Hometown Hockey History: Muskegon, Michigan

One thing that has made this site so much fun is Shawn and I were both #blessed to live in towns with extremely rich hockey history.

Yes, the names of the teams and leagues they played in over the years changed, and often times at a rapid rate, but through it all there was (almost) always some kind of hockey people in our respective cities could enjoy. We grew up hearing the tales of guys who took the ice in our respective arenas and then making our own memories growing up and seeing our hometown heroes in action.

Today, I’d like to share the hometown hockey history (to the best of my knowledge) of where I grew up, Muskegon, Michigan.

The Early Years

While pretty much everyone associates Muskegon with pro hockey and the glory years of pro hockey in the IHL from the 1960s through the early 1990s, many aren’t aware that high-level hockey was played in Muskegon before the IHL came calling and before the LC Walker Arena in downtown Muskegon was even an idea.

The first team to take the ice in Muskegon was a team called the Muskegon Reds, who played in something called the Michigan/Ontario Hockey League, an amateur league mainly based in the Detroit area that operated from 1932 until 1942, and typically played with 4-6 teams each year of its existence.

The Reds played three seasons from 1935 to 1938, and were never really successful, with three losing seasons and a combined record of 31-47-8 in those three years.

Following those three seasons, the team named was changed to the Muskegon Sailors, who played a season as an independent team in 1938-39, before they joined something called the Midwest Hockey League (Google searches brought up nothing on this league) the next season. Then in 1940-41, the Sailors returned to the MOHL for one unsuccessful season, before the calls of World War II turned the arena into basically a giant storage unit and put and end to hockey for nearly two decades.

And how about the arena! The Reds and Sailors played their home tilts at the Mart Dock, which was and still is across the street from the current LC Walker Arena. It was originally built to be a multi-purpose auditorium with retail space, right along the Muskegon Lake shoreline. It reportedly had seating for about 1800 for hockey games.

mart arena.jpg

After the Sailors closed up shop, Muskegon would wait nearly two decades before hockey came back to the area, but it was a massive step up when it finally did return.

Muskegon Goes Pro

The idea of getting hockey back in Muskegon started in the late 50s when Louis Carlisle (LC) Walker donated $1 million to have a new public arena built across the street from the Mart Dock.

With a new arena ready, a man by the name of Jerry DeLise purchased a team for the grand total of $25,000 and christened the team the Muskegon Zephyrs, named after a brand of gasoline, and had them take the ice for their first season in 1960 in the International Hockey League.

The Zephyrs were a hit from the start, and despite a record of just 25-41-4 in their first season, the team secured the last playoff spot in the 8-team IHL and made a miracle run to the Turner Cup Finals where they were dispatched by the St. Paul Saints in five games.

But Muskegon would not have to wait long for its first hockey championship, with the team posting the best record in the IHL the next season, go ing 43-23-2, scoring a whopping 334 goals that season, then going 8-1 in the playoffs, including a sweep of St. Paul in the finals for the first Turner Cup in city history.

The Zephyrs would play three more seasons in Muskegon, but with little success, making the playoffs just once in those years, but the team did see a then-pro hockey first, when defenseman Gerry Glaude became the first defenseman to score 100 points in a professional season at any level.

Following the 1964-65 playoffs, the team was renamed the Muskegon Mohawks (which would never be allowed today), a name they would keep for 19 seasons.

The Mohawks saw mild success during the nearly two decades as a team, capturing six Huber Cups (best regular season record), and one Turner Cup in 1968, a team that the older locals claim was the best in Muskegon hockey history.

The 1967-1968 team cruised to the IHL regular season crown with a glistening 43-17-12 record, winning the league by 20 points and giving up 56 fewer goals than the next closest team, then going 8-1 in the playoffs, including a 4-1 thrashing of the Dayton Gems in the final for the city’s second Turner Cup. Some of the more notable players included rookie Gary Ford, who lead the league with 115 points, including 56 goals. Other memorable players included Bryan McClay, Bob Tombari, Lynn Margarit, and goalie Bob Perani.

However, following that championship, the team only saw mild success in the playoffs despite some strong teams, including two that broke 100 points, never making it to the finals again under the Mohawks name, but did see some NHL talent come through town, including goalie Glenn “Chico” Resch.

Affiliated Hockey and the IHL goes big time

Prior to the start of the 1984-85, a group purchased the team for $1 and were re-named the Muskegon Lumberjacks following a name-the-team contest, an ode to the area’s logging history, which helped put the city on the map a century before.

With the name change came affiliation with the NHL starting in 1987, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were just starting their run towards becoming a powerhouse in the early 1990s. That talent trickled down to the Lumberjacks, who dominated the IHL during their eight seasons under the Lumberjacks name.

In those eight seasons, the Jacks captured six division titles, three regular season crowns, made the Turner Cup Final a whopping six times, and won two Turner Cups in 1985-86, and then again in 1988-89.

Plenty of names who went on to the NHL and contributed heavily to those Penguins Stanley Cup teams, or had previous NHL experience, skated for Muskegon in that era, including Scott Gruhl, Jock Callander, Richard Zemlak, Dennis Polonich, Jim Paek, Phil Bourque, Mark Recchi (who had 110 points in 67 career IHL games), Kevin Stevens, and Gord Dineen.

But as the IHL grew and tried to compete with the AHL (and in some cases the NHL), Muskegon was not seen as a viable city due to its small size. While the league looked at cities like Atlanta and Salt Lake City, little 35,000 Muskegon just didn’t fit the bill. And so following the 1992 season the owners moved the team to Cleveland, leaving Muskegon to scramble for a team.

The Fury and indy pro hockey

While the Lumberjacks may have left, the Muskegon Fury, owned by Tony Lisman, quickly stepped in to make sure there was no hockey void in The Port City, joining the  second-year Colonial Hockey League. Their head coach during their first season as the Fury? Bruce Boudreau.

The Fury were a success early on, making the Colonial Cup Finals in their third season where they were dispatched by the Thunder Bay Senators.

Following the 1996-97 season the CoHL changed its name to the United Hockey League, and the Fury took off, becoming one of the most successful teams in CoHL/UHL history, making it to at least the second round of the playoffs every year until the league’s demise in 2007.

While the Fury were a hit on the ice and in the stands, the LC Walker Arena underwent a number of changes, most notably adding more, updated seats. I am old enough to remember the rink holding about 3500 people, with most of the seats being old wooden seats or bleachers are the top of each section. The updates expanded capacity to more than 5000 seats and put in updated red, blue, teal, and grey seats. To this day my dad hates the updates they made, saying it made the arena more cramped than it was in the IHL days of the Lumberjacks.

The Fury finally broke through for their first championship in 1999, racking up 106 points, tops in the league, before topping the hated Quad City Mallards in six games for the city’s first title in a decade. But the Fury were not done there. Three years later they captured their second Colonial Cup on a memorable OT goal by Todd Robinson that nearly blew the roof off the 40-year-old LC Walker Arena.

And the Fury kept it rolling from there, winning two consecutive championships in 2004 and 2005, the 2005 being my favorite season ever, and possibly the greatest team in Muskegon hsitory.

But all good things must come to an end, and the UHL had expanded itself too far, and with the economy starting to recess, hockey became a struggle in many towns, and the UHL folded following the 2006-07 season.

50 years and the end of pro hockey

With the demise of the UHL, Muskegon kept going in pro hockey, joining the newly formed IHL, which was reborn after the original IHL folded in 2001. The league was even able to get the original Turner Cup from the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Fury played one more season under that name in the first year of the new IHL, but attendance sagged, and the team reportedly lost tons of money.

While the Fury chugged to the finish line in the IHL, someone thought it was a good idea in a dying economy, in a town that was hit hard by the collapse of the auto industry, to put a very low pro team in the All American Hockey League, at the same time. The ill-fated West Michigan Blizzard played 30 games in Muskegon after moving over from the Detroit area, lasted one season, and then played one more season in Indiana before that league folded.

In one last stab at pro hockey nostalgia, the team was renamed the Muskegon Lumberjacks for the final two seasons, losing in the Finals in 2009, then bowing out in the first round of the 2010 IHL playoffs, the final game a Game 7 loss to the Flint Generals on May 5, 2010, the final pro hockey game in Muskegon after 50 consecutive season that featured four team names, and four different leagues. Hockey would continue going forward, but with a junior team in the USHL.

The end of pro hockey in Muskegon hit fans hard, for 50 years they knew nothing but pro hockey, and saw NHL stars come through town, and even though the IHL at the end was little better than the current FHL, fans were not happy to have their team replaced by what they deemed, “kids hockey.”

The new Jacks and junior hockey

In 2010 the Mervis Family brought a domant USHL team they owned, looked at a number of cities, including some bigger markets, and picked Muskegon for their new franchise because of its hockey history, even taking over the Lumberjacks nickname.

The Lumberjacks were a tough sell early on despite making the playoffs and advancing to the second round in their first season. People vowed not to watch the junior hockey and would instead go to Grand Rapids for the AHL Griffins, or Kalamazoo for the ECHL.

But eight seasons later, the USHL Lumberjacks are still there, and have built a following in the city, as fans have finally come around to the idea that they are seeing future NHL players every night. The team has had mild success on the ice, reaching the finals in 2014-15, and has had some big names roll through town, including the No. 2 overall draft pick in the recent NHL Draft, Andrei Svechnikov, who scored 58 points in 48 games as a 16-year-old.

And while the hockey has evolved, so too has the LC Walker Arena, with more renovations over the years that have included a new scoreboard with video boards, a giant replay board at one end, suite areas, the removal of seats, restaurants, and this off-season, the removal of even more seats bring the arena back to its original size of around 3500 seats, but with way more modern amenities.

Who knows how long the USHL Lumberjacks will last, for the people in Muskegon, I hope it’s a long time, because for 58-straight years, there has been hockey there, and there aren’t many towns out there who can say that.

Thank you for reading my hometown’s hockey history.

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