Friday, December 13, 2013

Owls Hockey: From Columbus to Grand Rapids...With a Cup of Coffee in Dayton

All of the programs I have displayed so far are from Michigan cities. For this post, I'll be looking at the Columbus/Dayton/Grand Rapids Owls. Most of the Owls programs I've found are from their four-year stay in Columbus, Ohio, but I do have one from Grand Rapids.

     Columbus's time in the IHL began with the arrival of the Columbus Checkers in 1966. The Checkers lasted for four mediocre seasons, their best being in 1967-68, when they went 32-30-10 and lost in the first round. That franchise folded after the 1969-70 season and was replaced in 1971 by the expansion Columbus Golden Seals. The Seals were owned by Charles O. Finley, who owned both the Oakland A's baseball team as well as the NHL's California Golden Seals (hence the name). 
     The NHL Seals were a complete disaster on and off the ice, and Columbus was no different. In two seasons, the IHL Seals won a whopping 25 games, including a horrific 10-62-2 record in 1972-73. The fans stayed away in droves, as the Seals often played before "crowds" of under 1000 paying customers in the 5,003-seat Fairgrounds Coliseum. Finley had enough after 1973 and sold the Seals to local mortgage dealer Al Savill. Savill renamed the team "Columbus Owls" and aligned his team with the St. Louis Blues.

1973-74 Regular Season--Owls vs. Muskegon Mohawks
     After the Golden Seals went 10-62-2 in 1972-73, the new Owls really had nowhere to go but up, right? That's right, as the team soared to a 40-34-2 record, good enough for second place in the South Division, 14 points behind league-leading Des Moines. The 60-point turnaround was one of the largest single-season improvements in IHL history.
     Two things helped revive the franchise that season: local ownership and a solid NHL affiliation. After years of absentee ownership for the Checkers and Golden Seals, the Owls were bought by local mortgage company owner Al Savill. Savill retained head coach Moe Bartoli, who played for the Checkers. He then aligned his new team with the St. Louis Blues, a franchise much deeper and more financially stable than the woeful California Golden Seals.
     The Owls were the third-highest scoring team in the IHL that season, lighting the lamp 288 times. They were led by veteran forward Marty Reynolds, who scored 37 goals and 87 points. Ed Kenty (38 goals) and Norm Cherrey (31) were the other 30+ goal scorers, and four others scored over 20 goals.
     Defense was the biggest improvement in Columbus, as goals-against plummeted to 270, fifth-best in the league. Former NHL Draft bus Ray Martyniuk (#5 Overall by Montreal in '70, no NHL games) led the way in the net. Ray had a sparkling 2.76 GAA and four shutouts in 57 games. Three other netminders backed up Martyniuk that year.
     Bartoli's Owls made the playoffs and faced the Muskegon Mohawks in Round One. Columbus swept aside the Mohawks in three straight, but ran into another upstart team, the Saginaw Gears, in Round Two. Saginaw swept the Owls aside in three straight, outscoring them 14-5 in the process, to advance to the Turner Cup Finals.
     Ray Martyniuk is on the cover of this program. He would go on to the CHL's Salt Lake Golden Eagles for several years, but would play a handful of games with the Owls when they were in Grand Rapids. Most of the pictures are black-and-white, but there are some color ads.

1974-75 Regular Season--Owls vs. Kalamazoo Wings
      After the successful 1973-74 season, the Owls posted a nearly identical record in 1974-75. Columbus went 40-32-4, good enough for 84 points and second place in the South, 11 points behind first place Dayton. Moe Bartoli was back behind the bench, and the Blues returned as NHL affiliates.
     The Owls offense continued to improve, as they scored 307 goals, second-best in the league. Rookie Mike Powers, fresh from Boston College, scored 50 goals and 100 points to lead the team's attack. Marty Reynolds was back with another fine season (30 goals, 77 points). Six others scored 20 or more goals.
     The defense turned in another fine season, allowing 275 goals, fourth-best in the circuit. Bill Yeo inherited the starting job, and had a 3.36 GAA and four shutouts in 56 games. Sam Clegg and Dave Heitz were the backups.
     Despite the fine season, the Owls were upset by the expansion Toledo Goaldiggers in Round One of the Turner Cup Playoffs, going down in five games (best of seven). The Goaldiggers went on to complete their "Miracle on Main Street", winning the Turner Cup in their first season.
1974-75 Regular Season--Owls vs. Flint Generals
     As you can see, I have two programs from the 1974-75 season. The one on the left is my favorite. It kind of reminds me of the back cover of Queen's The Miracle (the side with nothing but the band members' eyes). Both programs have 35 pages, loaded with ads and even some color (blue, instead of the usual black-and-white).

1976-77 Regular Season--Owls vs. Flint Generals
      The Owls fell to the South cellar in 1975-76, going 24-47-7, the only team to not make the playoffs. Savill, growing more frustrated with attendance figures, attempted to move the franchise to Grand Rapids, but was rejected. The Owls returned to Columbus for one more season. Moe Bartoli was General Manager, while Ron Ullyot was Head Coach. The team was now affiliated with the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.
     1976-77 wasn't much better, as the Owls went 28-35-15, last place in the South yet only four points behind second-place Dayton. The team scored 294 goals, seventh-best in the league. Tom Cassidy led the way, with 47 goals and 108 points. Two other players had over 30 goals, while three had 20+.
     The Columbus defense turned in a respectable season, allowing 309 goals, fourth-fewest in the IHL. Gary Carr and Greg Rendquest played the bulk of the games. Carr got the nod in 58 games, earning a 3.65 GAA and one shutout.
     Despite the last place finish, the Owls qualified for the postseason (only one team failed to qualify back then), drawing the Toledo Goaldiggers in Round One. The Diggers outscored the Owls 29-19, but Columbus stretched the series to seven games before falling.
     This program is unique from the other Owls programs in that it has a full-color insert of Goal: The National Hockey League Magazine in the middle. Not counting Goal, this program has 40 pages, loaded with ads and articles on glossy paper. There's an ad for Tiffany's, which (according to the ad) was "Where the Owls Meet". The ad features a rear view of a nude woman standing in front of a 19th century bicycle. The previous owner of the program decided to draw a bikini top and bottom on this lovely lady with a blue pen. He/She also referred to the Flint Generals, that night's opponent, as "Nerds", while proclaiming the Owls to be #1.
     A player of note on the Owls roster that year was enforcer/goon Willie Trognitz. Trognitz piled up 232 penalty minutes in 71 games that year. The following year, during a brawl in Port Huron, Trognitz hit Flags forward Archie Henderson over the head with his stick, sending Henderson to the hospital with a concussion and multiple head injuries. The league banned Trognitz for life a few days later.

  Attendance continued to decline in Columbus, and a severe natural gas shortage threatened to wipe out the 1976-77 season. The Owls survived, but Savill had had enough of Columbus and the Fairgrounds Coliseum. Not given priority for playoff dates at the Coliseum, the Owls had to schedule postseason games at nearby Hobart Arena in Troy, Ohio. Rumors of a move to Indianapolis never materialized, and the Owls instead flew to Dayton's Hara Arena for the 1977-78 season. Dayton's previous team, the Gems, had suspended operations after the 1976-77 season due to declining attendance and heavy financial losses, leaving an opening for the Owls.
     The Owls stay in Dayton was a total disaster on and off the ice. Attendance hovered around 1500 per game at Hara Arena and Savill projected to lose nearly $300,000 if the team finished the season in Dayton. In an emergency league meeting, the IHL approved the mid-season move of the franchise to Grand Rapids. 
     The team played it's home games in Stadium Arena (seriously, that was the name), now called DeltaPlex Arena. The midseason move had it's share of problems. The Grand Rapids Owls program I have talked about problems such as "the 90 minute delay the night the wheel fell off the zamboni" and "having to plod through about three inches of water" when going from one side of the building to another. Wonder what that was about?

I doubt I'll ever see any Dayton Owls programs, since they only existed for 20 games. The only Grand Rapids Owls program I've seen so far is the one you see below. I got this at Gibraltar Trade Center years ago, one of the first "vintage" programs I bought


     The first full season for the Owls in Grand Rapids was the greatest season in franchise history. Led by Head Coach/GM Moe Bartoli and affiliated with Boston and Pittsburgh, the Owls dominated the regular season. Their record of 50-21-9 easily clinched the regular season title, 14 points better than North Division champ Port Huron.     
1978-79 Regular Season--Owls vs. Saginaw Gears
     The Owls had the third-best offense in the IHL in 1978-79, scoring 368 goals. Kim Davis led the way with 44 goals and 103 points, to go along with 235 penalty minutes. Henry Taylor had 47 goals, and five others had over 30.  
     On defense, the Owls topped the league, allowing only 267 goals. Gordie Laxton, who played in 14 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins, was in goal for 63 games, with a 3.08 GAA and 3 shutouts. The Owls used five other goalies behind Laxton that year.
     In the playoffs, the Owls eked by Milwaukee in seven in Round One, then Fort Wayne in seven in Round Two to reach the Turner Cup Finals. They would face the Kalamazoo Wings. The Owls would take a 3-2 series lead before falling to the K-Wings in seven games. Grand Rapids was outscored by a combined 11-4 in Games 6 and 7.

The Owls would come crashing back to Earth the following season, going 27-41-12 and missing the playoffs by two points. Local investors had purchased the team from Al Savill, but also absorbed all the debt. Despite the excellent season in 1978-79, the Owls were evicted from Stadium Arena after owing over $12,000 in back rent. The franchise folded in the summer of 1980. Pro hockey would not return to Grand Rapids until Van Andel Arena was built and the Griffins joined the IHL in 1996-97.

Columbus Owls Stats: 1973-74 , 1974-75, 1976-77 (from
Grand Rapids Owls Stats: 1978-79 (from
"Owls Evicted" Ludington Daily News. August 25, 1979. (from Google News Archive)
"Owls to Move". The Bryan Times. December 3, 1977. (from Google News Archive)
"Governors Uphold Bar of Trognitz" Toledo Blade. December 1, 1977. (from Google News Archive)

1 comment:

  1. I always liked the typeface the Owls used. Here it is on a ticket.