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This photo ran in an August, 1981 issue of the Lake County News-Chronicle, when Mike Guzzo was at the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Mankato, vying for a position as kicker.

Guzzo steps off the ice

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Mike Guzzo is leaving some big shoes to fill in the Silver Bay hockey community. This year, after 29 years of coaching high school hockey in Silver Bay, Guzzo resigned as the head coach of the Mariners girls' hockey team. He coached the boys for over two decades and the girls for the past five years.

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Guzzo played hockey for the Mariners when he was in high school and was on the 1974-75 team that won the Lake Superior Conference, regarded as one of the best teams in Silver Bay's hockey history. He refused to let the conference champs be the best Mariner team and came back to coach in 1985, eventually leading a team to the state tournament.

"Coaching in your hometown is really something special," Guzzo said.

Hockey isn't Guzzo's only passion--he actually focused on football when he was in college at Bemidji State University. He said he had planned to play hockey at the college, but when the football team needed a kicker, he tried out--and ended up sticking with it.

"People think of me as a football guy," he said.

Guzzo had a successful career at BSU before heading to Mankato for training camp, where he was one of six finalists for a kicking job with the Minnesota Vikings. Though he didn't make the final cut, he brought his sports knowledge back to his hometown and reignited his passion for hockey.

He headed home and was hired as the recreation director for Silver Bay in 1984. He took over as head coach for the Mariners boys' hockey team in 1987, during a turbulent time in the city of Silver Bay.

"In the spring of 1987 rumors and predictions abounded relating to the fate of our northland area because of the economic turmoil that we were facing," recounted Penny Collard in the pages of the News-Chronicle.

"For the Silver Bay Hockey Association, the predictions were especially worrisome. First of all, could we even field a varsity team; and, if so, how could they possibly be competitive?" Collard wrote in the February 10, 1988 issue.

Reserve Mining closed in 1986. Between 1980 and 1990, Silver Bay's population fell from nearly 3,000 residents to less than 2,000. Despite the economic worries of area parents and the decline in number of eligible players, the hockey team persevered. Collard wrote that the school fielded enough players for a varsity and a junior varsity team.

"The next thing they needed was a coach who believed in them," she wrote. "They got their wish."

Guzzo was that coach. He was backed by assistants Doug Conboy and Gary Gustafson. Gustafson, who still lives in Silver Bay, was an assistant coach for 30 years and worked with Guzzo for 19 of them.

"He was always intense but fair. He seemed to always do the right thing," Gustafson said.

Gustafson also retired from hockey in recent years, but still remembers the first year with Guzzo as head coach--the year when Reserve Mining's closure sent countless families away from Silver Bay. The decrease in population made cobbling together a hockey team tough work.

"We were pulling kids from everywhere, even ones that had never played before," Gustafson said.

Though that first year was a challenge, the team made steady progress. In 1999, the elements came together--excellent coaching and hardworking, talented players. The result was a season that culminated in a trip to the state tournament, an impressive feat for a school that could barely fill its bench just over a decade earlier. In fact, they were the smallest school to make it to the tournament.

"It's a great story, and it's awesome for hockey. It's a pretty intense time in town," Guzzo told the News-Chronicle before heading to the state tournament that year.

The Mariners didn't end up moving on in the tournament, but they put up a good fight, losing both games they played by just one point. They also won big off the ice: Guzzo and Gustafson were named the coach and assistant coach of the year for Class A and the team won the sportsmanship award.

Luke Mattila was a senior wing on the team that went to the state tournament. He said their success involved over a decade of training.

"We had known since we were kids (that we would) be competitive in high school," Mattila said.

Thanks to a strong youth hockey program that Guzzo helped build, the boys were taught from an early age that they could succeed on the ice--and succeed they did.

"Mike's a great coach. He's very smart. He is ridiculously competitive. He would do anything to help us come out on top and win," Mattila said.

After the state run and nine more years with the boys, Guzzo took over as head coach of the girls' squad in 2008, when his daughter was a freshman on the team.

Guzzo dedicated his winters to hockey and, in the spring, turned his attention to softball, where he brought the team to state twice. He'll hold on to his position as the softball coach for now and he's not swearing off hockey for good.

"I love being on the ice," he said, adding that he'll probably help with some of the local teams next year.

His responsibilities, however, will be dialed back considerably without the head coach title. He said he still loves coaching, but it just felt like time to step back.

"I enjoy it but I'm getting a little older. My wife has sacrificed a ton," he said.

Apart from spending newfound free time with his wife, he also hopes to get his hockey fix by catching a couple of games at the College of St. Scholastica, where his youngest daughter Taylor will be playing hockey next winter.

"I love the competition and the excitement of the game," Guzzo said.

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