Ultimate fan, 88, is attending his 69th consecutive Minnesota state hockey tournament

ST. PAUL-Robert "Badger Bob" Smalley was two years out of high school when he made his first pilgrimage to the Minnesota high school boys hockey tournament.That was 1949.Smalley hasn't missed one since.His streak, which started before Alaska and ...
Robert Smalley, 88, cheers on Hermantown as they take on Luverne Wednesday, March 8, 2017, during the Minnesota Class A state boys hockey tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.David Samson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL-Robert "Badger Bob" Smalley was two years out of high school when he made his first pilgrimage to the Minnesota high school boys hockey tournament.

That was 1949.

Smalley hasn't missed one since.

His streak, which started before Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood, reached 69 years this week. Good luck finding a longer one. Like Smalley says, "I've got the record."

And who's to argue?

"As long as I stay alive, they're not gonna catch me," he said from a quiet corner of a St. Paul restaurant Wednesday afternoon.

That shouldn't be much of a problem. Smalley, who graduated from Duluth Denfeld in 1947, looks nothing like the 88 he claims to be.

"Well, you haven't seen me in the morning when I get out of bed," he joked.

Smalley lives in Austin, Texas. After retiring as a railroad engineer in 1991, he moved to St. Paul to work at a golf shop. That endeavor led him to Austin on a business trip in the early 2000s, where Smalley reconnected with a high school girlfriend. It wasn't long before he moved south.

You can take the man out of Minnesota, but you can't take Minnesota out of the man.

Hence, Smalley finds his way back to the State of Hockey's capital city each winter, just as he's been doing since John Mayasich recorded seven goals in three games to power Eveleth to its third straight title, at the old St. Paul Auditorium in 1949.

"He's the cagey veteran of the state hockey tournament," said his son, Denfeld boys hockey coach Kevin Smalley, who's accompanied his dad annually since the late 1970s.

This year marks the 73rd tournament. Robert Smalley has attended all but four of them, watching in excess of 1,000 games. A few stand out, including Duluth East's five-overtime loss to Apple Valley in 1996 - "That was probably the best game I've ever seen," Smalley said - but he's witnessed so many memorable moments, players and teams that Smalley can't keep them all straight.

"I don't remember all of the names, but I can sure picture them," he said.

He recalled ex-East star Dave Spehar, the Brotens from Roseau and the iconic International Falls clubs coached by Larry Ross.

"He'd come down here and play two lines against three," Smalley said. "You couldn't do that now."

Talk to Smalley, and you're reminded of the Forrest Gump line: "I just felt like runnin'."

Smalley just feels like watching hockey. It's why he was at last week's Section 7AA final between Duluth East and Grand Rapids, and why he and Kevin came to St. Paul a day early to take in Tuesday's Wild game. Smalley never tires of this sport.

The state tournament, though, has become about more than hockey. It's an excuse to reconnect and reminisce with friends. Between afternoon and evening sessions Thursday, Smalley and his group of 19 kept to tradition and had dinner at Mancini's. They have a standing reservation there this time of year. After dinner, a restaurant-provided bus brought them back to Xcel for the night session, which included Grand Rapids vs. Maple Grove.

Smalley always backs the northern teams.

Of his cohorts, Smalley says many have been coming to the tournament for more than 40 years. That includes his longtime friend, Lee Kolquist, who travels from Illinois. They all look forward to this reunion. Smalley calls them "the greatest people I'll ever meet."

"You asked me what the best part is," Smalley says. "It's seeing my friends. Then it's Mancini's. And third is hockey."

The hockey's pretty good, though Smalley says the game has changed. Players are bigger, faster and stronger, but they're not as skillful. Too much emphasis, he says, is placed on competition at an early age without first mastering the fundamentals. Smalley wishes youngsters would focus first on learning to skate, then passing and shooting and, finally, putting it all together in no-check, informal affairs.

That's the route a young Smalley embraced while spending his winters following neighbor Mark Sertich to the Merritt rink in West Duluth.

As he spoke Wednesday, Smalley, wearing a black and gray sweater and sipping milk, said he has no plans to miss a tournament anytime soon. He doesn't go to every game like he once did - too much walking, he admits - but he still gets his fix.

So how many more does he have in him?

"Another 10," he quickly replied before reconsidering. "No, no, no. Hopefully another five."