Patrick Reusse
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Bonnie and John Hankinson had three sons play hockey for Doug Woog at the University of Minnesota: Peter, Ben and Casey. This started with Peter in the fall of 1986 and concluded with Casey in the spring of 1998.

One of the early trips the Hankinson parents took with the Gophers was by bus to Houghton, Mich. These were the days when Woog’s parents, Jake and Wanda, were regulars on the weekend bus rides.

“We saw Doug in the hotel lobby after the Friday game against [Michigan] Tech and he said, ‘Come on up to the room for some hospitality,’ ” Bonnie said. “When Doug walked into the hotel room, Wanda said, ‘Wooger, if you don’t make changes on those first and second lines, you’re never going to win anything this season.’

“John and I looked at each other like, ‘That’s Mom telling him that?’ ”

Bonnie’s recollection was repeated to Woog on Wednesday morning at the South St. Paul arena. The hockey man smiled widely and said:

“My mom never had a problem expressing her opinions. Jake was the opposite. He went to games when I played, when I coached, and never once said, ‘You should have done this.’

“He didn’t say much of anything. [Brian] Bonin and [Mike] Crowley and those guys would make sure there was something in a little cooler for Jake on the bus rides, and that was enough for him.”

Jake was Croatian and Wanda was Polish. In other words, they were South St. Paulites to the core.

They owned an eight-lane bowling alley, Woog’s Rec, that would open early in the morning to serve the night shifters and the beef brokers who were in need of “a snit and a shot” after their time at the stockyards.

The odor from the South St. Paul abattoirs was familiar to residents but powerful to outsiders.

“If the wind was from the east, I always figured it was a three-point advantage for us when we had a home football game,” Woog said.

Doug Woog was undersized at 5-7 and 155 pounds, yet was an outstanding tailback in coach Steve Silianoff’s single-wing offense and a tremendous hockey player. He had scholarship offers in both sports from the Gophers and went with hockey.

South St. Paul had been sending teams to the state tournament, and the enthusiasm for the Packers and youth hockey was tremendous by the late ’50s. Civic boosters decided it was time to move beyond the outdoor rink near the high school and construct a hockey arena.

“This arena was built through fundraising … some bigger donations, but also the buy-a-brick approach for the regular families,” Woog said.

Woog graduated in the spring of 1962 — a few months before the arena would open. “I didn’t play high school hockey here, but I did carry pipe working for the construction crew when it was being built,” he said.

The new arena was named the Cow Palace, then changed a year later to Wakota (a combination of Washington and Dakota counties).

Last September, the South St. Paul City Council approved a name change to Doug Woog Arena. Next week, at 2 p.m. Feb. 6, the official dedication will take place.

Dale Schenian, Ken Nelson, Jim Metzen and others from Woog’s generation spearheaded the movement. Schenian agreed to finance the change of signage and also make a donation to the city’s recreation department.

This is a tribute to Woog, who turned 72 on Tuesday, for his success as an athlete and a coach, but also for the depth of his roots to this unique place … a burg that bumps against St. Paul but can’t be rightfully described as a suburb.

“I call South St. Paul the ‘Iron Range of the South,’ ” Dave Metzen said.

Metzen and his brothers, Jim and Tom, grew up four doors from the Woogs. Among other things, Dave is the former chairman of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.

Woog and the Metzens and other kids from the ’40s who would become standout Packers learned hockey at the “Mudhole,” a slough that sat in a ravine and froze for a few months (hopefully) in the winter.

South St. Paul reached the state tournament in each of Woog’s four varsity seasons (1959-62). The Packers boys didn’t win the dang thing, not then, not before or since. The girls have won four state hockey titles, to help soften the blow.

Population changes in South St. Paul have lowered the numbers in youth programs, yet the commitment to the sport is still there. Voters approved a $1.3 million upgrade to the two-rink facility that took place last year.

There are still signs directing people to Wakota Arena, but that will start to change in the months ahead. The shirts being worn by some workers do bear the new name:

Doug Woog Arena.

Richard Lick — known to all hockey people as “Beaver” — is another South St. Paul legend. He played freshman hockey for the Gophers, got married to Woog’s cousin, Carole, and started maintaining South St. Paul’s outdoor rinks. He was also a constant at Wakota, and now he’s proud to have his friend’s name on the rink.

“He wasn’t sure if he wanted his full name … he said, ‘How about Woog Arena?’ ” Lick said. “That wasn’t going to work. This is in honor of what Doug has meant to South St. Paul hockey, and what hockey has meant to the city.”

What is different about this place, once a cow town, still with the small houses in the old neighborhoods where large families were raised?

Woog thought for a moment and said: “It was the connection. You knew everyone; and you cared about one another. I remember when our son, Dan, was hurt in a rock slide. People were showing up at the hospital, people were trying to help in whatever way possible.”

The athlete, the coach, the guy who married his high school sweetheart, Jan, and always could be found in the South St. Paul phone book, reiterated the point:

“There was always such a connection.”

And now, Doug Woog’s connection to South St. Paul will be emblazoned at the hockey arena, presumably for decades into the future.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com