The Muskegon Lumberjacks are proudly carrying the torch of the city's proud hockey tradition during the 2018-19 season, the team's ninth in the United States Hockey League (USHL).
The 2009-10 hockey season celebrated 50 consecutive years of professional hockey in Muskegon, going back to the 1960 Muskegon Zephyrs. However, Muskegon's hockey history started decades before the 1960 Zephyrs.
The first team played at The Mart Dock during the 1934-35 season. They were called the Reds and played teams from Windsor, Detroit and Sarnia. The league was the Michigan/Ontario Hockey League (MOHL).
The Reds stayed in the MOHL until 1938, when the area returned to amateur status and the team became the Sailors. The 1930s and early 40s brought excitement and thrills to local hockey fanatics. Art Erickson, Carl Howell, George Dean and Harvey Lloyd played several seasons in those early years with Howell and Dean moving up the ladder to play professionally outside the Muskegon area. During this time, a group of young men and high school teenagers helped at The Mart Arena. They were referred to as "Rink Rats" and kept the ice smooth and the arena ready for action.
With the start of World War II, the Mart was transformed into a cold storage to meet the needs of the time and, inside, hockey came to an end, although outside hockey still drew local crowds.
In the early 1950s, Louis Carlisle Walker announced that he would personally donate $1 million dollars for an arena. In 1959, the ground-breaking occurred and hockey returned to Muskegon in 1960.
Two men brought hockey back to Muskegon. Jerry DeLise had the $25,000 to buy the franchise and Morris "Moose" Lallo became the first coach of the Zephyrs in the International Hockey League (IHL).
The 1960-61 season was full of ups and downs. The first Zephyrs goal was scored by Stan Konrad against the Omaha Knights. Other players included Lallo, Gerry Glaude, Gerry Frennette, Ron Stephenson, Ken Hayden, Eldon VanSpybrook, Bryan McLay, Joe Kiss, Warren Back, Rod Paavola and Jim McLeod.
The first championship season for Muskegon occurred in 1961-62 as the Zephyrs won both the IHL's Huber and Turner Trophies. It was the first professional sports championship for a Muskegon team.
At the start of the 1965-66 season, changes were made and the team became the Mohawks, with Lallo returning to coaching after Lorne Davis had a one-year stint behind the bench. For almost 20 years, supporters would cheer for the Mohawks as they captured six Huber Cup Trophies and one Turner Cup for the playoff championship during the 1967-68 season.
That 1967-68 team is considered one of the best teams to play in Muskegon. The squad was loaded with talent and lost only 17 contests. Take a look at the list of players: Bryan McLay, Joe Kastelic, Bob Tombari, Gary Ford (league scoring leader), Carl Brewer (league's best defenseman), Tim Tabor and Bob Perani (league's best goaltenders), Lynn Margarit (league penalty leader with 349 minutes) and Hugh Harris (future National Hockey League player).
The Mohawks continued to bring talent to Muskegon like Glenn "Chico" Resch and Bob Lorimer to excite the fans, but were never able to recapture the Turner Cup.
The 1984-85 season brought in a new owner, Larry Gordon, who purchased the team for $1 to keep hockey in the Port City. He was joined in the ownership by Leo Hunstiger and I. John Snider, and the Lumberjacks were born.
The team was still a member of the IHL and success came immediately, finishing their inaugural season with 50 wins, something that hadn't happened in Muskegon since 1961-'62.
Three Mohawks stayed with the squad: Scott Gruhl, Erle Switzer and Neil Hawryliw. They were joined by a troupe of fan favorites, including Jock Callander, Jay Miller, Todd Strueby and Don Murdoch.
With the addition of Rick Ley as coach, fans again witnessed championships at the Walker Arena. The Lumberjacks won three Huber Trophies (87-88, 88-89 and 89-90) and two Turner Cups (85-86) during their time in the IHL, all while playing franchises based in larger IHL cities like Phoenix, San Diego and Salt Lake City.
To say Muskegon had some talent during the Lumberjacks years is a gross understatement. Just dream of having this talent on your team: Dave Michayluk, Jock Callander, Mike Mersch, Mitch Wilson, Jim Paek, Jeff Daniels, Richard Zemlak, Brad Aitken, Dennis Polonich, Perry Ganchar and Bruce Racine and Chris Clifford in goal. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
In 1992, Larry Gordon moved the team to Cleveland to compete in the IHL and Tony Lisman brought in a new franchise, the Muskegon Fury, which competed in the Colonial (CoHL) and then United Hockey Leagues (UHL). In 2007, the Fury joined the newly reformed IHL after the UHL folded. The new leagues turned out to be good matches for a city the size of Muskegon, and the Fury continued to thrill and draw fans in support of their local heroes.
Muskegon would win two Tarry Cups and four Colonial Cups during these years. Fans cheered for players like Todd Charlesworth, Mike and Scott Feasby, Steve Herniman, Rob Melanson, Todd Robinson, Robin Bouchard and Rustyn Dolyny. Former US Women's National Team goaltender Erin Whitten appeared in four games for the Fury in 1995-96.
In 2008, the Fury franchise was saved by brothers Jeff and Stacey Patulski, along with the help of Muskegon native Tim Taylor. The new owners looked to restore the team to its glory years, starting with returning the name to the Lumberjacks. The 2008-09 season saw the return of Robinson and Bouchard to Muskegon. The Lumberjacks made a run for the Turner Cup in their first season, only to fall short to Fort Wayne in the Finals.
Enter the Mervis Family. Father, Lou, and son, Josh, with Taylor still on board, kept hockey alive in Muskegon when in 2010 they brought in a dormant USHL franchise to become the latest edition of the Lumberjacks.
Following the completion of the 2012-13 season, the Mervis family decided to turn the USHL ownership guard over to two sets of brothers that are no strangers to the junior hockey industry in current owners Ronald and Joel Friedman along with Chris and Peter Ferraro, who are dedicated to continue the rich hockey tradition in the downtown Muskegon area.
In 2016, Dan Israel purchased the franchise, and has invested heavily in the team and the Muskegon community. In Israel's first season as owner, the team not only broke records for wins, points, goals allowed and goals scored in a single season, but also set a new standard in attendance. Today, the team continues to proudly carry the torch for the Port City's proud hockey tradition.
Legends live on in the hallowed hockey halls of the LC Walker Arena. Ghosts of Muskegon greats cheer on their brethren who still pass through the tunnel every night to proudly wear the Muskegon sweater in front of faithful fans. Their spirit remains, to be passed on to generations to come and another 50 years of Muskegon hockey.
Thanks to Jay VandeVoorde for compiling the information on Muskegon's hockey history. For more Muskegon hockey information, e-mail him at email@example.com for a copy of Muskegon's Hockey History and Heroes.