Hancock boasts rich hockey heritage

HANCOCK – Houghton is known as the “birthplace of professional hockey,” but across the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, Hancock has a rich hockey history of its own, one that will be celebrated at the city’s first official sesquicentennial event this Saturday.

Dave Hermanson, a member of the 1963-64 Laurn-Grove Juvenile National Championship team, will guide a free panel discussion at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Wiitanen Room at Houghton County Arena entitled, “Outdoor Hockey in Hancock, an Oral History.” He and several others will solicit memories from those in attendance and informally walk through Hancock’s rich hockey heritage, which includes Laurn-Grove, Terrace Park and Hillside rinks, the outdoor forerunners of the now-40-year-old Houghton County Arena.

“It’s mostly an interactive thing, I’m going to chair the thing to try and keep it going,” Hermanson said. “We certainly want to encourage all these people, anybody who skated on these rinks or played on any of these, whether it be the Laurn-Grove teams or any of the outdoor rink teams that can share some of those nuggets. It should be fun.”

And there are plenty of stories to share from a very different era of hockey, a period when pickup hockey could prepare Olympians.

“People would be surprised going back to the early days there was always rinks around here,” Hermanson said. “It’s just very amazing that in 1960, 1964 and 1968 they had a representative from Hancock on those Olympic teams.”

Rod Paavola won gold in 1960, and Paul Coppo and Bruce Riutta, both former Michigan Technological University Huskies, played on the 1964 and 1968 U.S.A. teams, respectively.

“There are an awful lot of good hockey players who went on to play college hockey, senior hockey, and of course ‘the big three,'” Hermanson said. “Emphasizing just Hancock, there were a lot of good ones.”

With Dee Stadium ice time at a premium in Houghton – only Thursday nights were dedicated to junior hockey – and the then-Calumet Armory a dozen miles up the road, outdoor rinks were the only way Hancock kids could get their hockey fix. High school hockey didn’t come around until the 1970s, so teams represented locations.

Terrace Park, still located in east Hancock, was once home to a bustling hockey club after Gartner’s owner Norbert Kahn donated a shack to help get the rink started in the 1930s. The rink no longer exists, but the memories do, and many will be shared at Saturday’s event.

The same is true of Hillside, a rink once located in the mostly empty lot next to the intersection of U.S. 41 and White Street in Hancock. The prosperous Hillside Athletic Club was started in 1930 and was home to a wide array of activities, even besides sports teams, and the rink was started in 1940.

Hillside didn’t have boards, but it had plenty of young skaters willing to help clear the rink. While public skating was usually free at the other outdoor establishments, it cost 10 cents at Hillside, and while the rink is a bygone memory, the club still has a lasting contribution very visible today.

“That Hillside rink was in operation for over 50 years and it was a private club, the best organized club around here by far,” Hermanson recalls. “When that thing was disbanded in the middle 80s, there was a substantial treasury at that time left in there. Because of that, they donated all that money to (Houghton County Arena) and the Plexiglass out there is what they bought.”

While Terrace and Hillside are bygone memories for old-time hockey players, Laurn Grove is still alive and kicking.

The west Hancock outdoor rink was built in 1947 in memory of Hancock natives Alvin Laurn and Robert Grove, who lost their lives at sea during World War II. The first organized team was assembled in 1949-50 and within a few years, state and national juvenile (juniors and seniors in high school) championships started rolling in.

State championships in the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association were won in (at least) 1955, 1959, 1960 and 1961, with the national championship coming in 1963-64. But that championship didn’t come so easily against teams from Chicago, Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie – the latter two which, along with Calumet, were the biggest Laurn-Grove rivals.

“We couldn’t get a lot of teams from afar to come in here. Hockey wasn’t nearly as universal as it is now,” Hermanson said.

Laurn-Grove was tied with Marquette going into Sunday and played the always tough Soo in the final game.

“We always had a rough game with the Soo, so we pretty much thought it was over, that we were out of the running,” Hermanson said. “We would have to win that game by six or seven goals to get the championship.”

But, against all odds forward Dave Witting “went crazy that day,” according to Hermanson, scoring seven goals en route to a 9-2 victory for the Joe Houle-coached team.

While several big games were played at the outdoor facility, it was the day-to-day activity that creates the most stark contrast with today. Laurn-Grove is still active and new boards were put up within the last year, but with ice resurfacing machines – let alone roofs – only a dream to many in the ’50s and ’60s, outdoor rinks were buzzing with activity.

“We used to play hockey on Saturday morning and when the games were over at noon, we’d play pickup hockey all day long,” Hermanson said. “We were on the ice probably every day of the week. … The guys that turned out to really be the good players were the ones that were ‘rink rats,’ that were always on the ice skating around.”

And those players certainly existed in the 60s, but yet junior hockey started to wane before high school hockey came in – until 1972, when Houghton County Arena was built, largely with the intent of saving junior hockey.

“Junior hockey would have died if this thing wouldn’t have come along with the limited ice time and everything,” said Hermanson, who hopes to honor several people who were instrumental in helping build the arena. “Everybody took advantage of it. … But the original objective was to keep junior hockey going.”

So, it’s only fitting that Saturday’s event will take place at Houghton County Arena, now in an attempt not so much to keep the game alive, but keep memories of the game as it once was living on.

Saturday’s free 10 a.m. event will be just the start of a busy day of hockey at the arena. At 1 p.m., the Hancock Bulldogs will play Fond du Lac, Wis., followed by the Finlandia University Lions men’s team against Concordia at 4, and women’s team against St. Scholastica at 7.

This is the first in a series of weekly events to mark the sesquicentennial of the City of Hancock’s 150th anniversary.