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In Memory of Robert B. Lillyblad


December 9, 1935 - November 1, 2022

Robert “Bruce” Lillyblad Sr. passed away peacefully from natural causes on November 1, 2022. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on December 9, 1935, Bruce was the eldest son of Robert Harry Lillyblad and Lucretia Mary Bennett.

Along with his brothers, Stephen Scott Lillyblad, and Allan Breck Lillyblad, Bruce spent most of his early life in Michigan, graduating from Grand Haven High School in 1954, where he was a decorated track athlete. His school record times in the 100- and 220-yard dash races stood for decades after he graduated. Continuing his passion for learning and athletics, Bruce received a B.A. Education degree from Michigan State College (now Michigan State University), where he also ran the 100- and 220-yard dashes as a member of the collegiate track team.

In 1960, Bruce married Janice Arlene Zysk and they had four children, Natalie, Eric, Robert (Bob), and Michael (Mike Aagar). Before moving his young family to Rice Lake, Wisconsin in 1967, Bruce was an English high school teacher, basketball and track coach, as well as a Christmas tree farmer at their property, Pine Acres – a 160-acre tree farm near Lake City, Michigan.

Bruce, his family and close friends continued the tradition of cultivating trees at the beloved “Tree Farm” and cabin near Spooner, Wisconsin. He was active in the trimming and harvesting of the trees into the last year of his long and robust life. The “Tree Farm” cabin was built and shared with the Ed Ricci family for many years, and became a natural setting for annual family gatherings, vibrant Euchre card games, ice fishing, hunting and the great outdoors.

From 1967 until his retirement in 1998, Bruce Lillyblad managed Birchwood Manufacturing Company (BMC), a business started by his father, Robert Harry Lillyblad, Bob Wampole and Bill Fauch in 1947. Prior to 1947, the three partners had been working as engineers at Camfield Manufacturing in Michigan making laminated wooden airplane propellers for World War II. They were approached by Wilson Golf Company to make laminated wood golf club heads and the three partners moved to Rice Lake, Wisconsin and started Birchwood Manufacturing Company. During the era in which Bruce Lillyblad was President, Birchwood Manufacturing Company produced 95% of the wooden golf club heads in the world. His youngest brother, Breck, was the accountant at Birchwood Manufacturing Company during that time.

Shortly after the Lillyblad family arrived in Rice Lake, Bruce became involved in the Jaycees, (or Junior Chamber). Dale Gonyea, his dear friend and fellow Jaycee, recalls the meeting that turned out to be the catalyst for the formation of the Rice Lake Hockey Association, where two parents came to a Rice Lake Jaycee meeting and inquired about the local chapter helping raise money for uniforms and equipment for a newly formed youth hockey team.

The appealing conversation sparked a vision and inspiration within Bruce that day, alongside fellow Jaycee Bob Buergi, and many family friends, to create a positive change in the community. The development of the Rice Lake Hockey Association was born. Starting from the meager beginnings of flooding the outdoor yard near the police station, then to Tate Park, where the parents made an ice rink for the kids with makeshift boards, to ultimately building the Rice Lake Hockey Arena in 1972. This progression allowed for Rice Lake to host and compete against regional teams, thus cultivating a robust league with its own season, divisions and championships. The social impact and memories that have been created for multiple generations as a result of this gift of comradery and sense of teamwork, are forever present in the community.

Bruce found joy in coaching the boy’s youth hockey levels, including Mite, Squirt, Peewee, Bantam, and Midget age groups. This passion mirrored the ages of his own sons, where his wife Jan, and daughter Natalie also participated in the organization, hockey teams and figure skating, throughout the years. As a result, the affectionate nickname, “The Godfather of Hockey” was given to Bruce Lillyblad for his dedication to the sport. Bruce was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Rice Lake Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

Bruce’s keen interest with competition, statistics and athletics was not limited to hockey. He was also a youth baseball coach for many years in Rice Lake and took to the water on his Butterfly sailboat in the summer months on Lac Courte Oreilles. Bruce also loved table tennis, in which he set up regional tournaments for recreation, as well as developing a youth soccer program in Rice Lake before it was an official sport at most of the area high schools.

Bruce’s affair with sailing began in high school and college, when his close friend, Paul Eggert introduced him to the sport in Michigan. Bruce enjoyed sharing his lifelong passion for sailing with others, especially to introduce those unfamiliar with its challenges and charms. Participating in the National Butterfly Races over the years saw Bruce, Eric and Mike all competing and taking home their share of trophies. In 1976 and 1978, the Lac Courte Oreilles Sailing Club hosted the National Butterfly Association Regatta at the storied Chicago Club in Hayward.

Bruce’s keen interest with competition, statistics and athletics was not limited to hockey. He was also a youth baseball coach for many years in Rice Lake and took to the water on his Butterfly sailboat in the summer months on Lac Courte Oreilles. Bruce also loved table tennis, in which he set up regional tournaments for recreation, as well as developing a youth soccer program in Rice Lake before it was an official sport at most of the area high schools.

Bruce’s affair with sailing began in high school and college, when his close friend, Paul Eggert introduced him to the sport in Michigan. Bruce enjoyed sharing his lifelong passion for sailing with others, especially to introduce those unfamiliar with its challenges and charms. Participating in the National Butterfly Races over the years saw Bruce, Eric and Mike all competing and taking home their share of trophies. In 1976 and 1978, the Lac Courte Oreilles Sailing Club hosted the National Butterfly Association Regatta at the storied Chicago Club in Hayward.

Bruce is preceded in death by his wife, Janice Arlene Lillyblad (Zysk) and his son Robert Bruce Jr. (Bob). Bruce is survived by his daughter Natalie (William), sons, Eric (Kim), and Mike (Karen). As well as his grandchildren, Robert Bruce III (R.B.), Levi, Jenson, Cullen, and nephew Scott, nieces, Sara, Susie, Krista, and Kim, and his partner, Joni Pederson.

There will be a Celebration of Life for Bruce Lillyblad at the Rice Lake Hockey Arena on Wednesday, November 23, 2022, from 3:00PM to 6:00PM.

The program will include visitation with the extended family members, a special commemoration and prayer for Bruce Lillyblad, as well as refreshments, and an opportunity to skate together in honor of “The Godfather of Hockey.” All are welcome to attend as we appropriately begin Thanksgiving weekend.

Last Update: Nov 17, 2022 6:09 am CST

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