historical displays of all levels of American hockey, video presentations and interactive experiences. The Hall also engages in traveling outreach programs.
“We want people to recognize how great it is to have the Hall of Fame on the Range with the unprecedented tradition here,” said Palazzari, one of whose goals is to streamline the marketing and fundraising for the museum.
“The state sport by law in Minnesota is hockey. And Eveleth, which has been playing indoor hockey since the early 1900s, is a great place for (the hall of fame).
It’s something we should all take great pride in, having it here. It’s great for the Range and for the entire state.”
Palazzari hopes to raise a good chunk of money for the museum with next weekend’s annual golf tournament.
“I’m really looking forward to that. At least five former Olympians (Buzz Schneider, Steve Sertich, John Mayasich, Lefty Curran and Dave Tomassoni) will be here,” Palazzari said. “It should be a lot of fun. We still have a couple of spots open. It’s a great opportunity to raise some funds for the museum.”
The event is sponsored in part by the Minnesota Wild, WDIO-TV, Excel Images and Hometown Focus.
Palazzari has been pleasantly surprised by how busy the museum has been this summer.
“I’m amazed at how much traffic we’ve had in these tough economic times,” he said. “It’s been great to see. And if you haven’t been here for a while, you should stop back in. We’re doing what we can to update the displays all the time and really spend our money economically to make this a great place to visit.”
Palazzari is putting his everything into his new job, building corporate support and individual support for the non-profit museum, reminding people that “any donation is tax-deductible.”
“For me this is a labor of love,” he said. “My biggest goal is to get this place on a good financial footing. We have a great and supportive board here, and we have great support from the Wild, Minnesota hockey, Let’s Play Hockey, the state and a lot of local people.
“This is a great place, and we want to keep it here, where it belongs.”
Brian Miller is a long time sports writer and lives in Eveleth, home to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.