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Marquette Monthly
August, 2004
 

Back Then, Rob Hamilton
Hockey enthusiasts, players gather to celebrate collection of memories


For more than half a century, thousands of area hockey fans crammed into the Palestra in Marquette to cheer on their hometown favorites.
When the Palestra opened at the North end of Third Street in 1921, teams were formed with local talent, and players used makeshift uniforms and equipment.
As interest in the sport grew, other teams, some with paid players, briefly held the hockey spotlight in Marquette before disbanding or changing their team name.
Marquette fans watched the Blackbirds, the Owls, the Millionaires and the Buccaneers all come and go, but the most notable groups of players to call the Palestra their home ice were Marquette’s last two semi-professional squads: the Sentinels (1941, 1944-61), and the Iron Rangers (1964-76).
Each team enjoyed success and generated a strong following in the community before financial difficulties led to their collapse. By 1976, the final horn had sounded on semi-pro hockey in Marquette. But, while the skates have been hung up for nearly three decades, a group of former players and the Marquette County Historical Society have worked to preserve this era on the walls of Lakeview Arena.
Marquette’s hockey history will be celebrated from 4:00 to 9:00 p.m. on August 7 as former Iron Rangers and Sentinels gather for the dedication of a new photo exhibit. The display features sixty enlarged photos of teams from 1924 through 1976, forty other historical hockey items including programs and a history of the Palestra, and a section on Marquette women’s teams.
More than fifty former players planned on attending the dedication as of July 15. Invitations were sent to more than 125 players, coaches and directors from the teams.
Former fans and others interested in the history of the sport in Marquette also are invited to attend the event and interact with former team members, said John Vasseau, a former Sentinel and an organizer for the event.
“This is a chance for fans to visit with old players and friends,” Vasseau said. “A lot of people might think this is a players’ reunion and they would be sticking their nose in, but this is for the fans as much as it is for the players.”
A $10 fee will be charged to help cover expenses, and a cash bar and hors d’oeuvres will be available during the ceremony.
Players and coaches attending the dedication thus far include: Steve and Jeff Carlson of the Iron Rangers, more famously known as two of the three Hanson brothers from the movie Slapshot, Weldy Olson, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1960; Mark and Ted Olson; Jim Swenor; Jim Jacobson; Ron Johnson; Bucky O’Neill; Doug Peterson; Bob Marlowe; Karen Koch, the first female goalie at any professional level when she played with the Rangers in ’68-’69; and Norman “Boots” Kukak, who played before World War II for the Sentinels and other Marquette teams. Many other local favorites plan to attend, some of whom have not been back in Marquette for thirty years, Vasseau said.
Oakie Brumm, a former Sentinel player and head coach of both the Iron Rangers and the Sentinels for many years, will attend the event and has been one of the primary backers of the photo museum, which has been in the making since 1991.
Brumm coached the Sentinels beginning in 1955 and quickly led them to success. In 1956 the Sentinels captured the Gibson Cup, a highly coveted trophy throughout the Upper Peninsula that was awarded to the winner of the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League playoffs. That night was one of Brumm’s most memorable as a coach because Marquette fans packed the Palestra to the point that people were forced out the door, he said.
It was not uncommon to have more than 3,000 supporters in the arena, which only had seating for about 1,800.
“The fans were very knowledgeable, very loyal and very supportive,” Brumm said. “They were about everything you would ever want in fans.”
The Sentinels, named after Sentinel antifreeze, which was produced by the team’s sponsor, Cliffs Dow Chemical Company, went on to win championships during the next three seasons as well; they won the Michigan-Ontario League in 1957, the American Hockey State Senior title in 1958 and the Mid-American League championship in 1959.
Marquette’s team was made up almost entirely of local players who needed full-time jobs to support themselves.
Players worked eight or nine hours a day, then practiced at night and played games on the weekend, Brumm said. While many players were compensated, the league was not designed to support the players financially, but offered many a place to continue playing hockey at a high level while starting their professional careers.
“There were a lot of very good players that just didn’t have anywhere else to play except in our league,” Brumm said. “It was a very good league.”
Before the NHL expanded in 1969, many players from the Sentinels and later the Iron Rangers, were talented enough to play at that top level, but there were few openings, Brumm said.
Still, many Sentinel opponents went on to successful NHL or Olympic careers after playing in the league, including Lou Nanne, who played for the Minnesota North Stars, and Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics.
However, by 1961, many players could no longer afford to play for the Sentinels. The Michigan-Ontario Hockey League folded and the team followed suit soon after.
A few years later, a group of supporters came together to continue semi-professional hockey in Marquette, founding the Iron Rangers. Unlike the Sentinels, the Iron Rangers had more imported players, mostly Canadians, but about half the team was comprised of local players, said Bob Hoppe, president of the Iron Rangers for eight years.
The Iron Rangers took hockey to another level as they joined the United States Hockey League, which sent many players to Olympic teams. Players were paid more, but most still needed to work to support themselves financially, Hoppe said.
The team also offered many young players college scholarships to NMU as compensation, Hoppe said.
Hoppe also was president of the USHL for ten years and watched the Iron Rangers find success under Brumm, who coached the team for all but its final two seasons.
The Rangers won the USHL playoffs in 1967 and captured league championships from 1969-71.
“For the lifetime of the Iron Rangers, it was the No. 1 game in town,” said Floyd Summers, a former Iron Ranger who also will be attending the dedication. “The Thursday night and Saturday night games always drew big crowds.”
Summers played for the Rangers for nine seasons, including 1974 when the Carlson brothers joined the squad.
Later portrayed as Charlestown Chiefs in Slapshot, the hit movie about a fictional minor league hockey team that made its way to the top primarily through fighting, the Carlson brothers accurately portrayed the rough environment of old-time hockey, Summers said.
“It really wasn’t much different than Slapshot,” Summers said. “Guys stood up for one another—that’s the nature of hockey.”
The city announced plans to construct Lakeview Arena in 1974, which would provide more seating and better access for fans. However, ice time at the new rink was more expensive and the team was not attracting enough fans, said Hoppe, who was on the board that created the arena.
When the Palestra closed in 1974 and was demolished that August, the Iron Rangers’ already prominent financial problems became too overwhelming.
“I worked for four or five years to build the arena that basically put my team out of business,” Hoppe said.
When Northern Michigan University started its Division I hockey program in 1976, the competition for entertaining hockey fans in Marquette became too strong.
Halfway through the ’76 season, Iron Ranger players stopped being paid and the team soon disbanded after trying to stick together for a brief period. Marquette’s semi-professional hockey stint eventually ended, but a permanent hockey history on the walls of Lakeview will keep old-time hockey alive, Hoppe said.
Anyone who knows former players or directors who did not receive an invitation is asked to contact Vasseau at 228-7312 or Hoppe at 249-9512.
“Hopefully, we’ll provide three or four hours of entertainment,” Hoppe said. “It’s beginning to draw a lot of interest and it should be a fun night.”
—Rob Hamilton

 

 


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