Saturday, March 28, 2015

Saginaw Gears (IHL, 1981-82)

1981-82 Regular Season--Gears vs. Toledo Goaldiggers
     The Saginaw Gears were in their 10th season of IHL hockey in 1981-82. They were coming off the franchise's second Turner Cup championship thanks to a talent-loaded roster. However, they also had to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection due to declining attendance and revenue. Longtime owner Wren Blair was out, and Ken MacDonald (of MacDonald Broadcasting) took over the team. The Gears were still a secondary affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings.
     There was major roster turnover, as most of the players from the 1980-81 squad were promoted to New Haven of the AHL. The Gears also had a new coach, as Don Perry was promoted as well. To replace Perry, the Gears simply hired star forward Marcel Comeau as player/coach.
     If there was anyone that could be considered "Mr. Everything" for the Saginaw Gears, it's Marcel Comeau. He was one of the original Gears players, he played his entire pro career in Saginaw (except for a few AHL playoff games in Maine in 1982-83), was captain, won the IHL MVP in 1981, and served as player/coach/GM in the final two years of the franchise. Marcel was also the only player in Saginaw hockey history to win both Turner Cup titles. His number 17 was also briefly retired by the UHL's Saginaw Lumber Kings in 1998.
     The IHL was struggling mightily in the early 1980s, due to the recession that hit the Midwest especially hard. After the Port Huron Flags folded in 1981, the league was down to seven teams and dropped it's divisional format. Comeau's Gears got off to a slow start, and were in last place by February 7th (the night this program is from). They rebounded late in the season to finish in fifth place with a mediocre 36-38-8, just one point behind fourth place Fort Wayne, but 31 behind league-best Toledo.
     Saginaw had no problem scoring goals that year, as they lit the red light 401 times, second-best in the IHL. Gordie Brooks led the team in points, on the strength of 49 goals and 113 points. JP Dubois was the team's 50-goal scorer, with 57 on the year. Steve Salvucci just missed 50 goals, scoring 49 in only 67 games. Three other players had over 30 goals, and two others had over 25. Even player/coach Comeau managed to score 33 goals and 101 points in 67 games!
Player/Coach/GM Marcel Comeau

     It was on defense that the Gears struggled mightily. Saginaw allowed 402 goals--only the woeful Muskegon Mohawks allowed more that year. Four different goalies were between the pipes that year, with Mike Blake and Paul Pageau played the majority of the games. Both split the duties during the playoffs.
     Saginaw qualified for the Turner Cup Playoffs for the ninth straight season, as only last-place Muskegon was the only team left out in the cold. The Gears opened the playoffs against the Milwaukee Admirals. The Admirals finished in second place that year, 11 points ahead of Saginaw, but the Gears won the best-of-seven series in five games. Round Two was a strange format: a round robin between the Gears, Toledo Goaldiggers and Fort Wayne Komets. Each team would play four games, and the two teams with the best records would advance to the Turner Cup Finals. Saginaw would go 3-1 in the round robin, the best mark of the three teams, and faced the Goaldiggers in the Finals.
     The Gears and Goaldiggers had faced each other two previous times in the Finals, and both series went the limit, each team winning the Turner Cup. The rubber match was not as close. The Gears hung tough against the powerful Goaldiggers, and two games went to overtime. But, in the end, Saginaw relinquished the Turner Cup in five games, losing 6-1 in Game Five in Toledo.
     This is one of the smallest Gears programs I own, and the second one I found online. It's only 30 pages, all black-and-white. Page 19 has a team photo of the 1980-81 Champs. There are a few orange pages with an article about the Toledo Goaldiggers (that night's opponent), an IHL directory, and a profile on goalie Mike Blake. The insert has up-to-date stats, with a bingo card on the back. Local advertisements include Peet Packing Company (Farmer Peet's Hot Dogs), the Casa del Rey Mexican Restaurant and WSAM 1400 AM (The radio home of the Gears).

Aftermath: 1981-82 was the last playoff appearance for the Saginaw Gears. The team slumped to last place in 1982-83 with a 29-44-9 record, 11 points back of third place Flint. Attendance continued to slump, and the franchise folded after the season. Hockey would not return to Saginaw until 1985, when the Flint Generals moved to town for the 1985-86 season.

Sources:
International Hockey League Statistics: 1981-82 (from hockeydb.com)
1981-82 Saginaw Gears Souvenir Program

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