Family meaning: Doc Gibson’s grandsons discover local hockey history

HOUGHTON — Jim and John Leech remember well the stories their mother told them about her dad when they were growing up. Both had, in fact, known him as kids before he died in 1954.

“Mom had told us that grandpa was a very good athlete and an exceptional hockey player,” said Jim. “We had heard the stories. We also were aware that he was in both the USA Hockey Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.”

What they didn’t know is that their grandfather, John L. “Doc” Gibson, was also the namesake of an historic hockey cup in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

“Three or four years ago, Jack called me out of the blue and asked if I had ever heard of the Gibson Cup?” said John. “He said he had just stumbled upon it while doing some research on the internet. We were shocked to learn about this heated rivalry between these two teams in Calumet and Portage Lake. We knew then that we had to make the trek to see the famed Gibson Cup.”

They did just that this past weekend as the Calumet Wolverines and Portage Lake Pioneers, two senior men’s teams of the Great Lakes Hockey League, battled it out in a best-of three series for the coveted trophy.

This heated rivalry has been taking place each spring in Copper Country since the late 1930s all in the name of Doc Gibson. Doc was a Houghton dentist who, in 1904, along with local businessman James R. Dee, began the International Professional Hockey League – hockey’s first professional league.

John, 78, is the older of the two. He is a retired Major-General of the Canadian Army. Jim, 73, serves as the chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. As well, Jim was part of the ownership group of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL for more than a decade. Both said they grew up playing hockey in the eastern Ontario region of but were not nearly as good their grandfather.

The brothers had custom shirts made up for their visit. Their black long-sleeved shirts had the Portage Lake Pioneers logo on the front and a white “Doc Gibson” lettering on the back. The shirts made them minor celebrities on Friday and Saturday as they wandered through town. As well, three local radio interviews did not help them stay out of the Copper Country spotlight.

“We were walking through town yesterday and the the police chief (of Houghton) yelled at us as he saw our shirts and told us that he had just heard us on the radio,” said Jim with a smile. “That led to a phone call to local hockey historian Bill Sproule (from Michigan Tech) and 20 minutes later, Bill shows up to take us a tour of the hockey sites around the area that would have been connected to our grandfather. It has just been amazing.”

Interestingly, this was not John’s first visit to Houghton. He and his family were here in 1973 after being contacted by a reporter from the Daily Mining Gazette who told him that his grandfather had been inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota.

“The reporter told me that the newspaper had accepted this plaque in honor of Doc Gibson several months earlier because the Hall of Fame couldn’t track down any of my grandfathers relatives,” John recalled. “I can remember hearing cheers in the background over the phone when they found out that I was a living relative of Doc Gibson.”

John had a newspaper clipping of that 1973 visit to Houghton in a well-preserved scrapbook dedicated to his grandfather that he and his brother brought with them on this most recent visit. The two inherited the thick binder from their grandfather after his death. It contained clippings from his grandfather’s hockey escapades more than a century ago with the Portage Lake Pioneers as well a correspondences and newspaper stories of his inductions into both hockey halls of fame.

Jim dropped the ceremonial puck on Friday night in Calumet and John did the same on Saturday night at the Dee. They gave a pregame pep talk to both teams before each game. While their grandfather was a standout Portage Lake player, Jim quipped that they had to be fair and talk to the Calumet squad as well.

“It is the Gibson Cup and not the Portage Lake Cup,” he said.

Neither of the two could put a finger on why it took so long for them to discover this long-standing hockey rivalry named after their grandfather. In fact they aren’t even sure if their grandfather knew about it. They noted there was no Facebook back then. The cup was created in the late 1930s and Doc Gibson had long left Houghton and hockey. According to the brothers, after the International Professional Hockey League folded in 1907, Gibson moved to Calgary and practiced dentistry and had little interest in hockey. In fact, they said he became a legendary curler.

Unfortunately, the Leechs were not able to stay for Game Three of the Gibson Cup on Sunday. They had to return home to Canada. However, both said their visit to the Copper Country went far beyond their expectations.

“It has really filled in the gaps of some of our family history,” said Jim.

Both vowed they would be back with their own hockey-loving grandkids.

“We can now put a name and a face on people and places that are associated with the stories surrounding our grandfather,” said John. “We’ve met so many interesting people. Everyone here has been so welcoming.”