Coinciding with the opening of the 2022-23 hockey season for the Saginaw Spirit, the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History will be staging an expansive exhibition opening October 1st that is titled Home Ice: The History of Hockey in Saginaw County, which will begin with the drive to obtain a professional team that could fill the seats at Wendler Arena, which opened back in 1972, and offer the public a taste of how hockey has endured throughout the region for five decades now.
According to Exhibits Coordinators Geoff Pelkey and Jeff Cottrell, the origins of hockey in Saginaw began as early as the mid to late 1960s, when OpEd pieces started appearing in The Saginaw News by Sports Editor Jerome Buckley calling for an IHL Expansion Team to start using the arena once it was decided to have a sports arena at the soon to be constructed Saginaw Civic Center.
“From the point it was decided to have a sports arena at the center, voices started calling out for professional sports to fill the seats,” explains Pelkey. “We weren’t sure if we would get a basketball or a hockey team, but shortly after these articles started appearing we got the IHL. The argument basically followed the line of thought that if we are going to have a sports arena, let’s get a professional home sports team in here. We can have the Shrine Circus come to town and fill it up, so let’s get a team that can fill the arena for 30 nights a year and put some butts in the seat to help pay for everything.”
From the time The Saginaw Gears first took to the ice, there was never so brilliant an assembly of homespun sport heroes to fill the hearts, represent the hopes, and raise the self-esteem of Saginaw residents eager for a bit of national notoriety and starving for a community rallying point.
According to Jeff Cottrell, the Castle Museum has partnered with the Saginaw Spirit and the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame to pull together items for this exhibit. “Three different mascots have been used over the decades that will be featured, and we’ll have things like jerseys, cups, photos, and sticks on display - basically all the things you’d expect to see in a hockey exhibit.”
“We’ll also featuring old programs, and action shots, and even found a couple of complete games from the Saginaw Gears and Saginaw Generals on YouTube,” he continues. “We also will have footage of the Gears winning the Turner Cup in 1981 that WNEM-TV5 used for a series on Ice Celebrations.”
The REVIEW is also contributing an in-depth interview and cover feature we did on Wren Blair back in 1984, who was instrumental in getting the lights back on at the arena after the Saginaw Gears were facing bankruptcy and Mid-Michigan Sports, Inc. was formed with area professionals and businessmen such as Scott Wilson, Leo Loiacano, Norm Bamberger, Basil Gianfortuna, Joe Scorsone, and John Mayer with the goal of restoring the Gears to solvency through community ownership.
A couple memorable quotes from that interview with Blair are worth mentioning:
“I remember when we first started the franchise and the National League affiliates would ask me, ‘Saginaw - where in the heck is that? But shortly after the franchise became successful and IHL standings are carried in the media nationwide, people quickly knew where Saginaw finally was. It seems to me to be absolutely redundant for a community build or consider building, when they can’t hold on to what they have. Why build one of the best hockey arenas around and not have hockey in it?”
“In Canada it is a never ending struggle to pay the pills and keep them going. But it creates community involvement on an important level that spills over into other areas. It creates commerce, it involves youth, it generates community action. I always say it’s cheaper to build arenas and hockey stadiums than it is to build jails.”
According to Pelkey, The Saginaw Gears went strong from 1972-83, and then the Generals moved from Flint to Saginaw from 1985-87, and from 1987-89 an affiliate of the Black Hawks were there and they became the Saginaw Hawks. For a while the arena sat dark and then the Saginaw Wheels came in for a short time and rebranded in 1997 and renamed the Gears again in 1998, and then Saginaw businessman Dick Garber came to the forefront in 2000 and has succeeded at keeping the Saginaw Spirit going for 20 years now.
“One thing I find that is interesting is how once hockey hit in Saginaw, you saw all these Men’s Leagues and High School teams forming,” notes Pelkey. “The Men’s Leagues evolved when they built Saginaw Bay Ice Arena and it became a practice facility for local pro teams; but you had others like Larry’s Lounge who won a lot of local men’s’ leagues championships.”
“It’s interesting how the minute a pro-team happened in Saginaw, interest in hockey exploded and it hasn’t waned that much over the decades,” concludes Cottrell. “It’s been down for some years, but pretty consistent considering the losses of population that have occurred in Saginaw county over the decades. The thing that surprised me is that high school teams didn’t really start until after that first pro team came into Saginaw.”
“It’s also interesting how many high schools got into it. Saginaw High and St. Stephens had a team, as did Arthur Hill. Hockey got real big in high school and then contracted, because it’s fairly expensive to have a hockey team; but now you’re seeing more high schools going back into it only they are joining forces, so you’ll have multiple schools like Swan Valley and Hemlock joining forces. Personally, I think it would be cool to see a high school tournament happen in Wendler Arena.”
The ‘Home Ice’ Exhibit will open at the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History on October 1st and is located at 500 Federal Ave in Saginaw. Museum hours are Sunday 1 pm - 4:30 pm; Monday - Wednesday 10 am - 4:30 pm; Thursday 10 am - 7 pm; and Friday & Saturday 10 am - 4:30 pm.
16th November, 2023