Sunday, March 10, 2013

Saginaw Hockey: Wheels/Lumber Kings/Gears (1994-99)

     After the Hawks folded, Saginaw was without hockey yet again. This time, the drought would last five years. Cities like Saginaw, Flint, Toledo and Muskegon were eventually too small to compete financially in the IHL, which had grown from Midwest bus league in the 1970s to having teams in Salt Lake City, Denver and Phoenix by the end of the 1980s. An OHL exhibition game was held in Saginaw, but nothing would come of it. When hockey returned to town, it would be in the form of a lower-level minor league, the Colonial League. To say the least, Saginaw's 4-1/2 year run in this league was a roller coaster.

1992-93 Inaugural Game--Wheels vs. Flint
     Saginaw's third hockey franchise began in Chatham, Ontario, in 1992. The team was called "Chatham Wheels", named after the Wheels Inn in Chatham. The Wheels played in Chatham Memorial Arena, a building that was once home to an IHL team in the early 1960s and various amateur teams, but was the very definition of "barn". After two seasons of averaging below 2000 per game, the Wheels relocated to Saginaw for the 1994-95 season. They maintained the Wheels nickname and colors.
1994-95 Playoffs--Wheels vs. Thunder Bay

     The Wheels brought back the core of last season's team, including forwards Jamey Hicks, John Vecchiarelli and goaltender Kevin Butt. The Wheels, coming off a first place finish and Finals berth in 1993-94, slipped to third place in 1994-95, finishing 36-31-7, just five points ahead of last-place Flint.
     In the playoffs, the Wheels dispatched Flint in six games to set up a rematch with defending champion Thunder Bay. The Wheels were no match for the Senators, losing the series in five games and being outscored 36-21.
     Off the ice, 1994-95 was easily the best season for the franchise in Saginaw. The team was successful on the ice and attendance was just under 3000 per game, almost doubling the average from the Wheels' last season in Chatham.

1995-96 Regular Season--Wheels vs. Muskegon
     1995-96 was a step back for the Wheels, both on and off the ice. Owner Tom Kirkconnell attempted to buy out his partners and ran into financial problems. The Colonial Hockey League took over day-to-day operations of the franchise and eventually sold the franchise to Muhannad Jondy. Attendance dipped from Year One as well, as the Wheels drew just under 2500 per game.
     On the ice, the Wheels slipped to fourth place, with a 32-35-7 record, four points behind third place Detroit and 36 behind first place Flint. The Wheels drew Brantford in Round One of the playoffs. In a low-scoring series, the Smoke eliminated the Wheels in five games.
     After the season, sweeping changes were made to the franchise. Jondy held a name-the-team contest to give the Wheels a brand-new identity that would be Saginaw's and not a holdover from a previous city. Many expected the team would be called the Gears...

1996-97 Regular Season--Lumber Kings vs. Flint

     New ownership wanted a new identity for the Wheels. Something that would tie in with the area and not be a holdover from Chatham, Ontario. A name-the-team contest was held, and the team was renamed...Saginaw Lumber Kings, a nod to Saginaw's rich lumbering history. Brand new jerseys and colors came with the name change, with wineberry, gold and black replacing the Wheels red, black and white scheme. The jerseys were modeled after the Colorado Avalanche, who recently won the Stanley Cup.
     Former NHL journeyman John Blum was hired as Head Coach/GM and made a splash by bringing in sniper Mark Green. Green had a huge first season in Saginaw, scoring a mind-numbing 80 goals and 145 points. Green's goal numbers smashed Dennis Desrosiers' previous record by 20.
     After Green, there was a bit of a drop off. Ken Blum was the next highest goal scorer with 24 goals, followed by JD Eaton with 22. No other player had over 20 goals for the Lumber Kings that season. Defense was a major problem this year, as the Lumber Kings went through 11 goaltenders and surrendered 399 goals, second worst in the league. Bryce Davidson racked up the penalty minutes, spending 440 minutes in the sin bin to lead the league.
     The Lumber Kings fell straight to the East Division basement, going 21-48-5, 7 points behind fourth place Utica and 67 behind first place Flint. It was easily the worst single season in Saginaw hockey history. Even worse, the Lumber Kings were swept in the season series by their rivals, the Flint Generals, the first time either city swept the other in the history of the rivalry. Another low point in the season was getting shelled 16-0 by Thunder Bay, a record for most goals allowed in the league. The poor showing by the team mirrored the drop in attendance, as the Lumber Kings drew just over 2000 per game in 1996-97.

1997-98 Regular Season--Lumber Kings vs. Binghamton
     After the 1996-97 season, the Colonial Hockey League renamed itself the United Hockey League. For 1997-98, the Lumber Kings proved they could lose just as easily in the UHL as they did in the Colonial League. Blum returned for another season as head coach, but would be fired partway through the year, replaced by ex-Gears forward Warren Holmes. Mark Green scored 32 goals in 51 games, then was released and finished the year in the Central League. Green's offense was missed, as Kyle Millar and Joel Gardner were the only Lumber Kings to score over 20 goals that year.
    Defensively, the Lumber Kings improved somewhat. They allowed 342 goals, worst in the league, but a 57-goal improvement over last season. The offense was still weak, scoring only 237 goals, second worst in the UHL. In the end, the Lumber Kings kept their stranglehold on the East Division basement, going 23-46-5, eight points behind 5th place Binghamton and 47 behind first place Flint. Attendance actually decreased, dropping to a low of 2037 per game.
     Owner Muhannad Jondy, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars the past two years, considered folding the team midseason, but was convinced to sell to Flint Generals owner Dr. Khaled Shukairy.
     In what was easily the highlight of the two-year history of the Lumber Kings, the franchise hosted "Gears Reunion Weekend". The Lumber Kings brought back several members of the 1977 and 1981 Turner Cup Champions, retired several numbers and wore special Gears throwback jerseys. They then announced that the team would be renamed Saginaw Gears for the following season. Yes, that would be the second name change in three years.
     Never was a big fan of the Lumber Kings nickname. I was one of the people that was hoping the Wheels would rename themselves the Gears, and this was a bit of a letdown. The Hockey News described the Lumber King as "Jughead from Archie Comics on steroids". Can't argue with that...

1998-99 Season--Gears vs. Port Huron
     If one word could sum up Saginaw's entry in the UHL, it would be "instability". Remember, this is the same franchise I'm talking about in this entire post.
     The summer of 1998 brought about yet another change. The Lumber Kings nickname was out, and the franchise renamed itself the Saginaw Gears. The original Gears were very successful on and off the ice during their run, and the hope was fans would get behind the UHL version and the "magic" would be recaptured.
     As you can tell, the new Gears didn't totally embrace the old Gears' identity. The UHL team opted for a "modernized" version of the old logo, and went with royal blue and orange instead of the IHL Gears' tangerine and aqua.
     Another coaching change occurred, as the new Gears hired former Winston-Salem coach Robert Dirk to run the bench, and George Manias was retained as GM. The Gears attempted to solve their goaltending woes by signing former Smoke netminder Marc Delorme. They then traded Kyle Millar to Winston-Salem for Keith Osborne and brought in defenseman Brian Mueller.
     On paper, the Gears looked like they could finally emerge from the East Division basement and be a contender. Sadly, this was not to be. The Gears stumbled out of the gate, and while the team was more talented than the Lumber Kings ever were, they were still outclassed by the rest of the UHL. Delorme, after posting stellar numbers in Brantford, struggled behind a porous defense. The Gears went through six different goaltenders, allowing a league-worst 332 goals, while scoring a league-low 212. Because of this, the Gears slumped to a 20-46-8 mark, dead last in the UHL by 14 points.
     Attendance climbed a little, to 2354 per game, but it was not enough to offset the costs. At the trading deadline, with the Gears at 20-28-7, Shukairy traded away the Gears' top players, leaving the roster almost completely empty. The team went on a horrific 0-18-1 stretch to end the season, likely killing the organization in the eyes of area hockey fans. Towards the end of the year, Shukairy sold the franchise to Ohio businessman Bernard Bubanic.

     On their fifth owner in five years, the Gears attempted to get themselves back on track for 1999-2000. Despite the mess from last year, Dirk returned for another go as head coach. The Gears brought in ex-NHL goaltender Darren Madeley to solve the netminding problem, but he was injured in a rut in Wendler Arena ice in the opener and never played. Because of this, the goaltending merry-go-round continued.
     The Gears started off the season 7-17-0 when rumors of the team's collapse again began to circulate. This time, there was no saving the franchise. The UHL approved Bubanic's request to relocate the team to Massillon, Ohio on December 1999. The Gears finished the season in a 400-seat rink, going 5-40-5 the rest of the way. Add it up, and the 1999-2000 Saginaw/Ohio Gears finished 12-57-5, easily worst in the UHL. The team went through 9 goaltenders, coughing up 370 goals while scoring a paltry 198. Not sure about the attendance numbers for that final season, but I remember hearing the Gears had just over 300 season ticket holders in Saginaw (many of which were never refunded after the move).
     The franchise went dormant after the season, planning on returning in the 2001-02 season when a new arena in Massillon was built. The arena never happened, forcing the team to remain mothballed for another year. In fitting fashion, the team rebranded itself several times after 1999-2000, first as the "Ohio Express", then as the "Arctic Xpress", then as the "Canton Ice Patrol", all while never playing a game again.

     Again, you need to remember that this was the same franchise I was talking about in this entire post. The same franchise that started off as a 1992-93 expansion franchise in Chatham, Ontario, went through the following changes:

4 cities (including the aborted relocation to Canton, Ohio)
5 owners
8 nickname changes (including the 3 changes after 2000)
7 General Managers
6 Head Coaches

     With that amount of turmoil in eight years, it's no wonder why the franchise was unsuccessful. While the 1994-95 Wheels helped revive interest in pro hockey in the Tri-Cities, the sheer amount of instability in that franchise over time helped drive it into the ground.

     After it all hit the fan in Saginaw, UHL Commissioner Richard Brosal blasted Saginaw as a poor hockey city that didn't deserve a franchise. In a few years, the area would prove Brosal and the UHL wrong.
     While the team was garbage, that logo was pretty sharp. Sure, it wasn't the original Gears logo, but it was pretty slick. Nice looking cover on the program too. I remember buying a Gears lapel pin at, of all places, the Port Huron Beacons store at Birchwood Mall in Fort Gratiot.

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