By Jon McQuinn
The history of Saginaw Gears hockey spanned just over 11 years, from the announcement of the franchise being granted in March, 1972 to the franchise folding in June, 1983. When the team began operations, Vietnam still led the national news every night, Watergate was just another hotel inside the Beltway, and a computer was still a million-dollar item that took up the better part of a large room. By the time the Gears folded, “Reaganomics” was on everyone’s lips, some cracks within the Communist Bloc were starting to appear, and $2,500 would get you a computer you could put on a small desk in your home.
As for me, the history of the Gears spanned my formative years. I was not quite 10 years old when that first season began in October, 1972, a fourth grader at Liskow Elementary School in Thomas Township. By the time the Gears played their final game in 1983, I was a 20-year old college student at Saginaw Valley State College. So, in a very real sense, I grew up watching the Gears, and Wendler Arena was more or less my second home seven or eight months of the year.
When you’re younger, you’re dependent upon other people to provide the transportation. For the first six years of watching Gears’ hockey, this was usually my dad. My parents were both originally from southeastern Kentucky, and while my mom came to embrace hockey – and the Gears – as much as I, my dad never bought into the sport. In fact, the only game I ever remember him attending was the first game I ever saw, in 1972. My mom never did learn how to drive(she died, way too young, in 1991), so the routine in those early years was for my dad to drive my mom and I to the Civic Center, drop us off, and then listen to the game back at home. When the third period began, that was his cue to start driving back toward downtown.
I watched three games at the Civic Center that first season, and the number ballooned to 10 in 1973-74, plus a couple of playoff games. During each of the next three seasons, I watched between 15-20 regular-season games and several playoff games. Whether I went with friends or my mom, our seats of choice were almost always in the west, or “Zamboni” end of the rink. Don’t ask me why – these weren’t the best seats in the house, and the Gears only shot once at that end. The tickets certainly were cheap -- $2.50 in those early years – but the most-expensive ticket was only $4.50.
Finally, as the 1977-78 season approached, I noticed that the Gears offered a very reasonable season ticket price for students. This led to the purchase of a season ticket for that season. A visit to the old ticket office (where the main concession stand of the Dow Event Center is these days) led me to choosing a seat in one of the corners – Section 6, Row C, Seat 9, in the orange seats. Cost for the entire season: $80, less than what it cost for 25 games in the cheap seats by then. I would end up keeping this seat right to the demise of the franchise. (For you Saginaw Spirit fans out there, my old seat is directly overhead where the Spirit enter and leave the ice for their locker room, right up against the rail; I believe the numbering system has been changed, so the seat is no longer 6-C-9.) I’m quite certain the thought of the Gears’ sales department behind these cheap student prices was that Mom and Dad would buy full-priced season tickets as well, a plan that backfired with me . . . I bought exactly one ticket each year, and attended most of the games on my own.
Don’t weep for me. I loved every minute of it.
I obtained my driver’s license in November, 1978, and began driving to the games shortly thereafter. Here was the typical itinerary for a 7:30 pm puck drop: Leave my house in Shields at 6:15, drive east on Gratiot, then north on Michigan, east on Genesee, and north on Baum (a secondary street that ran between the Downtown Saginaw Mall and the Radisson Hotel). I’d park on Baum, right between the mall and the hotel – saving those two bucks that it cost to park in the ramp! -- and walk across Johnson Street to the Civic Center, entering about five minutes after the doors opened at 6:30.
Even in the glory days, those days when crowds in excess of 5,000 were common, there were few people in the building an hour before faceoff. This gave me a chance to say ‘Hi’ to the ushers in the main walkway surrounding the ice, and to the guy selling programs out in the concourse. And, there was this bond you built with like fans, fellow hockey junkies who lived and died with the sport and the team, just like you. I usually made one or two laps around the inside of the arena, stopping and visiting with these folks before the players stepped onto the ice for the pregame skate. After I sat in my seat, others stopped by and said ‘Hi’ to me. You had to be there – I don’t mean to overly romanticize things, but it really was a tight-knit community.
The pregame skate was a signal that things were starting to build for the evening. It was always interesting watching the start of this 15-minute warmup, for the players of both teams skated in one big circle around the ice, occasionally chatting with each other, sharing a story, and a laugh. Then, the players quickly separated into teams, with the Gears warming up in the “Zamboni” end of the ice, and the opponent doing the same on the east end.
There were several season ticket holders around me, and we quickly developed friendships that went beyond the Gears. Even today, I still bump into A.J., a guy two years younger than I, who held a student season ticket right next to me for several years.
I also remember the arrival of my first season ticket package, for it really was a PACKAGE. I opened the mailbox one day in September, and there was this large envelope from the Gears addressed to me. Upon opening it, I pulled out a thick stack of tickets, stapled together at one end. For someone who still remembered the excitement of getting a ticket to an individual game, the feel of holding all these game tickets in one’s hand was overpowering. There was also a season pass to the Blue Line Club (which I rarely used ), and a thank-you form letter from Wren Blair.
I bought a program to each game I attended from 1972 until the last two seasons of the franchise. Quite simply, the price of the programs went up at this time and the quality of the content declined. I was a college student working three part-time, minimum-wage jobs, and had better things to do with my money. I still have possession of almost all of the programs I did buy, along with the various “news-and-notes” sheets and player posters that were included.
Listening to games on radio while watching them in person at the Civic Center was a popular thing to do, especially in the first five years of the team. A must-have item for the Gears fan back then was the headset radio, sort of a precursor to the Sony Walkman that arrived in the early-80s. When Al Blade or Wally Shaver or Ron Jay Scott mentioned something on the air during a game – such as an injury report to a player, or a key out-of-town score – the news was quickly announced by all of the radio-wielding fans in the crowd and soon spread to everyone else. Another radio memory is this: I can’t tell you the number of times I sat there moments before the start of a big game, the place packed, and Al or Wally or Ron Jay coming on and saying, “If you’re heading downtown right now and planning on buying a ticket to tonight’s game, turn around.”
I thought about those announcements often during the final season of the Gears, when there were rarely more than 2,500 people in attendance.
Artificial noise was also a big deal, as Wes has mentioned elsewhere on this site. Cowbells were hugely popular, not just with the Gears, but throughout the International Hockey League. Up until I was about 14, I was right there with so many others, ringing a scaled-down version of a real cowbell.
Pictured nearby is a photo of three bells. At left is the bell that was sold by the Gears at souvenir stands in the arena. This was a small, steel bell with a bent metal hook attached inside to provide the noise. I always looked upon this style of bell as lame, but a lot of people used them. The bell in the center was a notch up from the “official” bell, and used a small, solid, round piece of steel for a clapper (imagine a good-sized fishing sinker). This specific bell was the one used by my mom for several years, and it worked just fine in the volume department. Finally, at right was my weapon of choice at Gears games. My “middle” brother (there were three of us) was always working on street rods and drag-race cars, so he always had ready access to steel, and he also did a lot of fabricating and welding. A 1972 graduate of Arthur Hill, he began employment at Saginaw Steering Gear later that year. He’d work the ’B’ shift at Steering Gear’s Plant 5, get out about midnight, then spend a few hours at a buddy’s garage working on cars. One morning, I walked into the kitchen to see this bell on the kitchen table. It was in the shape of an actual cowbell, but in about 1/3rd scale. Everything – the body, the handle – had been formed and welded by my brother. Inside, he opted for a ½-inch nut for a clapper, and the noise was deafening.
I still use this thing from time to time to awaken my 16-year old daughter on school mornings when her alarm clock is having no effect. Trust me, the bell works much, much better than the clock.
Another popular noisemaker back in the early days was the air horn. These were much more expensive than a cowbell, and so were most often used by adults. These are the horns found in boating supply stores for the purpose of seeking emergency help in times of distress on the water. Put another way, if you can hear these air horns from three miles away on Saginaw Bay (which you can), imagine the sound within the confines of Wendler Arena. Now, imagine 100 or so of them blasting in unison after a big Gears’ playoff goal. I received a small version of the air horn as a gift in 1973. I took it to a game for the first time, blew it a few times when the Gears skated onto the ice, blew it a few times after the Gears scored their first goal, then realized I’d already emptied the canister of Freon. Upon learning that replacement canisters cost about as much as the original horn, I returned to the cowbell.
From the time I first bought season tickets until the last couple of years of the Gears, I usually ate dinner at home, then bought a Coke and a box of popcorn at the game in the second period. But not just ANY time in the second period. Sometime during the 1977-78 season, I was waiting for a stoppage in play to get my Coke and popcorn, and when the whistle blew, I looked up at the clock and the second period – thus, the game – was half over, with exactly 10 minutes showing. The Gears, who had been trailing that game by two goals, came back and won. So, from that point on, I waited until the first whistle after the 10-minute mark of the second period to make my snack run. I always went to the same concession stand, one located at ice level just beyond the glass and underneath Section 11.
Later, my schedule became more complicated with work and school, and I often didn’t eat supper on game nights until I got downtown. McDonald’s had opened at the corner of Washington and Johnson by this point, so I’d often get downtown maybe 90 minutes before game time, walk over to McDonald’s, and have dinner before walking back to the arena. This was also the plan of several IHL teams who were in town to play the Gears. I still remember standing in line with Paul Tantardini in front of me, Dirk Graham behind me, and a lobby full of Toledo Goaldiggers all trying to grab a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder before walking across the street and going to work.
Thirty years have passed since the Gears closed up shop, and of course change is a constant. Don’t bother looking for the Radisson Hotel or the Downtown Saginaw Mall anymore, for they are gone, their sites now parking lots. Don’t look for Baum Street in that area either, because it only goes as far north as Genesee My old concession stand, the one where you could watch the game while waiting in line, was closed during a remodeling project prior to the arrival of the Spirit in 2002. The IHL is gone, the Gears and ‘Diggers are gone, and that McDonald’s store even closed its doors in January, 2008 (the old restaurant site is, drum roll please . . . a parking lot). And almost two years to the day before that, on January 9, 2006, Paul Tantardini, as fearless a player that ever laced up the skates in the IHL, took his life, jumping off a bridge into the Maumee River, not all that far from the Toledo Sports Arena where he played so many games.
But those 11 years of watching the Gears? That was time well spent. That team and my youth are forever intertwined. I would not trade those days for anything.