Monday, March 11, 2013

Saginaw Hockey: Saginaw Spirit (2002-present)

     After the UHL's Saginaw Gears left in December 1999, Saginaw again was without hockey. For awhile, it looked like it was gone for good, as the cash-strapped City of Saginaw was considering shutting down the Saginaw Civic Center. However, former IHL Gears owner Wren Blair, along with Civic Center manager Paul Wendler, helped make a convincing argument that renovating the building would be more beneficial than shutting it down. After a vote that transferred ownership to Saginaw County and approved renovations, Blair convinced auto dealer Dick Garber to purchase a franchise in the Ontario Hockey League. Garber purchased the North Bay Centennials and moved them to Saginaw in time for the 2002-03 season, renaming them the Saginaw Spirit. After 28 years as a minor-pro hockey town, Saginaw would make it's debut in major junior hockey, one of the highest levels in North America.

2002-03 Inaugural Game--Spirit vs. Sarnia

     This program is from the first regular season game in Spirit history. The Spirit played host to the Sarnia Sting, in front of a capacity crowd of 5496, but lost 5-2. The game was also broadcast locally on WNEM TV 5, with Red Wings announcers Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond calling the game.
     Saginaw was coached by former Gears forward Dennis Desrosiers, and former Wheels forward Jamey Hicks was his assistant.
     While the Spirit were the transplanted North Bay Centennials, the team pretty much performed like an expansion team in their first year in Saginaw. The Spirit finished the season with an 11-45-5-7 record, worst in the OHL. But unlike the UHL teams, the Spirit were a huge success in the box office, averaging 4026 per game, about double what the Lumber-Gears drew.
     I remember being kind of underwhelmed when the nickname was announced, but that logo is killer. Patriotism was riding high at the time, so a logo and nickname like that seemed to fit like a glove. I still believe, however, if it wasn't for that joke of a UHL franchise, the Spirit might have been called "Saginaw Gears" instead. Oh well, guess we'll never know.

2003-04 Regular Season--Spirit vs. Brampton

     The Spirit's second season was similar to the first, as Saginaw once again brought up the rear in the West Division. Their 16-45-3-4 record was tied with Belleville for the worst record in the OHL. But just like the previous year, the record didn't faze the crowds, as attendance actually grew to 4,263 per game, tops in the West Division.
     Desrosiers would resign after the 2003-04 season and would be replaced by Doug Lidster. He would remain with the organization as color commentator in Spirit radio broadcasts until retiring after the 2011-12 season.

2009-10 Regular Season--Spirit vs. Windsor
     The Spirit gradually improved with each passing season, making the playoffs for the first time in the 2005-06 season. By 2009-10 season, they were a regular contender in the league. Attendance dropped somewhat from their first few seasons, but they still drew a solid 3594 per game. Todd Watson was now head coach/GM.
     The Spirit finished 34-27-4-3 in 2009-10, in fourth place but just four points out of second. In the playoffs, Saginaw fell to Kitchener in six games.

2010-11 Regular Season--Spirit vs. Sarnia
      The Spirit had their best season to date in Saginaw, going 40-22-4-2, tops in the West Division by two points over Windsor. The team was led by a talented group of forwards: Josh Shalla, Jordan Szwarz, Brandon Saad, Ivan Telegin and Vincent Trocheck, all of whom were drafted by NHL teams. Mavric Parks and Tadeas Galansky were solid between the pipes, as the Spirit allowed only 207 goals that year. Attendance increased to 3917 per game.
     After surviving a tough six-game series against Guelph, Saginaw was knocked out in the second round by Windsor in six games.

     The player in the center of the trio is Brandon Saad, who currently plays on the top line in Chicago with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

2011-12 OHL Playoffs--Spirit vs. London
     2011-12 was the tenth season of Spirit hockey, an impressive feat considering how close the (then) Saginaw Civic Center came to closing ten years earlier. Saginaw was a favorite in the OHL, but stumbled out of the gate, costing Coach/GM Todd Watson his job. He was replaced by Greg Gilbert, who won Stanley Cups with both New York teams as a player and had been very successful as both a minor league and junior coach.
     Gilbert's coaching tactics turned the Spirit's season around, as they finished in third place with a 33-27-2-5 record, a point behind second place Sarnia. With Brandon Saad leading the way, the Spirit upset Nail Yakupov and the Sting in Round One in six games. They gave top-seeded London a fight in Round Two, but fell in six games.  Gilbert was so impressive as coach that he was named OHL Coach of the Year for 2011-12. Attendance hovered around 3774 per game for the year.


  1. Any chance that in your 76-77 or77-78 seasons would have Tim Williams listed? He's my uncle.

  2. Any chance that in your 76-77 or77-78 seasons would have Tim Williams listed? He's my uncle.

  3. Hi Matthew,

    Tim Williams is listed in the March 27, 1977, program. #19, left wing, for the Flint Generals.