The Greatest

Collegiate ice hockey was a different game in the late 1950s. Goalies did not wear masks. The slap shot was not widely used. There were leagues, but no division I, II, or III. Checking in the offensive zone was not permitted. Some teams still played outdoors (Latreille remembers shoveling snow off the Williams College rink before a game), and artificial ice was a novelty. College hockey players wore helmets that were not much more than three slabs of leather stitched together with some elastic. The season was shorter, too. Teams played about 20 games per season, compared with 25 to 30 games today.

It was a much higher-scoring game back then, especially when Middlebury played. There were few 3-1 and 5-2 contests like today’s and many more that ended 10-2 or 7-6. During Latreille’s senior year, the 1960–61 team went 19-2 and averaged more than nine goals per game, while netminders Frank  Costanzo ’61 and Chuck Gately ’62 yielded fewer than three goals per contest. The Panthers lit up Norwich and Dartmouth for 17 goals, and Amherst and American International College for 16. That winter, Latreille notched an astonishing 80 goals in 21 games. Only one other college hockey player has ever broken 60 goals in a season. To Rick Weegman, a Minnesota sportswriter, Latreille’s 80 goals in a season stand alongside “unbreakable” records, such as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or UCLA’s seven consecutive NCAA basketball titles.

So, the question begs: how did Latreille score so many goals? “I was forechecking for him,” quips Karin over lunch at the Woodstock Country Club. “I was always working the corners. Phil just hung out in front of the net, looking for the easy goals.”

Everyone at the table laughs because they know that wasn’t the case. Even the waitress delivering Karin’s hot dog and fries stops in her tracks and waits for the answer. Phil, meanwhile, looks up, smiles, and says, “I must admit that with my slap shot and the curved stick I was using, not many goalies were prepared for the way I could shoot a puck back then. Goalies are a lot better at stopping slap shots now, but at that time intimidation was certainly a factor.”

That’s when Karin points out that Latreille’s slap shot was not only hard and fast, but he also knew where it was going. “Phil was incredibly accurate with his slapper. You’d see other guys slap it, and you’d hear a big boom when it hit the boards, but they’d miss the net by three feet. Phil . . . he could pick his spot and beat the goalie. That was the big difference.”

Hockey sticks were not curved when they came from the manufacturer, so Latreille bent the blade of his stick in an ingenious way. Two Middlebury electricians who worked in the heating plant (Latreille called them “Fitz” and “Fitz”) bent Number 16’s sticks for him, curving them just enough to impart added lift, spin, and control to his shot. (This was perfectly legal; it’s just that not many others thought to do so.) Soon word was out about Latreille. Even Newsweek took notice. Quoting a scouting report that he was “tough enough and big enough to play in the National Hockey League,” Newsweek added, “Most of his goals come on quick, right-handed wrist shots from 20 feet.” The Dartmouth goalie who gave up four goals to Latreille in seven minutes called him “the most amazing hockey player I have ever seen.” Even more ignominious were the NCAA-record 10 goals in a single game that a Colgate netminder gave up to Latreille. Forty years later, Latreille chanced to meet the former goalie on a golf course in Vero Beach and learned that the keeper’s friends dubbed him “Red Light” after his 10-goal encounter with Latreille.

Back in Woodstock, the waitress returns and Latreille grabs the check. “If Phil pays for this,” Karin says with a chuckle, “it will be the first assist I ever got from him.” Because of Latreille’s fame and gregarious nature, he has had to absorb a lot of ribbing from friends throughout his adult life. And Karin, who captained the team Latreille’s sophomore year and won the Walter Brown Award in 1959 as the best American-born college hockey player in New England, plays it to the hilt.

Bill Beaney was just a boy when Latreille and Karin played, and remembers watching Duke Nelson’s teams scrimmage at Olympic Center in his hometown of Lake Placid. (Bill’s uncle Don managed the famous arena where the 1980 Winter Olympics “Miracle on Ice” occurred.)

“Mike Karin was an excellent skater, a Gretzky of his time,” says Beaney. “His creativity, his ability to improvise, made everyone around him better. He was always such a huge threat because of his acceleration on skates.

“And as for Phil, he was a deadly shooter. He was so far ahead of his time because of the way he shot the puck. No one was even close. He would often take the first shot of the game, a slapper from the blue line, and it either went in the net or whizzed by the goalie’s head. Either way, that goalie would be backing up every time Phil touched the puck again.”

Beaney, who played at the University of New Hampshire and has devoted his professional life to the game, was not surprised to learn that the Karins and Latreilles were getting together for a mini-reunion of their own last summer.

“What binds people together is a common set of experiences, and there’s a bond that develops in sports that’s like no other. Teammates have to learn to trust each other. Teammates share joys and struggles together. And at a place like Middlebury, with our balance between athletics and academics, there’s a greater opportunity for that bond to develop than at a Division I school. Here athletics is something you do; it’s not who you are.”

At lunch, that bond among teammates is evident when teammate Tor Hultgreen’s name comes up in conversation “Now I’m gonna get $500 from Tor when his name appears in the story,” Latreille says with a big grin.

“No way,” counters Karin. “Tor told me he’d give me a thousand!”

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This article was revised on February 10 to reflect the following correction: the Bowdoin ice hockey coach in the 1957-58 season was misidentified as Sid Watson. Mr. Watson did not become the Bowdoin coach until 1958-59.

Audio Exclusives

Karin tells how Duke Nelson got involved in coaching women’s hockey.

Latreille remembers what it felt like to play in the National Hockey League.

Find out what happened when Karin played on the wing with center Ron O’Keefe ’56.

What’s different about the NHL today? As you might expect, Latreille has some answers.

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