Pro hockey arrived in Muskegon, Michigan on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan in the fall of 1960, along with the opening of the 5,100-seat L.C. Walker Arena. Jerry Delise of New Haven, Connecticut secured Muskegon’s International Hockey League expansion franchise, dubbed the ‘Zephyrs’, at league meetings on June 5th, 1960.
The IHL was a classic Midwestern bus league – think Slap Shot – that initially operated in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Milwaukee in the decades after World War II. Muskegon’s club played under the Zephyrs name for five seasons (1960-1965), before Delise re-branded the club as the Muskegon Mohawks prior to the 1965-66 season.
In 1967-68 the Mohawks signed the iconoclastic 29-year old NHL refugee Carl Brewer. Brewer was perhaps one of the greatest defensemen of the 1960′s and was certainly the most gifted player to ever suit up for the Mohawks. As a young man, Brewer anchored the defense for three straight Stanley Cup champion teams for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1962 to 1964 and earned three NHL All-Star selections. But his remarkable career was punctuated by disputes with authority and serial retirements during his prime years. Among other dissatisfactions with NHL life, Brewer loathed air travel. In the winter of 1967-68, his wanderings brought him to Muskegon as a player-coach. He spent a single season of self-imposed exile in the IHL, earning all-league honors. According to a 1970 Sports Illustrated profile, Brewer relished the long bus rides through the icy Midwest, which allowed him time to read. Following the season, the Detroit Red Wings offered a contract to return to the NHL. In typical fashion, Brewer spurned the offer to go play & coach in Finland…which he travelled to by boat.
Between 1967 and 1976, the Mohawks posted nine consecutive winning seasons, highlighted by a Turner Cup championship during Carl Brewer’s season in 1968. While Brewer drifted through for only one winter, the iron men of the Mohawks throughout the Golden Era of the 1960′s and early 70′s were player-coach Moose Lallo and right winter Bryan McLay.
Both men arrived in Muskegon along with the Zephyrs in the fall of 1960. Lallo was on the tail end of a 20-year playing career, and served double-duty as the team’s Head Coach. He led the Zephyrs to a Turner Cup championship in their second season in 1961-62. Lallo retired as a player in 1965 and continued as Head Coach and General Manager until the late 1970′s. McLay played thirteen seasons with the Zephyrs and Mohawks from 1960 to 1973, scoring exactly 500 goals in 932 games. Like Lallo, McLay stayed with the Mohawks in the front office after his retirement and, also like Lallo, he never played a minute in the NHL.
Like any great minor league team of that era, the Mohawks also had a classic tough guy named Lynn Margarit. Margarit played eight seasons for the Mohawks. During the final season of his career in the winter of 1975-76, Margarit became the all-time penalty minutes leader in the IHL with 2,156. The enforcer had a particularly fierce rivalry with the players (and fans) of the Toledo Goaldiggers. In 1968, a 20-year old Toledo fan filed assault and battery charges against Margarit, claiming the big defenseman bludgeoned and kicked him with his skates in the stands of the Toledo Sports Arena. In 1975, the Goaldiggers’ Ken Wright attacked Margarit in a game at Toledo, beating him so badly he had to be removed from the ice on a stretcher and hospitalized.
The Mohawks fell on hard times after 1976. They never again had a winning season under the Mohawks name. Lallo resigned his Head Coach and General Manager post in March 1978, ending eighteen years with the organization. McLay replaced him, but quit himself less than a year later when the ‘Hawks got off to an historically bad start, going 3-32-3 to start the 1978-79 season.
The Mohawks’ struggles worsened as the 1980′s dawned. The city threatened the Mohawks with eviction over back rent in December 1981 and the team nearly folded in August 1982. The Mohawks hung in for two more losing winters, bottoming out in 1983-84 with a 19-58-5 record, the second worst performance in the IHL’s 24-year history in Muskegon.
Longtime pro hockey exec Larry Gordon purchased the Mohawks in June 1984 for the reported price of $1. Gordon was a former World Hockey Association executive and the ex-General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers. In 1980, Gordon used his Oilers connections to purchase an expansion club in the Central Hockey League, which he operated in Wichita, Kansas and later Billings, Montana from 1980 to 1984. The CHL gasped its last breath in June of 1984 and Gordon turned his attention to Muskegon.
Gordon re-branded the club, dropping the ‘Mohawks’ moniker in favor of the ‘Lumberjacks’ for the 1984-85 campaign. Over the next two years, Gordon assembled the pieces that would make the Lumberjacks the dominant IHL club of the late 1980′s. Holdover Scott Gruhl was one of the few bright spots from the listless 1983-84 squad, scoring 40 goals in just 56 games for the Mohawks. Jock Callander arrived in the fall of 1984 after spending the previous season with Gordon’s Montana Magic club.
After winning just 19 games in 1983-84, the Lumberjacks went 50-29-3 in 1984-85, posting the first 50-win season in Muskegon’s 25-year history. Callander dished out 68 assists, many of them to Gruhl who scored 62 goals en route to IHL MVP honors. Muskegon advanced to the Turner Cup finals, losing to the Peoria Rivermen four games to three.
The Lumberjacks added the final piece of the puzzle in 1985, signing Callander’s former junior hockey teammate Dave Michayluk. Michayluk, Gruhl and Callander combined for 150 goals in 1985-86 as Muskegon recorded a second straight 50-win season. This time the Lumberjacks finished the job, sweeping the Fort Wayne Komets in the finals to earn Muskegon’s first Turner Cup since 1968.
In 1987, Gordon further boosted Muskegon’s fortunes by signing an affiliation deal with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, which made Muskegon the top farm club for the Pens. Pittsburgh would now provide upwards of 16 players per season to augment the roster led by Callander, Gruhl and Michayluk.
The Lumberjacks returned to the Turner Cup finals again in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1992, losing three times and winning one more title (1989). Perhaps the best Lumberjacks club of the era - the 1987-88 team coached by former NHL star Rick Ley – failed to make the finals after setting a league record with 58 regular season wins. Gruhl departed after the 1989-90 season, but the Callander-Michayluk combo stayed intact through all five championship series appearances from 1986 to 1992.
“<Dave> was such a great player and natural scorer. I got a lot of assists because of his scoring ability,” recalled Callander in 2011. “We had so much confidence playing together and knowing where the other one was going to be. We loved the game. I know for sure my career would not have been anywhere near as successful without him as a line mate.”
When Larry Gordon bought into the league in 1984 for $1, it was a Midwestern bus league. Muskegon was a typical IHL city, with a population of just under 40,000. In the early 1990′s, IHL franchises began to trade in the millions of dollars, as NBA owners and other well-heeled investors brought franchises to major cities like Detroit and Salt Lake City. Despite Muskegon’s dominant play, the small city only produced average attendance of about 2,600 in 1991, a figure now well below the league’s purported average of 5,700. In early 1992, Gordon orchestrated a move to Cleveland for the 1992-93 season.
In May of 1992, as the franchise prepared to move to Cleveland, the Muskegon Lumberjacks had perhaps their finest hour. Their Pittsburgh Penguins parent club, riddled with injuries to key players, promoted “The Muskegon Line” of Callander, Michayluk and Mike Needham to skate as a unit in the playoffs. None of the men had played in the NHL during the regular season. Michayluk hadn’t seen action in an NHL game in nine years. All three players scored a playoff goal during the Penguins playoff run. Their names are inscribed on the Stanley Cup today as 1992 NHL champions.
“The Stanley Cup was a dream come true. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to play another NHL game,” said Callander. ”When I got the call I had not played <in the NHL> for over a year. We all got called up in the playoffs when the Lumberjacks were getting ready to start the <IHL> finals. The next six weeks were unbelievable it was a whirlwind of excitement and a roller coaster of emotions. I really felt bad for our teammates in Muskegon because I believe we would have won another Turner Cup. Our team was playing at a very high level at the time we all got called up. But at the same time I was living out a dream that I had since childhood and it was something I will never forget.”
The Lumberjacks played in Cleveland from 1992 to 2001, when the International Hockey League folded.
Dave Michayluk never played in the NHL again after helping the Penguins win the 1992 Stanley Cup. He returned to Cleveland and played five more seasons alongside his friend Jock Callander.
Callander played briefly for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL before returning to the Cleveland Lumberjacks in 1993. He retired in 2000 as the IHL’s all-time leading point scorer, a feat he attributes to playing alongside Michayluk, and today works in the front office of the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters, based in Cleveland.
The Muskegon Lumberjacks name is back in use today by an amateur team in the United States Hockey League, which plays at L.C. Walker Arena.