Monday, September 5, 2016

Saginaw Gears (IHL, 1972-73)

1972-73 Regular Season
Opening Night
Gears vs. Des Moines Capitols
     Professional hockey came to Mid-Michigan in 1972 with the arrival of the Saginaw Gears of the International Hockey League. The Gears were an expansion franchise awarded to North Stars executive Wren Blair, and played their home games at the new Wendler Arena, part of the Saginaw Civic Center complex. The team was named after the Saginaw Steering Gear plant, located in Buena Vista on M46, and was a nod to the city's auto industry ties. Blair's choice as head coach was Don Perry, formerly of the Eastern Hockey League. Thanks to Blair's ties to the Minnesota North Stars, the Gears would be a secondary affiliate of that NHL team.
     The Gears would take the ice in turqoise and tangerine jerseys featuring the "toothed G" logo you see on the program. Their first regular season game was in Port Huron. Despite a hat trick by forward Juri Kudrasovs, Saginaw fell, 5-4, to the defending champion Port Huron Wings.
     The Gears went through the usual struggles for an expansion team, and brought up the rear in the North Division, with a 30-41-3. Their modest 63 points would have tied the Des Moines Capitols for the final playoff spot in the South Division, but were 14 behind third place Toledo and 29 behind the first place Flint Generals.
     Saginaw didn't seem to have a problem putting the puck in the net that season. The Gears popped in 305 goals, fourth-most in the IHL. Leading the way was right winger Dennis Desrosiers, the team's first-ever signing. All "Rosie" did in Year One was set the city record for most goals in a season, with an even 60. His record would last until 1996-97, when Mark Green of the UHL Lumber Kings shattered it. Desrosiers' 97 points also led the way. He also had a certified mean streak, racking up 186 penalty minutes, and quickly became a fan favorite in the Tri-Cities. Kudrasovs, Dennis Romanesky and 1972 US Olympian Stu Irving were the other Gears with 30+ goals. Three others had at least 20 goals, including North Stars prospect Marcel Comeau, who would remain in Saginaw for the entire existence of the Gears franchise.
     Defense was a bit of an issue in 1973, as Saginaw allowed 304 goals, third-most in
1972-73 Regular Season
Gears vs. Columbus Golden Seals
the IHL. The Gears used four different netminders that year. Cal Hammond was in net for 40 games, with a 4.03 GAA. Ray Belanger, Ray Gibbs and Brad Hollister were used as backups. Belanger played the second-most games, with 19 in the Gears' net.
     No playoffs for the Gears in their inaugural season. In fact, the only time the team missed the postseason would be the first and final years of the franchise. However, Blair was able to build the core of the franchise's future success, with players such as Desrosiers, Irving and Comeau. Coach Perry would remain behind the bench through 1981, a level of stability not often seen in the minor-pro circuit. Plus, the community slowly warmed up to the team, as attendance steadily increased throughout the year. The Gears would eventually become arguably the most beloved pro sports team the region has ever had.
     Of these two programs, the first one I found online was the Gears-Capitols program. This was from opening night in 1972, the first regular season home game in franchise history. Since there wasn't any home games to take pictures of, most of the action photos are from training camp at Wendler Arena. Page 10 has the seating layout for the arena, with ticket prices listed from $2.25 to $4.25. Owner Wren Blair has his own bio on page 4, and an article declaring Saginaw "the winner" for getting into pro hockey is on page 32. Several articles throughout the program are used to educate the crowd, including what offside is, the types of penalties, even where hockey players come from. In the Seals program, Gordie Mefford, the head of minor officials for the Gears, has an article by Len Boers. Mefford would stick around not only through the Gears' entire 11-year run, but also the Generals/Hawks franchise in the mid-late 1980s. Featured on the Seals program is Mike Hornby, who scored the first goal in franchise history.
     As with all programs, these two are loaded with advertisements. The local ads include Garber Pontiac Cadillac, Larry's Lounge, First State Bank of Saginaw, WEYI TV 25 (then a CBS affiliate), the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn and Pioneer Sugar. Since Since Saginaw was still a major part of the auto industry, car ads were featured here too. Those include the 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna, a full-page ad featuring General Motors' adjustable wheel, and the 1973 VW Beetle.

Note: For a great, in-depth history of the Saginaw Gears, check out SaginawGears.com, created by Wes Oleszewski, the son of the Gears' Zamboni driver. 

References:
IHL Statistics: 1972-73 (from hockeydb.com)
1972-73 Saginaw Gears Souvenir Programs

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