ST. PAUL -- If you use your cell phone to post on social media about your perception that mining is hazardous to our air and water quality, and we need to promote wind energy instead, Minnesota State Senator David Tomassoni will revel in the irony, just a little bit.
“A windmill has 200 tons of steel in it and 4-9 tons of copper in it. It has a whole bunch of stainless steel too. So there are all kinds of things that need to be mined,” Tomassoni said recently, sitting in his office in the Minnesota Senate Building, across the street from the State Capitol. “A cell phone has something like 39 different minerals in it, and not one of those minerals magically falls from the sky. They all have to be mined.”
As the state senator representing much of Minnesota’s famed Iron Range for nearly two decades, Tomassoni has much practice defending the mining industry and the countless jobs and communities that exist due to the region’s century-old prowess at pulling things out of the ground. When playing defense -- both in the halls of political power, and on the hockey rinks of Europe -- Tomassoni, 66, has considerable experience.
Prior to his first election to public office, when he ran and won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1992, Tomassoni was a standout defenseman at Chisholm High School, then a four-year letterwinner (1971-75) at the University of Denver, skating for the Pioneers in the NCAA Frozen Four twice.
“It’s hard not to get along with David. He’s just a very positive, outgoing guy,” said DU athletic director Ron Grahame, who was a teammate of Tomassoni for three seasons with the Pioneers. “I remember him being a very solid defensive defenseman. I don’t think he would try to fool anybody into thinking he had any real offensive skills. He wasn’t afraid to be a big body and be physical, but just a great guy.”
After a brief stint in the New York Rangers’ minor league system, Tomassoni got an opportunity to follow his family heritage and his passion for the game, and signed on with a pro hockey team in Italy. It wasn’t until 16 years, two international hockey gold medals, one Olympics and a trio of Italian league championships later that Tomassoni moved back to the United States permanently and gave politics a successful try.
“Technically I played 15 seasons, because I took a year off after the 1984 Olympics,” Tomassoni recalled. “That was the year I sold Kirby vacuum cleaners, so I was really glad that they called me back to Italy.”
Heritage and hockey
With his college career winding down, Tomassoni asked legendary Denver coach Murray Armstrong to honestly assess his NHL prospects. Armstrong encouraged Tomassoni to consider a career as an on-ice official rather than a player.
“I said ‘I’m not the refereeing type, but what about Europe?’” Tomassoni said. Armstrong just happened to have a letter from a scout in Italy who was looking for North Americans to come play there. Because three of Tomassoni’s four grandparents -- from the Tomassoni and Bertolini sides of the family -- had been born in Italy, he qualified for an Italian passport, two generations later.
“I got to Italy and pulled out my American passport, and I found it was no good. I needed an Italian passport, so I had to fly back and go to the Italian consulate in Chicago,” Tomassoni said. “The consul general wrote down the naturalization date for my grandfather, and my father’s birthdate and my birthdate. Then he said, ‘Because your grandfather was still Italian at the time your father was born, that makes your father an Italian and that makes you an Italian. You can have a passport in five days.’”
Such was the loose and ever-changing structure of the rules that Tomassoni got used to during his time in Europe.
“In the 16 years I was there, the Italians had 16 different regular season formats, 16 different playoff formats, 16 different rules for foreigners and 16 different rules for guys like me who had Italian heritage but were from a different country, so oftentimes I couldn’t play on the same team I played on before because of rules changes,” he said. “So I played on eight different teams. They were in northern Italy. For the most part they were in the South Tyrolean area, which was a part of Austria before World War I, so it had a real German influence.”
For love of (adopted) country
As a child, Tomassoni’s parents and grandparents spoke Italian around the kids only when they wanted to keep secrets. Living in Italy, he made mastery of the language an immediate goal.
“I couldn’t stand not communicating, so I studied it when I was there. I had a dictionary with me at all times in case I needed to look up a word and I learned new phrases all the time,” Tomassoni said. “One day in January of my first year, it was like a wall fell down in my ear and I could hear the words coming back to me. That’s when I started to get fluent in Italian. At one point, I was fluent in about seven different tenses.”
With his skills on the ice and his Italian passport in hand, Tomassoni was selected for their national hockey team, and with a handful of other North Americans of Italian descent, won a gold medal in the C-level world championships in 1977. That moved them up to the B level, and in the 1980 world championship for those teams, the Italians went 4-4 with North Americans (five Canadians and Tomassoni) scoring 28 of Team Italy’s 32 goals in the eight games. Italian hockey officials took notice, and after they won the B group world title in 1981 and moved up to international hockey’s top level, the 1982 Italian team featured 18 North Americans and just four players who were born in Italy.
Guarding the Great One
Among the dozens of photos of the towns he represents and the mines that remain the dominant employers in northeastern Minnesota adorning Tomassoni’s office walls, there are a few hockey photos, and one he points to with great pride. In that 1982 tournament, played in Finland, the Italians faced Team Canada, and Tomassoni -- a physical defenseman by nature -- figured out a simple way to stop the world’s most famous hockey player.
A small photo shows Tomassoni, wearing the blue and white of Team Italy, making contact with a Canadian in a red number 99 jersey, and Wayne Gretzky is about to go down hard.
“I had been studying Gretzky over the years and I could never understand why, when he came across the blue line and did that little spin move, why the defensemen kept backing up instead of trying to pressure him,” Tomassoni said. “So when he did the spin on me, I tried my theory out and sure enough I poke-checked the puck away and he went down. He’s already lost the puck in that picture.”
Two years later, Tomassoni walked in the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics for Team Italy in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia. The Italians were overmatched to be sure -- Italian hockey officials had limited the team to nine North Americans, in hopes of giving more Italian kids the Olympic experience -- and won just one game, but on the day his son, Danny, was born in Minnesota, Tomassoni scored Italy’s only goal in a 5-1 loss to the eventual goal medal-winners from the Soviet Union.
A bite from the political bug
Tomassoni admits his wife, Charlotte, didn’t care for living in Italy. With three children, he was getting increasing family pressures to try his hand at running for office. It didn’t go well.
“In 1988, Jerry Janezich was a county commissioner and decided to run for the state house. So I decided to run for county commissioner and I lost,” Tomassoni said. “I thought it was the worst experience I had in my life and I went back to Italy two days later to keep playing hockey, so I didn’t have to talk to anybody. I thought I’d never do that again.”
But after he retired and moved back to Minnesota permanently in 1991, he gave it another go. When Janezich left the House to run for the Senate, Tomassoni ran for the vacant House seat in 1992.
“I learned in 1988 that if there were two people from Chisholm running, I couldn’t win,” he recalled. “In 1992 there were four from Hibbing running and only one from Chisholm, so I ran and won and I’ve been there ever since.”
He has rarely faced a tough reelection campaign, and even in 2016 when a Donald Trump wave swept much of rural Minnesota, Tomassoni still got better than 62 percent of the ballots cast. On the Iron Range, which has traditionally been a DFL stronghold, Tomassoni has a reputation for being bipartisan, supporting his district even when it goes against DFLers in the metro area, and working with his colleagues no matter their party affiliation.
"We have a really, really good relationship," said Sen. Karin Housley, a Republican from the eastern Twin Cities suburbs, and the wife of former Buffalo Sabres coach Phil Housley. "We hang out and go get a glass of wine now and then, especially during the hockey tournaments, we go to the games together. I don't think there's anybody that doesn't like him."
Tomassoni admits he hasn’t donned skates in about a decade, last playing in a game of shinny in Minneapolis with political heavyweights like presidential candidate John Kerry, then-governor Tim Pawlenty and then-St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman on the ice. But with five grandchildren, and one of them playing hockey in Hibbing, he expects that he will be back on a rink soon to work with his granddaughter.
Still on defense
Although Tomassoni is a proud Denver alum, his district stretches south to the fringes of the Twin Ports, and is squarely in University of Minnesota Duluth country. On his desk are a UMD bobblehead and a replica of the 2018 NCAA championship ring the team won. But in a desk drawer, one can see a Denver towel from the 2017 national title game, where the Pioneers beat UMD in Chicago.
“It’s always fun for me to say to the UMD people, ‘Geez, I feel really bad for you that you lost,’” he said, with a sly grin.
The grin disappeared when the subject of mining came up, and Tomassoni’s unbridled passion for the Iron Range resurfaced.
Proponents of mining see a huge economic opportunity, with companies like PolyMet and Twin Metals looking to greatly expand their operations and their number of jobs in northeastern Minnesota. Opponents, including new Minnesota governor Tim Walz, have urged caution.
Environmental concerns have staunchly opposed new mining operations in the region, for fear of air and water pollution in this region that’s close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which is dotted with lakes and popular outdoor recreation destinations. Tomassoni noted that mining is an absolute necessity, and something that Minnesotans have done very well, with respect to our air and water, for generations.
“There are all kinds of challenges to people thinking you can have roads and skyscrapers and cell phones and bridges and windmills without mining. Everything comes from the ground,” he said. “If it isn’t logged, farmed, mined or drilled it probably doesn’t exist. So when people try to stop us from mining I try to explain to them that first you can’t take away all our jobs, and secondly you can’t do anything you want to do without mining.”
Decades removed from his time on the ice, Tomassoni is still playing defense for his beloved Iron Range.