The Denver Pioneer hockey family lost an inspirational former team captain, David Tomassoni (Denver, ’75) who passed away from Aymotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) on August 11th in his native Minnesota. He was 69 years old.
Tomassoni helped bring DU to two Frozen Fours in the 1970s and served as DU’s captain under coach Murray Armstrong in his senior season in 1974-75, before going on to a 16-year pro hockey career, mostly played in Italy. After his hockey career ended, he served for 30 years in the Minnesota State Legislature, retiring earlier this year following his 2021 ALS diagnosis.
Tomassoni’s biggest recent contribution to DU hockey came with last year’s NCAA Championship Denver squad, when he inspired the DU team with a pep talk before a regular-season game in Duluth, Minn.
In December of 2021, the DU coaches knew that Tomassoni was dying from the debilitating (and progressively horrible) ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the famous baseball Hall-of-Famer who died from it back in 1941. The coaches at rival Minnesota-Duluth, which sits in Tomassoni’s former Minnesota Legislative District, also knew about Tomasonni’s advancing disease. In addition, UMD’s 2012-built ice arena was made possible by funding from Tomassoni and his legislative colleagues. So, UMD invited Tomassoni to drop the ceremonial first puck when the Pioneers came to play UMD that month. And DU coach David Carle asked Tomassoni to meet (and address) the DU team after their game-day morning practice.
Tomassoni, who grew up in Chisholm, Minn., in the rural Mesabi Iron Range region he championed as a legislator, was driven to Duluth by his sons, Dante and Danny. After practice, the 2022 Pioneers skated over to Tomassoni, and the entire team went down on one knee. The team members thanked Tomassoni for all he’d done for Pioneer hockey, and presented Tomassoni with a new DU jersey emblazoned with Tomassoni’s name on the back along with his former DU number ‘6’ and a captain’s “C” on the front of the jersey. Delighted by the Pioneers’ gesture, but with his body wracked thin by the disease, Tomassoni started to speak. With the Pios held spellbound all around him, Tomassoni, according to reports, was ‘emotional’ in telling the DU team of his own deep and personal frustrations of losing not one, but two Frozen Fours, both played in Boston in the 1970s.
He then presaged that the Pioneers would be playing their own NCAA championship game in Boston later that year, and said he had “just one bit of advice” for the team: “When you play in the National Championship Game, win the fucking thing!”
The Pioneers reportedly cheered, and banged their sticks on the ice in loud approval. Later that night, the crowd at Amsoil Arena also cheered when Tomassoni, looking resplendent in his new Pioneer jersey, dropped the puck before the game. Jess Myers, a Minnesota-based reporter eloquently captured the moment in his story here with more photos.
Tomassoni’s son, Dante, later sent Carle a framed photo of the pre-game talk with his father’s colorful advice to the DU team engraved on it. And when the Pioneers earned their back way to Boston for the 2022 Frozen Four, Coach Carle brought out the photo, and put it on the DU team’s training table.
As we know, the Pios definitely took Tomassoni’s advice. They scored five goals in the third period against Minnesota State and won the “fucking thing,” to the absolute delight of Tomassoni, who watched the game from Minnesota and texted with DU’s coaches after the game.
Tomassoni also left an enormous legacy as a political leader in his native state, serving eight years as a State Representative and then 22 years as State Senator. From 1992 to 2020, he was a member of the Democratic Farm Labor (DFL) party, Minnesota’s largest political party, and from 2020-2022, he was an Independent, often caucusing with the state’s Republican party. He served as an assistant majority leader of the House from 1997 to 2001, a majority whip of the Senate from 2001 to 2007 and was elected president pro tempore of the Minnesota Senate for the 2021 session.
“His larger-than-life personality endeared himself to colleagues on every side of the aisle,” Minnesota Senate DFL Leader Melisa Lуpez Franzen said in a statement, printed in the Duluth News-Tribune.
His personality left a big mark in Denver, too.
This writer can remember Tomassoni holding court among a slew of former DU players from different generations at the Campus Lounge in Denver, during Denver Hockey’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2009. Tomassoni, who played for Italy in the 1984 Olympics (most of Italy’s Olympic players were North Americans carrying Italian passports as a result of family members born in Italy) told us a wonderful story of playing for Italy in the 1983 World Championships. Tomassoni said he had faced Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky there, and figured out how to stop the spinning ‘Great One’ by sending him to the ice with a hard check. I remember a few Pioneers chuckling at Tomassoni’s story, perhaps doubting its veracity, as old hockey tales tend to get ‘taller’ with age. But in 2019, Jess Myers, the same reporter who wrote the wonderful recap of Tomassoni’s 2022 talk to the Denver team, also published an interview including Tomassoni’s Gretzky story, complete with a photo of the two players colliding in 1983!
Tomassoni cared deeply about representing his community and working very hard for them — a true reflection of his upbringing on Minnesota’s Iron Range. There, a unique environment of small, close-knit mining towns and Northern Minnesota cold conditions (with lots of community ice time) combined with the high work ethic of working-class families eager to make their mark. The results of this environment produced some of the most important hockey-playing families in college hockey (and the some of the best storytellers, too!). To name just a few, the Iron Range Italian experience produced the Serratores, Palazzaris, Lucias, Mariuccis, Michelettis, LoPrestis and Tomassonis. These families, and others like them, hold together the very fabric of our game via the lore of the Iron Range.
“It’s hard not to get along with David — He’s just a very positive, outgoing guy,” said former DU athletic director Ron Grahame in the 2019 story by Myers. Grahame was a teammate of Tomassoni for three seasons with the Pioneers in the 1970s. “I remember him being a very solid defensive defenseman. I don’t think he would try to fool anybody into thinking he had any real offensive skills. He wasn’t afraid to be a big body and be physical, but just a great guy.”
Tomassoni was also a friend of LetsGODU, addressing DU fans at one of Damien Goddard’s pre-game parties at Spanky’s Roadhouse in 2008.
Yes, a great guy indeed!
A grateful Pioneer Nation sends its thanks for a life well-lived!
Puck Swami is the Internet Moniker of a long time Pioneer fan and alumnus who shares his views and stories here at LetsGoDu periodically.
Top photo: Dave Tomassoni (center, in DU jersey and black hat) was honored at the Minnesota Duluth vs DU series in Duluth in December of 2021. Credit: Duluth News Tribune