EDITOR'S Note: Contributor Jon McQuinn spent weeks tracking down and trying to contact the Armstrong family. He finally got in touch with Judy Armstrong, the wife of former Gears goaltender Jim Armstrong, and she was delighted to chat with him... for more than a half hour! Now we are delighted to present the results of that interview thanks to Jon's amazing efforts.
By Jon McQuinn
For Saginaw Gears Dot Com
Jim Armstrong spent a half-century chasing the hockey dream, first as a player, then a coach. During most of that time, his wife Judy was by his side. Just nine months of it was spent in Saginaw, and that was 39 years ago. But the memories of Jim Armstrong’s season with the Saginaw Gears remain crystal clear to Judy.
Crystal clear, and pleasant.
“When I think back on Saginaw, I remember a great place,” Judy Armstrong said. “I couldn’t get over how friendly everyone was. To this day, I have wonderful memories of our time in Saginaw.”
Jim Armstrong was a hockey lifer, right up to the day he passed away, Jan. 22, 2012, age 68. A goaltender, he played in nine cities over 14 years (at LEAST nine cities – old minor-league hockey stats are sketchy). In an era when there were just six teams in the National Hockey League, there were a lot of talented pro hockey players who never got a whiff of the big time. Armstrong was one such player – he spent most of his career in the low minors.
“I was talking to one of the kids about that a few days ago,” Judy Armstrong said. “Most of those years, Jim made $5-7 thousand. He never had a season where he made five figures. It was a time when you played hockey for the love of the game.”
James Armstrong was born March 1, 1943 in Omemee, Ontario, just outside of Peterborough. By the time he was 16, he was playing for Barrie in the Ontario Hockey Association. There was another OHA stop in Niagara Falls, and then it was on to the minors. Armstrong spent much of his time in the Eastern Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.
“We were in New Haven a couple of times, we spent half a season on Long Island, there were a few seasons in Seattle, half a season in Salt Lake, a season in Rhode Island, half a season in Toledo (with the old Toledo Blades of the IHL),” said Judy Armstrong, who met her future husband during his first stint in New Haven. “Oh, and we had six kids over seven and-a-half years when all this was going on, too.”
The stories of the long-gone Eastern League are legendary, and Jim Armstrong played a starring role in one of them. Armstrong’s New Haven Blades were playing the seventh and deciding game in a bloody, emotionally-charged playoff series against the host Syracuse Blazers in March of 1972. Linesman Gordie Heagle was a Syracuse resident, and had a track record of favoring “his” team. In fact, when Heagle intervened in a fight during the game, he threw a punch at the New Haven player. Armstrong, standing in his goal crease nearby, saw it all. He intervened, tackling Heagle.
“The New Haven Register had a series last year looking back on their 200 greatest sports stories, and that was one of them,” Judy Armstrong said. “They ran the photo of Jim on top of the linesman. Jim looks like he’s choking him in the photo, but Jim said he wasn’t; he was just laughing at the guy – he could smell the alcohol on his breath.”
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The EHL was on its last legs by then – it folded a year later – and many within the league scattered around the country. Among those was New Haven coach Don Perry, who became the first coach of the Saginaw Gears in 1972-73. Perry and Gears owner Wren Blair stocked those early Gears teams with EHL alums, and when the Gears’ second season rolled around, one of those EHL alums was Armstrong.
“Don was the reason we moved to Saginaw,” Judy Armstrong said. “Don was Jim’s best man in our wedding, and his wife, Marge, was my matron of honor. The hockey community’s a pretty close family.”
So the Armstrongs – Jim, Judy, and children Jennifer, Jodi, Joelle, Julie, Jared and Josh – rolled into Saginaw in September of 1973. “Jim and I pulled into town with our six kids, and the Booster Club was right there to support us,” Armstrong said. “They gave us a ton of food, they rounded up some used furniture for us . . . everyone treated us so well. They found a house for us that belonged to a Lutheran church close to the arena. I can still picture that house in my mind.”
Armstrong was 30 years old when he arrived in Saginaw, a battle-hardened veteran with a near-military haircut and a wife and six kids at home. Sam Clegg, his goaltending partner that season, was a bright-eyed 20-year old from Alberta with hair reaching his shoulders. The duo made for the Gears’ own version of The Odd Couple, but it worked – after failing to make the playoffs in 1972-73, Armstrong and Clegg backstopped the Gears to the Turner Cup Finals. Armstrong played in 46 regular-season games that season and compiled a goals-against average of 3.71.
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And then, Jim Armstrong decided he had had enough. He retired from playing after the Gears’ playoff run ended in May of 1974, and the family moved back to the New Haven area. “Jim went to work for a chemical company, and he did a lot of stuff on the side,” Armstrong said. “We had six kids to support. He did what he had to do to make money. He moonlighted as a bartender for a year, he took care of some tennis courts at a place for awhile. And then he moonlighted as a coach for 14 seasons.”
That last part-time job was noteworthy. Armstrong’s coaching job was with the hockey team at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., right down the street from the Armstrong home. “It was a Division III program back then, and there was never any money available,” Judy Armstrong said. “The athletic director back then was a basketball guy and couldn’t have cared less about hockey. I’m sure we paid for some of the equipment out of our own pocket so the kids could play.
“But all those boys were like family to us. Every single boy who played for Jim graduated, and most of them went on to have very successful lives.”
Armstrong went on to win 140 games between 1980-94 for the Bobcats at Quinnipiac. Today, the school boasts an NCAA Division I program. As the 2012-13 college hockey regular season neared its end, the Bobcats sat atop the national college rankings.
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For all the financial hardship the Armstrongs endured through the years – including putting all those kids through college – they were blessed with one bit of sweet irony. “Jim liked to play the Connecticut Lottery,” Judy Armstrong said. “Less than a year before Jim died, he was in the hospital and I said to one of our daughters, ‘We have to play Daddy’s numbers this week,’ but I didn’t know what his numbers were. We finally found them and bought a ticket with his numbers.
“A couple of weeks later, Jim came back from the store and said, ‘Hey, we won on the Cash 5.’ I said, ‘Oh great, was it three bucks this time, or five?’”
It was neither. Jim and Judy Armstrong had won a hundred grand.
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Jim Armstrong had fought a blood disorder for several years, according to Judy. “Maybe it was because of all the years he worked for the chemical company – no one really knows,” Armstrong said. “But his red blood count would go way down, then the doctors would get it back up. He’d been on medication that helped it, but I think all those times that his red blood count went way down really took its toll on him.”
Armstrong died in his sleep at home of an apparent heart attack.
“It was a terrible day,” Armstrong said. “We were all in shock, and it took a long time to come to grips with the fact that Jim was gone. But when I think back to everything that happened at the funeral home afterward, it was incredible. People were waiting in line outside for two hours all night long to see Jim. I later heard a lot of people just turned around and went home because they didn’t think they’d get inside.”
Shortly after Armstrong’s funeral, Quinnipiac honored its former coach with a special night; for the remainder of the season, Quinnipiac players wore a black patch with the initials ‘JA’ on their sweaters. His former players began an endowment fund in Armstrong’s name at the school.
And so, the legacy of Jim Armstrong goes on – beyond his 14 years as a coach at Quinnipiac, and certainly beyond the days when he pulled the number 30 sweater over his head for the Saginaw Gears.
But Judy Armstrong has never forgotten the 1973-74 hockey season.
“We had a wonderful time there that season,” Armstrong said. “Please tell everyone in Saginaw I said ‘Thank you.’”