Minnesota has long been considered the center of hockey in the United States, so perhaps it is not surprising that the man considered “the father of hockey” in Flagstaff hails from that state. His name is Jerry Caple and what started out for him as a childhood passion turned into a lifetime of promoting the sport, most notably in Northern Arizona. For his legacy of tireless devotion to hockey in the area, Northern Arizona University inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame last month, despite the fact that he was never technically associated with the NAU Athletic Department.
Gerald Caple grew up in the northern Minnesota town of International Falls, just a slap shot away from the Canadian border. His heroes growing up played hockey for the Fort Frances Canadians, an amateur club based just across the Rainy River, which borders the United States and Canada. “I grew up with the Canadians, walking across the river in the dead of winter to see them play on natural ice,” he said. “That’s kind of where my interest in hockey came from.” He also played hockey on city league teams.
After high school, Caple enrolled at St. Olaf College in southern Minnesota. He majored in chemistry and also played some hockey on the varsity team, though he jokes that his presence on the team was not critical. “I was the type of hockey player that got put into the games when we were either far behind or far ahead.”
After earning a doctorate degree in chemistry from Florida State University, Caple worked at Oregon State University for three years before accepting a position teaching chemistry at NAU in 1966. He would stay at NAU until 1994, teaching, serving as a premedical advisor and writing some 60 research papers during his tenure.
A half decade after arriving at NAU, Caple heard about a new ice rink that the City of Flagstaff was building, the Flagstaff Ice Arena [now known as Jay Lively Activity Center]. He knew some NAU students who enjoyed hockey and told them if they wanted to form a university hockey club, he would be glad to serve as their faculty advisor.
Thus, the NAU Hockey Club was formed. The group played pretty much any team that came calling, from other clubs to NCAA Division I teams and even the professional minor league Phoenix Roadrunners. Caple also led the effort to organize a youth hockey program in the area. In looking back, he recalled, “We introduced fans in Flagstaff to hockey at all levels of play, which I think really benefited the community.”
The NAU Hockey Club also played a key role in the creation of one of NAU’s iconic buildings. “A student poll at the time said students would not vote to fund a dome unless it contained ice. President [Lawrence] Walkup asked the hockey club to openly campaign for the dome, which we did,” said Caple. “This helped to get the dome built.” The team would eventually move to the dome to play its games.
The program was so successful that for five years, from 1981 to 1985, it was elevated from club to NCAA Division I status. Several future NHL players, most notably Greg Adams, played for the team. The program was dropped in 1985 because of budgetary and other reasons, but brought back as the NAU Ice Jacks Club in 1991.
Caple left NAU in 1994 when he accepted a position as chair of the chemistry department at Pittsburgh State University in Kansas. He retired six years later at the age of 65, but within a year took on a “temporary” faculty position at the University of South Dakota, where he stayed for a half decade. He again taught chemistry, advised premedical students and was involved in the school’s hockey club.
These days, Caple spends winters in Tucson and summers in Northern Minnesota, about 100 miles east of his boyhood home, on an isolated lake that is partially in Canada and partially in the United States. He still dabbles in chemistry, collecting samples for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and serving on an advisory board for a commission that controls the water quality and quantity in the border waters. He also enjoys duck hunting and fly fishing, just like he did while living in Arizona when he took time from his teaching and hockey duties to escape to West Clear Creek, Bright Angel Creek in the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. FBN
By Kevin Schindler, FBN