Sunday, March 10, 2013

Saginaw Hockey: Saginaw Gears (1972-83)

Note: If you want a thorough, behind-the-scenes history of the Saginaw Gears, check out, an excellent website by Wes Oleszewski, whose dad was the Zamboni driver for the Gears. The Gears were before my time, but that site is a great read.

     Saginaw arrived on the pro hockey scene in the summer of 1972, when North Stars GM Wren Blair brought an IHL expansion franchise to the Tri-Cities. The team was called "Saginaw Gears", after the (then) Saginaw Steering Gear plant (now Nexteer). The Gears colors were, how should I say, of their time: tangerine orange, blue and white. The road jerseys were orange with blue and white stripes, while the home jerseys were white with orange and blue stripes. The logo itself was simple, yet sharp: the word "Gears" spelled out, with the G fitted with gear teeth.
     I have programs from nearly every season of the Gears. Here are a few of them.

Home Opener vs. Des Moines, 1972-73 season
     The Gears began play in the 1972-73 season, and like most expansion franchises, the going was tough. Losses were plenty, but the fanbase slowly but surely got hooked on the sport.
     The Gears finished their inaugural campaign with 30-41-3 record, 13 points behind fourth place Muskegon in the North Division. The big highlight of the year was Dennis Desrosiers, who chipped in 60 goals and 97 points in 70 games. Head Coach Don Perry and GM Wren Blair built the core of future successful Gears teams in Year One, adding youngsters Marcel Comeau and Stu Irving along with Desrosiers. Despite this, the Gears missed the playoffs in their inaugural year. They would not miss again until their final season.
    The picture on the front of this program is from training camp. Couldn't have any game pictures because...well, they hadn't played any games before this was printed.

1976-77 Turner Cup Finals vs. Toledo (Game 1)

      By 1977, the Gears were on a roll, regularly finishing at the top of the IHL standings, drawing capacity crowds, and also icing one of the toughest teams in the league. The Gears had also made it to two Turner Cup Finals by then, losing in 1974 to Des Moines and 1975 to Toledo. In 1977, the Gears finished in first place in the North, with a 40-27-11 record, two points ahead of the second place Kalamazoo Wings.
   In the Turner Cup Playoffs, the Gears defeated Muskegon in seven games, then dispatched the Wings in five to set up a rematch with the Toledo Goaldiggers. Like 1975, this series was another grueling matchup, going the full seven games. This time, the Gears would come out on top, flattening the Goaldiggers, 6-0, in Game 7, to clinch their first ever Turner Cup title.
     This warped version of the Gears logo is featured on programs from that season, along with a game picture. This one, however, included a team photo from the 1976-77 team.

1980-81 Turner Cup Playoffs vs. Fort Wayne

     1980-81 was another memorable year for the Gears. The team, already talented, received an extra dose of talent from the CHL's Houston Apollos, a Los Angeles Kings affiliate that folded midseason. Led by captain and scoring champion Marcel Comeau, the Gears finished with a 45-29-8 record, 20 points better than second place Port Huron.
     In the playoffs, the Gears rolled through their opponents. They swept the Port Huron Flags in four games in Round One, then smoked the Fort Wayne Komets in five games in Round Two to face the Kalamazoo Wings in the Turner Cup Finals. The Wings were the two-time defending champions, but were no match for a Gears team truly on a roll. Saginaw swept aside Kalamazoo in four straight, outscoring the defending champs, 18-10, to claim their second Turner Cup. Their 12-1 record in the playoffs was an IHL record. The 1980-81 Gears remain the last Saginaw hockey team to win a championship.
     I have another program from this year and it's nearly identical to this one. That one, however, is blue instead of pink, and features that night's opponent at the bottom left corner. Same drawn player, same "GEARS" script at the top.

1981-82 Regular Season--Gears vs. Toledo

      By the time the 1980s came along, the economy took a turn for the worse. Saginaw, like many Midwest towns, relied on the auto industry for jobs. When the US auto industry sagged, so did the fortunes of these cities. With unemployment rising, the Gears saw a steady drop in attendance numbers. Shortly after winning the 1981 Turner Cup, the Gears filed for bankruptcy protection. Wren Blair, who owned the team since it's inception, got out after the 1980-81 season. Most of the players from the Turner Cup winning roster, along with coach Don Perry, were promoted to the AHL's New Haven Nighthawks. Marcel Comeau took over as playing coach-GM, a daunting task for any player.
     The 1981-82 Gears finished the season in 5th place, with a 36-38-8 record. Offensively, they were excellent, scoring 401 goals, second place in the league. Their porous defense outdid the offense, allowing 402 goals, second only to last place Muskegon.
     In the playoffs, the Gears came alive. In Round One, they upset Milwaukee in five games, then advanced to the Turner Cup Finals by going 3-1 in a round-robin series with Toledo and Fort Wayne. The Gears faced the Goaldiggers in the Finals for a third time (Toledo won in 1975, the Gears in 1977). While the previous two series were classics, the 1982 finals were not. Toledo defeated Saginaw in five games to win the Turner Cup, including a crushing 6-1 victory in the clincher. The 1981-82 Gears are the last Saginaw hockey team to reach a finals series to date.
     This program features a shot of the players celebrating with the Turner Cup after dethroning Kalamazoo. Probably my favorite of the Gears programs I own.

1982-83 Regular Season--Gears vs. Flint
     All good things must come to an end, and the Gears, as successful as they were, were no different. After the Finals run of 1982, the team bottomed out in 1982-83, finishing dead last in the new Eastern Division with a 29-44-9 record, nine points behind third place Flint, and tied for the second worst record in the league with Muskegon. Marcel Comeau returned as player/coach/GM, but this season would have no thrilling ending like the previous year. After the season, Comeau joined the AHL's Maine Mariners, playing the final seven games of his career in the Mariners' Calder Cup Playoff run.
     Facing dwindling crowds and increasing financial losses, the Gears folded after the 1982-83 season. Despite various rumors, Saginaw would not field a hockey team for three years. Regardless of their collapse, long-time fans still look back fondly at the Saginaw Gears 11-year run and view that franchise as the "glory years" of hockey in the Tri-Cities.
     Gears programs from the final season were similar to this one, just different colors and featuring a different player photo or, occasionally, a game shot. Again, I like that logo. Simple, yet sharp.   

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