The run to THE CUP!

Run to THE CUP!

By the time that the 1976-77 hockey season drew to a close the Saginaw Gears had become much more to the community than a simple sports team- they were a part of the fabric of life. Going to a hockey game became as routine and commonplace as going to the grocery store. For many of us there wasn't a question of "Are you going to a hockey game?" Instead it was "See you next game." In fact, what seemed odd was to go to a game and have one of your "people from hockey" not be there. No matter how much your job sucked, or what part of life was getting you down there was always the escape to go see the Gears play.

As the 1977 playoffs approached, the Saginaw Gears were once again on track to the top of the standings. For some reason there was just a feeling about this season. Although none of us wanted to say it- it seemed as if the Gears were destined to go all the way this time. Of course, no one could forget the 1975 playoffs when the gears lost the cup to Toledo in a game seven heartbreaker.

As if to kick off their run to the playoffs, on the evening of Wednesday, March 16th the Gears were playing Port Huron at Wendler Arena and got a little vengeance. In the previous season's playoffs Saginaw had been eliminated by Port Huron in the semi finals. The Flags went on to play for the Turner cup but were swept by Dayton. Now, Port Huron was coming off of a dismal season and seeking to inflict some pointless damage on the Gears. Late in the game Saginaw was trailing by a score of 6 to 3, but came back to score 5 unanswered goals and not only win the game, but also knock the Flags out of the playoffs.

Sunday, March 27th found Saginaw playing their final regular-season game. This time the Flint Generals came to town. For the last several months the top spot in the standings had been a seesaw battle between the Gears and the Kalamazoo Wings. Flint was looking to play spoiler and knock Saginaw from the top spot because if Saginaw lost this final game of the season and Kalamazoo won their final game of the season, which was also being played tonight, Kazoo would end up in first place. Flint's ambition quickly went down the toilet as Kalamazoo suffered a 6 to 3 loss and the Gears just as easily dispatched the Generals by score of 7 to 2. It was a huge win and a harbinger of things to come. The Civic Center went nuts that night and in the Blue Line Club a party erupted that made the following Monday morning somewhat distressful for most people attending.

Game one of the quarterfinals for the Gears took place on April Fools' Day. Their opponents for this first round would be the Muskegon Mohawks. Every time the Saginaw Gears faced Moose Lallo’s Mohawks in the playoffs it had been a tough venture. For example, in the 1975 series the Gears had gotten behind three games to zero and were forced to play their way back and win four games straight in order to get to the finals. In the spring of 1977 Moose and his Mohawks were well prepared to give the Gears yet another hard time. Among the Saginaw fans there was guarded optimism as we filled the seats of Wendler Arena. The first game was close with the Gears squeaking out a 3-2 win. Game 2 took place the following night in Muskegon and saw the Hawks even the series with a 5 to 2 win. Game 3 was played in Saginaw on the afternoon of Palm Sunday. As Muskegon defenseman Dave Miglia, who had been a Gear in the previous season, entered the Mohawk’s locker room he taped a fistful of Palm leafs above the doorway-for good luck. Apparently that worked as a Mohawks took the lead in the series by beating the Gears with a score of 3 to 2. As his team departed Miglia loaded his equipment aboard the bus then dashed back into the arena, recovered the palms in his fist, turned and pumping both fists, quietly said "Yes!" On Wednesday night April 6th the Gears traveled to Muskegon and evened the series with a 5-3 victory. Moving back to Saginaw on Friday, April 8th the Gears regained the series lead 56 seconds into overtime winning by a score of 4 to 3. Moose’s guys still had plenty of fight in them, however, and in the next game they beat Saginaw 3-1 in Muskegon to again tie the series the following night. Game 7 would be at Wendler Arena on Saturday, April 13th.

For the next three days the Gears fans enjoyed a touch of early summer as the temperatures in the area climbed into the 80s, yet most were probably dwelling on Wednesday’s game. I did my best to drive my Highland Appliance truck, fix people’s TV sets and try not to think about the game. I finished my calls quick and my brother Craig and I went down to the arena with Dad- we got there earlier than normal. Like always, Dad made his standard rounds to the Gears locker room to talk briefly to Gunner and then up to the front office. Craig and I skated and shot around for over 45 minutes… I needed that. Wendler Arena was later packed full for game 7. My dad, being the “break-a-leg” superstitious type, kept muttering, “These dummies’ll find a way to lose it.” Yet all the while, he was as nervous as a cat- double checking every aspect of his ice and his Zamboni. The Civic Center families had some “special” seating at the glass right next to Mr. Carter the goal judge, but I could not bring myself to sit. I just stood back at the rear of the riser, pacing, fiddling with my camera and gnawing on my gum. As it turned out this was another close one but the Gears pulled off a 3 to 2 
win and ended the series.

Immediately following the end of the Muskegon series there was some question as to when the series with Kalamazoo would begin- it would be either Friday or Saturday, or perhaps even Sunday. Of course in those days decisions about scheduling were resolved quite quickly- on the morning after game 7 with the Mohawks WSAM announced that the Kazoo series would start on Saturday. Game 1 would be in Saginaw and a lot of us felt that after the Mohawk's nail-biter, it was good to be able to sit back, relax and just enjoy the game for the first time in a while- that included some of the Gears players. Before the game as the players were filing in one by one, Dave Westner took a second to stop and chat with my Dad in Zamboni alley. Dad asked “…what about these guys?” meaning the Kazoo Wings. Westner scoffed and said “Bah, these guys are nothin’.” He was right, as the Gears took game 1; 2 to 1, then lost in Kazoo the next night 6 to 4. That, however was Kazoo’s only win of the series. In game 3, the Gears were down 3 to 1 going into the third period but scored four straight goals and won the game. Four nights later in Kazoo the score was tied at two goals each and went into a very brief overtime where the Gears popped in a quick one and ended the Wings home season. Back in Saginaw for game 5 Tom Mohr was in the net for the Gears. The players had nick-named Mohr, "Slinky." 

Although the Wings scored six goals on him, the Gears scored seven on Kazoo and the series was over. The Gears were going to the Turner Cup finals for the third time in just five seasons and they would be facing the Toledo Goaldiggers.

No one forgot that just two years earlier the Gears had gone down to defeat against the “diggers” in a heartbreaking Game 7. That night I was working as an usher guarding the cage door that lead up to the press box. I stood there and watched as our guys lost in the final minutes and Toledo celebrated. This time, there was the feeling that things would be different… they just had to be.

For me, this final series were sort of the end of the line as far as attending Gears games went. Although I was employed as a TV repair man for Highland Appliance, I had already been accepted and enrolled in the Aeronautical Science department at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Daytona Beach, Florida. In fact I got my final letter of enrollment the day after the Gears had polished off Kazoo. So, starting in late August of 1977 I would be about as far away from Wendler Arena and the Gears as anyone could get without having to speak Spanish. Thus, if the Gears did not win the cup this time, I would not be around to follow them next time.

On Friday night, April 29th, the Gears gave their fans a good preview of the series as they played Toledo at Wendler Arena in Game 1 of the finals. It was a high scoring match as the Gears easily matched everything the diggers had and pulled off a 6 to 5 win. During the game Stu Irving’s wife Bonnie, whose sister J.L. was a good friend of mine, invited me to come to Toledo the next day for Game 2. She had “comp.” tickets so there was no way I would pass that invitation up.

Compared to Wendler Arena, Toledo’s home rink was a real barn. They had an old fashioned Zamboni and their driver was nowhere near as good as my Dad. There were no dividing boards between the fans and the benches and their fans were rabidly loyal. During the warm-ups the Gears noticed that at their end of the ice there were large arrows drawn on the boards and pointing down toward a spot on the lower kick-boards. They also noticed that if you shot a puck at those points from the top of the circle it would bounce directly out into the center slot in front of the goaltender. No one seemed to be able to use those arrows to any real advantage and the 

Toledo fans were delighted that their diggers beat our Gears that night by a score of 5 to 2. I did not get home until 3:30 Sunday morning and then got up at 2:00 Sunday afternoon to go with my whole family to the Civic Center for Game 3.

My Dad only gave my brother and I about a 15 minute skate and told me to “feel the ice” while I was out there and make sure it was in a state of perfection. It was great as usual, but I found a spot in the Gears corner that had a kick-board bulge. We helped dad fix it and then he went out and did his pre-game finish. The Saginaw fans piled into the arena that night and it sounded as if the roof would blow off as the Gears blasted the diggers 8 to 2 to again take the series lead.

Tuesday, April 4th, saw the Gears returning to the barn in Toledo. Again the diggers held the gears to just 2 goals while scoring 4 and they thus tied the series. This time I was stuck at home listening to Wally Shaver, Al Blade and Ron-Jay Scott on WSAM radio 14. Since I had to work there was no way for me to make the late night adventure to Toledo and back.

On Friday I only had 6 calls to run for Highland and they were all easy. Heading to the Civic Center, Dad said that he didn’t want me to skate before the game, but promised that I could skate afterward. If anyone had any doubt about the determination of the Gears to win that cup, that was quickly erased as the team simply blew the diggers out of the game with a score of 12 to 1. During the game we got word that Toledo was playing with an ineligible player on their roster. But, in a team meeting prior to the beginning of the series Don Perry had put the issue to his players for them to decide what should be done. Unanimously the team said, “Let ‘em play, we’ll bet ‘em anyhow.” While I was out skating around in the empty arena after the game, the thought came to me that it seemed like the Gears were simply toying with Toledo. The diggers would come into Wendler and get blown away, but while in Toledo the Gears were low-scoring. Of course to this day the guys on that team swear that such was not the case. They state flatly that they wanted to finish the series as fast as they could and that meant winning it all in Toledo.

Before Tuesday’s game 6 and Wednesday’s game 7 speculation ran wild in the Tri-Cities. Perry stated publically several times that the team was going to Toledo to win the cup there in game 6, but many fans and sports reporters speculated that the team was really looking to bring the series back to Saginaw and win it on home ice. After all, a game 7 in Wendler Arena would bring in a ton of extra cash. Not only would the arena be sold out, but they would pipe the game into the Civic Center’s theater by closed circuit TV and sell out those seats as well. Of course anything can happen in a game 7 situation and there was the risk of another repeat of 1975. Yet the Gears had already scored an amazing 32 goals in the series as opposed to Toledo’s 15, and 26 of those had been scored in Wendler Arena. There was no reason to think that such a trend would somehow be reversed in a game 7. On Monday evening I called my friend J.L. to see if I could hitch a ride down to Toledo for game 6 and perhaps buy a standing-room ticket. If the Gears did win it there, I wanted to see it. I was a bit surprised when she told me that they already had a seat reserved for me in the arena! Yea-ha, I’m goin’ to game 6!

Jeff Sarmiento, who was a Gears stick-boy at the time, added this amazing tid-bit about game 6 from behind the scenes: Speaking about Mario Lassard, he tore his knee up in the cup finals and Tom Mohr (Slinky) had to play game 6 if I remember right. It was Gunner Garret that some how got Mario ready enough to play game 7. Outside of the room I don't think anybody knew how bad Lassard's knee was! But Slinky came through when we needed him and the rest like they say is History. Gunner was the man behind the scenes that got Mario well enough to play. We used to tease Gunner about ice bag whirl pool, but it worked!!

Running my Highland calls as fast as I could, I caught my ride down to Toledo. There the Gears lost in another close game by a score of 4 goals to 2. Somehow, it was easy to ignore the boasts of the Toledo fans saying that they’ve “got it.” We motored out of Toledo actually looking forward to Wednesday night’s game 7. I got home at 2:30 in the morning.

Somehow I managed to wake up and go to work on Wednesday morning. I told my idiot boss that if the Gears won tonight, I would not be in to work tomorrow. He simply sneered and said “whatever.” He was plotting to fire me anyhow and this was a needed nail in my coffin. Of course that firing gave me the summer of 1977 off with pay courtesy of the unemployment office. Then I would be on my way to college in Florida- thus Highland Appliance meant little to me. I took my lunch just in time to sit in the Arby’s parking lot and eat while listening to “The Don Perry Sports Show” on WSAM. This was it, it was do or die, and I just felt that it would be a real big “DO’ for the Gears and a nice “die” for the diggers. I answered on last call and headed home.

My Dad, just like me, had this habit of not eating when he was under pressure. Mom was worried because he had not eaten all day- he was totally focused on his ice long before we left home for the arena. Entering the building we were given four “comp” seats, right down at the glass behind Mario’s net and right next to Mr. Carter the west end goal judge.  Oddly Dad would not let me skate before the game. I tried the, “If I don’t get my skate in it may jinx the team,” bit, but Dad would not buy a word of it. Mom and my sister went up to the Blue Line Club for dinner and my brother Craig and I stayed to help Dad with the ice. Gunner came out and Dad asked him what kind of ice he needed?

“Just do yer’ best again Walt,” Gunner answered over his shoulder as he walked into the locker room, “That’s all we need.”

Dad went about his work and I could tell that he was focused and sharp. Craig and I did everything that we could to help. Every inch of that ice along the boards was inspected and Dad slung his golf ball around the boards each way to make sure that the kick-boards were exactly right; they were. Then he did his pre-game finish- each pass was perfection, as straight as any human could make them with only inches of overlap. The corners were dry and even- no excess water and the shave was just enough to make the surface smooth. Craig and I walked the game nets as while Dad refinished and looking down at that ice under my feet I saw that Gunner had gotten what he wanted- Dad had done his best ice EVER. As he came off the ice, Craig shoveled while I kept the nets moving. Dad came out and spudded out the holes where the net pins were inserted- we set the nets and left the ice. He closed the doors as if locking the vault at Fort Knox. The ice looked like a huge sheet of glass- the arena lights were mirrored perfectly by it.

When Craig and I headed up to the Blue Line Club for dinner Dad just said “Tell your mother I’m not hungry, I’ll get something later. Nothing was gonna get Walt out of his Zamboni alley until this game was over. He had refinished the ice for every playoff home game that the Gears had ever skated in and he had rarely shown as much as a twinge of concern. But somehow, THIS game was different. I think that his concern was that he may make some sort of a mistake and cost the Gears the cup. Frankly, if they were going to lose that night, it was not going to be due to the ice.

After dinner we rejoined Dad in the arena which was rapidly filling with our other family; our “goin’ to the Gears game” family. All around us were people that we knew, some by name, some by face and some by reputation. They were people that we otherwise may never have met had it not been for the Gears. There were hardcore hockey folks who were there in blizzards and ice storms and there were others that you only saw during the playoffs. The arena was packed and so was the theater and an atmosphere of “we’re going to win” far outweighed any thought of “we might win.”

Faceoff was at 8pm.

As the Gears took to the ice there was a standing ovation as the fans shook the Civic Center and Gary Glitter's "Rock-N-Roll Part II" blasted over the sound system. Marcel Comeau scored in the first period and that was it. Toledo was playing a lot closer defense than they had in the previous two games at the Civic Center. I watched Dad closely as he did the ice between periods- it appeared that, just like the players, he was in his zone too. This was, however, the time when we kids just stayed out of Zamboni alley unless he called for one of us.

During the second period the noise in the building was deafening as the fans chanted and tooted horns. People in the stands had to shout just to communicate with one another. Although there were no goals scored the two goaltenders were really putting on a show. Both Mario Lessard and Pierre Chagnon were making great save after great save and turning a scoreless period into a real thriller. I found myself chomping so hard on my gum that I thought my fillings were going to pull out. When the second period ended the Gears went into the locker room leading 1 to nothing, exactly the same situation as had taken place back in 1975 when Toledo came back in the third and scored two to take the cup. I was sure that every one of the Toledo fans in the building was thinking about that one.

My Dad did another perfection finish on the ice before the third period and then stood back in his new blue Zamboni T-shirt to watch the ice dry. I had spotted the shirt in a hockey magazine and sent away for it more than a month earlier- it arrived just in time for game 7 and I gave to him for good luck. The ice was critical right now because it was about 75 degrees outdoors and with the sold out crowd being all worked up, it was quite warn near the ice surface. Normally in a last game of the season, if the team was not going to move on, the Civic Center’s building engineer would shut off the compressors that chilled the floor at about the same time that the third period started. That simple action saved a lot of money. In this third period of game 7 in a championship run, there would be no such shutdown. Instead, due to the warm conditions in the building, he and my Dad worked together and kept the Freon going out at 12 degrees and coming in at 24. There would be fast ice for period number 3.

In order to capture the third period I had brought with me a portable radio and cassette tape recorder combination. With just over 14 minutes to go in the period, I started the recording as WSAM broadcast Wally Shaver and Ron-Jay Scott calling the most widely heard sporting event in Saginaw history. Every chance that the folks on the P.A. got they blasted Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part II” over the arena sound system, but after the first few bars you could not even hear it because the fans were rock-N-rollin’ so loudly. This had been the Gears’ theme since Wally Shaver introduced it in the late winter and now it had taken us to game 7 of the finals.

For nearly half of the third period the Gears and diggers went at it just as they had in the second period and just as they had in 1975. Suddenly at 9:23 in the stanza Gary Sittler made a pass to Greg Hotham who centered the puck to Stu Irving. Stu deaked around defenseman Tom Mellor,( who had played with Stu on the 1972 US Olympic team,) and popped it into the lower right had corner of  Chagnon’s net.  At that instant the ghost of the 1975 game 7 loss was shattered for all of us. The Gears were up by a score of 2 to 0 and the Saginaw Civic Center went nuts!

Shortly after the goal the linesman noticed that someone had thrown a cup with some ice and pop in it onto the ice and the game was stopped. My Dad was called out to scrape up the blemish on his ice. As he came out Ron-Jay Scott noticed his new Zamboni shirt,

“I like that new Zamboni shirt,” Ron-Jay commented

“Yeah,” Wally replied, “it’s pretty nifty, it just says Zamboni and it shows the Zamboni just truckin’ along.”

I never saw Dad wear that shirt again, although my Mom says he did. It remained safely tucked in his drawer at home until the day he died. He told me it was his championship shirt. I wore it under my suit at his funeral and it remains safely with me to this day.

Once the mess on Dad’s ice was cleared away, the third period resumed. Toledo was pressing and moving the puck- a goal right now would be critical. Likewise a Saginaw penalty would also benefit the diggers. Then at 12:45 in the period Stu Irving broke into the Toledo zone alone and let go with a wrist shot about 5 feet away from Chagnon. The Toledo net-minder, however, stayed right with Stu and made the save. That set up a faceoff in the Toledo zone and Wayne Zuk and Dave Westner were set up to capitalize on it. Zuk won the draw and sent it back to Sittler who shot it up the back boards and back to Zuk who passed it to Westner. Dave Westner planted the puck in the Toledo net at 12:51 in the period, just six seconds after the faceoff. Saginaw was now ahead by 3 to 0 and no one in the Wendler Arena, other than Toledo fans was sitting down. My little brother had taken his good luck seat on Dad’s Zamboni water tank and I was pacing by the Zamboni doors. Oddly, we could have scalped our seats for a lot of money that night because we hardly sat in them.

Looking at the scoreboard, Wally Shaver gave a nervous, warbling  “Whoaaaaaa” over the radio. This lead looked real good, but as Pat Shetler used to say, “Anything can happen in hockey.” Meanwhile, Toledo defensman Rick Piche decided to just take cheap shots at Gears players and was all elbows and slashes as the play went on. Toledo was changing on the fly as Tom Mellor attempted to clear the puck. It was picked up by Gary Sittler who fired it back at the Toledo net. Standing in the slot Stu Irving tipped the shot into the net and at 14:12 of the final period of IHL hockey that season; the Gears were ahead by 4 to 0. Looking again at the scoreboard Wally could no longer contain himself and projected Howard Cosell,

“… that is looking mighty fine sports fans!”

Now it began to look as if not only had the Gears won the cup, but they may just blow the game wide open. Less than two minutes of play elapsed before John Gravel hit Wayne Zuk with a pass as Zuk was breaking out of the neutral zone. Zuk went straight in and beat Chagnon to make the score 5 to 0 and seal the Turner Cup for the Gears at 16:05 of the third period.

While the crowd was still celebrating I nabbed my camera and stuck a 135mm lens on it. Then I left Zamboni alley and headed up to the far east end of Wendler arena and that cage door that led to the press box. As I approached the usher guarding the door went to stop me, but I told him that I just wanted to stand where I had been two years earlier when we lost to Toledo. He looked a bit puzzled, but compared to the craziness that was currently taking place down in the arena, he simply said “ok” and there I stood.

I had asked Dad earlier what they were gonna do with the crowd if the Gears won the cup? Would they let people flood onto the ice? Climb the glass? What? He replied that the plan that they had settled on was to simply open all of the doors and “let ‘em go for a while.” This was because that was far better than having fans removing the big sheets of Plexiglas and perhaps getting hurt, or worse yet, breaking an expensive sheet of curved glass. Then after a while, they would just announce that the fans had to clear the ice and anyone who straggled would be taken care of by the police.

As the clock counted down, so did the crowd and I started shooting pictures. …3…2…1… THE SAGINAW GEARS HAVE WON THE TURNER CUP! Gary Sittler reached down in the corner of the ice and scooped up the final game puck. The doors to the rink opened and fans poured onto the ice. It was a bit strange to see my Dad happily opening those Zamboni doors to let folks out onto the ice in their shoes. Some fans still scaled the glass, but no one was hurt. After a bit of rejoicing the P.A. asked for all spectators to please clear the ice and the fans actually cooperated. A few had to be herded by the three police officers on the ice, but they were all happy.

Two men in light brown jackets brought the Turner Cup out through the Zamboni doors and onto the ice. Al Blade introduced the league president who said a few good words that could not be heard over the roar of the crowd. Then he handed the pail to the out-stretched hands of both Gordie Malinoski, the injured team captain and Dennis Desrosiers, the acting captain.  Rosie boosted the cup up high and began to skate surrounded by his teammates. The crowd roared as Rosie made a single lap and then the whole team headed for the Gears locker room.

To say that there was fan pandemonium taking place at the Civic Center at that moment would be an understatement. There was no violence or anger or vandalism, there was only about 6,000 people who were deliriously happy. I had to work my way back toward Zamboni alley where my Mom, sister and brother were somewhere in the crowd. There was no way to get through the outer concourse so I took the inner concourse between the cheap seats and the not-cheap seats. All along the way I encountered folks that I had known only from the Gears games and recognized only by face. We slapped each other on the backs, high-fived and said meaningless phrases of delight such as, “How ‘bout that?” or “All Right!” and “Yeah!” It must have taken me 20 minutes just to go the length of the arena. When I got to the area of the Gears locker room the police were stopping people from going down there, Officer Dick Street recognized me and let me pass. Wading through that crowd I finally reached my family. I asked where Dad was and Mom said the last she saw him they had dragged him into the Gears locker room.

After a short time whooping it up with the other fans I saw my Dad just pop out of the crowd with an open champagne bottle in his hand and his shirt soaked. Although my Dad was quite the drinker when he was in the Army and carried on that way after he got out of the service, he gave it up when he met my Mom. At weddings Dad would always tend bar and that kept him from drinking. In my entire life I only saw my dad drunk twice; once after a wedding rehearsal in 1968, and the other time was the night that the Gears won their first Tuner Cup. Keep in mind that he had not eaten anything the entire day, so when the guys snatched him into the locker room and literally poured champagne down his throat, the stuff really hit bottom in a hurry.

My half-snockered Dad told us just to go to the blue line club and get a table, he would meet us there later. That was a good idea and I herded my kin along the glass and headed for the east end of the arena. It was the easiest way to go since everyone else was headed up and out of there. The Blue Line Club was elbow to belly-button with Gears fans. At the door, the usher who was supposed to allow members only into the room had simply abandoned his post and ran for his life. Once in the door we saw hands waving. J.L.’s family had gotten there early and saved us space at their table. A live band was playing and booze was flowing- from where, no one knew. Being, perhaps, the only non-drinker in the room that night, I am probably the only person who remembers what went on.

The immediate word was that the guys from the team were coming directly to the Blue Line Club with the cup as soon as they were all dressed. The band played, but was almost muted by the joyful din of the crowd. In both the arena and the Blue Line Club it was almost as if people did not know what to do next or how to do it. We had all come to this point in the playoffs before only to see the other team win. This time, our guys actually DID IT and as fans, we were not really ready for that.

Every now and then the band would strike up their version of “Rock and Roll Part II” and the whole half-drunken place would start singing along. I was just thankful that the only words involved were, “Heyeyeyae.”

Suddenly the doors to the Blue Line Club burst open and in came much of the team. Rosie had the cup on his shoulder and raised it high as the whole place went wild. In trail of the team came my Dad as well as the most hilarious sight I had ever seen in that building; it was Wally Shaver dressed in one of Gunner’s tangerine and turquoise Gears warm-up suits! The guys on the team had showered poor Wally in champagne to the point where his street clothes were un-wearable, so he had to strip down and put on one of Gunner’s warm-up suits. The band again struck up “Rock and Roll Part II” and everyone joined in.

As Wednesday turned into Thursday we were all still in the Blue Line Club. Some folks tried to dance, but there was not much room for that. The players hung out with the fans and everyone felt like a huge happy family. Of course the fact that the crowd was getting steadily more and more drunk probably helped. At one point, the band put on the recording of Gary Glitter doing “Rock and Roll Part II” and someone put an inebriated Wally Shaver up on the stage. He just stood there smiling that championship smile, holding two fingers up on each hand in a sign of victory and making the, “Gnaaaaaaa” sound of the arena’s buzzer signaling the end of the game. Sure it was funny, but that was exactly how we all felt.

About 2:00 in the morning the whole place began to rapidly thin out. The players had left one-by-one and Rosie took the cup with him- no one really noticed. My Dad was soused, Mom was snockered, my sister was feeling no pain and my teenage brother had snuck a few too; it was time for me to drive the family home. We said goodbye to our hockey friends and I led the staggering parade down the back concourse through the now strangely empty and quiet arena. With us was Wally Shaver’s wife who was helping her spouse make it to the rear truck well and their VW beetle. Getting down the ramp to the arena floor was a real trip with this bunch. I poured my Dad into the passenger’s seat of our 76 LTD station wagon and we had a quiet ride home.

In our family the winning of that cup by the Gears was probably one of the greatest events ever. The Gears had been a part of our household since before they had ever played their first official game. Mom and Dad had worked at the Civic Center since its opening in 1972 and my first job had been at the Civic Center. At the beginning of the 76-77 season I had stood with my Dad and watched training camp, we both felt that this season’s team was going to be something special. Indeed they went onto win it all and they took us with them.

A few days after game 7 the city of Saginaw put on a parade to celebrate the Gears championship. At our house, we thought about going, but we just didn’t. It seemed as nothing could compare to that celebration that we had witnessed at the Civic Center. Yet the team had really earned a parade. They had struck the most positive note that the Tri Cities and the city of Saginaw itself had heard in a long time.

Many of the players left the team after that cup win. Paul Evans went up to the AHL and later the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, Mario Lessard went to the AHL for the next season and then went on to play 6 seasons in the NHL for the LA Kings. Mike Reust and Wayne Zuk decided just to retire on top. D’Arcy Ryan retired from hockey for one season, then played one season of 22 games for the L.A.  Blades of the soon to be defunct PHL; he then retired. Likewise, Gordie Malinoski, who was badly injured in the later portion of the 76-77 season, left the Gears to play on the Elmwood Millionaires of the Central Senior Hockey League where he racked up 153 penalty minutes before hanging up the blades and retiring.

I got back to see a few Gears games while I was working my way through college and enjoyed every one of them. The Gears would go on to capture a second Turner Cup in the 80-81 season. My family said it too was great, but not nearly as great as that first one. I still see it as one of the greatest nights of my life, and considering some of the stuff I have been through, that says a lot.

If today, as the 40th anniversary of that first cup win comes and goes, the city of Saginaw strives to look for a golden moment in it's past I would advise looking toward May 11th, 1977 and the moment when the Saginaw Gears won their first Turner Cup. It was one of those rare moments when a huge crowd of local residents were peacefully and happily celebrating a single good event. I, for one, feel lucky to have been there and lucky to have known all of those members of my "Goin' to the Gears game" family.

This series of photos was taken as the horn went off and signaled the win for the Gears in the 1976-77 Turner Cup finals. The series starts at the horn and goes through to the point where the team carries the cup off the ice into the locker room. I was standing up where the east gate to the pressbox was located- the same position where, as an usher in 1975, I stood and watch Toledo win the cup from the Gears. I went there to erase the bitterness of that loss, but it turned out to be a great place to capture the moment.

The resolution is high enough on these photos that if you click on one, you may just recognize yourself in the crowd.


Copyright 2017 Wes Oleszewski- all rights reserved. For reprint permission contact me at:

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