EVELETH, Minn. — Mitch Batinich smiles when a visitor wonders why the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame is located in this tiny town in the frozen reaches of Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range.
Then Batinich, the Hall's co-director, starts his tour.
On the second floor of the square, concrete building, Batinich turns on a video of the final minutes of the 1980 Olympic semifinal game between the United States and the Soviet Union.
There's little Mark Pavelich, an Eveleth native and a standout at nearby Minnesota-Duluth, getting leveled by a Soviet but somehow flicking the puck to Mike Eruzione, who scores on a 25-foot wrist shot to give the United States a 4-3 victory.
Twelve of the 20 players on that 1980 team, which went on to win an improbable gold medal in what is now called "The Miracle on Ice," learned to play hockey in Minnesota.
Turn around. Take a look at the team photo of the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team. There's John Mayasich, an Eveleth native who, along with captain Jack Kirrane and goalie John McCartan, anchored a defense that allowed just 11 goals in five championship games en route to the United States' only other Olympic hockey gold medal -- the first "Miracle on Ice."
Eight of the 17 members of that team were Minnesota products.
On the first floor, hockey artifacts are displayed in rows of glass cases. There's Frank Brimsek's uniform and goalie stick. Brimsek is another Eveleth native. So are goalies Sam LoPresti and Michael Karakas. All three Hall of Famers were standout NHL goalies just before World War II, when the league had just six teams.
In the "Great Hall," 68 10-foot tall pylons honor each of the enshrinees. Twenty-nine of the 68 have strong ties to Minnesota. Eight were from Eveleth.
A town of 5,176, Eveleth has produced more than its share of world-class hockey players. But Batinich says there's another reason why the Hall is here, an hour's drive south of the Canadian border.
"It was the first little community that had hockey so early," Batinich said.
Hockey first gained a foothold in the United States in large cities in the 1890s as the game moved south from Canada. The first organized game in Minnesota was played in Minneapolis in 1895.
City records show that the first hockey game in Eveleth was played in 1902. The town built its first hockey arena in 1919. A bigger one had to be built just three years later to cope with growing legions of fans.
Winter comes early and lingers into the spring in Eveleth, a mining town just down the road from Hibbing's Hull Rust Mine, the world's largest open-pit iron mine. A hard-hitting game of hockey became just the diversion needed by the hearty Eastern European immigrants who settled here.
"The immigrants who came to work had large families and they had nothing else to do, so they played hockey," said Archie Rauzi, the Hall's other co-director. "There were outside rinks all over the place."
Eveleth High School won five of the first seven state hockey championships. Although the Golden Bears haven't been as successful in recent years, enthusiasm for the sport has yet to die.
"It's what the people wait for all summer," said Mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich.
Several cities tried and failed over the years to gain support for a U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Then D. Kelly Campbell, who helped start the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Mich., moved to the Eveleth area in the 1960s for a job with Eveleth Taconite Mining Co.
"With all the hockey heritage, I thought, why don't we have a hockey hall of fame?" Campbell said. He took charge of the Project H Committee, which researched the proposal.
"We looked around and found, yes, Eveleth played a key role in hockey development," he said.
The committee received support in 1968 from the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, and in 1969 from the NHL, which contributed $100,000 toward the construction of the building. Ground for the $840,000 building was broken in February 1972, and the first members were inducted in June 1973.
Campbell said there's always a smattering of talk about moving the Hall to a more accessible place with a hockey tradition. Eveleth officials pay no attention. Instead, they're looking at expanding the Hall.
About 11,000 people visited last year, and Campbell said about as many are expected this year to view the old skates, sticks, uniforms, Olympic gold medals, photos and films that are among the $350,000 worth of memorabilia.
The Hall's best year was 1981 -- the year after America's dramatic Olympic victory -- when 21,000 fans visited the shrine on Hat Trick Drive.
Still, that doesn't come close to matching the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which attracted a record 280,000 visitors this year.
"We have not had the funds for a real massive promotion-type thing," Campbell said. "But it's amazing how many people know about this. They come from all over the country."
The Hall includes a regulation-size replica of one end of a hockey rink where teen-agers practice shooting at an empty net, perhaps dreaming of a future "Miracle."
"Hockey is never going to die here," Rauzi said.