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Bemidji star George Pelawa's memory lives on 25 years after he was selected by Calgary in NHL Draft

Bemidji's George Pelawa, right, shakes hands with Calgary Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher at the 1986 NHL Draft. Photo courtesy Calgary Flames

George Pelawa was 6 feet, 4 inches and about 240 pounds.

"The biggest hockey player I ever saw," University of North Dakota associate coach Cary Eades said. "He was a real, living Paul Bunyan."

He could skate, puck-handle, shoot and hit, too.

The rare skill set made the Bemidji native one of the most coveted players that northern Minnesota has ever seen.

Eades recalls rejoicing in the Sioux hockey office 25 years ago when Pelawa committed to UND, then watching the power forward dominate at the 1986 state hockey tournament.

Three months later, the Calgary Flames selected Pelawa in the first round with the No. 16 overall pick. At the time, no Minnesota-born forward had ever been drafted higher.

"He had the total package," said Eades, an assistant coach who helped recruit Pelawa. "The sky was the limit for him. There was an unbelievable amount of potential for him. . . just never realized."

A week after moving into the dorms at UND, Pelawa was killed in a car accident just north of Bemidji.

An estimated 2,000 people attended the funeral at the high school auditorium.

Among those in attendance: UND head coach Gino Gasparini, U.S. Olympic head coach Dave Peterson, Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooks and Calgary Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher, whose son Chuck will make the home state team's draft pick Friday night in Xcel Energy Center as the general manager of the Minnesota Wild.

Pelawa's parents, Frank and Winnie, are considering making the trip to St. Paul for the event. It will certainly conjure up many memories of the guy who was affectionately known as "Big George."

Pelawa was a quiet, happy-go-lucky kid.

"He wasn't afraid to be himself," friend and former linemate Jason Meyer said. "Not too many guys who are 6-4, 240, will go out for choir and sing at the top of their lungs, but he would. He didn't care what other people thought."

Sports were his passion. Pelawa played football, baseball and hockey.

He was an all-state football selection who was being recruited by Notre Dame, Penn State and Minnesota as a linebacker. Bemidji High lost just one game by one point during Pelawa's senior year. Upon his commitment to play Sioux hockey, UND football coach Roger Thomas made a crack that the best football recruit on campus wasn't coming out for the team.

In baseball, he was a power-hitting first baseman who led the Bemidji American Legion team to the state tournament in 1985. It was the first time in more than a decade that Bemidji made state. He was on the radar of the Minnesota Twins.

"I really wanted him to play baseball, because he was such a good baseball player," Frank said. "But there was too much down time in baseball. Hockey was the shortest route to the big leagues."

Pelawa quickly rose to star status in hockey. As a sophomore, he didn't score any goals, but by the time he was done, he broke the all-time goal and point records previously held by Gary Sargent, who played eight years in the NHL.

The team also rolled with Pelawa dominating the competition. Bemidji went to back-to-back state tournaments during his junior and senior years. The Lumberjacks haven't been back to state since.

At the end of the season, Pelawa was named the second-ever winner of Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Award, beating out eight-year NHL veteran Lance Pitlick.

"Back then, they had this Metro vs. Outstate game and they did time trials for skating," Meyer recalled. "George was the fastest of all the players. Scouts and recruiters went, 'Oh my God.' (Former North Stars general manager) Lou Nanne remarked during the state tournament that George was like a 747. He's so big that you don't know how fast he's going."

UND was the big winner in the recruiting sweepstakes.

"UND was -- and probably still is -- the shortest route to the big league," Frank explained.

George wasn't headed there alone. Two of his high school classmates -- goaltender Steve Peters and defenseman Darryn Fossand -- also signed that spring to play for the Sioux.

The highlight of the 1986 summer was the draft, which was held at the famed Montreal Forum.

The Pelawa family drove out to Montreal, making a few stops to break up the trip. They knew George was a top prospect, but didn't know exactly where he would land.

Back then, it was uncommon for Americans to go in the first round and unheard of for rural Minnesotans. Only three Minnesotans previously had gone in the first -- Mike Ramsey in 1979, Phil Housley in 1982 and Tom Chorske in 1985. All were Twin Cities players.

A Winnipeg newspaper had sent a reporter to Bemidji earlier in the summer, giving the family an inkling that the Jets could take George with the No. 8 overall pick. Instead, Winnipeg opted for Canadian winger Pat Elynuik.

Then, with the No. 16 pick, Pelawa's name was called over the loudspeaker at The Forum. He went on stage, shook the hand of the Cliff Fletcher and donned a Flames jersey.

"He was sure proud to be part of Calgary's organization," Meyer said. "He wore a Flames hat until the day he died."

Pelawa's arrival in Grand Forks was highly anticipated. He was the highest-drafted forward the Sioux ever had -- a distinction that lasted until 2004, when Drew Stafford went three spots higher.

The Sioux coaches had penciled him in to play with Tony Hrkac and Bob Joyce on the team's top line. Hrkac tallied an NCAA record 116 points that season. Joyce scored a school-record 52 goals.

"That, on paper, would have been a formidable trio, to say the least," Eades said.

Pelawa and his Bemidji High teammates moved into the dorms in late August. A week later, when George was home for Labor Day weekend, the tragedy hit.

Pelawa's older brother, Joe, was driving a 1979 Chevrolet Nova on Glidden Road during the early morning hours of August 30. As Joe turned north onto Beltrami County Road 21, a southbound AMC Matador slammed into the driver's side of Pelawa's car.

George was thrown into the windshield and the dash and died of internal injuries. Joe and the driver of the other car were both hospitalized with serious injuries.

Frank and Winnie found out about the accident when a state trooper came to their door.

"It always leaves a hole in your heart," Winnie said. "It's hard."

Frank said: "It's an empty feeling."

Meyer, who was hanging out with the Pelawas a few hours earlier, found out the next morning from his mother.

"I sat in bed for a couple of hours and couldn't move," Meyer said. "I didn't know what to do. I sat there and cried."

A quarter century hasn't done a lot to dull the pain for Pelawa's family and friends.

"It was a tragic loss for his family, for the Bemidji community and for UND hockey," Eades said. "It was tough on everybody. It's tough re-living it right now."

The funeral was held a couple of days later. Joe attended on a gurney. A large banner was placed in the front of the school reading, "We love you George," signed, "the boys." Above flowers and trophies, there was a Bemidji High jersey alongside a Calgary Flames sweater.

Pelawa's No. 8 has since been retired by Bemidji High. He also is in the school's Hall of Fame.

The Sioux ended up winning the national title in 1986-87 in what would have been Pelawa's freshman year. They went 40-8, setting the school record in wins.

"It's hockey and nobody goes undefeated in hockey," Meyer said. "You lose a game here or there. But that team only lost a few games to begin with. What if they had George? He would have made an impact, I guarantee it. Who knows what they could have done."

The year after that, Pelawa was on track to join the U.S. Olympic team that played in the 1988 Calgary Games. The Americans finished seventh.

The year after the Olympics, Pelawa may have joined the Flames. They won their only Stanley Cup that year.

"Nobody will ever know how great of a pick it was," Meyer said.

After the accident, Calgary started a scholarship in Pelawa's name. The Flames committed $1,000 per year for 20 years. When that commitment ran out in 2007, Frank and Winnie quietly picked up the tab to keep it going.

Last summer, upon finding out that the Pelawas were financing the scholarship, Meyer and other friends contacted the Flames, who pledged an additional $15,000. Pelawa's friends have raised $8,000 themselves and will have the scholarship endowed when they hit $30,000.

The scholarship will help students for years to come, as well as keep the memory of Pelawa alive -- one that won't be forgotten by those who knew him best.

"It's been 25 years now," Meyer said. "Twenty-five years. You'd think you would get over things. But you don't."