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Saint4Life Weekend: The Return to the Key City

By Jordan Kuhns, 05/31/22, 2:15PM CDT

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The first-ever Saint4Life Night fell on December 16, 2016. The game night was a starting place to pay homage to the tradition of the Dubuque Fighting Saints organization that dated back to 1980, and to give players from the Tier I iteration of the team a chance to record messages for the fans in house.

Perhaps an alum or two would stop by—notably Dennis Gibbons, who remains fairly local—or former defenseman Andrew Kerr, who was honored by the organization after an offseason swimming accident derailed his hockey career and almost claimed his life.

Saint4Life Night evolved into Saint4Life Weekend, but it remained stagnant. It was what it was. Everyone knew what to expect. It was wrapped into the reveal of a retro-styled white alternate sweater in 2018, and the same, but in red, in 2019.

Back in the day, there used to be a yearly hog roast in Dubuque for teams from the 80s to come back to Dubuque, but that yearly tradition disappeared once the original Saints folded and moved to Tulsa. ‘80s alumni also tried to schedule a reunion a few years ago, but the world had other plans.

“We had planned to have a reunion, and we had rooms rented and everything before COVID hit and then we had to cancel it,” said “Denny” Gibbons, who played for the Fighting Saints during the inaugural season of the team.

So, a once-in-a-lifetime international pandemic threw a wrench into the plan. Saint4Life Night would continue to happen, year after year, paying tribute to the Clark Cup championship teams of 2011 and 2013, and the handful of players that had staked their claim in the NHL. However, that’s all it was.

The offseason of 2021 is when the tide towards making it into a truly special affair became a reality.

It started with a generous donation from a visiting former player, who signed a multi-year deal to purchase a suite and emblazon it with the “Jack Barzee Saint4Life Suite” title. That space gave any alumni a dedicated home to watch games from in the Saints’ home arena, the Mystique Community Ice Center. The organization then arranged resources to begin the formation of the Saint4Life Foundation, which existed to improve the experience for Saints of the present and the future with contributions from former players.

First, a logo was developed. A board was formed. All of the legal non-profit mumbo jumbo was put in place. The Saint4Life Foundation rounded into form.

“When I met with team president Robert Miller, he felt it would be a good fit for me. I had no idea how to run a non-profit. It has been a learning experience for sure,” said foundation director Katharine Brown. “I had to meet with attorneys regularly and put everything together. The scope of it felt overwhelming. You don’t know what you don’t know. There’s a fear you left something undone.”

“But every day, Bill Snook and I were learning more and more, and we had a lot of help from our attorney, Bridget, and Ron Avery, the founder of the Avery Foundation, who has been so kind and open and available when we have questions.”

Brooks Bertsch, a Dubuque native who played for the inaugural Tier I Fighting Saints, returned to town with his family and made sure it was a no-brainer to get on board with the foundation.

“The organization gave me so much. I’ve kept a consistent relationship with people inside the organization,” said Bertsch. “For me to be a local person who has some playing experience at the college level and professional experience as a video coach and a scout, it’s really important to me to provide a more youthful lens on how we can make an impact in the community.”

From there, weeks of strenuous clerical work went into digging into the archives for contact information. It started with team leaders and housing coordinators of the past finding phone numbers and emails. Word spread like wildfire from there. The answer to a massive reunion was a resounding yes. If not for this season, then definitely one in the future.

Over 35 alumni from over the years came to Dubuque as a result of the effort.

All of the work revolved around the exploits of the architect of the original Fighting Saints. If it hadn’t been for this one “young farm kid from Connecticut”—his words—the Saints would not even exist. Jack Barzee moved the Waterloo Black Hawks to Dubuque prior to the 1980–81 season, and the rest, as they say, is history. It wouldn’t be a true reunion if Barzee could not be there.

He was the centerpiece of the entire event. With a little bit of braggadocio, and charisma in spades, the Lester Patrick Award winner held court throughout the weekend.

“I’m still scratching my head from when [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman called me about winning the Lester Patrick Award. After that weekend, I realized how lucky I am and how lucky I’ve been in a lot of ways,” Barzee said. “The results have been much more rewarding and gratifying than I ever expected. But I look back at the people I was surrounded with. From the trainers up. I couldn’t have done it without everyone.”

“Jack is full of energy at 80 years old. He’s an amazing motivator. He has a thousand stories. Between Waterloo days to Dubuque days. There are times I asked him, ‘how the hell did you do that?’” Gibbons said. “He said he needed the right guys in the room. It was easy to get people motivated when he had the right kids that wanted to play and were willing to have a really strong competitive spirit.”

Barzee’s energy never wavered throughout the weekend. Pulled in a thousand different directions by people perhaps, but he had the undying, authentic energy to talk. And talk. And talk some more. Like a certain bunny mascot for a certain battery company, he kept going, and going, and going.

“I told my wife, Kathy, what’s sad is there were so many people I wanted to get a hold of and spend more time with, but I had to cut conversations short. I felt like an octopus, you know?” Barzee chuckled. “I can’t say enough about the job Katharine and Bill did for the weekend. It was truly special.”

“What made the weekend so successful was the fact that we were able to incorporate his accomplishments, which were so incredible,” Brown added. “The coincidence of the anonymous alumni endowment for the suite in his name, and him winning the Lester Patrick Award, it was easy to encapsulate the weekend around him.”

“What a great man. His life has been the game of hockey as a scout, as a coach, you can still see, even though he’s retired, it’s in his blood,” Bertsch said. “You can see how important the game of hockey is to him. You can see how genuine of a person he is. That’s what resonates with people he coached. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young guy or an old guy. With him being the founder, the original leader of the organization to set the foundation on how things should be done moving forward, he was the guy.”

Jack only won three Clark Cups and two national championships. No big deal. So many his friends and family came to town. He was riding the energy of that experience. As much as it was about the alumni, arguably, it was deservedly a lot about him.

“The first time Bill and I called Jack, I had no idea what to expect. We started talking, and it was like we knew him our entire lives,” Brown said. “He was right in his element, connecting with older and younger players. It looked like he was ready to coach a game.”

When the alumni descended upon the Masterpiece on the Mississippi, the gregarious chatter was immediate. It was like nothing changed.

“You hear the same nicknames, the same insults, and you’re in the room with the same personalities that haven’t changed in 40 years. You get together and you haven’t missed a beat. The goalies are still weird. That’s the way they are,” Gibbons said. “Everybody else is pretty much the same. It was great to see those guys and talk about our kids and our families and what we’ve been doing.”

“Nothing has changed in 40 years. I kept kidding everyone that I wanted to keep an eye on two guys in particular and keep the police off their backs! They behaved well though,” Barzee laughed.

Players from the first iteration of the Fighting Saints made up a large majority of the returning players. Bertsch was the sole representative of the Tier I era of the Fighting Saints. Many of the Tier I alumni continue to play hockey, or they have taken jobs in hockey operations. Finding time to get away would be impossible—at least for now.

Bertsch, a key contributor to the 2011 championship team with names of the ilk of Gaudreau, Girgensons, Saponari, Sooth, Ryan, and many others, is looking forward to the time they can all come back together.

“In the moment, when you win a championship together, that moment will never be replaced. The connections and the nostalgia, it gives you something to recollect those memories and moments. It gives you a small dose of what that was,” Bertsch said. “As much as it’s about hockey and winning, it’s about the people and the relationships you develop. You can’t recreate it without the presence of those teammates.”

Those that did return to the Key City swapped stories. Experiences. There was cross-referencing between teams and eras. Some won national championships. Others did not. Some teams almost went undefeated. Others could barely scrape out wins. It all coincides with the ups and downs, the cyclical nature of junior hockey teams’ successes.

“What was really interesting to me was to talk to the other teams. The other guys,” Gibbons said. “You only have a certain amount of time in a short weekend to spend time with these guys. But it’s just as interesting to talk with those other guys and what they went through and had the same experiences as we did.”

“Timeless stories,” Bertsch said. “I was the youngest guy there, the only representative of the newer era, but for me, it was the timeless stories that these guys had. When you have such a memorable experience in your teenage years, it’s easy to see why they picked up right where they left off.”

“It was super special to be back in Dubuque again with everyone,” Barzee said. “Other than having 100 more players there, I don’t know what could have done to make it better. It set a high bar.”

Fans routinely mention what games were like at “the old Five Flags,” as many refer to it. Five Flags Center was the home of Fighting Saints hockey from 1980 through 2000. It was raucous. Rowdy. Salty. Boisterous. “It was a different time,” they’d probably say.

Some of those fans from those days remain connected to the organization. During downtime on Saint4Life Weekend, some of the players decided to visit them.

“A bunch of us visited Joe Baxter, who was a big ‘Five Flags’ guy. We sat down in his garage, had a beer, and talked about the old times,” Gibbons said. “It was fun to listen to those stories. The stories he talked about had us captivated for over an hour. We had to move on with the weekend with more visits, but we just kept talking.”

“What stood out most to me was seeing Dubuque Fighting Saints super fan Tom Harjehausen at the game,” said Curt Krolak, who played for Dubuque during the 1986–87 season. “He never missed a game the year I played, and 36 years later, still remembered highlights of our season that reminded me of that memorable year.”

The Mystique Community Ice Center might be considered more friendly than “the old Five Flags,” but it doesn’t lack on passion.

“You can see what the game means to [former housing coordinator] Patti Swartz and [education coordinator] JoAnne Gibson, and now what it means to Amy and Doug Edwards, the new housing coordinator,” Bertsch said. “Or fans like Shawn Tully, who has had the same seat since the beginning. He’s there every single game, giving all of the players ‘knucks’ coming off of the ice. His passion hasn’t waned a bit.”

The beer never really did stop flowing throughout the weekend, but what reunion isn’t without its libations? The weekend included stops at the Shot Tower Inn, postgame festivities at 7 Hills Brewing Company, tours of the rink, and much more. Unfortunately, the dreary weather did not allow for golf. Maybe next time.

Generous donations from Travel Dubuque, Magoo’s, Rusty Taco, Big River Signs and the Fighting Saints organization made it all possible to have the weekend go as well as it did.

“It was so well executed by the organization and the foundation. We created an agenda of an entire weekend where everybody was spending the entire weekend with each other. Brian Granger, the president of the foundation, Bill and Jack talked about the weekend, about the past, present and future of the team,” Bertsch recalled. “Saint4Life Weekend was tied in with parents weekend. It was great to combine the two and have the parents see that their kids are in good hands.”

At one point, all of the alumni and player parents and billets were present in the S4L Club. It was a melting pot of everything that made the Fighting Saints organization great. Its people make up what it is, and what it was.

The highlights of the weekend were many: the unveiling of a retro uniform that harkened back to the days of old, the recognition of the players in attendance on the bench in front of fans new and old, the opportunity to share the ice with the current players, a jersey auction that brought in over $30,000 for the Saint4Life Foundation. Not to mention, the dedication of the suite in Jack’s name, surrounded by many of his championship-caliber players from the days of old.

“I look up there and I think, ‘Holy cow. That’s me,’” Barzee said. “I realize how lucky I am and how much of a privilege it has been to be a Fighting Saint from the start.”

After a hard-fought victory on Friday night against the Madison Capitols, all of the alumni took to the ice to talk with the players. It felt like it went on for an eternity, even though it may have been 10 or 15 minutes. It was as if no one wanted the moment to end. Laughing. Smiling. It was as if the torch was being passed forward.

It was the perfect coalescence of past and present. It was a beautiful moment.

“These players’ sincerity and their pride in being a Fighting Saint was overwhelming. I’m part of this. You could feel it. You could feel it in their expressions and their mannerisms,” Barzee said. “They’re proud to be Fighting Saints.”

“I was so surprised and so happy that that happened. It was a real highlight. It was really organic. The old guys were dying to talk about what it is like now, and the opposite for the newer ones,” Brown said. “In the future I want more opportunity for them to connect.”

It’s hard to say this weekend was anything but a resounding success. And this is just the first one.

“Sunday morning, the day after, I felt total relief. I felt like it was a complete success. Everyone brought an incredible energy to the building. It was a big weekend with Madison and Chicago in town and people were so excited about everything,” Brown said. “To have the turnout we did, and the guys be so excited to be there and be together again, it was great.”

“Now with hindsight on it, I loved that older teams and younger teams connected. We wanted teams to share stories with one another. We have plans to keep that going and expand it at the golf tournament in June.”

Bertsch agreed.

“I think it’s a testament to the brand equity of the team and what was built by Jack. Obviously, my era didn’t get to know Jack that well, but the success they had was talked about our group when I was here in the expansion era,” Bertsch said. “It was great to see the longevity of the brand and the team. And to see guys much older than me, that the experience that they had here was still arguably the most fun they had in their life. Those stories still carry on.”

“For me, and our era, we’re still transitioning into post hockey life. When they get older, they’ll look back at their experience in Dubuque very fondly.”

“Seven of us from our team made the trip during Saint4Life Weekend and I am so glad I decided on attending. It was great seeing and hanging out with old teammates,” Krolak said. “The event was well organized. The games were exciting. The after-hours at local bars were great to meet alumni from other seasons too.”

Saint4Life Weekend, with the backing of the Saint4Life Foundation, was an incredible start to a yearly tradition that will only grow. Several alumni from as far away as Alaska have committed to coming back. Bertsch wants to get his old Clark Cup champion teammates from 2010–11 back home again and bring more of a more recent flair to the event.

“I talked with T.J. Schleuter, and I ran into Brandon Carlson in Chicago shortly after the inaugural board meeting. Some guys have definitely shown interest in coming back,” Berstch added. “The experience in Dubuque will resonate with more guys once they’re done playing.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting up with players in other seasons and some of the younger guys, spending time with them,” Gibbons said. “You’ve got a thousand other questions that you have. You want to hear their stories. I’d like to get some of the guys I haven’t seen back here too, those that couldn’t make it this time.”

“I want to see the board and the Saint4Life Foundation to attract these players back to Dubuque,” Bertsch said. “Tying in what the 80s teams to make an effortless decision to come back to Dubuque, tying in the recent decade of success, championships, and consistent playoff success. I think a lot of guys are going to be really excited about coming back and sharing stories.”

At the end of the day, the Dubuque Fighting Saints provided an avenue of connection between eras. It was step one of many. The job isn’t done yet.

“This organization springboarded people to new heights. Without this team, I’m not sure these people would be where they are today. I hope they give back to an organization that played a big part in their career,” Bertsch said.

Up next for the foundation is the golf tournament at Timberline Golf Course in late June. Just one more opportunity for “the boys” to get back together, share more stories, grow even closer together, and provide the sense of community and purpose that being a Fighting Saint is.

It all revolves around being a Saint for Life, like Jim Montgomery said famously during the 2011 Clark Cup Playoffs. Once, always, forever.