Regarded by many as the best hockey player from Montana, young skater rose to the highest level but died before his time
By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
July 8, 2017
It was all there, right in front of him.
And he would have gotten there.
In whatever it was, he would have gotten there.
It was as much a sure thing as him skating circles around men twice his age, as him rifling pitches to the plate as batters swung as if they had been blindfolded, as him leading an offense efficiently down the football field, as him treating everyone with dignity and grace.
It was all there, right in front of him.
A growing family. The Olympics. The National Hockey League.
Terry Casey’s life ended abruptly and tragically at the young age of 23 a half-century ago. To this day, he is regarded by many as the best hockey player from Montana.
HE NAVIGATED the ice like a young Paul Coffey.
He had a full arsenal at his disposal, but his skating ability was something special. He learned how to skate growing up in Great Falls alongside two sisters, Myrna and Kathy, who both loved to figure skate and eventually formed incredibly successful careers out of the sport. Kathy, specifically, is a renowned instructor whose expertise has landed her as coach at Olympics and other prestigious competitions across the world.
Before the Great Falls Americans, before the University of North Dakota, before the U.S. National team, before being named to the 1968 Olympic team, Casey’s introduction to ice came as a figure skater, just like his sisters, at the age of 6.
Years later, as a figure skater at the old Civic Center, friends attended his practices, and then they would grab a Coke afterwards. Even Casey appeared quicker on this ice rink compared to others. He seemed to reach the blue line or goal line much faster.
The engineers must have forgotten the measuring tape. When it was built around 1940, the length of the surface measured 160 feet. It should have been 200 feet. The width was 75 feet. It would have been really nice if it was 85 feet.
It sparked quite a stir within the community.
But they kept playing.
“So a lot of times the Canadian teams would come down and they weren’t used to short rink,” said John Borgreen, a net minder on the Great Falls Americans. “And some guys would be busting down the boards, screaming down the ice with their head down and come over the blue line and next thing you knew he was running into the end boards because he ran out of rink.”
Borgreen let out a loud laugh.
Among the friends in attendance for Terry’s figure skating exhibitions were girlfriend Nancy Tracey, whom he later married in college, and pal Dale Jackson, an accomplished athlete himself who won a boatload of track state titles with the Bison.
“He was just determined,” said Jackson, who graduated from Great Falls High along with Casey in 1962. “He just had that determination inside of him to be the best, and he was.”
Another fine athlete, John McIntosh – in the same grade as Casey, Jackson and Tracey – and his mom picked up Casey for school every morning because there was no school bus at the time.
“Probably the most talented athlete in Great Falls at that time,” McIntosh said. “… He was quite a little athlete. He wasn’t very tall, had a big heart and he gave everything 100 percent.”
A stick boy for the Americans by the age of 9, Casey turned to hockey with a little nudge from his uncle, Bill “Uke” Ukrainetz, who arrived in Great Falls following World War II to compete for the Americans, a team comprised mostly of men in their 20s and 30s that battled skilled and strong squads from Canada. Before long, the two, uncle and nephew, were on the same team together.
Casey was much smaller than most everyone else, only about 5-foot-8, 150 pounds, but it didn’t inhibit him on the ice. That was apparent as soon as he stepped on the Gibson pond for pickup games as youngster.
He was on the Americans team as a freshman.
Not until he was an upperclassman, on the same line as Sam Williamson and Dave Thompson, did his talent truly transition to unmistakable, talent that once produced six goals in one game and ultimately vaulted him to the pinnacle of the sport.
THEY WERE HEADED to a fastpitch softball tournament in Plentywood, about a 400-mile drive to the northeast of Great Falls.
Casey was a tremendous pitcher. He and his friends traveled across the state during the summertime competing in tournaments. In high school, he stayed after and threw balls off the wall to himself inside the Old Gymnasium. His right arm, one friend said, became twice the size of his left.
He threw a perfect game in 1965.
On July 7, 1967, a little more than halfway to that softball tournament in Plentywood, the eastbound car Casey was riding in crossed over the center line and collided with a westbound vehicle on U.S. Highway 2, two miles west of Hinsdale.
Casey, 23, Bob Fairfull, 29, and Danny Ryan, 28, well-known athletes from Great Falls, all passed away at the scene, around 8:45 p.m. The driver, John Evankovich, 26, also of Great Falls, lived.
“People were absolutely numb,” said Jeff Cunniff, who was about four years younger than Casey, having graduated from Great Falls High in 1966.
The driver of the other vehicle, Alice Riley, 31, survived, as did her four children. William Strowbridge, 22, of Minnesota, who was in Riley’s car, also died. His wife, Bonnie, 18, was in serious condition but pulled through.
In a Tribune article published two days after the crash, Riley told officer Bob Waldo of Montana Highway Patrol she did not have time to hit the brakes. Waldo said the speedometer in Evankovich’s car, hurtled over 100 feet after impact, read 90 miles per hour. The other car: 43 miles per hour.
In December 1967, Evankovich received a two-year deferred sentence after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the death of Strowbridge.
In November 1969, a $2.25 million damage suit was filed against the Ford Motor Company by the widows of the three passengers in Evankovich’s car, a 1967 Ford Galaxie, which had only a few miles on it. The families sued Ford for making an automobile with a defective power steering they said ultimately caused the crash.
In October 1971, all three plaintiffs were awarded roughly $300,000 by a U.S. District Court jury in Detroit. A person who was at the trial said recently that the speed of the cars wasn’t addressed.
Nancy was several months pregnant when Casey perished in the wreck that rocked northcentral Montana. They had been married for two years. He would never meet his daughter, Terry Lee.
“It was a shock,” Jackson said. “You’re so young and you think that can’t be. It just can’t happen. You just don’t forget it. It’s still there. I’ll be working away, doing something, and I’ll think about it. … He would have played in the Olympics. He was that good.”
McIntosh’s wedding was in mid-July, a week after the crash. The plan was for Casey to be one of his groomsmen. McIntosh carried Casey’s casket at the funeral.
BORGREEN, a 1956 graduate of Great Falls High, was a backup goaltender for the Americans while Casey, also an elusive starting quarterback for the Bison, was making a name for himself in high school.
For a few coins, a few quarters, fans could be in close quarters with Casey.
Spectators were so close to the action they sometimes contacted the players they didn’t particularly like and even doused beer on the ones they really didn’t like. They could touch Casey along the boards if they really wanted to.
If opponents did, retribution would follow.
Casey’s teammates protected him like a throng of body guards shielding a pop star from morally lost teenagers. He very rarely involved himself in the after-the-whistle fisticuffs, showing significant restraint when most others would have likely given in and dropped the gloves.
Respected in how he carried himself on and off the ice and how he stayed selfless through success, people had bad things to say about Casey about as often as competitors did with former Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.
He treated people the right way.
“His skills were so good they couldn’t touch him,” said Cunniff, alluding to Casey’s noticeably older and bigger foes. “That was what was so phenomenal about this guy. You go, ‘I can’t believe this 16-year-old kid can these things against these grown men.’ And he would, time and time and time again.”
Borgreen and Casey frequented the rink, bordered by chicken wire and steel columns, late at night for extra practice sessions.
They weren’t supposed to be there, but Borgreen had a friend who was the rink manager. And so Borgreen magically had a key.
To remain as discreet as possible, they turned on one measly light, in the north end of the building. A bucket-full of pucks plopped on the ice, and Borgreen positioned himself between the pipes.
“He’d disappear into the shadows,” Borgreen said, “and I’d just hear the cut of his blades on the ice.”
And the sound of the puck as Casey stickhandled toward the net.
“A lot of times I’d make a save, and sometimes I wouldn’t,” he said. “But it didn’t make a difference because we were both just kind of in our own little world.”
But Casey let him know if he had made a save he shouldn’t have, maybe with his glove hand. A big grin would come across Casey’s face, followed by something like, “Eh, lucky snag.”
Borgreen was mesmerized by his friend’s sensational skating.
“But to me,” he said, “it was his total athletic ability to improvise, to key off his linemates and his unbelievable ability to read the ice. He was always a play, a step, a stride ahead of everybody else.”
Casey, nicknamed “Moose,” shot on Borgreen, a cousin of Casey’s wife-to-be, for about an hour, and then they would return home together for some hot chocolate and laughter with the family.
One time, John Misha Petkevich’s mother, Delphine, furious they had ruined the perfectly clean ice readied for her son to skate on one morning, chased the duo down with a broom.
For those 60 minutes, it was as if Borgreen were a little boy in the front row at the Stanley Cup Finals, wide-eyed in amazement, not wanting to miss even the most minor of details.
It’s been more than 50 years since those quiet nights. Borgreen is in his late 70s now. But those memories have never left him.
CASEY’S jersey hangs, retired, in the Great Falls IcePlex atop Gore Hill and the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., where he was a first-team All-American and team captain at North Dakota.
A center in college, he scored 57 goals and accounted for 61 assists in 88 games, good enough for an impressive 1.34 points per contest. His No. 12 is one of only two numbers to be retired by a program that has produced over 80 players who have skated in the NHL and eight national championships. The other player up there with him in the rafters is the late Engelstad, whose $100 million donation at the turn of the century was used to build a new facility, which is named after him.
In March 1967, Casey was on the U.S. National team in the World Hockey Championships in Vienna, Austria. On that squad with Casey was Herb Brooks, who as a head coach in 1980 led the Americans past the Soviets during the Winter Olympics in what has long been known as the Miracle on Ice and the most significant single game in hockey history.
Had it not been for his death, Casey would have been on the U.S. roster at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, having already been named to the team.
Murray Williamson, the head coach of that ’67 team, attended Casey’s funeral along with four UND players who were pallbearers along with McIntosh and William Sandaker.
Williamson said after Casey’s death he was the best American center in amateur hockey.
“Pound for pound the greatest little competitor I ever saw,” he was quoted as saying. “He can’t be replaced.”
More than three decades came and went before someone living in Montana realized some of the dreams that were so suddenly stripped away from Casey. That someone was C.M. Russell High graduate Patrick Dwyer, who played in over 400 NHL games with the Carolina Hurricanes.
But during the last few months of his life, Casey said professional hockey wasn’t something he would do “unless I can get a good contract.”
“I hope to teach school and coach hockey,” he said.
In whatever it was, Terry Casey would have gotten there.
He always did.
“He was such an unbelievable talent,” Borgreen said.
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: 50 years later, Terry Casey’s legacy lives on (July 8, 2017)