Hockey coach mentored youth – on and off the ice
For Cloquet's Jerry Couture, even the coldest youth hockey rink was still better than the Chosin Reservoir. The man who spent 28 years as a youth hockey coach in Cloquet was never colder than in the conditions where he fought in a famous battle w...
For Cloquet’s Jerry Couture, even the coldest youth hockey rink was still better than the Chosin Reservoir.
The man who spent 28 years as a youth hockey coach in Cloquet was never colder than in the conditions where he fought in a famous battle with the Seventh Marines in the Korean War. At times, the temperature there plunged to -35 and lower.
“No place was as cold as that,” Couture, 84, said this week.
Recently, though, Couture was honored for the countless hours he spent in other cold places - teaching our children to play the game he loves, and helping turn Cloquet into a hockey town in the process.
He was born in Duluth and attended the old Duluth Cathedral high school until 1949, when he wanted to transfer to play hockey.
“The rule at that time was that you had to sit out a quarter (of school) before you could play,” Couture said. “I didn’t want to do that, so I figured I’d join the Marines.”
Talk about a career-changer.
After finishing his basic training, Couture was sent to Korea, where he took part in the Marine Corps’ five largest land battles of the three-year campaign – including at Chosin, where he fought with the First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment.
If you’re a student of history, you know what happened – Chinese forces encircled the First Marines, their affiliates and attached Army troops – and the Americans fought their way out through amazingly bad weather, inflicting losses three times as great as they took.
The First Marine Division was commanded by every Marine’s legendary figure, General Lewis “Chesty” Puller, and Couture remembers the story of a staff officer telling the men of the Seventh Marines what Puller’s reaction was to finding out his force was surrounded.
“He said that was good because then we could kill them (Chinese) in every direction,” Couture said.
But for Couture, it was just one of five major battles.
“I was at Inchon, too,” he said, “and all the others.”
Couture retired as a sergeant and headed home in 1953 to finally get his diploma from Denfeld, which he got through taking a series of exams.
“Back then you could get a degree after you had been in the military by taking exams,” he said. “So, I did. I’m not really sure how I got as far as I did in the Marine Corps.”
And then, he stayed with snow and cold for the rest of his working life.
Couture lived in Lakeside after the war and took part in the old Class AA semi-pro leagues. In those days, companies would often sponsor their own teams, and Couture played for the Chun King team which, along with the company, was owned by Jeno Paulucci.
“We played Roseau, Hibbing, Virginia, Minneapolis and St. Paul once in awhile,” Couture remembered. “That got me into it.”
Couture stayed in Duluth until 1957, when his employer, Northwestern Bell, transferred him to Cloquet.
“Before that time I played with the Lakeside Hawks, and we were so (darn) good we had players from UMD on our team and we even beat UMD’s team once 2-1. I won’t forget that; we were proud of it. We played in the Curling Club back then, it was before the Duluth Arena was built. But that was like eight thousand years ago.”
It really wasn’t, of course. But then, employment called Couture away from the Curling Club and toward Cloquet, and once he began to coach youth hockey, he never left. He spent the next 28 winters coaching children at every level.
“I was a cable slicer for 31 years for Bell and then I worked a few years for AT&T before I retired,” he said. “But I always coached.”
And oh, how he coached.
Couture coached Midgets, Bantams, Pee Wees and even at the old Pony level, and traveled all over the state in doing so.
“I coached from eight- and nine-year-olds up to (age) 16,” he said. “Some of those kids, I think I spent more time with them than their own dads did. Then we’d jump in the truck and go play a tournament on the weekends.”
One of the players influenced by Couture was Rick Barr, who filled out a youth hockey signup sheet as a first-grader at Garfield School - and had his life changed.
“I showed up for my first practice with skates that were too big, a helmet that was too big and a stick that was twice the size it should have been,” Barr said. “But I played seven years for Jerry Couture and it really changed my life. He was like a second father to me.”
“I realized later in life that he had such an impact on us as little kids,” Barr said. “We didn’t realize how his dedication helped us in life and in hockey. Without him, so much of my life would have been a lot different.”
“The kids are the most important thing,” Couture said. “They always were. You have to help them enjoy the sport and even be a little bit of a father figure.”
Couture coached the Cloquet Pee Wee team for 13 years, but remembers one of his Bantam teams the most.
“I had a Bantam Red team once where none of the kids had a family life, not one,” he said. “I had 14 kids on that team and not one of them had a family; their folks were all divorced. I had the opportunity to straighten those boys out a little bit and I was glad to do it. Sometimes you have to do that.”
Once you were in Couture’s program, he backed you to the hilt.
Barr remembers one night where Couture took his team to the Eagles’ Club to try to raise money for uniforms.
“I remember him doing that a lot,” Barr said. “There was nothing he wouldn’t do for those kids.”
Couture remembers exactly how the uniform money was raised.
“I had them stand up and sing ‘We are the Eagles, the mighty, mighty Eagles,’” he said. “We raised $3,000 for uniforms that night.”
“They had the Chicago Blackhawk on them,” Barr added.
On the ice, Couture stressed one thing more than any other.
“Skating,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what else you can do in hockey if you can’t skate. All my players were great skaters. It didn’t matter where we went or what we did, we’d get compliments on how our kids could skate.”
“He taught you everything,” Barr said. “How to start as a young player, how to stop, how to turn, stickhandling, how to check as we got old enough. He took time to demonstrate and explain everything so kids could understand it and have it mean something.”
For Barr, that time was 50 years ago. Since then, he found a career in sales and moved to Fairbault, where he currently lives in retirement. But recently, he found a way to say thank you to his old coach.
January 17 was the annual Hockey Day in Minnesota this year, and UMD was preparing to host Western Michigan at Amsoil Arena.
After the morning skate, Rick Barr and his son, Ben, one of two associate head coaches for Western under head coach Andy Murray, met up with the team.
Jerry Couture was there too, for a special tribute from the Barrs.
The Barrs gave Couture a bronze trophy of a hockey player with a plaque attached, which read:
“To Coach Jerry Couture: In appreciation for your unrelenting dedication in coaching youth hockey. Thank you for your commitment in teaching us the fundamentals of the game, sportsmanship, and most importantly for making lasting inspirations in the game of hockey we all love.”
“I was tickled as hell to get that tribute,” Couture said with a laugh. “I coached Rick when he was 11, 12, 13, 14 years old but that surprised me.”
Barr credits Couture for not only changing his life but also his son’s, through teaching him hockey. “I don’t think my son would have coached hockey if Jerry hadn’t coached me,” he said.
The Broncos also gave Couture an autographed team stick - and then went out and beat the Bulldogs that night 4-2.
“He made hockey fun,” Barr said. “All his players can attest to that. You just wanted to go back to the next practice again and again for Jerry and you couldn’t wait to play. I felt fortunate that he’s living and well and I can do a small tribute.”
“All his players” means a vast number of players who wore a Cloquet varsity jersey between 1962 and 1985.
“We figured it out,” Barr said. “He coached about 7,000 games and practices through the years. His dedication was incredible. We as kids were fortunate to have Jerry be a mentor to us, in my case for seven consecutive years.”
“I liked all the kids I had,” Couture said, perhaps diplomatically. “But I remember kids like Jim Sprenger who went on to play for UMD, and I coached Bruce Plante when he was coming through, and later coached with him at the youth level.”
In the end, a little recognition went a long way with the coach.
“That surprised me,” Couture repeated. “To get a $300 hockey stick with Western’s players signing it, that was nice.”
Barr added that he got a nice thank you note after the event.
“His son Tony wrote me and said that his dad would have that trophy on the coffee table for the rest of his life,” Barr said. “He gave us unrelenting dedication, that’s what it said on the trophy. Constantly, to us kids.”
That’s what youth sports is supposed to be all about.