Bilbo bags one

Until recently, the biggest excitement in the history of Mosinee, Wisconsin (pop. 3,988 in the 2010 census) came on May Day, 1950, when local residents acting as communist invaders seized control of the town.

These were the darkest days of the Cold War, when the unhinged fanatic Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin was whipping up anti-communist fervor in places like Mosinee, and people were behaving in peculiar ways. Somewhat like the present, in other words.

            It was a stunt organized by the American Legion, part of the anti-communist hysteria that was general throughout the land, and the good folks of Mosinee took it a tad too far. The fake “communists” (American Leagion members to a man) dragged Mayor Ralph E. Kronenwetter and Police Chief Carl Gewiss out of their beds, forced the mayor to surrender in the town’s new “Red Square” with a pistol to his back, and circulated a report that the police chief had been liquidated.

            Roadblocks were set up around the town, the library was purged of good capitalist reading and restaurants served only Russian black bread and potato soup for lunch.

            Unfortunately, it was all too much for Mayor Kronenwetter, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as he arrived to restore “democracy” that night. The mayor never regained consciousness and died five days later at the age of 49. His doctor said the excitement of the communist “coup” probably contributed to his collapse.

Franklin Baker, commander of the local American Legion post, said, “It was a terrible coincidence.” The carnage didn’t stop there. Local Minister Will La Brew Bennett, 72, who demonstrated during the “invasion” how he would hide his Bible in the church organ if the communists invaded, died in his bed a few hours after the mayor.

All that is according to Wikipedia, and it would appear that Mosinee fell off the national radar after the communist invasion. It seems nothing of national interest has happened in the little town in north central Wisconsin since and a quick check of the events listed on Wikipedia this week reveals that there was karaoke at a joint called the Oz Nightclub Monday night, a Proactive Safety in the Workplace session at the Northcentral Technology College, and that Heidi’s Dance Studio was holding rehearsals at Mosinee Auditorium.

The most significant event in the recent history of Mosinee, it seems, actually happened in Stevens Point, 21 miles to the southeast along I-39 South, when a baby boy named Cole Caufield was born on Jan. 2, 2001, the newest edition to a hockey family. Caufield’s grandfather, the late Wayne Caufield, is a member of the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame and played semi-pro hockey from 1963 for a number of teams, including the USHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

Cole’s father, Paul Caufield, was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, played for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and remains the team’s all-time leading scorer. He was an assistant coach at the university for a time but resigned in 2006 to become manager of the Ice Hawks Arena – the ideal job for a man with two hockey-mad sons – Cole’s older brother, Brock, would play with him at the University of Wisconsin in Madison as Cole became a legend.

All that is the background for what has happened in Montreal, a big, sophisticated, French-speaking Canadian city that is probably as unlike Mosinee, Wisconsin as any on this continent. About the only thing Mosinee and Montreal have in common is hockey – but that is a passion they share, especially after the events of the past week.

Young M. Caufield, in case you’ve been sleeping under a rock, has lit up Montreal like no other player since P.K. Subban – and you would probably have to go all the way back to Guy Lafleur 50 years ago to find a debut that has created this much excitement.

In a span of three days beginning May 1 (exactly 51 years after the takeover off Mosinee by “communist agents) Caufield scored two winning goals in overtime, one against Ottawa and one against the hated Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night– becoming the first player in National Hockey League history to have his first two goals count as overtime winners.

If you tried to sell that story in Hollywood, they’d boot you outa town.

Along the way, Caufield has become the symbol of the newly energized Canadiens, the smiling, tousle-haired kid with the lethal shot. In a year when he has already accomplished almost everything a hockey player can do in a year’s time, including winning the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in NCAA hockey on the day he played his first pro game in Laval, Caufield’s back-to-back overtime goals have already entered the realm of myth.

I mean, who does that? It’s as if Vladimir Guerrero had come up to the Expos in 1996 and hit extra-innings home runs in back-to-back games to beat the Atlanta Braves during a pennant race. Except that for all his greatness, even Guerrero didn’t accomplish that – Caufield did.

But Caufield’s biggest contribution wasn’t the goals – it was his impact on the culture of this organization, one that has been stewing in its own sour sauce far too long, with players, fans and media all blaming everyone else for the general surliness and sense of failed destiny around the club and with three of the team’s most visible stars (Carey Price, Shea Weber and Jonathan Drouin) out of action and not missed at all.

Caufield isn’t driving this bus. The players behind a late-season resurgence that will surely carry the team into the first round of the playoffs are Jeff Petry, Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, Jake Allen, Josh Anderson and Phillip Danault.

But a team that couldn’t win an overtime game to save its coach’s job is now really dangerous thanks to the diminutive sniper from Mosinee, Wisconsin. It’s as though 3-on-3 overtime was created for Caufield. With that lethal shot and his gift for finding a patch of open ice, Caufield is going to drive opponents crazy.

And while Claude Julien is a lovely man, I very much doubt that he would have a kid who just arrived from NCAA hockey out there in overtime. Credit for making all this possible is due to Dominique Ducharme, who has made quick adjustments since his early struggles with the overtime format after he replaced Julien in mid-season and showed remarkable confidence in his young star.

The best part of all this is Caufield’s goal celebrations, when he vanishes behind a wall of taller teammates out to congratulate him. As my son pointed out, that’s like Bilbo Baggins vanishing early on in Lord of the Rings, and that’s part of the reason I’m okay with the Bilbo nickname, as long as Caufield himself is okay with it.

There will be struggles ahead. This is not an easy game and every night there will be defenders looking to turn Caufield into a splatter on the rink boards of life.

But Cole Caufield has reminded us of the most important thing: When you approach it the right way, hockey is fun.

TWITTER: @jacktodd46