Editor’s note: This article appeared shortly before Kevin McHale — now Minnesota Timberwolves Vice President — finished his four-year career with the Gophers. In 1995, he was voted Minnesota’s player of the century by the fans.
The town of Hibbing, Minn., could fit inside of Williams Arena. The Iron Range town’s population might find the undertaking inconvenient, but also rewarding. At various times in the past, Hibbing has seen one of its own enjoy prominence in Williams, but never before has the mining town seen two of its own become as famous and as recognized for their contributions as seniors Don Micheletti and Kevin McHale.
Micheletti captains the Gopher hockey team, McHale the basketball team, and the people of Hibbing have never been more proud of their athletes. But neither have they been so surprised.
Both men were natural athletes — at everything. Through junior high school McHale played hockey for his neighborhood Greenhaven against Micheletti’s Cobb-Cook — “Cobb-Cook kids were mental,” McHale claims. And at the Micheletti’s house McHale said Don would beat him in basketball. “He could shoot,” McHale still insists. “He’d lean into you –” Micheletti interrupted, “Yeah, I would’ve fouled out of every game.”
“Face it,” McHale said, “a Micheletti could not play basketball at Hibbing.”
And a kid 6 feet 5 and growing could not play hockey. So they went their separate ways — and led their teams.
Still, the people of Hibbing figured it would end there. The logic differed in each case but the conclusions were the same — underexpectations. How was a kid from Hibbing, the “Land of Hockey Sticks,” going to make it big in basketball? Only one person had before (Dick Garmaker played for the Gophers in the early 1950s, then the Minneapolis Lakers and New York Knickerbockers of the NBA) and that was before McHale was born. Conversely, how was another hockey player going to rise above the shuffle?
“People really didn’t expect us to accomplish what we have,” McHale said. “When we came down, people said, `Work hard, contribute what you can,’ but they didn’t expect us to come so far. They’re very proud of us and they were then — for coming to the U to begin with — but I know they didn’t think we’d do this.”
Oh, there were some believers. Micheletti’s mother was one.
“Donald had a bit of an inferiority complex because he was in his brother’s (Joe a Hibbing, University and NHL star) shadow,” Mary Micheletti said. “But … of all the boys, he had everything going for him.”
McHale’s mother Josie also believed in her son’s potential. But McHale’s father didn’t. “I think my wife recognized more than I did and much earlier that Kevin would turn out to be real good,” Paul McHale said. “Jo got interested in basketball when Kevin was in sixth grade, really before I did.”
Perhaps that was a blessing; parental pressure often can be detrimental to an athlete. McHale recalls an afternoon in his childhood when his brother and father were going hunting and he wanted to go but had flag football practice.
“`Oh, forget practice,’ my father said. `Come and have fun.’ The only thing my father knew about basketball back then was that I broke a lot of windows. I didn’t have pressure to be an athlete.”
Micheletti did. The sixth of nine children, he was from a line of athletes. And the most famous of all was the one before him — Joe. “Joe always put a lot of pressure on me,” Micheletti said, “because I idolized him. I still do.”
“So did I,” McHale said. “Everybody did.” But McHale’s admiration for Joe wasn’t the only reason he could empathize with Don.
Throughout high school, McHale played in the shadow not of a former star but of his teammate, John Retica. “That’s how come the recruiters came,” said McHale’s girlfriend, Lynn Spearman. “They didn’t come to watch Kevin.”
“John had matured faster,” said Tom Anzelc, Hibbing assistant coach. “He was a big mobile guard and had a great state tournament as a junior. But he got hurt his senior year and that put a damper on his career.
“John was the dominant player over Kevin. John was playing on the varsity as a freshman; Kevin was playing with the freshmen.
“We’d been dealing with Kevin since junior high school, and we knew he had unlimited potential. But nobody believed us. He had a lot of potential in that he was going to grow a great deal. John had simply matured much sooner. Kevin’s legs were all out of proportion. They were so long from knee to ankle, I had never seen a kid like that. People looked at him as being a gangly awkward kid but that was on the surface. Beneath that, we knew there was real talent.”
That discovery posed quite a challenge to Anzelc and Gary Addington, a rookie coach so young that he’s now McHale’s close friend socially.
“Coaching Kevin was really a challenge,” Anzelc said. “He was a big, loveable kid and it was difficult to kick him in the butt, and Kevin needs that. But it was done.
“We realized we had a very serious responsibility to bring Kevin as far as we could in the time we had. By the end of his junior year we felt he’d be a Division I player. When Kevin left us, he was as fundamentally sound as any player that size coming out of high school can be, especially defensively. Coach Addington probably has not gotten enough credit publicly for the things he personally had done for Kevin.”
Addington shrugged at that. “I like to get close to any player that I can,” he said. “Kevin is the kind of person that would allow that to happen. I haven’t done any more for him than he’s done for me or I would do for any other player. Our program revolved around a team philosophy, and I was never going to do anything that would jeopardize that. Some coaches might have centered their whole offense and their whole defense around him — maybe deservedly. So Kevin didn’t get the exposure and publicity he might have. But he became very unselfish.”
And very unpressured. “The press didn’t have high expectations of me,” McHale recalled. “Being from Hibbing was an advantage. It’s always easier to surprise people. I had personal goals — I wanted to start, but I didn’t want anyone else to know. I remember before I came down here, coach Addington told me he bet somebody a dinner that I’d be starting before the middle of my freshman year. I said, `Coach, what do you make these wild bets for? You’re putting me on the spot and yourself too — people are gonna think you’re crazy.”
Indeed. People in Hibbing will mention certain traits common to Micheletti and McHale: natural leadership, dedication to personal goals, empathy for other people’s problems, outgoing personalities, willingness to work at their weaknesses and strong church and family loyalty that explains their success. But McHale’s biggest lack is perhaps the biggest key to Micheletti’s success — self motivation.
Micheletti’s motivation has never failed him in the face of a setback and he’s had every conceivable kind.
Football was Micheletti’s strongest sport but hockey was his favorite. And both could have ended because of baseball (which he played for a pastime).
“The dominant impression I have of Don,” Hibbing baseball coach Dan Bergen said, “is when he was a junior, the orbit of his eye was shattered by a baseball hat. The bones around the perimeter of his eye were crushed. He had plastic surgery twice to rebuild it. That was the end of his baseball career.” How about hockey? “He wore a protective helmet.”
And then there was the scholarship Minnesota didn’t offer.
“He was a latecomer,” Hibbing hockey coach George Perpich said. “He had a real good game intuition and we believed in him but the U didn’t and the people here didn’t. He’s a leader. He was determined to do well — that’s how he tackled anything. He could endure pain.”
And loneliness. “That year in Canada,” Micheletti said, “I was alone, 2,000 miles away from home. But I learned to respect myself.”
“And he picked up a lot more hockey skills,” Bergren said. “Joey was a little quicker and a better stickhandler. But Donald was stronger, tougher. He was a natural competitor, and when he went to Canada he matured a lot.”
But even then, Micheletti said, “when I came down I knew people said, `How could Herbie (Brooks, Gopher coach) recruit him? He can’t skate.’ I worked to get respect.”
And one of the biggest battles of all was for Brooks’ respect. Two summers ago, Brooks didn’t invite Micheletti to the National Sports Festival, a training camp for Olympic team hopefuls. Micheletti’s response — a summer spent lifting weights, losing weight, shooting steel pucks against a wall and running — paid off in 36 goals to lead the Gophers and 36 assists, earning him a share of the Most Determined Player Award.
Still, the happy ending has been delayed. Eager to captain the Gophers this year, Micheletti turned down tryout offers from Brooks and the NHL’s Washington Capitols, figuring a repeat of last year would earn him a college degree in the meantime and a bigger contract in the end. But in the second series of the season, Micheletti injured his hand. That healed in time for the North Dakota series when he tore ligaments in his knee. He came back a month and a half later and has rarely played on the top line or power play since. “It’s been hard overall,” he said with a half smile. The year has changed his outlook on playing professionally; he says he’d welcome a good offer in business as much as one in hockey.
“When I stop playing,” Micheletti said, “I’ll take off my skates and be the happiest man in the world.”
McHale, headed for a professional career, agreed with Micheletti. “It’s gonna be really nice to wake up someday,” he said, “and not be sick to your stomach worrying about the game. There’s gonna come a day when I’m going to hang up my sneakers and feel relieved.”
“Won’t it be nice to just be average?” Micheletti asked.
“And not have anyone expect you to be anything but only human?” said McHale.
And what would these decidedly non-average people and athletes do then?
“I want to be rich,” Micheletti said.
McHale: “I want to be president. I want to be president of the whole United States,” he said, his grin growing. “No, I just want to be happy. If that means working seven to three at Minntac (a Hibbing mine) — I don’t think that will make me happy, but if it does — I’ll do it.”
“My friends never talk basketball,” McHale said. “They’re just gumheads. They burn me — they ask me how I could play so bad.”
“See all my friends are down here now,” Micheletti said. “I don’t think I’ll ever live in Hibbing. There’s such limited exposure to news, to the world. There are things I’m gonna carry on — the way our father ran our family (“Pa Micheletti was strict,” McHale interjected). I love Hibbing — it was great to me and treated me well, but there’s more to life than Hibbing, Minnesota.”
And for two athletes that are the pride of Hibbing, there will be more to life than basketball and hockey.