The Internet age of communication – that much-lauded era in which getting in touch and staying in touch is supposed to be miraculously easy – is upon us. And indeed, the days of cell phones and instant messaging and Blackberries and iPhones and all other increasingly onerous modes of tracking folks down have forever changed communication, mostly for the better.
But there are still potholes on the information superhighway, and hitting one in pursuit of a story is a memorable experience that makes one pause just a bit.
Take, for example, the case of three brothers who are arguably the most renowned siblings in American hockey history. Thirty years ago, talking to Neal, Aaron and Paul Broten would’ve required a phone call to one modest home in tiny Roseau, Minn. Today, getting into a simple phone conversation with that trio involves more area codes and voicemail boxes than really seem necessary. And even with all of the tools of modern communication at your disposal, there are still no guarantees that you’ll make a connection.
While some former athletes begrudgingly step out of the spotlight and into obscurity, making the regular rounds at celebrity golf outings and sports memorabilia shows to stay in touch with the fans, the Broten brothers have all taken a big step away from the bright lights of NHL and international hockey stardom.
Their phones don’t ring too often with folks wanting to talk hockey, and when they do, there’s no guarantee that the receiver will be picked up. And after spending more than half their lives wearing skates for a living, they admit that they don’t lace up the blades that often these days.
“A postman doesn’t go for a walk on his day off,” Aaron says with his usual wry sense of humor.
That’s not to say that hockey is ever that far from the Brotens, even a decade after they last donned sweaters for games that mattered.
After skating in nearly 800 NHL games with six different teams, Aaron retired in 1992 and returned to Roseau to raise a family. He coached his old high school team for one season, leading the Rams to the state consolation championship in 2000 – one of a record 31 appearances Roseau has made in the legendary Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. He recently stepped back into the spotlight when he was named to the class of 2007 being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Paul, who played seven seasons in the NHL for the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues, lives in a St. Paul suburb and says he only skates “for the fun of it” these days but still follows the game closely. He lives roughly 20 minutes from brother Neal’s horse farm in rural western Wisconsin, where the Miracle on Ice member retired in 1997 after 17 seasons in the NHL.
The trio last played together in 1998, donning the red, white and blue for an international tournament in Klagenfurt, Austria, and helping Team USA get back into the A pool for Olympic play. According to Aaron, these days they get together every November to hunt deer in northern Minnesota, and maybe once a summer.
“I live a long way from the other two, and we’ve always got families to chase somewhere, so we don’t get together all that much,” says Aaron,.
While Neal and Aaron starred on youth hockey teams in the early 1970s, the Broten family legend burst onto the Minnesota hockey scene “for real” in 1978, when they combined with linemate Bryan “Butsy” Erickson (himself a veteran of more than a decade in the NHL) to lead the Rams to an undefeated regular season and a run to the state tournament, where they finished third. A year later, Aaron and Erickson anchored another third-place finish by the Rams, while Neal helped the University of Minnesota win the NCAA title as a freshman for the Golden Gophers.
Neal was the only player from the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team to return to college hockey, and the 1981 Gophers (with Neal, Aaron and Butsy reunited) made it back to the NCAA title game, only to be upset by archrival Wisconsin. At season’s end, Neal became the first winner of the Hobey Baker Award, as the nation’s top college hockey player, and both Neal and Aaron left the Gophers, signing pro contracts with the Minnesota North Stars and Colorado Rockies, respectively.
Younger brother Paul admits that he didn’t take hockey very seriously until he was in his teens, but his game came on strong as a high schooler. He helped the Rams to state tournament appearances as a junior in 1983 and again as a senior, and admits feeling the natural attention that came along with being the “next in line” in the renowned Broten hockey family.
“I don’t know if opponents were necessarily harder on me because of my last name, but I always heard fans and opponents talking,” Paul says. “Especially in high school, I always felt people were watching me.”
Paul adhered to family tradition, and enrolled at Minnesota, skating four seasons with the Gophers and making three trips to the NCAA Frozen Four. Interestingly enough, the final weekend of Paul’s collegiate hockey career – the 1988 Frozen Four – took place on the same Lake Placid ice sheet where the family’s greatest hockey glory had come eight years earlier.
When discussing the differences in hockey style between the three brothers, Paul notes that in four years with the Gophers, he scored 122 points, while Neal (142) and Aaron (178) each recorded more points in their two-year stint at Minnesota.
“Neal was so unselfish and such a good playmaker, and used almost no energy skating,” Paul says, admitting that he truly learned the game not from coaches but from playing pond hockey with his brothers and trying to anticipate where the puck would go next.
“Aaron was the pure goal scorer in the family, while I was always more of a grinder.”
In ancient times, the first-born son was treated to the best of everything, while later-arriving siblings had to fend for themselves. While the Broten parents never played such favorites, the hockey gods seemed to have determined that ancient traditions be followed when it came to the brothers’ record of on-ice success.
Neal’s 1979 NCAA title and 1980 gold medal were followed by the NCAA title-game run in 1981. Barely a month later, he helped the North Stars make its first run to the Stanley Cup Finals and went to the NHL playoffs nine times in his 12 years with the North Stars.
By contrast, Aaron played one full season in Colorado before the Rockies (who won 18 of 80 games that year) relocated to the New York City suburbs and were re-christened the New Jersey Devils. The move east didn’t markedly improve the team’s on-ice fortunes, and despite being among the Devils’ leading scorers every season, Aaron didn’t skate in a playoff game until his seventh NHL season.
The one silver lining to the Devils’ struggles was the fact that all of those years missing the playoffs left Aaron available to skate for Team USA in the spring World Championships, traveling to places like Russia, Sweden and Czechoslovakia.
In the first week of 1990, the Devils traded Aaron to the North Stars, putting him back on a team with his brother for the first time in a decade. Later that season, when the North Stars faced Paul and the Rangers, all three Broten boys were together on a NHL rink for the first time. After the North Stars moved to Dallas and Paul went to the Stars prior to the 1993-94 season, Paul and Neal also spent two seasons as teammates.
And in 1995 with the Devils, Neal capped his pro career in grand fashion, getting his named etched on the Stanley Cup after New Jersey dispatched the Red Wings in four games. When those hockey gods take a shine to you, good things really follow.
By the end of the ’90s, the trio had retired, but all three can still be found around rinks from time to time. The Broten clan was out in full force last March in St. Paul when Roseau High School made yet another trip to the state tournament and the Rams skated home with its seventh state championship.
Aaron still travels to the East Coast occasionally to participate in Devils alumni events, and all still get letters and hockey cards from fans seeking autographs. Paul jokes that with Neal’s record of on-ice accolades, some fans are oblivious to the depth of hockey talent in the family.
“A lot of the time, folks will ask me if I’m Neal Broten’s brother, not even realizing that Aaron and I both played in the NHL too,” Paul says with a laugh.
Last winter, as a sophomore at Bethel University in a Twin Cities suburb, Aaron’s son, Kevin, played in 24 games for the Royals and is carrying on the family name on the ice. While it’s certainly a source of pride, sitting in a small rink watching his son play college hockey also serves as a reminder for Aaron that time marches on.
“Age is certainly catching up with us,” Aaron admits, noting that many friendly encounters with fans still serve as a reminder of one’s advancing years.
“I always have people coming up and saying, ‘I played against you for Red Lake Falls in 1978,’ or asking if I remember a particular game from high school,” he says. “And a few years ago I was coaching at a hockey school when a kid skated up and said, ‘My dad scored against you in a high school game.’ ”
Faced with those kinds of reminders of how long ago the glory years were, maybe one can better understand the tendency of hockey legends like the Brotens to shy away from the phone when a reporter calls looking to re-live the past.
In this computer age, where the push of a few buttons can make a cell phone ring halfway around the world, the Broten brothers serve as a reminder of an earlier era.
Neal, Aaron and Paul Broten are proud of what they accomplished, together and individually, but they have long since moved on. The game they once excelled at is now but a distant memory. It no longer defines who they are, at least not in their eyes. The rest of the hockey world may be a little slower in coming to grips with that.
There’s a world of communication technology out there waiting to re-discover them and re-publicize their feats to the next generation of American hockey players. But when those opportunities come calling, the Brotens seem to instinctually know when it’s the right time to let the answering machine get it.
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