When I was 12, I asked my parents to send me to a week-long hockey camp at Bemidji State University.
The school is three hours away from where we lived on the east side of St. Paul. My dad, Edward Holmgren, worked for the U.S. Post Office while my mom stayed home to raise the family. Finances were usually pretty tight. There was certainly enough food to eat, but we didn’t have $110 to spare for me to go to hockey camp. In 1967, that was the equivalent of nearly $800 today. It’s not that we were poor, but there wasn’t much left for extras.
I was the baby of the family, the youngest of four kids. My next-oldest brother, Mark, had just 15 months on me, and I got a lot of his hand-me-downs — old sweaters, pants and shoes always came my way whenever Mark grew another size. But of all the used stuff he gave me, I cherished skates the most. I was almost 11 before I was gifted a new pair of my very own. We lived in a house with one bathroom, no shower. It was a classic St. Paul-style home. Dave, my oldest brother by eight years, shared a bedroom upstairs with Mark and myself. I’m sure it couldn’t have been that fun to have two little kids for roommates, but Dave was selfless. Paul HolmgrenI had pretty much given up on my dreams of going to camp, until my dad surprised me one morning. “Your brother Dave is going to pay for the camp,” he said. “Make sure you thank him.”
But Dave never got to see me enjoy the benefits of what I learned at Bemidji State.
Two years earlier, he had gone blind — a complication of his diabetes.
When he was eight, Dave had gone away to summer camp in Northern Minnesota, where he suddenly became very ill and almost died. Doctors eventually diagnosed him as a diabetic and were able to get his diet and insulin usage under control. He lived a fairly normal life for a few years after that. But as he got older, it seemed like anything that could go wrong for a diabetic seemed to happen to Dave.
Dave was the brains of the Holmgren siblings, a whiz in math and chemistry. He wanted to get into the sandwich shop business, hoping one store would turn into a chain. But his eyesight began to fail and eventually became a real impediment. He was also in almost constant pain all over his body — something that only got worse as time went on. He was 19, two years into college, when he came home crying one day because he had crashed his souped-up ’62 Chevy Nova. “I can’t see anymore,” he told my parents.
But even when he was struggling, I always remember Dave having jobs after school or over the summer. He worked at a car wash one year, and a restaurant the year after. I don’t remember him ever not working.
He had some money saved, he said, and he wanted to do this for me.
I would go on to play football and baseball at Harding High, but this being Minnesota, I also played hockey. Hockey was everything there. Hockey is everything. If I wasn’t playing in the street in front of the house, I was at the outdoor rink at East View Playground two blocks away. On the weekends my friends and I would play from nine in the morning to eight at night — with maybe a break for lunch. And after we finished our homework, we would go back out there again.
On career day at school, I wrote hockey player on the questionnaire that everybody had to fill out.
Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty ImagesBecause of the age differences, Mark and I were closer to each other than we were to Dave and my older sister, Janice. We were more into sports than they were. If I talked to anybody about hockey, it was Mark. I just don’t remember talking to Dave much about my interest in the sport. But thinking back, he was obviously paying attention. Why else would he have paid for me to go to hockey camp?
The Bemidji State Camp was one of the best in North America. It was run by Bob Peters (the coach at Bemidji State from 1967 to 2001) and Murray Williamson (a two-time coach of the U.S. Olympic Team and a silver medalist in 1972). One of the camp’s instructors was Larry Pleau, who was about 20 then and playing junior hockey in Montreal. He was one of the few U.S. players thought to be a top NHL prospect at the time.
I can’t recall the specifics of what was taught, but the camp certainly covered a lot. Most important to me at that age was being on the ice every day. It was bliss. I remember winning some kind of award for achievement and coming home more enthused about hockey than ever before. Going to that camp made me more motivated than ever to pursue a career in the game.
Perhaps without Dave’s gift, I might still have gone on to play in the NHL — but I doubt it. Everything that I went on to do in hockey (including being a coach and a general manager) I owe to Dave.
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesTo this day, it haunts me that I may have never properly thanked him for that.
I’m also tortured by something that happened a few years after that — something that Dave and I never cleared up.
When I was 13 or 14, Dave wanted to go downtown to buy tickets to a concert. This was in the days before it became the law to provide access for the handicapped to public transportation. Dave needed to take a city bus to get to the box office, but he wasn’t allowed to take his guide dog, Prudy, on the bus. So he asked me to accompany him instead.
I probably didn’t want to go, but I did anyway. When the bus pulled up at the stop a few blocks from our house and the doors opened, I said to Dave, “Do you want me to go?”
What I meant was, “Do you want me to go first up the steps?” That way, I would be able to help him board. But I think because of my attitude, he took it the wrong way. He said something like, “If you don’t want to go, I’ll go myself.”
We rode the bus together in silence. I never explained to him what I had actually meant — and I have carried that around with me ever since. I know that it may sound like something small, but it stuck with me because I felt I had let him down. He was a rock, and he had always been there for me. In his time of weakness, he had asked a simple thing of me … and I took him for granted.
My memory of that day has always weighed on me. It’s the reason why I have always wanted to share this story. It’s so important for people to resolve issues, speak their minds and try to clear up misunderstandings. Once it becomes too late to do anything about something — even something minor — the guilt is impossible to shed.
I don’t know how much that incident bothered Dave. Perhaps a little or maybe not at all. He was a tough guy — from a generation that believed you were supposed to keep your disappointments inside. My dad never talked about being in World War II, and after I saw Dave crying to him and Mom that day he crashed the car, he never talked about how much pain he was in or what a s***** hand he had drawn in the game of life.
I can still see him sitting in his chair in the evening, with Prudy by his side, while we all watched Gilligan’s Island or Hogan’s Heroes. The latter was probably our family’s favorite show. Even my dad would laugh. Dave’s eyes would be closed and it looked like he wasn’t paying attention, but then he would laugh along with us.
But the grin on his face was actually more a grimace of pain. He was struggling. His headaches were horrendous. He had to sit in a hot bath just to be able to relieve himself. His organs were shutting down. He was dying right in front of our eyes. But when you’re a kid, you just don’t think about the people around you.
Near the end, I knew how bad it was. At one point, doctors gave him two years to live. I don’t remember if he made it that far or not, but when he finally went to the hospital there wasn’t much expectation he would return.
Nobody ever said that, but we all felt it.
On December 3, 1970, one day after my 15th birthday, I came home from school and saw Pastor Lindquist’s car in front of the house. My stomach dropped — I knew what it meant. Mom had been with Dave in the hospital when he died that day. He was just 23 years old.
Paul HolmgrenHis girlfriend, Karen — whom I had assumed he would marry one day — stuck with him until the very end. Mom and Dad were as stoic as as they could be about it; they said that Dave didn’t have to suffer anymore. You hear that all the time after somebody dies, but I had never experienced death before — I don’t know if it was of any comfort to me that Dave was no longer in pain. My brother was gone. That was all I could see at the time.
Even Prudy understood what had happened better than I did.
She died the next day.
“Her job was finished,” my mother said.
We all have difficult times in our lives, but whenever I hit one of life’s bumps in the road, I think about Dave. The manner in which he dealt with life, as terrifying as it must have been — one day at a time, with dignity — is something that has stuck with me all these years.
I have known a lot of tough people in my life, but none tougher than my brother Dave.
One of my biggest regrets is that he didn’t live to see me play in the NHL. It was such a big deal for everybody in my family. He would have been proud.
As I get older, more about his final years seems to come back to me. Thinking about him so much has only increased my feelings of guilt, and my need to share our story — and the story of why I got to go to the camp at Bemidji State. I don’t remember thanking him, even though my father had specifically told me to. And even if I did, I’m convinced that I didn’t thank him enough.
After all these years, there are not many days that I don’t think about Dave. His gift started my journey, and I will always be grateful to him.