Hancock’s rich hockey heritage celebrated

HANCOCK – Houghton is known as the “birthplace of professional hockey,” but across the Portage Canal, Hancock has a rich hockey history of its own.

That hockey heritage was celebrated over the weekend as Hancock’s first official sesquicentennial event.

Dave Hermanson, a member of the 1963-64 Laurn-Grove Juvenile National Championship team, lead a discussion on “Outdoor Hockey in Hancock, an Oral History.” He and several others relaid memories of Hancock’s rich hockey heritage, which includes Laurn-Grove, Terrace Park and Hillside rinks, the outdoor forerunners of the 40-year-old Houghton County Arena.

And there are plenty of stories to share from a very different era of hockey, a period when pickup hockey could prepare Olympians.

“People would be surprised going back to the early days there was always rinks around here,” Hermanson said. “It’s just very amazing that in 1960, 1964 and 1968 they had a representative from Hancock on those Olympic teams.”

Rod Paavola won gold in 1960, and Paul Coppo and Bruce Riutta, both former Michigan Tech University hockey players, played on the 1964 and 1968 U.S teams, respectively.

“There are an awful lot of good hockey players who went on to play college hockey, senior hockey, and, of course ‘the big three,'” Hermanson said. “Emphasizing just Hancock, there were a lot of good ones.”

With Dee Stadium ice time at a premium in Houghton – only Thursday nights were dedicated to junior hockey – and the then-Calumet Armory a dozen miles up the road, outdoor rinks were the only way Hancock kids could get play hockey. High school hockey didn’t startup until the 1970s, so teams represented locations.

Terrace Park, still located in east Hancock, was once home to a bustling hockey club after the rink started in the 1930s. The rink no longer exists, but the memories do.

The same is true of Hillside, a rink once located in the mostly empty lot next to the intersection of U.S. 41 and White Street in Hancock. The prosperous Hillside Athletic Club was started in 1930 and was home to a wide array of activities, and the rink was started in 1940.

Hillside didn’t have boards, but it had plenty of young skaters willing to help clear the rink. While public skating was usually free at the other outdoor establishments, it cost 10 cents at Hillside, and while the rink is a bygone memory, the club still has a lasting contribution very visible today.

“That Hillside rink was in operation for over 50 years and it was a private club, the best organized club around here by far,” Hermanson recalls. “When that thing was disbanded in the middle 80s, there was a substantial treasury at that time left in there. Because of that, they donated all that money to (Houghton County Arena) and the Plexiglass out there is what they bought.”

While Terrace and Hillside are bygone memories for old-time hockey players, Laurn Grove is still an active rink.

The west Hancock outdoor rink was built in 1947 in memory of Hancock natives Alvin Laurn and Robert Grove, who lost their lives at sea during World War II. The first organized team was assembled in 1949-50 and within a few years, state and national juvenile (juniors and seniors in high school) championships started rolling in.

State championships in the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association were won in 1955, 1959, 1960 and 1961, with the national championship coming in 1963-64. But that championship didn’t come so easily against teams from Chicago, Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie – the latter two which, along with Calumet, were the biggest Laurn-Grove rivals.

“We couldn’t get a lot of teams from afar to come in here. Hockey wasn’t nearly as universal as it is now,” Hermanson said.

Laurn-Grove was tied with Marquette going into its final and played the always tough Soo.

“We always had a rough game with the Soo, so we pretty much thought it was over, that we were out of the running,” Hermanson said. “We would have to win that game by six or seven goals to get the championship.”

But against all odds, forward Dave Witting “went crazy that day,” according to Hermanson, scoring seven goals en route to a 9-2 victory for the Joe Houle-coached team.

While several big games were played at the outdoor facility, it was the day-to-day activity that creates the most stark contrast with today. Ice resurfacing machines – let alone roofs – were only a dream to many in the 1950s and ’60s, but outdoor rinks were buzzing with activity.

“We used to play hockey on Saturday morning and when the games were over at noon, we’d play pickup hockey all day long,” Hermanson said. “We were on the ice probably every day of the week. … The guys that turned out to really be the good players were the ones that were ‘rink rats,’ that were always on the ice skating around.”