Two decades ago, a Cloquet legacy was born. The CEC girls varsity hockey team played their first game with a group of mostly seventh through ninth graders against Duluth East Dynamite. They won 5-2.
“I remember being shocked that we won,” said Brigitte Bartholdi, who played center on the fledgling team.
“Our pump-up song was 'Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,'” Johanna Ellison said.
Ellison was the first goalie on the first girls U12 hockey team in Cloquet, then moved up to the first U15 team the following year. She became the varsity goalie in the 1999-00 season and helped her team get to state several times.
When Coach Richard Bartholdi, better known as simply "Coach Bart," saw no one was putting effort into starting a girls hockey program in Cloquet, he took it upon himself.
He watched other teams that were already established at the time.
“Our kids can do that,” Coach Bart remembers thinking.
He worked hard as he began building the youth hockey teams first. He recruited Jerry Maunu from Esko and Dave Ellison to help him build the U12 team. All the fathers had daughters close in age. Brigitte Bartholdi was playing with the Cloquet boys youth teams and Michelle Maunu played with the Esko Mini Mites and Mites teams.
A new girl, Kirsti Hakala, moved from Alaska and joined Brigitte on the boys team. One of the challenges of playing on a boys team was the locker room. The girls ended up changing in broom closets, a car or an empty referee locker room.
Liz (Palkie) Kolquist started skating at 2 ½ years old with her brothers. She also skated on the boys youth teams until the U12s were formed.
“It was fun to be on a girls team,” Kolquist said. One of her favorite memories is the first varsity game against Duluth.
“We didn't make state that year, but I thought we were really good,” Kolquist said. She enjoyed bonding with the girls and remembers the slumber parties in the locker room.
In her senior year, the team was ranked second all season.
Slowly, the girls' friends were recruited to the newly formed girls team.
“We started dragging people out of the bleachers,” Coach Bart said. “We took anyone who wanted to play.
“I tried out on figure skates,” Ellison said with a laugh. She is not sure what the coach saw in her, but she could skate backward.
“We had a really good core of girls,” Ellison said. “We were a very competitive group.”
Coach Bart had plenty of hockey experience. His mother had played hockey and he also began playing at 4 years old in Duluth. He helped coach Cloquet boys hockey from 1967-97. The coach was told to learn how to work with the boys' goalies. The most important detail about being a goalie is the need to maintain perfect technical form, he said.
During the day, Coach Bart taught a variety of social classes at Cloquet High School; his favorite was world affairs. He would quiz the girls during breaks at practice. He asked questions such as, "What year was the Declaration of Independence signed?"
When the girls program began, they needed a goaltender. Johanna Ellison agreed to give it a try. Dave Ellison, a special education teacher in Cloquet, became her goalie coach. He retired from coaching the girls' goalies after the 2018-19 season.
Every goalie throughout the program was hammered about technical form.
“I just jumped in head first,” Dave Ellison said. He read, watched videos and learned the position well. He credits the success of the program to good coaching as well as the girls.
“We had a good group of girls and they got pretty good,” Dave Ellison said. “It was a good combination."
Coach Bart took the drills he ran for the boys hockey team and brought it to the girls program. He’s proud of the fact that he never cut anyone from the team. He even flooded a rink in his backyard for the girls.
Whatever Coach Bart did, it worked. The girls went to state several times and placed second behind South St. Paul. The girls said playing unbeaten South St. Paul during the season and breaking their winning streak is a favorite memory.
“It was their first tie in two years,” Kolquist said.
The girls and Coach Bart remember the visits to state fondly.
“We were the No. 1 seed for years,” Coach Bart said. “It was kind of enjoyable for me.”
His favorite memory with his daughter came at the end of her high school career. They had observed another coach's daughter skating over to her father on the bench and doing a fist bump before the game.
“The next year, my daughter was a senior and we were at the state tournament,” Bartholdi said. “Before the puck dropped, Brigitte skated over to me and did a fist bump.” He paused for a moment to stop from tearing up at the memory.
“I am proud of the program my dad built,” Brigitte said. “He held us to a higher standard.”
“He was hard-nosed,” Kolquist said. “He demanded hard work, but he had a good sense of humor. I appreciated the dedication he gave to the team and coaching.”
“Bart and the coaches did a great job creating a legacy,” Johanna Ellison said. “He created a program for the next generation to play.”
Coach Bart said he has learned over the years of coaching that the U10 and U12 years are very important because that's when the girls can learn bad habits that can be very difficult to break.
“They got rid of me in 2010,” Coach Bart said. “No one said why.”
The teams went to state five out of 10 years under his coaching. The last time the girls went to state was 2009.
He returned to coaching youth hockey, and in 2013, his team of nine U12 girls won the District 11 championship.
The program went through several coaches until Courtney Esse Olin took over five years ago. She began in the Cloquet program at 5 years old and played all the way up. She played high school hockey from 2004-10, then at the College of St. Scholastica. Olin is currently a teacher at Churchill Elementary School.
“I’ve been very impressed with Courtney,” Coach Bart said. He said the team is disciplined and well-organized.
“Coaching for CEC girls high school hockey has given me the opportunity to give back to the program which gave so much to me,” Olin said. “I love the game of hockey and think there is something so unique about the camaraderie the sport has.”
Currently, the high school team has 34 players.
“We are actively working to help grow the youth numbers any way we can,” Olin said.
Olin organized a celebration for the 20th anniversary of the program. On Tuesday, Dec. 10, the girls varsity played a Duluth team again. Like that first game 20 years ago, they won, this time 6-1. The girls Bartholdi coached as U12 players since 2012 have come up through the varsity program in the last several years.
He watched the junior varsity and varsity teams play Tuesday night and said he enjoyed both games. He was all smiles as parents from past girls he coached, past coaches and alumni from the first team stopped by the arena to say hello and give him a hug.
Coach Bart, now 75, was let go from the youth hockey team at the end of the 2018-19 season. He isn't sure what to do with all his spare time and expansive hockey knowledge.
“Nobody has watched more hockey than me,” he said. “I always carry cards and a pen for notes in my pockets. It’s my passion. My purpose is to teach kids to learn to play hockey the right way.”