Norm Kolenda has been a fixture on the local hockey scene since the late 1940s.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
For more than 60 years, there has been a perpetual bond between Norm Kolenda and hockey.
“He’s worked with the Rockets, the Blades, the Owls and the Griffins,” said Harold ‘Doc’ Pierce, who has known Kolenda for more than half of those years. “He helped start GRAHA and helped get high school hockey going. He’s done more for youth hockey than anybody else I know.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s Mr. Hockey in Grand Rapids.”
And yet, his name is not that well known.
“Most people have no idea what he’s done for hockey in the area because he’s so quiet and so modest,” said Jack Harkness, who has known Kolenda since they were both teenagers.
Kolenda and Harkness were part of a group of boys who became rink rats after the Rockets started playing professional hockey in Grand Rapids in 1949.
“I used to take the bus to the old Stadium Arena,” recalled Kolenda, who was 13 at the time. “We shoveled the ice because there were no Zambonis back then.”
The responsibility of laying a new sheet of ice between periods was one that the boys eagerly embraced in exchange for free ice time.
“About four of us pushed shovels while others took the snow outside in wheelbarrows,” Kolenda said. “Any snow left was melted by the water we laid down from two big barrels on wheels that must have held at least 50 gallons.”
Harkness eventually negotiated $45 per week for the boys to split a dozen ways, but it was the free ice time that meant the most.
Lou Trudel, coach of the Rockets and a member of the 1934 and 1938 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, started a kids’ hockey program, much to the boys’ delight.
Kolenda and his pals continued to improve, the more they played. “As we got older, we’d climb into our cars and our junior team would follow the Rockets wherever they played, and we would try to get a game lined up,” said Kolenda, who relished being a hockey hobo.
Hockey equipment was a bit spare in those days. “We’d tape magazines to our legs for shin guards and ‘borrow’ whatever we could from the Rockets,” Kolenda said. “Of course, you never wore helmets and the only gloves we used were our regular ones.”
Kolenda almost had a brush with the big time in the late 1950s. “Trudel had ties with the old Cleveland Barons and it looked like I might get a chance at a training camp, but then I broke my ankle in the senior state playoffs and that took care of that.”
Drafted into military service, Kolenda spent a couple of years playing hockey for an all-service team stationed in Germany. The team played games across Europe, mostly on weekends, except for local contests in various German locales during the week.
“We were supposed to be ‘Ambassadors on Ice,’ but I think we made more enemies than friends,” Kolenda said. “We were escorted out of more than one town.”
It was a strong team – the goalie was Larry Palmer, the backup netminder on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal – and the team usually drew large crowds wherever it traveled, from Austria to Italy to Switzerland. Kolenda remembers playing in the stadium in Cortina, Italy, where the 1956 Winter Olympics were held.
“It was a beautiful experience,” he said. “Once I got to Europe, I think I wore my (military) uniform once and that was to come home.”
Back in Grand Rapids, finding a good hockey game was not easy, especially with a dearth of available rinks.
Kolenda recalls playing on Reeds Lake with boards donated from area lumberyards and strings of lights from Harkness’ used car lot. It was an ideal setup for a few winters and then the rink moved to Kimble Field in Wyoming. “It was perfect for one year there, too, then the next summer the city used our boards to build something else,” Harkness recalled.
When Jolly Roger Ice Arena opened in 1972, Kolenda helped a group start the Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association (GRAHA) and not long after, an area high school program. “I ended up having three boys and I knew I was looking forward to having them play,” he said.
David, his oldest, played junior hockey in Detroit. Kevin, the middle son, played high school hockey. But it was the youngest, Mike, who went the furthest. He played college hockey at Ferris State, then played four seasons in the ECHL, along with a handful of games in the IHL. At Ferris, he was a senior defenseman when Griffins coach Jeff Blashill was a freshman goalie.
“There were about four years where I put 60,000 miles a year on my car,” Kolenda said “Mike would play Saturday morning in Detroit, and I’d drive back to take care of the high school program that night, then drive back to Detroit on Sunday.”
Like GRAHA, Kolenda got deeply involved in high school hockey, simply for the love of the game.
“When we got the program started, there were only a handful of guys who knew anything about the game,” said Kolenda, who would coach for 3-4 hours a night after working as a production manager in the corrugated paper business.
He was well-liked as a coach. “He knew the game very well and the kids liked him,” said Jan Christian, whose son Tim played with Mike Kolenda at Ferris. “He never got upset, and that’s what you need in youth hockey when parents are pulling you every which way.”
Kolenda said he was blessed with some very good players. Mike Knuble, who played at the University of Michigan before a long career in the NHL, was a member of Kolenda’s state championship bantam team in 1986-87.
Harkness, who helped keep the high school hockey program going when he bought the Cascade Ice Arena in the mid-1970s, said Kolenda was gracefully following in the footsteps of Trudel, the former Rockets coach.
Trudel passed away in 1971 at the age of 58, but he was so influential that both Kolenda and Harkness believe youth hockey would have been better if had lived longer.
When Kolenda wasn’t lending a hand to GRAHA or the high school program, he kept busy as an off-ice official with the local pro hockey teams.
He was the official timekeeper during the Grand Rapids Blades’ lone season (1976-77), as well as the Owls during their stay in Grand Rapids (1977-80). He has served in the same volunteer capacity for all 17 seasons that the Griffins have been in existence (1996-present).
Kolenda also volunteers three nights a week for the Griffins Youth Foundation, helping sharpen the 300 pairs of skates that the organization provides for area youth. “It gets me out of the house and gives me something to do,” said Kolenda, who also enjoys watching his two grandsons play hockey.
None of which surprises Pierce, his fellow off-ice official. “Norm has done more for youth hockey in this area than people will ever know, because that’s just the kind of guy he is,” Pierce said. “You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy."