Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pro Hockey in Muskegon

The recent announcement that Muskegon’s pro hockey team, the Lumberjacks, would be leaving town at the end of the season sparked memories of fifty years ago. In the fall of 1960 the Zephyrs, Muskegon’s first pro hockey team, took the ice in Walker Arena. The team was sponsored by Zephyr Oil Co of North Muskegon, hence the team name.
The new team was part of the International Hockey League, a high level minor league circuit back then. Most of the cities in the league were far larger than Muskegon and included Minneapolis, St. Paul, Omaha, Toledo, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Ft. Wayne. Even so, owner Jerry DeLise felt Muskegon could hold its own.
Muskegon’s first game was played against the Omaha Knights, Friday, October 21. The locals led for almost two periods, but ran out of gas towards the end, losing 7 - 3. The attendance was about 2000, which was considered a fair crowd because of the competition with high school football and Friday night shopping.
It was also assumed it would take a while for local fans to catch on to hockey. There was no high school hockey at the time, so the sport was new to much of the population. (I recall the game program for that first season provided a page explaining the various hockey terms, such as “icing,” or “high sticking.”)
Muskegon would go on to lose 12 of its first 14 contests, but under the leadership of player-coach, Morris “Moose” Lallo, the team clawed its way back and finished with a winning record. As the fans grew to appreciate the scrappy brand of hockey played by the Zephyrs, and to know the individual players, the crowds increased. Most of the players, having grown up in small towns in Canada, seemed to like Muskegon. And the feeling was mutual. More than a few players would spend the better part of their careers here, and became part of the community. A number settled here after retirement.
Over the years the leagues would change, the team name would change, (Mohawks, Lumberjacks, Fury etc), but the level of play continued high and fan support was generally good.
Note: part of that first Zephyr team were two of the most notable figures in Muskegon hockey history. See picture above: Bryan McLay (top photo - middle) and “Moose” Lallo (lower photo-left).

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