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Minnesota's iconic 'Let's play hockey' call was born from a tragedy

Former North Stars announcer Bob Utecht coined the phrase that stuck.

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.  

Credit: Devin Krinke/KARE 11
Jeff Utecht (left), Greg Utecht, and Jennifer Rivera share memories of their father, former North Stars announcer Bob Utecht.

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.

Credit: Minneapolis Star Tribune
The fatal injury to North Stars rookie Bill Masterton is documented in a 1968 Minneapolis Tribune article.

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.

Credit: Devin Krinke/KARE 11
Greg Utecht holds a picture of his father, former North Stars announcer Bob Utecht.

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.

Credit: Minnesota Wild
At an outdoor game in 2016, fans of the Minnesota Wild spell out “LET’S PLAY HOCKEY!”

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.

Credit: Minnesota Wild
Bob Utecht makes his final appearance leading the crowd at a Wild game with his signature phrase.

“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.

Credit: Devin Krinke/KARE 11
Greg Utecht begins an Eastview High School hockey game with “Let’s play hockey!”

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.’”

Credit: Minnesota Wild
Members of the Kurtz family lead a Minnesota Wild crowd in “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.”

Boyd Huppert is always looking for great stories to share in the Land of 10,000 Stories! Send us your suggestions by filling out this form.

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