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Oh Captain, My Captain

By Chris Middlebrook, 07/29/19, 9:30AM CDT


In November 1891 James Naismith invented the game of basketball. Thirty years old, he was employed as a teacher at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith's superiors decided that an indoor sport was necessary so that it could be played during the cold dark winters of New England. They gave Naismith two weeks to invent a new sport. He invented Basketball. The first contest was held on December 21, 1891. Eighteen young men participated. Their names are mostly forgotten. James Naismith is not. He became a legend long before he died in 1939.

I never knew James Naismith. He died eighteen years before I was born. I have only seen old photographs and read old accounts of his life and basketball. I know, however, that both he and the eighteen young men were very alive and vibrant on that December 1891 night when they stood on the threshold of the future of basketball.  But I did know another man who would become a legend. And I was there with nineteen other young men at Richfield Arena in December 1980 when the sticks and balls were tossed onto the ice. When thirty two year old Swedish Army Captain Gunnar Fast introduced the sport of bandy to the United States. We were there, on the threshold of the future of bandy in the United States.

Gunnar Fast did not invent the sport of bandy. There is  no one individual who can take such credit. But make no mistake, without Gunnar Fast, bandy in the US would either never have gotten off the ground and even if it had it would have faded away very quickly. Had the Swedish Bandy Federation sent any other person to Minnesota in 1980 they would have failed. 

Within two months of arriving in Minnesota Gunnar had formed seven teams and a league. In less than one year he brought a US team to compete in Sweden. By 1983 a US team was playing in the World Cup of Bandy and in February 1985 the US National team made their debut in the World Championships. An astoundingly rapid ascent. Driven by the force of Gunnar Fast's personality. His Drive and Determination. High demands and high expectations. All wrapped up in a calmly dominant charisma. From the very first game in Sweden, in October 1981 against Ljusdal, to the Oslo World Championships in 1985 the US teams played the best teams in Scandinavia. Broberg , Edsbyn, Bollnas, Villa, Motala, Orebro, Falun, Vanersborg, Ale Surte, Boltic, OLS, HIFK, Vastus, Stabek,  Solberg, Mjondalen. An extraordinary level of competition. A very steep learning curve. Some games were not so close but then what could be expected when bandy newcomers played the best in the world?  What was not expected were the close games and the near upsets. 2-2 at halftime against Ljusdal in the first US game ever. A 3-2 halftime lead over Villa. Losses to Boltic 2-1 and Brobergs 3-2. 1-1 at halftime against Norway in the first game of the World Championships. Unprecedented. How could this be? Three reasons:

1. In bandy you must skate. All the US players could skate.

2. The will to succeed. The will to win. A trait that all the US players shared.

3. Gunnar Fast.

Yes. Gunnar Fast. A US player from the 1980s, Jeff Arundel, summed it up:

"Gunnar commanded respect from those of us that were serious about competing at a high level in international bandy. He had that intangible that all great coaches, and maybe all great men have. You wanted to succeed for him. You would train and prepare. You skated with all of your energy and intensity.You did so because you wanted his approval. "

I played for Gunnar Fast on both the US teams of the early 1980s and also on the Skovde bandy team during the Swedish season of 1983-84. I lived with Gunnar and his family my first month in Skovde. His wife Kikki and daughters Malin and Sofia, became my family. But Gunnar was never my father. He was my coach, leader and mentor, my captain. I learned and grew on the Swedish bandy ice. But Gunnar taught me more than bandy. How to assess and analyze both your opponents and your allies and then use this information to succeed. Not only in bandy but also in life. He emphasized:

"Emotion, without thought and without control, is your worst enemy. It is the mind killer"

I was not always able to follow this direction. But I tried. In bandy and in life. The years passed and even when I went for long periods without seeing Gunnar I still wanted his approval.

On the western side of Lake Vanern lies a very old church, Bolstads Kyrka. Originally founded in approximately 1175, the church sits out in the countryside. Surrounding Bolstads Kyrka is a small cemetery. Some of the gravestones are so old that the names of those sleeping there are completely weathered away. On August 24, 2017, the funeral services for Gunnar Fast were held in the church. Only days before his death the International Bandy Federation had formally honored Gunnar, bestowing on him the honorific "The Bandy Missionary".

The minister spoke of Gunnar and his life, as did Gunnar's uncle. They both spoke of Bandy. On the ancient altar hung the USA Bandy Hall of Fame jersey which had been presented to Gunnar at his induction in Minneapolis October 2014. I sat in the pew and thought

"I knew this legend when he was a man."

"All legends were once simply men"

"All men eventually die"

And I knew that at some point in the ages to come, all of the skaters who were there when the sticks and balls were tossed on the ice, all of the very alive and vibrant young men standing on the threshold of US Bandy with Gunnar that December 1980 night, would all be gone. While we are alive, always remember. When we are gone, do not forget.

The service over, the urn containing Gunnar's remains was brought outside. He was laid to rest in the family plot, together with his mother and grandparents. We were each given a flower from Gunnar's garden to place on top of the urn. I let go of my flower and it fell on the others covering the urn.

"Rest in Peace, My Captain".