Joe Olson came from a hockey family. And he created a new one in Bloomington-Normal.
Olson, an Illinois Hockey Hall of Famer who is largely seen as the father of today’s growing Bloomington-Normal ice hockey community, died Friday, about a week after suffering a heart attack, the Pepsi Ice Center announced on Facebook.
Olson was one of the first hires when the Pepsi Ice Center opened in 2006; the community hadn’t had an ice rink in 22 years. At first, there were about 100 kids in the “house” (non-travel) hockey program, and four teams in the adult league. Now there are 300+ kids playing house hockey, as many as 16 adult teams, plus a travel hockey organization, a girls hockey program, and a sled hockey team for players with disabilities. Bloomington has the largest amount of 8-and-under players in Central Illinois.
“All of these programs are born from the passion that Joe had for starting hockey here in Bloomington,” said Doug Ferrier of Bloomington, whose two sons played for “Coach Joe” in the house league.
Hockey was in Olson’s blood. His father and his eight uncles all played and coached hockey. They’re in a dozen different Halls of Fame. His uncle Weldon played for the U.S. in the Olympics. One of Joe’s proudest childhood moments was being a “stickboy” for a game in the 1960s in which all the uncles played, said Stacia McClure, who worked with Olson at the Bloomington rink.
Joe Olson spent 20 years with Peoria hockey before being hired to build it up in Bloomington. He did it all: He coached. He administered. He mentored.
His superpower: Knowing the name of every kid in his program. That’s hundreds of kids at a time, for over a decade. He always knew.
“I don’t know how he did it,” said McClure, who also coached at the rink.
Olson’s impact has been clear in the days since his heart attack. Bloomington-Normal hockey families started putting a stick on their front porches Saturday in honor of Olson—a throwback to how the global hockey community responded to the Humboldt Broncos tragedy in 2018.
“He had a knack for seeing kids,” McClure said. “He didn’t even have to say anything. He just knew they were having a hard time. Or home may not have been the greatest place at that moment. But the moment they walked into the rink, they knew they were in a safe place, and a fun place, and they knew that somebody—an adult who cared about them—was seeing them.”
Tom Arkell, a hockey dad and player himself, was the first president of the Bloomington Youth Hockey travel program. It now has around 115 players on seven teams.
“(Joe) was a kind, caring, considerate person who really looked out for youth hockey players,” Arkell said. “He had a soft spot for helping players who were just getting started, and whose families maybe didn’t have a lot of money to get their children started. That meant a lot to him.”
Added another former Bloomington Youth Hockey (BYHI) president Shawn McVey: “Without Joe Olson there would be no BYHI. He had an impact on every player, coach and parent in our organization and he’ll be greatly missed. His uncanny ability to remember every kid’s name shows how much he cared about kids learning the game. He was a true pioneer for Bloomington hockey.”
Olson had a huge heart, but he wasn’t always warm and fuzzy on the outside. He could be gruff, reserved. (Although he’d open up a bit if you caught him at Maguire’s or Elroy’s downtown.)
“As an adult player, coming to the rink for the first few times, he was kind of intense,” McClure said. “But those little guys just loved him. He had a huge heart.”
Olson might not be a huge fan of this article, were he here to read it. He was humble, not the type to brag or bring attention on himself. McClure has been asked to collect Olson’s personal belongings at the rink; he kept his Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame ring tucked away in a drawer, she said.
He taught that humility to others.
Ferrier’s sons are now 16 and 14 and will be playing for the Sharks high school hockey program. In the days since Olson’s heart attack, Ferrier said he and his family have been sharing stories about him. His oldest son recalled the time when, as an 8-year-old, he was scoring like crazy in a house game. He had two hat tricks (six goals) and was overdoing it on the celebrating.
“Joe pulled him aside and, ‘You don’t need to be showing off. Pass more. Be a playmaker.’ He taught (him) how to be a team player. That was one of those ways that Joe would get to you,” Ferrier said.
Funeral arrangements are pending, the Pepsi Ice Center said on Facebook.
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