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FALL 2009

Vol. 10, No. 1


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Recording a Life

Recording a life


It all began in a college speech class. The assignment: a speech of tribute to someone you admire. First-year student, Kari Hagen, from Roseau, Minnesota, took the podium with confidence and left it with a classroom of 24 students and me, the teacher, in tears. This was the first I had heard of Nancy Burggraf, first woman nominated to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

She had never played hockey or coached a team, but in five decades Burggraf worked with more than 40,000 players in her specialized camps and clinics. Burggraf could look at a player and determine what would improve his play while also connecting on a personal and spiritual level. She died from Lou Gehrig's disease after helping the Roseau Rams win the 1999 Minnesota Hockey State Tournament.

"Why haven't we heard of her before?" asked one student. "She should be famous."

Hagen's speech and Burggraf got lost in my day-to-day duties until two weeks later when I sat in the dental chair for an annual cleaning. I scanned the many articles, photos and family memorabilia my hygienist Becky had posted high on the wall. There she was, staring down at me - Nancy Burggraf.

"Why do you have that photo?" I asked, pushing away the suction tube.
"That's my mom."

In the following days and weeks Becky, the four other Burggraf siblings, and Bernie, Burggraf's husband, shared Burggraf's life story with me. Hockey players Burggraf trained encouraged me to keep going; they said it was more than just an article. Friends of Burggraf and news reporters I interviewed said, "It's about time someone told her story."

As I worked with the research, akin to putting a blob of clay on the potter's wheel, I felt the story spinning in another direction. It formed a slide show. I visualized a 5-foot-3, 110-pound Burggraf training a team in preseason power skating using what they called "voodoo hockey" techniques, including acupressure and massage. When she let out one shrill whistle, they skated to attention. These were huge guys, and she commanded their respect, often outskating them while they hung over the boards exhausted.

I gathered mental images of Burggraf training the Roseau Rams in the 1970s with players rolling their eyes and making snide comments about being taught by an "old woman." Again, the whistle. They snapped to attention.

I heard that whistle as well, and it told me to change creative directions. This story should be a film, a documentary. I'd never done a film before. How hard could it be? I asked two of my Concordia communication students if they'd like to join me in a "special" film project. They agreed and we received a research grant to fund the production. We wrote a three-year timeline to log hours of interviews in Roseau, Minneapolis, Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks, and learned how to use cameras, microphones, lighting and editing machines. Then came the storyboard.

We plastered a wall with color-coded note cards and quotes, moving them here and there to form a life script. We brought in two more students for creative film editing and musical composition. The students cut much of my writing, insisting we tell the story with images not words. Reluctantly, I gave in.

Writing and journalism theory talks about ethics and truth telling. What's in? What's out? There is great power in editing. Wouldn't we like to edit our own lives and cut what we don't like? We took this power seriously as we listened to memories and perceptions of Burggraf.

We found that people tended to remember events in different ways, filtering and processing information as they saw it. When Burggraf became ill with ALS, some remember her crying out in frustration and anger, while others remember her never being angry. So we included both those perceptions, struggled as best we could with these choices and came as close to the truth as we could. It was exhausting to be sensitive interviewers and careful listeners, especially when it involves a terminal illness. Newspaper articles, help from historical organizations, extended family members and Burggraf's journals rounded out our research.

After eight script and editing drafts, the film premiered in 2002 and received a screening at the Fargo Film Festival, winning the Ruth Landfield Award for portraying a woman of compassion, conviction and courage. But the challenge continued - the next step in the creative process - making the film into a print biography to meet requirements for a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. The big decision, how to frame and organize the story? How to keep the reader engaged? The film had progressed in chronological order, but with help from writing professors, peer workshop writers and my editor in Minneapolis, it took on a new look.

After several false starts, I decided to frame Burggraf's life within the timeline of the 1999 State Hockey Tournament and move back and forth in time. She had worked with these boys since they were seven years old. This was her team. And after all, hockey is like a religion in Roseau, whose team plays one level up, with the big city teams. They are like Hoosiers on Ice. They had only lost one game that year, and they dedicated the tournament to Burggraf, now on her deathbed. And in the final game, they got a shut out for her, beating Hastings 4-0.

At her funeral, there were 97 baskets of flowers, and 60 hockey players were pallbearers.

A few times, when I wanted to start a bonfire with the project, an unusual inspiration happened. Like the Friday afternoon as I was researching Burggraf's funeral text from Job 19: "How I wish that someone would remember my words and record them in a book! Or with a chisel carve my words in stone so they would last forever." Enough said. Keep going.

That's how Nancy Burggraf came to live with me. Holding her sweatpants up to me, I knew that they would fit. Her ice skates were my size, and I carried my research in her Burggraf Skating Skills bag. She loved her family, hometown, friends, faith, and her hockey players. And she loved to push her own body, which would turn against her all too soon. For Burggraf and her storytellers, it was a journey with joys and struggles, ups and downs, but nevertheless a journey into the light.

My speech student was right all along. Nancy Burggraf should be famous.

-Merrie Sue Holtan


Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.