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John Craig Arko, born and raised on Minnesota's Iron Range, loved hockey.

He played as a youngster and later became a youth coach. He saw that Minnesota's most talented young players were missing out on elite playing opportunities in the offseason, so he co-founded the Minnesota Blades in 1989.

The Blades started as one team in the west metro and grew into more than a dozen teams traveling across North America to compete at the AAA Hockey level. The program boasts a remarkable list of alumni, including more than 200 NHL players and hundreds of NCAA Division I athletes.

"His mission for the Blades was to try and develop young hockey players as players and as people so they could get college hockey scholarships," said Blades CEO Terry Moore. "He was very demanding but smiling all the time. I think he just loved being there."

After a battle with cancer, Arko died July 13 at his home in Eden Prairie. He was 79.

Arko was born and raised in Virginia, Minn., one of two children born to John and Ruth Arko. He graduated from Virginia High School in 1960 and went on to study business at Bemidji State University.

He married his first wife, Sue, in 1966 and they had two children, Tracy and John. Arko worked in management for Sears, moving the family from Duluth to Huron, S.D., to Fort Dodge, Iowa. They eventually settled in Minnetonka in the 1970s, where he worked for Dayton's Home Store and other retailers.

The couple divorced in the 1980s. Arko switched careers, obtaining his broker's license, and began managing investments at John Kinnard Investments before moving to Stifel Nicolaus in Wayzata, where he retired as a vice president in 2017.

Sensing a missed opportunity for Minnesota kids, Arko and Dennis Postregna founded the Blades as a nonprofit in 1989.

"He realized there was no AAA hockey in Minnesota. If you wanted a really good game, you needed to go someplace else to find it," said Arko's stepdaughter, Jaime Fransway.

The program, originally called the Stars, expanded over three decades with programs for kids as young as age 6 through high school. Moore said Arko's philosophy was that a rising tide lifts all boats.

"You put the best kids with the best coaches against the best competition," he said. "These kids work together so they all get better."

Arko coached for many years, always as a volunteer, Moore said. He served as Blades president until July, when he passed the position to Fransway.

Even as Arko was battling cancer, Fransway said he was inquiring about upcoming hockey tournaments.

"He was a really good coach," Fransway said. "He asked more of those kids than they thought they had to give."

At a recent nonprofit Da Beauty League game in Edina, several NHL players including Vancouver Canucks right wing Brock Boeser spoke fondly of their time with the Blades, describing lifelong friendships and critical skills development.

"They really showed us how to be hockey players," Boeser said. "To see little kids running around with Blades hats today, it's so cool to see that."

Arko married Ardyth Arko in 1998. John Arko was active with the nonprofit North Star Therapy Animals. He trained his sheltie, Mia, as a therapy dog and visited patients at local hospitals. He also loved to fish, travel and garden.

A celebration of life will be held at the Arko home, 6651 Moorland Drive in Eden Prairie, on Aug. 14 from 2-6 p.m.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037