Glen Sonmor was an enemy to newspaper deadlines, even though his sister Jean was a sportswriter and news reporter in Toronto.
Sonmor was the coach of the North Stars during their near-to-glory days in the early ’80s and the problem he created for newspaper people was this: The locker room door would open, you would spend some time getting quotes from players (perhaps as they smoked a postgame heater) and then you would walk into the adjacent coach’s office to interview Sonmor.
Glen would have a couple of thoughts on the contest, and these thoughts would detour to anecdotes from Sonmor’s decades in the game, and the reporters would be laughing and that 11:45 p.m. deadline would be getting closer.
Even for hockey heathens in the sporting press, attendance was much greater in those Sonmor years than for any local NHL product, before or since. High-scoring, entertaining hockey was partly responsible for this — but Sonmor was Reason 1A.
Glen Robert Sonmor was the greatest storyteller in the 47 years of Twin Cities sports that I have been allowed to cover. He died from pneumonia and other ailments Monday at 86 in Toronto, where he had moved in the spring of 2014 to be closer to sister Jean (Devine) and her family.
There are characters in Minnesota sports that cause us to smile when we hear the first name, such as “Louie,” or when we hear a nickname, such as “Maroosh,” and for this man, it was always “Sonmor.”
I think you’re a special kind of character when the last name becomes a term of affection for an entire state, for an entire sport.
The Louie of whom we speak, Nanne, said after his friend’s death: “I don’t know of anyone who loved the game of hockey more than him.”
And the reverse also could be claimed: It would be difficult to find someone in the game of hockey who didn’t love Sonmor.
One of the downsides of the information age is that details of yarns told in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s can now be checked for accuracy through the Internet.
The tribute that we should all pay to Sonmor is to never check the veracity of his greatest stories — only to enjoy them as his poems to the game he loved.
Sonmor is listening on the radio to a game from Montreal. The retired Maurice Richard is choosing the three stars. The Rocket gives the first star to the Canadiens’ Jean Beliveau for a goal and an assist, and the second star to his little brother Henri Richard, who didn’t have a point but really hustled.
And then, according to Sonmor, the Rocket says, “I suppose I have to give the third star to Gordie Howe, because if he didn’t have those four goals tonight the Red Wings wouldn’t have beaten us.”
Seriously, do you think we want to find out there was some hyperbole in that Sonmor story?
Or this one, on Mike Antonovich, Sonmor’s favorite player in his time coaching the Gophers (1966-71):
“Anton was a hockey player, not a scholar,” Sonmor would say. “He was in General College, but after two years, you had to advance out of there into a graduate program.
“I looked all over campus for a college that would take him. I finally found something at the ag school. I told Anton, ‘Go over and see this guy; he’s going to get you into ‘agriculture recreation.’
“Anton looked at the me and said, ‘What am I going to do … walk cows?’ ”
Sonmor also told it the other way — that he asked if Antonovich was going to walk cows — but the point is, when you hear a story at Saturday’s memorial service for Glen, go with it. They are too good to be quibbled with.
For sure, Sonmor loved the ag school angle for his hockey players. He once had a Gophers goalie attending the agriculture school who was ruled ineligible.
“He flunked potatoes,” Sonmor would say.
He left the Gophers in 1971 to become the procurer of personnel for the Fighting Saints, which would be St. Paul’s franchise when the WHA started in the fall of 1972. Sonmor coached for a while, then gave that job to Harry Neale, who was worth almost as many laughs as his boss.
The Fighting Saints had financial problems, to say the least.
“We practiced at Aldrich Arena, and we had a room out there to meet with players to discuss the money problems,” Sonmor would say. “We called it the ‘folding room.’ After a while, I would answer the phone in the office, ‘Hello, Minnesota Fighting Accordions.’ ”
Sonmor and I once shared the speaking duties for the Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church men’s club in the huge Rathskeller Room at the Schmidt brewery. Sonmor was there to promote the yet-to-start Fighting Saints. I was early in a failed tenure as the youthful assistant sports editor at the Pioneer Press.
He showed up hammered. I hadn’t been drinking that night, although that probably changed.
More than a love for hockey, Sonmor and I shared a love for alcohol. I did my 28 days at St. Mary’s in 1981, quit drinking, and went about life. Glen’s battle with alcoholism was more public, and so was his fantastic recovery.
Sonmor dived into leading people to a sober life with the same enthusiasm with which he led the North Stars into the record-setting Boston Garden brawl with the Bruins on Feb. 26, 1981.
Making amends to those you have harmed is the ninth of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sonmor was willing to take amends to an extreme, including one owed from the Gophers’ 4-2 loss to Boston University in the 1971 national championship game.
Goalie Dennis Erickson had allowed a couple of questionable goals and Sonmor criticized him. Erickson had hurt his knee early, was treated with a numbing agent and returned for the game’s final 52 minutes. X-rays then revealed a broken kneecap.
Years later, Sonmor said: “Before I’m through making amends in this life, I owe one to Dennis for criticizing him for giving up a couple of goals to his broken-kneecap side.”
Sonmor. Dang, he was the …
OK, one more: After the Folding Accordions folded for the last time in St. Paul, Sonmor was hired to run the WHA’s new team in Alabama, the Birmingham Barons.
To gain attention in Bear Bryant country, Sonmor brought in every goon he could line up, including the over-the-top Steve Durbano.
A reporter asked what he was going to do to control Durbano, to which Sonmor replied:
“What makes you think I want to?”