HANCOCK - Dave Wiitanen of Hancock helped Copper Country hockey reach a higher elevation over the course of his five decades of service.
That higher elevation was recognized at a higher elevation when Wiitanen received one of USA Hockey's highest honors in a ceremony earlier this summer in Colorado Springs.
Wiitanen was presented with the William Thayer Tutt Award, which recognizes a volunteer who "has displayed selfless dedication to the enhancement of hockey at the grassroots level in the United States."
Hancock’s Dave Wiitanen speaks at the annual USA?Hockey President’s Awards Dinner June 6 in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was presented with USA?Hockey’s William Thayer Tutt Award, which recognizes a volunteer who “has displayed selfless dedication to the enhancement of hockey at the grassroots level in the United States.” (USA Hockey/Tom Kimmel)
"You think back, where did all this time go? I wasn't looking for any honors or plaques. Just do my job and volunteer as long you can," Wiitanen said.
It all started in the early 1960s. Wiitanen's nephew was playing at Dee Stadium and someone tapped him on the shoulder to encourage him to volunteer as a coach. He said he was willing to be an assistant, but no more. Considering none of his own children (both daughters) were ever a part of the program, such an altruistic contribution would be considered by most to be quite significant.
By the end of the decade, Wiitanen was president of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association.
At that point, there were 600 kids in the Copper Country Junior Hockey Association, and as small as Dee Stadium's walls might seem today for someone milling around the lobby between periods, the walls had an even more restrictive effect on junior hockey in the Copper Country. Back then, the Dee was the only indoor ice in the association and was also still the home ice of Michigan Tech's program.
Wiitanen spearheaded efforts to build what became the Houghton County Arena in Hancock. Ground was broken on the facility in April 1974. Improvements have gradually been made to the facility, including an enclosed room for spectators and meetings that bears Wiitanen's name.
Wiitanen only recently stepped away from Portage Lake Multi-Educational Services, the organization in charge of the rink's day-to-day operation.
As local hockey has gained more space to operate, it has flourished in kind. Now the arena is home ice for youth players, community leagues, Hancock Central High School's varsity and junior varsity programs, for men's and women's college programs at Finlandia University.
He said the area could support at least another half-sheet, but that's a project for another day.
"We cannot sell any more ice, we're booked solid," he said.
In addition, Wiitanen served on the committee that helped re-establish high school hockey in the Copper Country in the late 1960s.
From an exterior examination, a county with schools the size of Houghton County's could never support four (at at one time, five) high school hockey programs. A major part of developing a sufficient talent pool has been keeping the game within reach of all families, even those with modest means.
In 2008, he helped launch the Copper Country Youth Hockey Fund, an endowment that helps support hockey-related costs for kids from underprivileged families.
The $5,000 check to start the endowment came straight from Wiitanen.
"We're in the North Country. Why not? Our rinks are open six months out of the year," he said.
The annual President's Awards Dinner June 6 recognized some of the best American players and coaches in the game today, including Boston University coaching legend Jack Parker and Hobey Baker Award winner Johnny Gaudreau.
Wiitanen had equal billing with them, and his story made an impact.
"After I made my remarks to the crowd, when I got home, I'd already received two checks from two individuals in USA Hockey to the foundation. I thought that was great," Wiitanen said.