This is a feature that Ron 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.
This may sound asinine, but I’ve never cared more about, been as invested in, or been nearly as passionate about really any sports team the way I was about the 09-10 International Hockey League’s Flint Generals.
I’m going to really recanter history and rant, so stick with this piece because it’s a long one.
I was blessed to have been not only raised in a family that adores hockey (my cousin Ryan is a Panthers’ prospect at BGSU, and Shane and Ryan both played in the USHL and NAHL, for context), but also raised in a decades old hockey town of Flint.
Prior to the end of the Generals, professional hockey was in Flint for over 40 years. Since, we were stuck with the Michigan Warriors (NAHL) and lucky enough to land the Flint Firebirds (OHL) that’ve almost been able to capture that Generals enthusiasm and spirit.
A long time ago, Flint was the affiliate of the New York Rangers. Not as long ago, Detroit Red Wings legend Darren McCarty restarted his post-rehab career in Flint with the Generals, who welcomed him with arms wide open. McCarty eventually leveraged this to return to the Red Wings to win the ’08 cup with them. The stories out of Perani Arena are enough to fill many archives.
The Generals and Flint Hockey are as intertwined in history as the Mallards were with Quad City – if not more. To the point where the leading name for the name-the-team contest when the OHL came to town was undisputedly the Generals. Too bad the Oshawa Generals already had that nickname.
My first game of this season – the season where the owners decided before the season started that would be the last – was to see the dead last Generals play in a December crowd of…30(?) if even that many. You knew what to expect with a cardiac-stage IHL game – big hits, fights a plenty, and guys fighting to keep their careers on life support.
My dad took me on a Saturday – the only time during my childhood where I could really spend time with him besides 11:30 P.M. on weeknights. Much like many generations of families in southeast Michigan and the lifeblood of Flint, we were a blue-collar auto industry family.
The past years had been brutal for the city and state, as the economic collapse destroyed the auto industry, resulting in plant closures, unemployment, and the loss of disposable income. We were lucky, as my dad was only laid off for a short time, with the Flint Metal Fabrication plant keeping Flint on life support, and my dad working.
As I remember it, my mom went with my sisters on a girl’s day with her best friend, a yearly tradition for them during the Christmas season. This was usually when it would just be dad and I, going to see a “guy movie” my mom wouldn’t want to see and getting dinner. It was a simple pleasure, but I always appreciated the time what my dad. This particular time, dad decided he needed to take me to see the Generals “one last time”.
Dad bought hot dogs and a chuck-a-puck for each of us. We sat in our seats – three rows from the ice towards the bottom right corner – and he began to tell me about one of the players on our team, a former NHLer, and said he’ll be fun to watch. The drunk guy in front of us decided to heckle my dad about this for some reason, and was being a real jerk. My dad rightfully told him to shut up.
The game was an even-flow competition, and proved to be an exciting one for us in attendance. During chuck-a-puck, I hit the target right dead in the center…but so did someone else’s. They chose the other puck, and therefore, I did not win the autographed jersey and fan shop gift card. To this day, I am disappointed.
Flint ended up winning a crazy game against Muskegon in the shootout, and I was ecstatic.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Flint somehow went on an absolute tangent to finish the season and snuck in as the lowest seed in the IHL playoffs, “Against All Odds” (the team’s playoff motto).
The city began to re-embrace their woe-begotten sons, and once the playoffs started, it was like old times all over again.
Yours truly included. During the playoffs, I went to every single home game, with us 14 year olds at Davison High switching between whose mom would drive that day, though it seemed like my dear mom had to drive the most, and never complained. We had to show up two hours early, because lines were out the door hours in advance. Every game was standing-room-only, with the 3,000-4,000 seat rink screaming at capacity. Every night was full of screaming rabid fans, ear-piercing decibels of sound on goals, and ALWAYS fights. Tons of fights. There wasn’t a hotter ticket in the state than Flint Generals games. Local news was doing live shots in the rink at 6 A.M. on game days with diehard fans being interviewed on ice. Flint then was the Vegas of now.
I particularly remember playing Muskegon in the semi-finals, game 7 on the road. They had a party bus that would take fans for $20 (included tickets) and was sold out immediately. At 14, I had to stay home and thankfully listen to the radio call from now-Saginaw Spirits (OHL) broadcaster Joey Battaino all game, leading to the of scream the final call as Flint was advancing to the final Turner Cup Finals.
Fans were begging ownership to keep the Generals, and they were picking up momentum the deeper this playoff run went, and the sooner tickets sold out.
Fort Wayne Komets (now ECHL) vs Flint Generals, in the grand finale finals.
All I can remember of this crazy series was the unbelievable competitive nature. To this day, I have still never seen two teams who wanted to pummel and destroy each other physically so bad. The first of the last Generals Turner Cup home openers was the best hockey game I’ve ever watched: a wild 7-6 OT win for Flint’s lone win of the series.
“That is one of my all-time favorite memories,” said Battaino “The roof almost came off the place when the Generals tied the game in the first couple minutes of the third“.
Flint was clearly the underdog against this perennial powerhouse in Indiana, and some week and a half after the series started, so it ended with the Komets raising the cup.
I was heartbroken. The months of friendship, memories, and endless hours watching the most fun hockey I’ve ever seen…just ended without the storybook finish.
The team soon announced it’s official folding, and the community has never quite embraced hockey like it did the Generals again.
Immediately after, the Arena announced that the NAHL was coming to town in the Michigan Warriors, and was despised. The team never got close to a decent attendance, and was truly dead on arrival after the betrayal of the previous ownership ripping away their lifelong team.
After the NAHL, the OHL relocated the Plymouth Whalers to Flint, and fans have had a much more preferable and welcoming nature to the Firebirds, but still the lukewarmness of a town missing their roots is felt.
Since the Firebirds though, ownership has hosted Red Wings vs Generals alumni games, and even with ticket prices more expensive than typical Firebirds games, the crowd is always packed.
I’ve been a humongous fan of the Firebirds, and am endlessly grateful we get this pedigree and quality of hockey back in Flint, but will always miss the golden days of Flint Professional Hockey.
Mainly, I miss the way my hometown team became such a bonding for my dad and I, and for some of the most fun nights of my freshman year of high school.