This is a feature that Shawn and I, and anyone else who contributes here, will try to continue where we share memories of our favorite minor league season. We grew up watching bus league hockey, and that’s why we love this site and what we do here so much.
It’s more than a little ironic that in the year my hometown’s hockey team had its greatest team ever, that the memory from that season that stands out most is a bad/missed call that went against the hometown Muskegon Fury.
I didn’t realize it or remember it until I started writing this, but the 2004-05 hockey season, was the same year the NHL had its infamous lockout that cost them an entire season.
As a result, minor league hockey was a ton of fun that year, with NHL players playing in the AHL, ECHL, and even UHL, just to stay in shape while they waited for the NHL to start playing again. That season in the UHL, numerous teams had NHL players on their rosters, including the Motor City Mechanics who had Bryan Smolinski, Sean Avery, Chris Chelios, and Derian Hatcher all play 16 or more games for them that season. Amazingly, they did not make the playoffs.
I remember one game against the Missouri River Otters (RIP), Barret Jackman picked up the puck behind his own net, skated through all five Fury players into the offensive zone, weaved through them again to get back to the blue line, and set up the play. Barret Jackman, who was the definition of an average NHL player, and he skated rings around these UHL lifers. It was the first time I can recall how much of a difference there was between NHL players and minor league players.
The Muskegon Fury were not one of those teams who brought in NHL players to try to help them on the ice or in the stands.
And it didn’t matter.
The Fury were fresh off winning their third Colonial Cup in franchise history, and second in three years. And they somehow got better. They rolled through the 80-game (god, it’s wild that even the UHL played a full 80 games back then, with each round of the playoffs best-of-7) season with a glistening 51-20-9 mark for an amazing 111 points, most in the league and most in franchise history. They led the league in goals. They gave up the fewest goals of anyone in the league, and they were in the Top-5 in penalty minutes. It was insanely entertaining hockey.
But more importantly for yours truly, in the summer of 2004 I turned 16, got my driver’s license, and had a car to drive. The amount of hockey games you can go to when you no longer need your parents to drop you off and pick you up goes up quite a bit. My best friend, still to this day, Ryan Corgan and I easily went to a dozen games that year, the most I had been to in a season before becoming a season ticket holder for the Amarillo Bulls this past season.
I remember the giveaways at games, each time the Fury scored a goal a letter was removed from a wall, if they scored four goals it spelled out TACO, and everyone got a free taco from Taco Bell. If they scored five, you got a free taco and nacho. Remember, this was the highest scoring team in the league, so they scored a lot. A short-handed goal was free bread sticks from Domino’s, a win meant a $6 pizza from Domino’s with your ticket stub.
I remember one half-day of school we went to Domino’s to get a pizza and breadsticks for the grand total of $6 thanks to those coupons. It was heaven.
The way the regular season went, it seemed like the playoffs would be just a formality and they would roll to their fourth Colonial Cup and third in four years.
But the rival Quad City Mallards had other ideas. Remember when the Red Wings and Avalanche were the bitterest of rivals? That’s what Quad City and Muskegon were like during this time in the UHL. The Mallards actually took a 2-1 lead in the series, but the Fury rallied to take the series in seven, including a 5-0 thrashing in Game 7.
From there Muskegon moved on to one of the wildest stories in the history of hockey, the Danbury Trashers…and dusted them aside in five games to set up a finals showdown with the Fort Wayne Komets.
For those who are old enough to remember, the old CoHL, UHL, IHL had its anchor teams, it was always Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Flint, Fort Wayne, and then whatever other teams were around them. When two of those four met in the finals, it was a big deal.
Before the series even started, things got weird. There was a scheduling conflict with the arena in Fort Wayne, so rather than the traditional 2-2-1-1-1 series format, it ended up being two in Muskegon, one in Fort Wayne, one in Muskegon, two in Fort Wayne, one in Muskegon.
The Fury picked a 5-3 win in Game 1, to take the early lead in the series…and now we’re back to that moment that stands out in my mind more than anything from that season and series.
Game 2. Ryan Corgan and I had seats behind the net that were four rows from the ice. After the 5-3 offensive thriller in Game 1, Game 2 was a defensive battle with the score locked at 1-1 as it started to get late in the game. The Komets were controlling play in the Muskegon end when the refs arm went up for a penalty. The Komets continued to control the puck for another 5-10 seconds before a turnover rolled in front of the Muskegon net and was knocked to the blue line by a Fury player…only the ref never blew his whistle. A couple of Fury players on the ice stopped playing thinking a whistle was coming, and the Fort Wayne player hammered home a slap shot for a 2-1 lead that turned out to be the game-winning goal.
I can still see that whole sequence in my mind, puck on the boards to my left, rolls right out in front, knocked back to the line by Muskegon. In the net. The entire section of Fort Wayne fans behind their bench going crazy.
The hometown crowd was pissed. The Fury players were pissed. They thought they had played the puck and that a whistle should have been blown, the ref deemed they did not control the puck, and allowed the play to continue.
Remember that weird schedule they had for the final? Well, Muskegon won the next three games to take the Colonial Cup in five games, with a 4-2 win in Fort Wayne securing the title. A Game 5 that should have been in Muskegon if not for the weird schedule, or may have been a sweep and won in Muskegon in Game 4 due to that schedule if the ref had blown the whistle.
Regardless, the win secured Muskegon’s place as a minor league hockey dynasty.
Honestly, after that season I don’t remember much about the Fury or Muskegon minor league hockey. I had two more years in town before I went off to college, but they didn’t win the championship in either of those years, and then the league began to lose teams in a hurry as the economy tanked, rebranding as the IHL in a desperate grab to bring back fans out of nostalgia, and by 2010 the league and the team were gone, replaced by the new Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL, Tier 1 junior hockey, the best in the country.
While the junior hockey is great and you’re seeing future NHL players every night, there was something special about all those years of minor league hockey, especially that 2004-05 season in Muskegon.