By: Mike Cowan
Bob Rompre of Beaver Dam and Pinney Dittmann of Watertown were two of the premier hockey players in the state during the 1950s and 1960s. Their paths crossed on occasion as competitors and once or twice as teammates. They were both skilled goal scorers. One was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame; the other should have been.
Bob Rompre grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in International Falls, Minnesota where he starred for his local high school team. His hockey talents earned him a scholarship to Colorado College. The Korean War delayed those plans. Fortunately, the military allowed Rompre to participate on the 1952 Olympic team. The United States captured the silver medal. Ironically, Rompre who was of Finnish descent and was nicknamed the ‘Flying Finn,’ scored a record four goals against the Finnish national team.
Following the Olympics, Rompre had an opportunity to play for the New York Rangers in the National Hockey League. He bypassed the offer to complete his education and collegiate hockey career at Colorado College. In 1956, Rompre moved to Waupun and opened Rompre’s Department Store. He also continued playing amateur hockey with the Fond du Lac Bears, a senior men’s team. He had an immediate impact on the team and the league. In 16 years with the Bears, he led the team in scoring 13 times. He also led the league in 11 of those years. Following a brief retirement, he rejoined the team in the 1970s and once again led the team in scoring. The Fond du Lac Bears won their first state titles in 1970 and 1972.
Rompre and fellow Bears teammate Bob Bentley were instrumental in developing the hockey programs for both Waupun youth and the Waupun High School. In the 1970s Rompre’s three sons, Mike, Tom, and Jim, played for Waupun High School.
Fritz Ragatz, who skated for the Wisconsin Badgers, played with Rompre throughout the 1960s and 1970s. “Rompre was a hell of a player – he was head and shoulders above everyone else,” according to Ragatz. “And he was such a nice guy,” Ragatz recalls.
Harold “Pinney” Dittmann grew up a decade later in the 1940s and the 1950s. He starred in baseball at Watertown High School and later became the city tennis champion. He also played hockey, first for the local Watertown team – Justmann Sporting Goods – and then for the Madison and Rockton Cardinals. The Madison Cardinals were the premier team in the state during the 50s and 60s, winning eight state titles in 16 years. Dittmann was small in stature at 5 feet 8 inches, but a fast-skating, high-scoring forward.
In 1958, Dittmann made the semi-pro Green Bay Bobcats, but Orv Walsvik, the Cardinals coach, convinced him to stay with the Rockton Cardinals by offering him $15 per game in expenses – $5 more than the usual pay. Dittmann played on five of the eight state titles the Cardinals won during this two-decade span. In 1955, he led the Madison Cardinals junior team to the state title. He scored eight goals in three games. As the tournament MVP, he remembers getting a new pair of hockey gloves. He also helped the senior Cardinals win their second state title that year. It was the first time the same town won both the junior and senior championships.
In the 1956 semi-final game between Madison and chief rival Mosinee, Dittmann scored the game winner in triple overtime as Madison edged Mosinee 3-2. Madison beat Wausau 12-3 for their second straight title. Dittmann also scored the game winner in the 1963 USA national championship contest between the Rockton Cardinals and the South St. Paul Parkers.
Rompre and Dittmann competed against each other in the Badger State league. When the Madison Cardinals moved to Rockton in 1958, they competed less often against each other. In the early 1960s, when artificial ice came to Madison and the Madison Cardinals were revived, Rompre and Dittmann played together a few times in exhibition contests.
Karl Bast of Watertown played goal for both the Madison Cardinals and the Fond du Lac Bears. “Rompre was a hockey junkie who loved to play the game. He would travel anywhere for a hockey game, and he was an outstanding scorer,” Bast remembers. “He had a low, heavy shot, but he was also a great skater. And he didn’t have to fight very often,” says Bast. Dittmann had been a speed skater, Bast recalls. “He was small, but he could skate. He and Orv Walsvik teamed up to make a tremendous scoring duo for the Cardinals. “Pinney and I worked together as brick layers and often on jobs in Madison we would go pheasant hunting on the way,” Bast remembers. Bast was one of the best goaltenders in the state during this era and was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992. Rompre was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977. For his exploits on the ice, Dittmann is also deserving of induction into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame.
The hockey careers of Rompre and Dittmann are further chronicled in two books – The History of the Fond du Lac Bears and Remembering the Madison Cardinals, available for $10 each by contacting me, Mike Cowan, at 920-251-6516 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.