As the 1973-74 regular season came to an end, the Saginaw Gears finally began to get their game clicking. In an interview Don Perry gave insight as to the turning point. "I guess it was way back in January that we put it together. We had a very long team meeting. I got some things off my chest and so did the players. We had too many guys pulling in too many directions. It was small stuff, nothing major, but we had some guys who were used to playing a lot in other leagues and they weren't here. It's a very close knit team now. I just stay away from them as much as I can and let them play their game." Apparently, Perry's "team meeting" worked.
Still, the Gears protracted mid-season slump had left them finishing fourth overall. Going into the playoffs the Gears were matched with the Dayton Gems in the first round. In this era the first two rounds of IHL playoffs had winners determined by best of 5 in the series. The Gears had very little trouble with the Gems and finished them off in just 4 games. Then they turned around and swept the Columbus Owls in 3 games. To the Gears fans it looked as if our team was well on their way to their first championship in just their second season. The opposing team that was going into the finals, the Des Moines Capitols, had other ideas.
Finishing first overall in the IHL that season, the Cap.s were also in their second season having taken the place of the old Des Moines Oak Leafs in the 1972-73 season. In their second season of play the Cap.s had ripped up the IHL earning 96 points overall. By comparison the Gears had totalled a modest 80 points. Yet the Gears total only looked good because Port Huron, Fort Wayne and Flint had sucked so bad in that season. In the dressing rooms, both teams were stoked up to go out and win. However, overseas representing the North Stars organization in the nation of Finland and attempting to sign European players, Gears General Manager Wren Blair was secretly in fear that his Saginaw Gears may do exactly that... win the championship.
Considering the very long bus trip between Michigan and Iowa, Des Moines hosted the first two games in the series. Additionally, being the point leaders in the IHL the Cap.s also had home advantage, so only 3 of the 7 games in the series would be played in Wendler Arena. The Cap.s easily took the first two games by scores of 4 to 1 and 6-0 and then came to Saginaw looking to sweep the series.
In a rare Monday night game the Gears fans packed Wendler Arena for the third contest. So far the Gears had played 5 games in the past 7 days. In the first period the Gears scored four unanswered goals. Marcel Comeau scored an early one at 1:22 and his was followed one minute and 33 seconds later when Jimmy Johnston popped the puck into the net. At the 5:10 mark of the first stanza Jerome Engele scored his second goal of the season and first of the playoffs to put the Gears up by 3 to 0. Dennis Desrosiers then sealed off the first period scoring at 9:07 with one of his famed slapshots that to this day I swear went directly through Cap.s goaltender Dave McLelland and came out the other side covered in entrails. The second period saw two Cap.s goals, both by Terry McDougall- one at 9:00 and one at 12:47. That was it for scoring in the second period. It was nearly all rough-stuff in the remainder of the period and it culminated with Rosie and Pat Russell exchanging high sticks. Rosie ended up with a fighting major and a high sticking major while Russell just got a high sticking minor. The Cap.s failed to convert on Rosie's major penalty and the Gears ended the game in the third period with Dave Cressman hitting the empty net at 19:48 as the Cap.s pulled their goaltender attempting to at least get back into the game.
Just 24 hours after game 3, the fans again packed Wendler Arena. This time Sam Clegg was replacing Jim Armstrong in the nets. Armstrong had reportedly hurt his shoulder Monday night stopping a breakaway and Clegg was itching to get into the net. He showed his best as he shut out the Cap.s and made room for Dennis Desrosiers and and Bordon Smith to both score in the second period. With just 12 seconds left in the third period, Pierre LaBlanc repeated Dave Cressman's open net goal from Monday's game. A dozen ticks on the clock later, the Gears had tide the series at two games a piece and Saginaw fans and doubters alike began to believe that the team may actually have a chance at going all the way.
Game 5 was played back in Desmoines- and would be a lot harder than playing at Wendler Arena. Sam Clegg commented publicly about the Des Moines Ice Arena "I hate that place. The lights aren't as good (as the Civic Center) and the smoke seems to hang from the ceiling (in those days some arenas allowed fans to smoke in their seats and the rest allowed smokers to use the outer concourse.) Four days after the series was tied, the Cap.s took on the Gears at the Des Moines Ice Arena and beat the snot out of them. The final score was 8 to 0 and all 8 goals were scored on Clegg. There would follow another 3 day break and then game 6 would then be played back in Saginaw.
No matter what the outcome of game 6, it would be the last Gears home game of the 1973-74 season. The date was April 23rd, 1974 and even if the Gears were to win and force a game 7; that game would be held in Des Moines, Iowa. The Gears had drawn more than 150,000 fans in 38 regular season home games and 23,755 more in the 5 playoff home games so far. Game 6 was sold out with (officially) 5,464 tickets in the hands of fans. Over-flow seating consisting of player's families and IHL guests were seated in the arena's loft. My dad would not let us kids sit up in the loft that night, because the building engineers had predicted that the loft could not hold the weight of the ad-hock seating. Building lighting manager Russ Shaw said, straight up, "It'll come down." So, a special riser was set up near Zamboni alley and the families of Civic Center employees were seated there. My dad told everyone "If Gears management complains, just tell 'em Fifer will take it up with them tomorrow morning." There were no complaints, after all, from a business standpoint, the Gears had sold the absolute maximum amount of tickets for the season anyhow.
Starting game 6 in the Gears net was Jim Armstrong while on the other end Dave McLelland stood as he had in every game of the series. The first period was scoreless as was the first half of the second period. At 11:02 of the second stanza the Cap.s' Pat Russell fired a shot from the blueline and it got past Armstrong. Then just 43 seconds before the end of the second period there was a scramble in front of Armstrong. At that moment a "fan" tossed a popcorn box full of confetti from the stands and it landed right in front of the Saginaw netminder. The box appeared to explode with confetti as it hit the ice and it distracted Armstrong at just the wrong time. Frank DeMarco of the Cap.s took that instant to shove the puck and it went into the net. The "fan" later told the media that he thought the confetti "...would stop the play." Instead it ended the chance that the Gears would win the Turner cup. There was a glimmer of hope at 1:16 of the third period when Jean Marie Nicol finally scored for the Gears. Now the Cap.s began to run the clock down while the Gears worked hard to get the goal that would tie the game. With just a couple of minutes to go in regulation, Don Perry put his big scoring line out. Russ Friesen, Dennis Desrosiers and Stu Irving began to apply maximum pressure onto McLelland. Just before a faceoff in the Cap.s zone, Rosie backed away from the circle and knowing that this was his last shift he skated over to the Cap.s goaltender and said "You better get ready you little c%&k sucker, because it's comin' in high and it's comin' in hard." Then Rosie took his place back at the faceoff. Friesen won the draw and it went directly to Rosie who one-timed it as hard as he could. The puck pinged off the crossbar and into the crowd- unfortunately, it missed the guy who tossed the popcorn box of confetti too. In the final two minutes of the game the Gears pulled Armstrong, but Cap.s defenseman Larry Bolonchuk sealed his team's victory when he hit the empty net with just 53 seconds remaining in the game and the Des Moines Capitols won the 1973-74 Turner Cup. Oddly, Belonchuk may have also sealed his team's fate at the same time. When the horn blew, Rosie saw McLelland leave the net and skate straight toward him with his big goalie stick in hand. Rosie told me, "I thought he's gonna cut me in half with that thing! Instead he just skated past and gave me a wack on chinpad then he went and celebrated with his team."
From a fan's standpoint, or from a player's point of view, and from a coach's outlook, winning a championship is the goal of the entire season- no matter if it was the first season or the 30th season. From Blair's long-term business outlook, however, it was different. In an interview with Dennis Desrosiers in 2011, he recalled being on a drive with Wren Blair many years after the 1973-74 Turner Cup final series. Rosie and Blair began talking about the series and the loss to Des Moines. He recalled that out of the blue Blair said "I didn't wanna win it... it was too early." Rosie, who had tried so hard to win the series, had a jaw-drop as he gasped "WHAT?!" Blair explained that Rosie, who had been a GM as well as a player, was still looking at it from a player's point of view. The worst thing that a minor league team can do is win a championship early in their existence. First off, from there everyone expects them to do it again, but members of a championship team are often snapped up by teams in higher leagues and thus there is a drain in talent. Frankly, there is no place for the team to go but down. If a team does not have a large and loyal fan base that has been built over several years they will be seen as a "flash in the pan" and ticket sales will falter. That is exactly what happened with the Des Moines Capitols. In the season following their Turner Cup victory the they lagged with just 69 points and the team folded, but the Gears went to the finals again and continued on for nearly a decade. From a business point of view, the 1973-74 season was a huge success. They sold the maximum amount of tickets and played the maximum amount of games thus making the maximum money. Best of all, they did not win the turner cup. Rosie thought about it for a moment and then concluded that Wren Blair was correct.
As a post-script, a few weeks after the final Gears game that season, the Greater Saginaw Armature Hockey Association (GSAHA) started a spring league for hockey at what was then the Bayside Ice Arena. I joined a team that was made up of players from the new high school league and the "prep. league." We were all gathering in the dressing room for our first practice when this kid from Beuna Vista High comes in and sets down a Des Moines Capitols bag. He then proceeded to remove and put on a COMPLETE Des Moines Capitol's set of pads and a Cap.s uniform. We were all a bit stunned. "Where'd you get that?" someone asked. He gleefully told us that after the game, while the Cap.s were celebrating, their equipment guy was bringing bags out to the Civic Center's truckwell where the Cap.s bus was parked. In the confusion the equipment guy was just stacking the bags by the bus and then going back into the building to get more. When there was no one looking, this kid just walked over and swiped a bag and took it home. We all laughed, and since we had no fond feelings for the Capitols at that point, we just went out and played hockey... with one guy dressed like a Des Moines Capitols player. I often wonder if he kept that stuff.