Sunday, March 10, 2013

Saginaw Hockey: Saginaw Generals/Hawks (1985-89)

     After the Gears collapsed, Saginaw went without hockey for a few seasons. Rumors popped up here and there, but nothing ever came of it. The IHL retained a territorial claim on the area, but never got around to replacing the Gears. Hockey would finally return for the 1985-86 season, and it would come from a strange source.

1985-86 Regular Season--Generals vs. Toledo
     After the 1984-85 season, the Flint Generals, once the Gears arch-rival, were fresh off a first round playoff loss to Kalamazoo. They spent the offseason negotiating with the City of Flint for a new lease to the IMA Sports Arena. When those talks stalled, ownership decided to relocate to Saginaw in time for the 1985-86 season. The team would be called "Saginaw Generals" and kept the team's royal blue and gold color scheme. Basically the Gears' long time rivals would be playing in the Gears former arena. The IHL switched territorial claims from Saginaw to Flint, then added an expansion team to the Buick City for the upcoming season.
     The Saginaw Generals were a farm team of the Chicago Blackhawks, and included future NHLers Darren Pang and Brian Noonan. Pang teamed up with Generals holdover Rick Knickle in the Generals net. The team was coached by former Gears star Dennis Desrosiers, who led the Generals to their only Turner Cup title in 1983-84.
     The Generals finished the season with a 41-33-8 record, good enough for third place in the Eastern Division, 10 points behind second place Kalamazoo. In the playoffs, the Generals defeated the Wings in six games to advance to the East Finals. Despite being outscored only by a 20-18 margin, the Generals were dispatched in five games by the eventual champion Muskegon Lumberjacks.

1986-87 Regular Season--Generals vs. Kalamazoo
     In 1986-87, the Generals would improve on last year's record, going 44-32-6, to finish second in a hotly contested Eastern Division (only eight points separated the top three teams). They were again led by the goalscoring of Jeff Pyle (49 goals, 137 points) and Rookie of the Year Michel Mongeau (42 goals, 95 points). Netminding, again, would be shared by Darren Pang and Rick Knickle and Dennis Desrosiers was back behind the bench.
     In the playoffs, the Generals would face the up-and-coming Flint Spirits in Round One. After a hard-fought six-game series, the Generals advanced to, again, face Muskegon in the East Finals. This time, the Lumberjacks won in a more convincing manner, sweeping the Generals in four straight and outscoring them 21-8.
     Attendance continued to sag in Saginaw. The fanbase didn't care for the "Generals" nickname, a carryover from Flint and the identity of one of the Gears' biggest rivals. Unemployment rates in the area didn't help matters either. After two seasons, it was time for a change.

1988-89 Regular Season--Hawks vs. Flint
     After two seasons as the Saginaw Generals, ownership decided to make a change. Out was the Generals nickname and colors, in was the nickname Saginaw Hawks. The Hawks were now the main farm team of the Chicago Blackhawks, and wore nearly identical uniforms to the parent club. The only difference was the shoulder patch, which was an S interlocking two crossed tomahawks.
     The 1987-88 Hawks finished in third place with a 45-30-7 record, three points behind second place Fort Wayne. The Hawks were bolstered by Rookie of the Year co-winner Ed Belfour. Signed as a free agent by Chicago, Belfour went 32-20-5 with a 3.19 GAA in his rookie season. Jeff Pyle again led the team in offense, with 30 goals and 77 points.
     The Hawks defeated Fort Wayne in six games in Round One to advance to the East Finals for a third straight year. Once again, they went no farther, as they were swept away by the surprising Flint Spirits.
     1988-89 saw another solid season on the ice in Saginaw. The Hawks finished in second place with a 46-26-10 mark, 19 points behind division leader Muskegon. Belfour bounced between Saginaw and Chicago during the season, forcing the Hawks to use several goaltenders, as well as trading for Flint Spirits' goalie Ray LeBlanc as insurance. Mike Rucinski led the Hawks in scoring with 35 goals and 107 points and was joined by Sean Williams and Jari Torkki in the 30-goal club. Longtime Blackhawk Darryl Sutter was named head coach, as Desrosiers remained on as GM.
     In the playoffs, Saginaw was knocked off in the first round by Fort Wayne in six games. Attendance woes and the increased costs of running an IHL team were too much to handle. The Blackhawks pulled out after the 1988-89 season, transferring their farm club to Indianapolis. The Hawks folded, leaving Saginaw without hockey for the next five years.

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