Showing off a love of hockey: New book from former MTU professor highlights Houghton’s rich hockey history
HOUGHTON — When Dr. William Sproule, a recently retired professor of civil and environmental engineering from Michigan Tech University, set out to discover what it meant for Houghton to claim it was the birthplace of professional hockey, he knew that he had his work cut out.
“Anyone who is going to claim that they are the first in something better be ready to back it up,” he said, “because there is going to be someone out there who is going to dispute it.”
His research into the topic of local hockey history began more than 15 years ago and has been compiled into a new self-published book entitled “Houghton, the Birthplace of Professional Hockey.”
“With confidence, I can indeed say that Houghton is the place that hockey players were first openly paid to come and play hockey,” he said with a smile.
A native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Sproule’s interest on this topic was piqued in the early 2000s when he volunteered to teach a course on hockey history and culture at MTU.
“They were replacing the standard freshman English course with a course on a topic that involved critical thinking, writing and making presentations,” he explained. “While I was teaching hockey, other faculty volunteered to teach on movies or the Vietnam War for example.”
The class, he said, was a popular one among the students. It was always full. As Sproule was preparing his curriculum, he immersed himself in research that led him to both the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Minnesota. Along the way he has written scholarly papers and given plenty of talks on hockey history.
“The book tells the story of how hockey began in Canada. It touches on the role of the Stanley Cup and the beginnings of professional hockey here,” said Sproule. “I tie it all together and paint the picture of what life was like here in the early part of the 1900s.”
Two names synonymous with hockey and Houghton in early 1900s are John L. “Doc” Gibson and James Rogers Dee.
Doc Gibson was a Canadian-born dentist who set up practice in Houghton after graduating from dental school in Detroit. He was also an outstanding hockey player who wasted no time in joining the Portage Lake YMCA hockey team upon his arrival to the Copper Country.
“Doc Gibson was a tremendous athlete,” said Sproule. “When he arrived here, he was one of the top young players in Canada. More importantly he was connected to the upper class of the hockey world in Canada and was able to recruit from there when the time came.”
Gibson’s “partner in crime” was James Dee, of Cliff Mine, Michigan. He was a member of the executive board of the Portage Lake hockey team. He was also a founding member of the Portage Lake Golf Club and was behind the development of the Shelden-Dee Building, the Gazette Building and the Dee Hotel in downtown Houghton.
After two very successful seasons on the ice with Gibson leading the Portage Lake squad to win after win, hockey was becoming quite popular in the area.
“This (Houghton) became the hub of hockey in the Midwest,” said Sproule. “Games were played at the Palace Ice Rink which held around 1,000 spectators. It was located in Ripley, just across the bridge where the smelting facility was.”
After the 1902-03 season, Dee became president of the Portage Lake team. He and Gibson wanted to take the game to the next level and pay players to play. With that in mind, the duo began to recruit players from Canada to come and play here.
“They realized that to convince top Canadian players to give up day jobs to play hockey for a few months and risk their amateur status in Canada, substantial salaries were essential,” writes Sproule in his book. “Individual player contracts were negotiated and salaries that paid $15 to $40 per week were enough to convince players to take the risk.”
It was 1903 and professional hockey was born. A year later five teams formed the International Hockey League (IHL). The teams included: Calumet, Portage Lake, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Pittsburgh. The Portage Lake squad would play in a new facility — the Amphidrome (now Dee Stadium) in Houghton.
“Dee had the money. He wanted a facility that would serve as an ice arena in the winter but also a warehouse in summer,” said Sproule. “The location next to the waterfront and the railway at the time was perfect. Also, the arena could hold 2,500 spectators. It was a big deal. People wanted to come here and play.”
However, the IHL only lasted three years. Its professional model was its own demise. According to Sproule, amateur hockey leagues in Canada decided to start paying their players and with that Canadian players could now stay home and be payed to play.
“The legacy of the IHL lives on in the fact that a number its players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The league also established the acceptance of professional hockey in Canada,” noted Sproule.
The 136-page softcover book is full of historic photos and statistics and side stories about this interesting time in local history. It is available for sale at the Michigan Tech Campus bookstore, Bookworm, University Images, North Wind Books and the Quincy Mine Gift Shop among other spots.
The book’s release could not have come at a better time as the eyes of the hockey world will descend up the area in just a few months as Hockeyville USA will come to Calumet, as announced earlier this week, in September. Sproule said he has already been in contact with NBC and offered his expertise as needed.
“This was a fun story to research and a great one to tell,” said Sproule.
It has even led to his next book which will look at the history of Michigan Tech hockey as the program will celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2021.
On Tuesday, the NHL and Kraft USA announced that the Calumet Colosseum would host the Kraft Hockeyville USA game. The game will take place on Sept. 26, 2019, and will feature the Detroit Red Wings and the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.