HOUGHTON - Anthony J. "Tony" Bukovich, of Houghton, passed away in his sleep at the age of 94 on December 19, 2009, at the Houghton County Medical Care Facility, Woodland Haven Unit, where he resided for the past 18 months. Tony was a prominent local businessman and sports figure who lived in the Houghton area for most of his life. Tony lived in Florida for a few years but his family moved him back recently as he often said how much he missed the Copper Country. He said he even missed the snow, but he mainly missed the people who he often said were "the best."
Tony was born in Painesdale on August 30, 1915, to the late Anton and Barbara Bukovich, immigrants from Yugoslavia. He attended Jeffers High School in Painesdale but quit after the 10th grade to help support his family when his father died. He worked in the Painesdale Mine machine shop and was part of the "Chain Gang". It is said that these men could fix anything.
Tony also worked on his skills in sports, which led to an extensive career in hockey and baseball for over 20 years. It was once reported that he was the only athlete from the Copper Country who had signed contracts to play both professional hockey and baseball. He played in the Detroit Red Wing organization for two seasons and also in the Brooklyn Dodgers system.
Tony started with the Painesdale Athletic Club in 1934, and within a couple of years, he and his brothers, Mike and Joe, were leading their hockey teams to local and regional championships. In 1941, Tony scored two goals in the final game at the Olympia in Detroit to win the Michigan State Amateur Hockey Championship, playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Indians. It was then that he first got the attention of the Detroit Red Wings.
Later in 1941, Tony married Vivian Eklund of Ontonagon and they moved to Detroit to work for Ford Motor Co. during the war. Tony worked in Plant Protection at Ford and also played hockey in the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League. In 1942, he signed a contract with the Red Wings and played with their organization for two seasons from 1943-1947. In the second season, Tony got called up to the Wings from their farm team, Indianapolis, early in the year. He went on to score seven goals in seven games and also played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against Toronto that year.
Tony also was a hard-throwing baseball pitcher and stellar batter. He attracted the attention of the Brooklyn scouts in 1939 when he had a 17-7 pitching record in the Northern Michigan-Wisconsin League. He played semi-pro baseball with teams in the Mid-Atlantic League and the Indiana-Ohio League in 1940 and 1941. After he moved to Detroit, he began playing Class A ball for the "Auto Club" team which was in the Detroit Amateur Baseball Federation. Over 20,000 fans would attend their games at Riggs Stadium. In 1942, the Auto Club won not only the City Championship but also the World's Amateur Championship. Tony was named the Most Valuable Player in 1942 and 1943 and in his four years with the Auto Club, posted a 35-7 pitching record. He also helped a St. Joseph, Mich. team win a National Amateur Baseball Championship in 1948.
Tony decided to return to the Copper Country in 1948 and he purchased a business in downtown Houghton that he named "Tony's Sports Bar." He also continued with some impressive feats in both hockey and baseball. He became the player-coach of the Portage Lake Pioneers and in seven seasons with the Pioneers, he scored 276 goals and 178 assists and led the league in scoring five of those seasons. Most newsworthy was in the 1952 league playoffs against Marquette when he tallied 8 goals and two assists in a 12-2 win. Again in the off season, Tony continued to play baseball and organized the Houghton Copper Sox baseball team in 1950 that went on to win five straight Upper Peninsula League titles.
Tony retired from sports in 1955, and hockey records show that from 1934 to 1955, he scored 477 goals and had 329 assists for a total of 806 career points. He always said he had a "good life" thanks to sports and the many people he met along wthe way. Tony managed his two businesses in Houghton, the TV Motel and the bar he renamed the "Red Wing Lounge." Tony enjoyed visiting with his customers who often came in to talk about sports and the "good old days." He often would challenge someone to a game of pool or shuffleboard, in which he seldom lost a game. Bowling was also a favorite sport and he played in several local leagues carrying a 180+ average. Tony was a self-taught carpenter, plumber and electrician. He built his home and motel in Houghton, as well as a cottage in Twin Lakes. Tony did not like to sit still, he was always on the go.
In 1958, Tony was asked to be the head coach of the Green Bay Bobcats in their maiden season. He agreed to coach for only one year as he had two businesses to run. In 1975, Tony was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame and given the "Key to the City" of Marquette. These awards meant a lot to him. He said the Marquette award was very special as whenever he played there, the fans would often boo him. He said the more they booed, however, the harder he played. Yet, after the games, many of the Marquette fans would come up to him, pat him on the back and tell him he played a great game.
Tony credited his success in both sports and business to hard work, staying in shape and perseverance. He often said "If your legs are strong, your whole body will be strong." In addition to having a lot of natural talent, he said he learned by watching others. He also enjoyed coaching and helping other players attain successful careers. He was especially proud of the Pioneer hockey team he coached in 1956 that went on to win the National Senior Amateur Hockey Championship. A copy of the Resolution by the State of Michigan Legislature in which they congratulated the players, their manager and Tony, as their coach, for this feat was prominently displayed on the wall in his home.
After Tony retired and sold his businesses in Houghton, he lived in Green Bay and Crystal Falls for awhile. He then moved back to Houghton and lived at the Douglas House Apartments for several years. When he was in his 80's, he would often run down Shelden Avenue to the Downtowner Lounge a couple of times a day. He said he was "keeping his legs in shape" in case the Red Wings needed him. He also enjoyed telling his sports stories to the Tech students he would meet at the Dog House and other pubs nearby. He loved that whenever he walked in "everyone still knew his name." When he would often beat someone half his age at a game of pool, he would get that twinkle in his eye and say "once a pro, always a pro!"
Tony's family is very proud of his accomplishments and they will miss him very much! They learned a lot from him as he often gave them bits of Tony's special wisdom. He was always there for them. He loved attending their events and helping them with a project. He was especially pleased whenever his children, grandchildren and other family played sports. His advice to them was to "work hard, stay in shape and have fun!"
Tony was also preceded in death by his first wife and mother of his children, Vivian; his older sister, Mary Blanche; and his younger brothers, Mike and Joe.
Surviving are his three children, Tony Jr. (Jeanne) and Gini Riutta, both of Fla. and Sandy Manderfield of Houghton; nine grandchildren, Barry (Kathy) Riutta of Minneapolis, Shelly and Vanessa (Aaron) Riutta of Wis., Todd (Carole) Bukovich of Colo., Tracie Bukovich of Penn., Gabe Gullstrand of Ariz., Ben (Jada) Gullstrand of Fla., Samantha and Martin Manderfield of Houghton; eight great-grandchildren; and many nieces, nephews and cousins.
Tony's family would like to thank the staff at Woodland Haven for their wonderful services and kindness in caring for Tony.
The family has suggested memorial contributions be made to the Keweenaw Community Foundation/Copper Country Youth Hockey Fund, 326 Shelden Ave., Houghton, MI 49931 in the name of Tony Bukovich.
Memorial services will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, January 2, 2010, at the Mountain View Mortuary in South Range with Fr. John Martignon to officiate.
Visitation will be from 11 a.m. until the time of services on Saturday at the mortuary.
Burial services will take place in the spring at the Mountain View Cemetery in South Range.
Arrangements are being handled by Antila Funeral Service, Inc. Online condolences may be expressed to the family at antilafuneral.com.