NEW FEATURE!

Ice Hockey in Green Bay

ice-hockeyIt ain’t baseball, but…

First in a series of articles about Green Bay Ice Hockey

et me count the differences between baseball and hockey … one is played on ice. Enough said, right? Well actually no. For the purpose of my next set of articles I guess I need to explain myself. You see I think that baseball is by far the greatest game ever devised by man. It’s a game that everybody can play, even those unfortunate people who are bound to wheelchairs or have to be careful because of physical and mental restrictions.

No matter the physical restrictions, or birth defects like being short (me) or skinny, or slow of foot, there’s still a place for us on a baseball field. For the elite of the game, those who can throw a baseball a hundred miles an hour, or sock a pitched ball 500 feet, they truly stand out, while the rest of us toil in the shadows of the game, playing in the amateurs for our own pleasure.

Now ice hockey, which is played on a sheet of ice, or a frozen lake, river, pond or big mud-puddle, is surprisingly the same as baseball with regards to the aspect that almost anybody can play the game. Hell, on land, I’m a really slow runner, but give me a pair of metal strips attached to shoes (skates) and I’m kinda fast … at least faster than running the bases.

Of course when you’re talking about competitive ice hockey, where you keep score and a referee calls out infractions and puts an offending player in a penalty box, the stakes of the game go up as well. When the first games were played in Green Bay, January 28,1917, the Fox River was used as a sheet of ice, and I’m sure there weren’t any paddings, and the hockey sticks were crude, possibly hacked out of oak, or maybe even baseball bats were used.

The pied piper of hockey in those long ago winters was a slightly built fellow by the name of Walter Larsen. A violinist by trade, Larsen looked more like a college professor than a rough and tumble ice-skating, stickhandling hockey warrior.

However looks, as they say, can be deceiving and that was exactly the case with Walt Larsen. Born in Michigan’s Hancock area of the Upper Peninsula, Larsen was probably born with a hockey stick in his hands and his first move was to “check his mother into the boards.” I’ve known hockey players in my time, and they’re fanatical about their hockey, not dangerous, but simply over the edge about their enthusiasm about the sport of ice hockey.

The first game that was played in Green Bay, and I’m sure the stumbling and bumbling action ended in a 3-3 tie. For the rest of 1917 games were confined to the intramural type of games because very few of the players knew anything about the game. Larsen must have been a patient man and obviously the game meant much to him, because the young violinist stuck with the fledgling players.

There was an interruption in play as the United States joined the war effort in Europe during 1918, and most of the players from Green Bay were wearing the uniforms of the United States military service. However in 1919 with the war over, Walt Larsen and his band of interested hockey players took to the Fox River in January and begin their annual poking and skidding for an hour or so to determine who the better group of players was.

Through the efforts of Larsen and George W. Calhoun, sports editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette, and a founding member of the Green Bay Packers, local hockey began to boom through the competition of an amateur city league, where teams were sponsored by local business.

The whims of Mother Nature, and the warm and cold snaps, or oft times snow storms, were just about as tough as a six foot, 220 pound center roaring down the ice, stick handling the puck looking to score the game winner.

OFF THE RIVER ICE

By the 1920s and Green Bay’s first city league, games were moved to Legion Park behind the present post office building. Under a crude lighting system set up on the roof of the Elks Club across Cherry Street, top teams in those first city league games were the Press Gazette, Northern Paper Mill, and the Gordon Bents.

During the early history of Green Bay hockey, a site to freeze water that would be suitable for ice hockey was hard to come by. And the expansion of the city didn’t help matters any, and by 1925 the first ice sheet behind the Post Office was claimed for a parking lot. In about 1928 a new rink was built in an open space between the new Y.M.C.A. and the Elks Club. At was at this site that an Industrial Hockey League flourished for several years until the rink space was converted into a parking lot.

Hockey in the city went on a sort of hiatus during the 1930s and the depression years, although the game was kept alive through the efforts of Don Brueckner and John Torinus and an amateur team called the Green Bay Ambassadors. They built a rink on the old lower DePere road behind Polo Resto Tavern across the highway from Minahan Stadium.

The end of the depression years, and another world war brought further advancement of Green Bay hockey to a screeching halt. After the war, most of the Ambassadors were too old, and were concentrating on raising families, working to earn a living and had simply grown-up.

In 1949 the Green Bay Hornets were formed to play in the Wisconsin State Amateur league competing with Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Madison, Appleton and other cities. During the time of the Hornets, there were several dozen cities that sponsored Wisconsin State Amateur teams, and most had the same problem that the Green Bay hockey enthusiasts had, the huge handicap of having to deal with the weather.

Nobody could ever be sure that a game could be played for obvious reasons, not only did warm melting weather play a role, but bitterly cold weather made both players and fans think more of indoor games like pool, or stud poker.

By the middle 1950s, Fisk Park served as the best outdoor rink that hockey could be played at, but of course, games were still iffy with regards to the weather. It was obvious, for hockey to truly be successful in Green Bay some sort of an indoor rink would be necessary.

It would take somebody with an eye to the future, and somebody who knew how to deal with the high finances of what it would take to get the city, and county over the “edge” of the initial costs, and on board with the benefits that such a venture could be.

NEXT MONTH, BROWN COUNTY ARENA AND THE RAMIFICATIONS TO ENTERTAINMENT

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