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Roger Dier's Scarlet Ice gives meaning to what was lost

By WiPH Staff and Submitted, 11/19/11, 8:59AM CST


A tribute to John Janavaras and the essence of hockey he embraced

For the Mankato West Scarlets, the winter of 1994-95 was a tumultuous one. As a low-ranking, newly formed high school team in Minnesota–the State of Hockey–the Scarlets lacked the talent and experience of their peers, making every game a challenge of will. Success was fleeting and off-ice conflict pitted underclassmen versus seniors, players against coaches.

Scarlets’ sophomore John Janavaras was the smallest varsity player, but he played with enough heart to draw notice every time he stepped on the ice. At fifteen years old, he was the team’s cheerleader, a fearless and competitive center, and the only son of Basil and Linda Janavaras. He picked up his first stick at four; at twelve, he convinced his father to co-sponsor a Russian team’s U.S. exhibition. “Hockey was everything to John,” said teammate Jamie Como.

When a swift outbreak of meningitis tore through Mankato in late January 1995, the city was shaken to its core: within days, seven cases were logged, thousands of vaccinations were administered, and one tragedy left behind a permanent stain. A tribute to John Janavaras and the essence of hockey he embraced, Scarlet Ice chronicles the season that gave meaning to what was lost.

Roger Dier has given 15 years to this writing project, one that tells the story of a team and a city that was stricken by an outbreak of meningitis back in the mid-1990s.

It tells the story of a team, a city, and the hockey families that had to deal with the death of one of their own: John Janavaras, a sophomore with a personality that wouldn't quit.

I have read Roger's game summaries that he has submitted to WiPH; I can hardly wait to read Scarlet Ice.

--Michael Trzinski, WiPH Editor


John Janavaras, December 1994, photo courtesy Janavaras family

Feb. 25, 1995 Minnesota Section 1A playoff between Mankato West (dark jerseys) and New Ulm. Photo courtesy The New Ulm Journal.

Mankato West Scarlets, 1994-95, photo courtesy Dan Sutch

Roger Dier, author of Scarlet Ice

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to visit the Scarlet Ice website

in roger's own words

I worked for the Mankato Free Press for about five years and ended my employment with them when I moved back to Green Bay on July 1, 1995. I was a columnist and sportswriter. I had a lot of beats, but hockey was my favorite one for obvious reasons. I covered two Mankato high school teams--no girls hockey back in that era--and also covered high school hockey teams in the fringes of our circulation area. I also covered Mankato State University men's hockey. It was a blissful experience.

The 1994-95 Mankato West Scarlets were not a good hockey team. Three seniors of average ability, about five juniors and the rest were sophomores or freshman. They had one high skills player, Charlie Nelson, who was a sophomore. Neither goalie played a varsity minute before the 94-95 season began. Only one player, Nelson, scored more than five goals all season.

The team foundered from the start, managed a 3-1-1 stretch around the holidays, then began a long losing streak.

One of the sophomores, John Janavaras, suddenly became ill with meningitis, he was the fourth Mankato West student to come down with meningitis inside of a week. His friends and teammates called him JJ. He was a popular kid at West. He was an effort player, but his skills were limited. Two other people became sick with meningitis during late January, early February. By early March, nine people were stricken. A full-blown outbreak.

JJ died suddenly on Feb. 3, 1995. The school, and town, became panicked, hysterical in some cases. The team's hockey schedule was suspended. Eventually, the Scarlets resumed their schedule and finished it, losing twelve in a row.

They found themselves playing the No. 1 seed in the section and in a game they dedicated to their departed teammate, knocked off the No. 1 seed, New Ulm. New Ulm was rated by the AP in the Top 10 of Class A all season. They were loaded. Mankato West's playoff win was the most unlikely outcome I ever witnessed in hockey. It wasn't until this past spring that a No. 8 seed beat a No. 1 seed in Minnesota high school playoff hockey, so the Mankato West's win in late February of 1995 was a generational moment.

JJ's parents gave me access to the doctors that treated him, and I interviewed more than 40 people to write this story.

Coaches who read Scarlet Ice will appreciate how Mankato West head coach Mike Carroll (now coaching women's hockey at Gustavus Adolphus) managed that extraordinary season, and tactical decisions he made that led to the shocking victory. Hockey players will appreciate the stories of some of the players on the Scarlets and some of their opponents. Wisconsin hockey fans will enjoy reading about the culture of Minnesota high school hockey as it existed in the 1990s. I take readers in the critical care unit of Immanuel St. Joseph's Hospital in Mankato and into lockers rooms Mankato West and some of their opponents. The book reflects the emotion of the city, one of its hockey teams, and the family and friends of John Janavaras.

All the above said, Scarlet Ice is a hockey love story. My whole hockey and writing soul is in it.