EDINA, Minn. -- “I have a lunch meeting with Mr. Nanne,” I told the hostess at Tavern 23, the upscale eatery off France Avenue that is a kind of shrine to Lou Nanne, the unofficial godfather of hockey in Minnesota.
“Who?” she asked, politely. “Mr. Nanne,” I repeated. “Oh, you mean Louie,” she said with a broad smile. “Let me show you to his regular table.”
More than six decades since he stepped off a plane here, bound to play hockey and study dentistry, perhaps the greatest legend in Minnesota Gophers history is still just “Louie.”
Now 80, the man forever nicknamed “Sweet Lou from the Soo” was a small-town Ontario kid in 1959 with store-owner parents and a knack for moving the puck from his spot on defense. The Chicago Blackhawks -- then one of just six teams in the NHL -- held the rights to players from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., which is a harbor town on the far opposite end of Lake Superior.
ABOUT THIS SERIES: In a four-part preview of the 2021-22 Minnesota Gophers' hockey season, The Rink Live's Jess Myers explores the transfer, the rookie, the captain and the legend of the program.
All of the best players from “the Soo” were indentured to Chicago, which is why some of the legendary Blackhawks like Chico Maki, Tony Esposito, Jerry Korab and others all have the same hometown. When he finished high school on an undefeated team, Nanne was expected to follow suit and head for a Blackhawks-run major junior team in St. Catharines, Ont. But the Nanne family had other plans.
Lou’s parents had instilled in him one straightforward goal in life: be a dentist. The Blackhawks expected him to go to play hockey, and think about an education later. Nanne said no, and offered to play for Toronto St. Michael’s, a major junior team in Canada’s largest city, where he could also go to dental school.
“I said I’d go to the University of Toronto and play for St. Mike’s. Well, St. Mike’s was owned by the Maple Leafs so I couldn’t play there,” Nanne recalled. “They said I could go to McMaster (University) in Hamilton (Ont.), but they didn’t have a dental school.”
Nanne was aware of American colleges, having toured Notre Dame a year earlier. From a good Catholic background in his close-knit Italian family, he would’ve gone to Notre Dame, but they didn’t have a hockey program at the time. Then, the Midwestern colleges got wind of this talented defenseman.
Bob May, the coach at North Dakota, flew to Nanne’s hometown, met with his parents and pitched him on the idea of playing in Grand Forks, for the team that had just won the 1959 NCAA title. There was just one problem. UND did not have a dental school.
“A week later, May got an offer from Denver in the International League and quit coaching at North Dakota. But he ran into (John) Mariucci and told Mariucci about me,” Nanne said, recalling the first time he heard from the man for whom the Gophers’ home rink is named. “Mariucci calls me and asks me to fly to Minnesota. I asked my mother, ‘Where’s Minnesota?’ She said, ‘Your aunt went to the clinic there in Rochester.’”
Nanne arrived in Minneapolis in the heart of a hot summer of 1959.
“I really love movies, and I hate snow. So I fly in. Mariucci doesn’t pick me up, he told me to get a cab. So I fly in on a Sunday night -- it might’ve been my first time on a plane,” he recalled. “It was 95 degrees and I asked the cab driver how much snow they got in the winter. And he said ‘not much, about three inches.’ I went to the Nicollet Hotel, which had no air conditioning, so I slept in the tub for four days, in cold water. They had all the theaters downtown, so I’d go to movies at 6, 8 and 10, three days in a row.”
Mariucci took the young Canadian around campus, to the rink, to a fraternity party. Nanne liked what he saw. Before returning to Canada, Nanne registered for classes in the pre-dental program.
“Back home my dad said, ‘Did you like it?’ I said I did. He said, ‘Well, we’ve got to talk about it,’ and I told him I already signed,” Nanne said, with a broad smile. “He said, ‘What do you mean you already signed?’ I said, ‘Dad, they’ve got no snow, and I went to nine movies, and they’ve got a dental school.’”
Business and the blue line
There were adjustments to be made to life in the United States, and in college, to be sure. When the Gophers’ equipment manager asked Nanne if he was a freshman, the newbie was unfamiliar with that term. “No, I’m Italian,” Nanne answered. And there was another time when he needed Mariucci’s help to unregister for a class, after Nanne inadvertently signed up for the school’s ROTC program (which was obviously not open to Canadian students).
"I went to the Nicollet Hotel, which had no air conditioning, so I slept in the tub for four days, in cold water. They had all the theaters downtown, so I’d go to movies at 6, 8 and 10, three days in a row.”
- Lou Nanne
While Lou’s name is emblazoned on the players’ lounge at their home rink for the generous donations the Nanne family has made to Gophers hockey, you will find no record of him in the dental school.
“I was in the pre-dental program for two quarters,” Nanne said. “I took biology, and dissected a frog. I took the pins out of the frog, the frog jumped out of the pan and I said, ‘That’s it, I can’t do this s---.’”
It is worth noting that Nanne has a brother, an uncle and two nieces who are dentists, as was his late son Michael, who passed away nearly a decade ago of a brain tumor at age 48.
Instead of looking at incisors and stressing the importance of flossing, aptitude tests showed Nanne had the highest scores for sales that they had ever seen. He went into business, which served him as well as anything on the hockey rink. Freshmen were ineligible to play college sports at that time, but Nanne went on a road trip with the Gophers his first season anyway.
“They were going to North Dakota in February. I couldn’t play but Mariucci told me I was coming along,” Nanne said, shivering at the memory of his first trip to Grand Forks in the dead of winter. “We get up there and I got off the bus and Mariucci says, ‘I brought you here because I wanted you to see what you would’ve gone to if you wouldn’t have signed with us.’”
Nanne led the Gophers in scoring as a senior captain, and finished his degree in 1963. The Blackhawks, who still owned his rights, offered a $6,000 yearly contract. Nanne wanted $10,000. They said no, so he got a sales job and started playing the hockey equivalent of town ball for the Rochester Mustangs. They paid him $30 a game.
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By now married with young children, Nanne quickly found out that his talents at sales matched his on-ice abilities, and the former paid better, so there was no desperate rush to get to the NHL. The Nannes bought a home in the fast-growing suburb of Edina, mostly because there was a new arena under construction there. Working for legendary Minnesota businessman Harvey Mackay, Nanne was making $25,000 a year selling envelopes, and the $10,000 offer from the Blackhawks was suddenly much less interesting.
“Every time Chicago would come and talk to me, Harvey Mackay would give me a new account, with Pillsbury or Honeywell,” Nanne said. He eventually held out for more than five years, until after he got a chance to play in the 1968 Olympics, then inked a deal for $110,000 with a new expansion team, the Minnesota North Stars.
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"Here’s a guy who was not only a tremendous hockey player, but used his education to carve out a whole other life. He’s instilled that in his family, and now you’re watching his entire family do the same thing. If there’s ever a story to tell on the importance of education, Lou Nanne is it. He and his family mean everything to this program and they’ve given back.”
- Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzo
Nanne would play 10 seasons for the North Stars, spend another 10 seasons as their general manager, and two seasons as team president, before he was demoted to vice president under new owner Norm Green, who eventually moved the team to Dallas in 1993.
Generations of hockey
Lou and Francine, his girlfriend from back home in Ontario, have been married for 59 years. They have four children, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. In 1964, Nanne began calling state hockey tournament games on TV, and has done so every year since then.
-- SERIES PART 3: When he became the Gophers' coach in 2018, Bob Motzko promised that his program would get older. Ben Meyers (the captain) was nearly 21 when he started college, and is a perfect example of that, bringing rare strength and maturity to the team's lineup.
“I’ve often said that when I made the decision to quit hockey, I never missed it for five seconds. I woke up twice in a cold sweat thinking I was back in hockey. I’ve been out of the NHL for 30 years now. I’ve seen the world. I’m very successful in business -- ultra successful -- and have made way more than I’d have ever made in hockey. And I’m saying, how lucky can I be?”
- Lou Nanne
“I was going to quit the state tournament but I figure now that I’ve got great-grandchildren, I’ve got to do 16 more years,” he said with a grin.
His son Marty and two grandsons -- Vinni Lettieri and Tyler Nanne -- have all played for the Gophers and he remains very involved with promoting and supporting the program, stressing what an education can do for even the most talented hockey player.
“The common denominator of people who come to college hockey is education. They get the power of an education and what it does for their life,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “Here’s a guy who was not only a tremendous hockey player, but used his education to carve out a whole other life. He’s instilled that in his family, and now you’re watching his entire family do the same thing. If there’s ever a story to tell on the importance of education, Lou Nanne is it. He and his family mean everything to this program and they’ve given back.”
Today, as much as he is seen at the Gophers’ rink, or at Tavern 23, Lou Nanne is more often seen with family, and traveling. His social media feed is filled with pictures of France, or Florida, or San Diego, or fishing excursions in Alaska or rafting trips in Montana. And family. So much family. Nanne didn’t win a NCAA title with the Gophers, nor did he lead the North Stars to the Stanley Cup on the ice or in the front office. But his is a life well-lived, filled with wealth and with love, and a lesson in making the most of life’s opportunities.
“I’ve often said that when I made the decision to quit hockey, I never missed it for five seconds. I woke up twice in a cold sweat thinking I was back in hockey,” Nanne said. “I’ve been out of the NHL for 30 years now. I’ve seen the world. I’m very successful in business -- ultra successful -- and have made way more than I’d have ever made in hockey. And I’m saying, how lucky can I be?”
A young waiter came by to refill the water glasses, not at all intimidated by the smiling hockey legend sitting in the establishment with Lou Nanne memorabilia adorning seemingly every wall.
Six decades later, in Minnesota he is still our “Louie.”
This story has been updated to correct an error. Jerry Korab is not related to Lou Nanne.