By Paul Frazer
Amateur hockey in Green Bay, High School, Squirts, and the professional Bobcats all had their time to shine during the ninety-seven year recorded history of hockey in the city. High school has survived for years with many entertaining matches, the Squirts and Peewees honed their abilities … usually first mastering the art of standing on two blades of metal attached to laced boots.
With the demise of the professional Tier 1 Bobcats, those folks who had developed an almost dependency on catching a Bobcat game or two a month were relegated to watching the occasional NHL game on television. Of course there was the De Pere Deacons, a Tier 2, or Tier 3 amateur team who played their games at the De Pere Ice Center. A Tier 1, 2, or 3 signifies the level of play in amateur hockey. What it really does is gauge the amount of money that the players will have to chip in for the team to operate, the higher the rating, the less the players have to pay.
The Deacons were organized in the late fall of 1977 to play a kind of pick-up match with the Marquette, Michigan Penguins. That early Deacons squad wasn’t really organized to win games as much as they were auditioning to become members of the Badger State Hockey League. Rod Herlache had taken a phone call from the Marquette team’s coach, and he (Herlache) decided to check with coaches and players in local industrial leagues at the De Pere Ice Center.
There was a group of about 20 enthusiastic local competent players ready to take up the challenge that Herlache and Steve Harrison offered. Players were responsible for all costs connected with the new enterprise. An initial players fee of $25, and later an additional $8 for the first official Deacon’s jerseys was just the beginning of the costs to the players.
All travel expenses, gas, food, and the occasional stop at a predetermined watering hole along the route, were paid for by the players. There was a 10 game requirement that was necessary before the Badger State Hockey League would even consider adding a new team, so games were scheduled with Fond du Lac, Marquette, and St. Norbert College.
The Deacons went undefeated that initial season, sporting a perfect 8-0 record heading into the Wisconsin State Tournament hosted in Fond du Lac. Although they lost their second game of the tourney, they did play the required 10 games, finishing 9-1, and were accepted as members of the Badger State Hockey League during the spring meetings in 1978.
Today the Deacons are in the midst of their 35th season of continuous operations, making them second only to the Green Bay Packers in length of their history. Several people have been involved with the team since the beginning, and without these people doing their behind the scenes voluntary service … the team would have folded long ago … like the rest of Green Bay’s athletic endeavors with the exception of the Packers.
Hockey in Green Bay didn’t stop after the demise of the Bobcats, no indeed, the adult amateur, high school and youth hockey actually flourished. There were the Bantams, the Squirts, Peewees and six Varsity high school clubs and eight Junior Varsity clubs.
Hockey was an important sport to those who participated and the friends and family members who attended the games. Between ice time, mending uniforms, taping hockey sticks, and sharpening skates, kids and parents were usually busy during much of the winter months, not to mention the travel.
There were tournaments, exhibition games that kept some parents at the ready to car pool players to and from games, and generally making sure that the hockey season for their young warriors was a positive experience. And as amateur hockey in the greater Green Bay area became more popular, and ice time scheduling got tighter, practices times became a scribbling on the calendar. How Mom and Dad ever got Bobby to the 6:30 p.m. practice and Junior to the 9:15 p.m. practice, was a juggling act that somehow got pulled off.
After the demise of the Bobcats, and before the Green Bay Gamblers came into existence, there was one futile attempt to resurrect professional hockey in Green Bay that would be based on of the Brown County Memorial Arena.
From the beginning, the concept that the league would own a majority in each team was doomed, if for no other reason than the travel involved. The American Hockey Association held its only season in 1992-93, with league members Fargo-Moorhead, and Bismarck, North Dakota, St. Paul, and the Minnesota Iron Rangers, Hibbing, Minnesota, and the Green Bay Ice.
The closest league-city to the Ice was St. Paul, Minnesota, some 268 miles away, and from there, travel got to be a real gas guzzler. Hibbing was 60 miles further north and west from the Twin Cities, and then the Dakotas really ate up the gas. Fargo-Moorhead at 512 miles, and Bismarck, North Dakota a whopping 703 miles from the front gate of the Brown County Arena.
Another thing that worked against the American Hockey Association was the fact that the league was organized late, in October … late, like the 20th of the month. There was little time for the business effort necessary for success in any professional sports team, and organization.
Inevitably by January 29, the league was out of money, out of players, and really out of luck. It is amazing the American Hockey Association lasted as long as it did … somebody took a real spanking in their wallet.
Paydays were missed, and players were forced to play for free, or had the option to quit, which many did. The straw that seemingly broke the camel’s back occurred in Bismarck when an on ice brawl spilled into the bleachers.
THE GAMBLERS COME ALONG AND SAVE THE DAY
Since the inception of the United States Hockey League in its current format as a Tier 1 amateur league in 1994, the Green Bay Gamblers have been one of the premiere “A” hockey franchises in North America. The U.S.H.L. is a derivative of the American Amateur Hockey League (1947-52,) Central Hockey League, (1952-53,) Minnesota Hockey League, 1953-55, and the Central Hockey League, (1955-60.)
The United States Hockey League operated as a senior ice hockey league from 1961 to 1979, and it was in 1979 that the Green Bay Bobcats became associated with non-paying hockey once again. You see, from 1961 to 1979, the U.S.H.L. was a professional league and players were paid to play.
However after the 1978-79 season there simply ceased to be a U.S.H.L. where players were paid and the level of play undoubtedly took a bit of a dip. Not only did the players become younger, their abilities were being honed as opposed to developed. It took a bit of time before the hockey fans accepted this brand of hockey, but today you’d never guess that early trepidation.
The Gamblers have accomplished every dream that those early organizers had, with Tier 2 National Championships (Gold Cups in 1996 and 1997), five Anderson Cups (1996, 1997, 2009, 2010, and 2012), four Clark Cups (1996, 2000, 2010, and 2012), four U.S.H.L. Eastern Division titles, and one U.S.H.L. Northern Division title. Since the league became a Tier 1 in 2002, the Clark Cup also represents that level’s national championship.
The Gamblers have graduated 24 players into the National Hockey League, have over 243 players who have participated in college programs, and have had 30 players selected in the NHL annual amateur draft.
Throughout the Gamblers history there seems to have been an effort to retain at least their head coach, if not the entire coaching staff. In the 20-year history of the team, there have been just six coaches, Don Granto (1994-97), Mark Osiecki (1997-04), Mark Mazzoleni (2004-08), Jon Cooper (2008-2010), Eric Rud (2010-11), and Derek LaLonde (2011 to present).
The Gamblers have not only been a success on the ice, they’ve had an outstanding off ice staff, consistently drawing in excess of one hundred thousand fans a season. Early on, the Green Bay Gamblers realized that there must be a partnership between the on ice product, the off ice, or business end of hockey, and to that end there has been a concerted effort.
The Resch Center opened its doors in 2002, and for the Gamblers it signified a new era in club history. Although the Brown County Arena had a charm and intimacy, the Resch had 8,800 seats, and all of the amenities that the Brown County Arena lacked. The page had been turned on the history of the Gamblers, there is a new chapter being written about the team, and their ability to stand alone as a viable sports entity in the city that the Packers football team made famous.
The success of the Gamblers and the longevity of the De Pere Deacons lend credence to an obvious fact, that the city of Green Bay is, indeed, a fantastic sports town. And given the right combined effort on the field as well as off, the Green Bay sports fans will reward the efforts with their support. ν