ST PAUL, Minn. — Football has its coin toss.
Baseball has "Play ball!"
And hockey in Minnesota has its own way of starting.
“Let's play hockey!” echoes from the rafters of the Xcel Energy Center before the puck is dropped at each Minnesota Wild game.
The three-word phrase has gained iconic status here in Minnesota. Some high schools use it. Kids on backyard rinks start their pick-up games by shouting it.
But who came up with it?
“That was my dad, Bob Utecht,” Jennifer Rivera says.
From his childhood skating days in Stillwater, Bob Utecht was a hockey fanatic.
Also good with a microphone, Bob slid effortlessly into the role of rink announcer for the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars — Which means Bob was rink-side at Met Center on the team’s darkest night.
His son Jeff was listening to the game on the radio.
“I can remember just hearing Bill Masterton is down, he's unconscious,” Jeff Utecht says. “There was just this huge sadness that came over us.”
On Jan. 13, 1968, Masterton, a North Stars rookie, absorbed a hard check and hit his head on the ice.
Masterton wasn’t wearing a helmet. At that time, few NHL players did.
That night, Masterson became the only skater ever to die from injuries suffered playing in an NHL game.
“It was a tremendously difficult moment,” Greg Utecht, another of Bob’s kids, says.
After Masterton’s death, a pre-game memorial service was planned before his teammates began to play again at home.
So, what is a rink announcer to say as the night pivots from a memorial to a game?
“He was thinking about it all day,” Greg says. He describes his dad’s pre-game mood as, “tense, nervous.”
Yet, by the time the memorial service ended, Bob Utecht had come up with the now-familiar words he would say for the first time that night.
“It's time; let's play hockey,” Greg recites in his father’s cadence.
Simple – and perfect.
“And he did it every game that he announced,” Greg says.
In 1972, Bob repurposed his catchphrase into the name of the hockey publication he founded. 'Let’s Play Hockey Newspaper' can still be found in ice arenas across the state, having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Sadly for fans of Minnesota hockey, the phrase "Let's play hockey" morphed into an empty promise 30 years ago this spring, when the North Stars moved to Dallas.
Seven years later, the NHL returned.
And who better to signal the start of the Minnesota Wild's first home game?
“It's time now, so let's play hockey,” Bob Utecht proclaimed to the cheering crowd before the puck dropped on the Wild’s inaugural season.
The decision to include Utecht and his catchphrase made perfect sense to the Wild management team, which included current Wild senior brand advisor John Maher.
“We aren't the North Stars, and we weren't going to be the North Stars, but we could honor a lot of the things that fans remembered and celebrated about the NHL team that had left here,” he said.
So, Bob was invited back year after year.
In between visits, he got help from a variety of sports figures, celebrities and others who make up the fabric of Minnesota hockey.
In September of 2006, Bob Utecht waved to the crowd from the Xcel Energy Center ice and announced his signature call for the last time.
He was 86 years old.
“Even though he was using a walker by then, nothing was going to keep him from doing it,” daughter Jennifer says.
Nine months later, the Navy veteran received military honors at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
At a subsequent game, the Wild honored Bob Utrecht by inviting members of his family to lead the crowd in the phrase he coined.
Bob’s son Greg honors his father in his own way.
“This was my dad's,” he says, holding up a vintage faux leather soft-sided briefcase. Inscribed in gold are the words, “Minnesota North Stars.”
“It's like a treasure,” Greg says. “And where else to bring it but to a hockey game.”
Greg goes to a lot of hockey games as rink announcer for Eastview High School.
Care to guess how he'll start tonight's game?
“Let's play hockey!" he proclaims into the mic, firing up the crowd.
"I love doing it. It just makes me feel like I'm back with my dad,” Greg says.
At a recent Wild home game — on the eve of their 5th birthdays — twins Colt and Max Kurtz practiced "Let’s play hockey!” in an Xcel Energy Center concourse.
In a few minutes, the Wild would be honoring the boys’ grandpa, Bob Kurtz, who recently retired as the Wild’s radio announcer.
Remembering their grandpa’s catchphrase would not be a problem for Colt and Max.
“They know it well,” the boys’ mother, Gina Kurtz, says. "We watch it all the time. Wild plays at home, it's, ‘Let's play hockey.’”
Then, Colt and Max joined other family members on the scoreboard for a Minnesota ritual.
“Let’s play hockey!” they shouted in unison as the packed house roared.
Spurred by a tragedy, Bob Utecht created something lasting.
“We just stand back and watch it, enjoy it.” Greg Utecht says. "That’s really cool that we’re connected to that.”
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