Mike Antonovich, all 5-foot-8 of him, spent most of Monday afternoon shoveling snowdrifts almost as tall as him near his home in Coleraine, Minn.
As the former mayor of the small town, Antonovich takes pride in being a man of the people, meaning even at age 67, he still goes out of his way to help others.
Frankly, that’s something Antonovich has been doing since he was a kid.
“It was always about helping others,” Antonovich said. “That was instilled from a young age. We had each other’s back no matter what.”
Besides that, the only thing that really mattered to Antonovich as a kid growing up on small-town rinks was getting to play for Greenway High School.
“In my era, we weren’t thinking about going pro, or even playing in college,” Antonovich said. “It was all about playing for the high school team. As far as the future and thinking about that as kids, I think most guys basically thought they’d play for the high school team and then go to work in the mines because that was a pretty good job at the time.”
Not only did Antonovich accomplish his goal of playing for Greenway, he went on to become one of the best players in the history of the high school state tournament.
“He was probably the best player in the state for three years running,” former teammate Tom Peluso said. “He was a very explosive player. You always knew something was going to happen when he got the puck. It was even more impressive because he wasn’t a big guy.”
That’s putting it mildly. In high school, Antonovich might have been 5-foot-5 and 145 pounds, at most.
“Well, I kept waiting for that growth spurt and it never came,” Antonovich said with a laugh. “I’m still waiting. I’m going to keep the dream alive.”
While the growth spurt never came, it never mattered, because Antonovich found a way to consistently dominate with his speed.
“I never worried about size that much,” he said. “I always thought what mattered more how much heart I played with.”
Antonovich led Greenway to back-to-back state championships in 1967 and 1968. He had two goals and three assists in three state tournament games as a sophomore, and was even more dominant in the three state tournament games as a junior, finishing with three goals and six assists.
“We never knew if we were ever going to get to that point,” Antonovich said. “It was a big deal for the people in our area. It was great for them because they were all honest, hard-working people whether they were miners or lumberjacks or whatever. It was fun to represent those guys because they were a big part of me growing up.”
For as many wins as Antonovich helped produce in high school, when he looks back on his illustrious career, one loss sticks out more than anything else. As Greenway was going for a three-peat his senior year, South St. Paul scored with less than 20 seconds left in the quarterfinals to complete the upset.
“That’s probably the only goal I remember from back in the day,” Antonovich said. “It’s haunted me for 50-something years. We had a team that was good enough to do it again, so when that happened it was like somebody cut my heart out. I haven’t forgotten it after all these years, and I’d guess everyone who played in that game haven’t forgotten it either. You always seem to remember something that went wrong sometimes more than something that went right. That’s a perfect example of that.”
After that, Antonovich took his talents to the University of Minnesota, playing three years for the Gophers and recording 45 goals and 40 assists before going pro.
“If someone would’ve told me that somebody was going to pay me to play the sport I love, I would’ve said they were nuts,” Antonovich said. “It was special because I got to do what I love to do. It wasn’t about the money or anything like that. It was about playing the game. I loved to play the game.”
His pro career spanned more than a decade and featured stints with the Minnesota Fighting Saints and Minnesota North Stars before he retired in 1984.
“I consider myself one of the luckier guys because of all the experiences I’ve had,” Antonovich said. “It’s not about what I did or where I played. It’s about the people I met. Hopefully I made some people smile along the way.”
Nowadays, Antonovich is still around the game he loves, working as a scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets. That comes after he spent more than a decade as a scout for the St. Louis Blues.
“That’s always been fun for me,” Antonovich said, adding that’s he has scouted the likes of Blake Wheeler, TJ Oshie, Ryan McDonough, and Casey Mittelstadt, among other rising stars. “My passion is watching the kids from around here play because I went through it and I know how hard it is. I’ve seen a lot of great players over the years.”
Next week, Antonovich plans to make the drive to the Twin Cities to watch the 75th annual state tournament. He knows this year will be extra special because Greenway recently ended a near-decade-long state tournament drought by beating Hermantown in the section finals.
“There’s nothing like the state tournament,” Antonovich said. “To this day, playing for the high school team, and everything that came with that, the memories of that are by far the best of my career. I’ve been a pretty lucky guy looking back on it now. It’s been a good run.”