A builder on the north end
CALUMET – It’s a town that has long billed itself as the home of hockey.
If that is indeed the case, then Paul Lehto must be the godfather of the sport in Calumet.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say that Paul (Lehto) has had as much influence as anyone when it comes to hockey – and a lot of other things – up here,” longtime northend sports historian Bob Erkkila said recently. “He’s been involved in just about everything.”
Starting with his own playing days in the middle 1940s, the Wolverine native has been a constant presence on the northend sports scene.
He’s been a hockey mentor at several different levels, but has also done the same in baseball where he served as a manager/coach for the powerhouse Wolverine teams in the Twilight League in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bruce “Cukie” Coppo of Calumet had the oportunity to play both hockey and baseball for Lehto.
“The main thing I learned right away about Paul (Lehto) is that he’s a competitor,” Coppo commented. “He really does not like to lose.”
That competitiveness has served Lehto well, both as a coach and as the current Calumet Township supervisor.
During his term in office, he’s played a key role in many different projects, including formation of the Keweenaw National Historical Park more than a decade ago.
“The park is located in Calumet Township, so you know that he (Lehto) was one of the key movers,” Erkkila said. “He’s just one of those rare kind of people who have the foresight to see what future needs there will be … and then work to get those needs taken care of.”
That foresight was also vital in the building of the Bi-Centennial Arena, development of the Swedetown Ski Trails and helping move the National Guard headquarters at the Calumet Armory to a site nearby.
The latter action set the groundwork for the armory being renamed the Calumet Colosseum a few years ago and being used primarily for hockey.
Lehto was instrumental in helping set up the hockey display at the Colosseum as well.
He and longtime friend Paul Hill were also behind building the new Wolverine baseball field.
“He (Lehto) and I believed we needed a new ballpark,” Hill said. “Now, it’s probably the top park in the region.”
Born in 1938, Lehto began skating at the age of five at the Wolverine rink, which was just a block from his home. At just 14 years of age, he was elected president of the Wolverine rink.
He started coaching junior hockey at just 16 years of age and was elected as president of the Calumet Hockey Asssociation.
He became involved with intermediate and senior hockey after that and coached the Wolverine and CLK Wolverine teams from 1964-72 and again from 1979-82.
Lehto, who spearheaded an effort to put in artificial ice at the Armory during the 1968-69 season, served four terms as a director for the Michigan Amateur Hockey Asssociation.
His CLK Wolverines teams featured such standouts as Mike Usitalo, Fred Barry, George Lyle, Gordie Frantti and Coppo, who ranks as the team’s all-time top point-getter.
“I started playing senior hockey while I was still in high school,” said Coppo, who has been the coach of the Wolverines for many years. “He (Lehto) was hard on me sometimes, probably because I was the rookie on the squad. But I learned all the little things about the sport.”
The Wolverines, who won four Gibson Cups and seven Badger State and Michigan-Wisconsin Hockey League titles in Lehto’s tenure, also hosted the U.S. National Intermediate Tournament in 1971.
In 1971, Lehto headed up a group of people who received a franchise named the Copper Country Chiefs to play in the United States Hockey League.
“The USHL was a very good league,” Erkkila said. “There were a lot of former college and professional players in the league.”
One of the players that Lehto helped to bring to the Chiefs was a young forward from a Toronto suburb named Jim Crawford.
The two began an affiliation that has lasted since. Crawford brought in Lehto as an assistant coach in 1985 when he took over the Calumet High hockey job.
“Paul Lehto had so much experiece in the sport, I would have been foolish not to have taken advantage of that,” Crawford said a couple of seasons ago. “He contributed a lot to our program.”
With the two combining forces, the Copper Kings became one of the prep powerhouses in Michigan.
In their stint, CHS compiled a record 331-124-10, notched four state championships, two state runnerups, nine league titles, nine Copper Island Classic crowns and eight MacInnes Holiday Tournaments.
Lehto retired from coaching 2002 but continues to stay close to the sport.
Coppo said his former mentor has hinted about retiring as supervisor.
“I think he has groomed a couple of people for the future,” Coppo commented. “But knowing him, he’ll keep his finger on the pulse of things up here.”
And that’s a definite positive for the northend.