Shooting Star

The Gopher’s Gigi Marvin takes aim at the Olympics—and her family’s legacy

The Old Man was sick, and Gigi Marvin feared he might get upset by the news. So she reluctantly entered his room inside the modest home where he lived on Steenerson Street in Warroad—a long slap shot from Lake of the Woods. It was August 2004. At the time, Gigi was the one of the most prized college hockey recruits in the country. After visiting Harvard and Dartmouth—the best women’s hockey programs on the East Coast—she had decided that the University of Minnesota was the place for her; she wanted to be a Gopher. That’s what she had come to tell her grandfather, Cal Marvin, who had long been a supporter of Minnesota’s fiercest hockey rival, the University of North Dakota. “Hey, Grandpa,’’ Gigi said. “Is it all right if you see me in the maroon and gold?’’

If she had been born in any other family, or grown up in any other town, such news would have been cause for relief, if not outright celebration. The U of M was relatively close to home, and the Gopher women’s hockey program was among the best in the country.

But Gigi Marvin did not grow up in just any family or just any town. As she evolved from high school superstar to current Gophers standout to potential Olympian, she couldn’t dodge her genes or cast off her geography. History and DNA were wrapped around her like the laces on her skates. With her 5-foot-8-inch, 165-pound body, the one that glides so easily around opponents, she has become a human milepost on hockey’s highway. She plays and everyone watches. She’s a Marvin, after all, and she’s from Warroad.

It was once a rugged sport, reserved for toothless guys with names like Moose, the kind of stubby-bearded sorts Cal hung with after games in Thunder Bay and Whitehorse, Canada. Now, hockey is a different game, with new kinds of standard bearers. One is a rink rat named Gigi.

Two years ago, as a freshman at Minnesota, she was selected as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s Rookie of the Year. Last year, she made the WCHA’s All-Conference team. And last fall, before a single puck was dropped for this season, league coaches chose her as the pre-season WCHA Player of the Year. Still just 20, she has already represented her country twice in international competitions, including last year’s world championship, and she is a strong candidate to make the U.S. team that will compete in the world championships this year in Harbin, China.

To understand Gigi, though, you have to understand some history. The Marvins could be considered the first family of Minnesota hockey. Her grandfather was to small-town hockey what Tyrone Guthrie was to regional theater. Cal coached the U.S. men’s national team in the 1950s. He was instrumental in building the Warroad Gardens, an indoor arena that serves as a shrine to the city’s most beloved sport (the arena seats just 22 fewer people than Warroad’s entire population). He built the city’s youth hockey program, and long before professionals played in the Winter Olympics, he made sure Warroad regularly hosted national amateur teams as they prepared for the big international event. As an organizer, entrepreneur, and booster, he was the one who brought such big-top events to this little town on the Canadian border. He’s in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame because of it.

But Gigi’s family is only one half of the equation. Had she grown up in Lakeville or Chisolm or Grand Marais, things might have turned out differently. But Warroad is a place that takes its nickname—Hockeytown, USA—to heart. Over the past 60 years, Warroad has been a breeding ground for a gaggle of male hockey stars, producing six Olympians and five Hall of Famers.

Gigi’s own career was launched at age 2, when she began skating at the Gardens. Hockey was in her blood, yes. But it was doughnuts that motivated her. Her father, Mike Marvin, was a marvelous sports psychologist. “I’d stand at one blue line and my dad would stand at the other,” Gigi says. “He’d say, ‘C’mon, if you skate past this line, you’ll get a doughnut.’”

The journey began. “For her, it was always just pure fun,” says Mike. The rink was open 24 hours a day. Ice time was free. Kids were there constantly. Gigi was one of the guys—at least for a while.

She was born 15 years after the passage of Title IX, the federal law insuring sports equality for girls. But Gigi Marvin didn’t play with girls until she was 10, and had to travel to the Twin Cities to do so. Until the eighth grade, she played with the boys in Warroad’s high-powered youth system—often on the same team as her brother, Aaron, who now plays for St. Cloud State. Warroad didn’t start a girls’ high school team until 1999, four years after the advent of the Minnesota State High School girls’ hockey tournament.

Playing with Warroad’s best boys had its advantages. It pushed Gigi to be a faster skater, to improve her stick-handling, to develop a more physical style. When she eventually did play against her female peers, she dominated. During the four years she played on the girls’ team at Warroad, she scored 196 goals.

WHEN MARVIN takes the ice for the Gophers one night, Ridder Arena is barely half full. Gigi’s aunt Janet, who lives in the Twin Cities, is in attendance, bringing along her kids and some friends to watch. Their section is adorned with a sign that reads: “GIGI’S FAN CLUB.”

Like Cal’s seven other daughters, Janet Marvin, 43, never had the hockey opportunities her niece has had. “I don’t know if we live through her,” says Janet. “But we’re pretty proud of her.’’

Photo by Eric Miller
Courtesy University of Minnesota

Gigi’s parents, Mike and Connie Marvin, will often hop into their 1999 silver Chevy Tahoe and drive the 360 miles from Warroad to the U campus to catch a weekend series. (The car has 257,000 miles on it, which may surprise those who assume Gigi is heir to a fortune from Marvin Windows and Doors. The company was, in fact, founded by her great-grandfather, but Cal opted out of the family business. He ran a resort and a motel. The Marvin line from which Gigi emerged is not the wealthy one. Mike breeds buffalo. Connie is a French teacher.)

A former college player at Brown, Mike once coached Gigi and still occasionally shares his thoughts on her how she’s playing. More important are the opinions of officials from USA Hockey, the national governing body, who monitor Marvin’s progress. They’re the ones who will select the team for the world championships this spring and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

If Marvin feels any pressure from the expectations that talent and tradition have saddled her with, she doesn’t show it, say teammates. “I think she gets nothing but inspiration from it,’’ says Gophers teammate Anya Miller. “She likes to live up to the name that her family has made for itself in the hockey world.”

Even for the Gophers—who have won three national titles in 10 seasons—attendance and recognition remain a problem. The team has never averaged even 2,000 fans per game over a season. As a freshman, small crowds and lack of awareness among her classmates annoyed Marvin. Now, in her third season, she senses a growing respect for the women’s game.

But if the program still has a long way to go to establish itself in the hearts and consciousness of ticket-buying consumers, Marvin, too, has much to prove. At times, she seeks the perfect play instead of an effective one, sometimes shooting when she should pass and passing when she should shoot. She tends to play well against the best competition while faltering against lesser teams. Earlier this season, Gophers coach Brad Frost talked to her about the power of consistency. “She has tremendous skills,” he says. “But we want to know exactly what we’re going to get from her each and every night.”

Last year, in Winnipeg, at the world-championships tournament, her highest competition level so far, something clicked. She scored two goals and assisted on another as the United States finished second to Canada. “A bulb went off in her head,” says former Gophers coach Laura Halldorson, who retired before this season. “Something happened in Winnipeg.”

Maybe it was the atmosphere (15,000 people) and the stakes (a world title) that brought out the best in her. Maybe it was because she was playing in an event that looked and smelled just like the Olympics, where Warroad legends tend to make their names. “That’s my goal,” she says, “the Olympics.” A Marvin in Vancouver in 2010: It would be the perfect place and time for the heiress to honor the patriarch.

Cal Marvin Never got to see his granddaughter carry the Warroad and Marvin banners to a bigger stage. A month after learning that Gigi was headed for Minnesota, Cal Marvin died. He was 80.

What he told Gigi that day has stayed with her, though, and perhaps it’s why she considers her name a blessing and not a burden.

You see, Cal Marvin was many things: rink developer, minor-league hockey manager, puck impresario. He was also a tireless booster of the University of North Dakota, especially its hockey program. In the 1940s, as a student in Grand Forks, he helped convince the school to start the team.

But Cal was also a grandfather. And even though Minnesota and North Dakota are the Crips and Bloods of college hockey, when Gigi told him she was going to be a Gopher, he didn’t get upset. Instead, Cal just laughed. “It’s going to be hard seeing you in that uniform,” he said. “But whatever makes you happy.”

Gigi Marvin tells this story in a chilly, echo-filled corridor in the bowels of Ridder Arena. “He loved the University of North Dakota,” she says. “But he loved his grandchildren even more.”

Jay Weiner wrote about stadiums in the November issue of Minnesota Monthly.