Melissa Walsh

Hockey Vision Becomes a Hockey Classic

Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) | March 2007

History Walk: Photos & Stories

Hockey Vision Becomes a Hockey Classic By Melissa Walsh

College hockey's classic "Road to the Joe" fanfare is a prominent fixture in college sports culture today. Yet the celebration of the American college hockey tradition was only beginning to broaden 25 years ago at the first CCHA conference finals at Joe Louis Arena. The 1980 "Miracle On Ice" Olympic team, which included several college players, had jump-started a movement in American hockey culture that continues today. Back in 1982, with the move to an NHL venue, CCHA organizers and enthusiasts insightfully jumped into that Miracle momentum to showcase college hockey at its best.

Back in March of 1982, Joe Louis Arena had only been in operation for a couple of years. It wasn't yet affectionately known among hockey fans as "the Joe," and the Detroit Red Wings were in the midst of five consecutive last-place finishes in the NHL's Norris Division. As old-time Detroit hockey fans mourned the end of the Olympia era, they could not yet fathom the Detroit hockey glory that laid ahead for players and fans in this downtown NHL venue. The Joe would house three Stanley Cup Championship Red Wings teams and become the epicenter of America's Hockeytown.

Turning the Dream into a Deal The reality that you see today at Joe Louis Arena - of hockey-crazy enthusiasm mainstreamed into the grand celebration of American college sports - was in 1982 a novel approach in presenting a college conference finals. The idea was launched from some of American hockey's finest minds, including University of Michigan's Don Canham, Red Wings' Operations Executive Lincoln (Linc) Cavalieri and notably Michigan Technological University's legendary coach, John MacInnes.

Cavalieri, who worked for the Norris family (Red Wings, Olympia and Joe Louis Arena owners before selling to Ilitch Holdings in the spring of 1982), brokered the business side of the CCHA finals conference deal in 1982. With the tradition of the Great Lakes Invitational (GLI) tournament hosted at Olympia, the deal to host the CCHA conference finals at the new Wings venue was not difficult.

"[The deal] wasn't hard at all," Cavalieri recalled in recent interview. "There was a great connection between the Red Wings and college hockey."

"It was John MacInnes who approached me to develop something with the CCHA," Cavalieri said. Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham, whom Cavalieri referred to as "the most successful athletic director in the country," was also involved in promoting college hockey to a broader fan base alongside MacInnes and Cavalieri.

And their efforts paid off. In the first conference finals at Joe Louis in 1982, CCHA teams battled for the championship before more than 20,000 fans. Though Cavalieri had expected a decent crowd of cheering friends and relatives of the players, he had not imagined the large level of fan support presented at that first Joe finals tournament.

"I was surprised, amazed, at the audience," he said. "Every school had its own pep band."

Before 1982, the networking and dedication of a few in hockey front offices throughout the region led to developments that paved the way to make the brokering of the finals deal at Joe Louis Arena a relatively easy pursuit. In the 1960s, Cavalieri and MacInnes had conceptualized and undertaken the first GLI at Olympia in 1965. The event was born out of a dream that John MacInnes shared with the founding fathers of the CCHA, which was to get more Americans involved in their beloved sport.

Then in 1971, Bowling Green coach Jack Vivian, Lake Superior State coach Ron Mason and St. Louis University coach Bill Selman established the CCHA. The first season of the conference included Bowling Green, Ohio State, Ohio University and St. Louis. Lake Superior State would join the following season.

MacInnes' Farewell Significant on a sentimental level is the fact that John MacInnes' last game was during that 1982 championship series, which would launch this grand era of college hockey that players and fans are experiencing today at the Joe. In the last game that Michigan Tech's highly successful coach led was MTU's 2-1 defeat by Bowling Green in the third-place game. This celebration of 20,000 plus fans at Joe Louis, which he had instinctively nurtured throughout his career, must have touched MacInnes and his players deeply.

Recalling that last game for MacInnes, former Michigan Tech player and assistant coach Rick Yeo said, "We did know that it was going to be his last game. He was very ill and had to be on dialysis. It was too much for him to continue coaching."

Yeo played under MacInnes in the 1960s, was an assistant coach for him from 1973 to 1976 and coached against him at Lake Superior State from 1978 to 1981. "He seemed to know what needed to be done to improve the product - that includes the players," said Yeo. "He was always working to develop his players, and he cared as much about developing himself as a coach."

When his career ended prematurely, MacInnes had 555 wins in college hockey, making him the leader at that time. Though his death in 1983 from complications of diabetes at the age of 57 was a great loss to American hockey, MacInnes' legacy continues to impact hockey culture today. His dream lives on. CCHA hockey at the Joe is a big-time sporting event, not only for students supporting their institutions, but also for hockey fans en masse. And with teams contending for the MacInnes Cup at the GLI, MacInnes is recognized as a classic figure and important trailblazer in college hockey history.

"Among MTU alumni, I would say it's unanimous. He was exceptional," said Yeo. "He had a particular instinct for the game."

Top Guns To Head-to-Head In 1982, the strategic match-up of offensive lines, rather than what is frequently done today - matching a checking line against an opponent's forward lines proved significant to game dynamics between CCHA teams. The most notable offensive-line shoot-out in 1982 was between Notre Dame's top-scoring line and Bowling Green's hottest line.

"It was fun for the fans," recalled then-Bowling Green forward Brian Hills, who led the CCHA in scoring that season and is now an assistant coach at Rochester Institute of Technology. "There was a lot of scoring back then. Play was more open with a lot of offensive creativity."

Dave Poulin, star forward for Notre Dame in 1982, recalled that the locker room talk among his team after success in that season's GLI was "making it back to Joe Louis Arena."

"We were using the Kenny Loggins song 'This is it,'" he said. At the 1982 conference finals Notre Dame's "it" factor included their 8- 5 defeat over Bowling Green in the semifinals. Poulin's line - Poulin at center, with wingers Jeff Logan and Jeff Perry - was matched against Bowling Green's gifted trio - George McPhee at center flanked by Hills and Peter Wilson.

Hills, a 1982 Hobey Baker finalist, had played college and juniors with award recipient George McPhee. Hills noted tremendous respect for McPhee's playing style and skill.

"He was a tremendous hockey player," Hills said. "He was a physical guy at the college level with skill. He played hard in an honest kind of way, not a dirty kind of way."

"We were very familiar with Notre Dame. We played them before," Hills recalled. "Our games were virtually a shootout between our line and their line." High-scoring regular-season battles between the two teams that season included a 9-8 Notre Dame win and a 8-7 Bowling Green win.

For players participating in the 1982 CCHA finals, playing in an NHL venue was an extraordinary opportunity. The large crowd was new to them as well. Though the venue did not have that "Joe" feeling yet, Poulin noted, playing in an NHL building "was a big deal." Accustomed to a narrow fan base, playing to an NHL-sized audience was a new adventure for most CCHA players in 1982.

"I think it's always a big deal the first time you play in an NHL rink for any hockey player," Poulin reflected. "I can remember the first time I walked into an NHL rink. Maple Leaf Gardens. Everything about it."

Like Poulin, Hills said that playing in an NHL venue as a college player was exciting. "No one did that back then, other than GLI," he said. "I don't think I had played in a bigger rink, a rink seating 20,000 people."

Unlike Michigan State and Notre Dame, Bowling Green did not play in the 1982 GLI tournament. "In that way, [MSU and ND] might have had some advantage [in the finals]," Hills said.

The unpredictability of which team would emerge as the conference champion added to the college hockey excitement in 1982, according to Hills and Poulin.

"It was anyone's tournament," Hills said.

Nonetheless, with a clear defensive edge Michigan State displayed why they ended up clinching the title that year. "I personally felt that MSU was the best team in the league," Hills added. "They had Ronny Scott and [Mark] Hamway was really good."

Mason's Cup In a recent interview, Michigan State coaching legend and current Athletic Director Ron Mason credited the 1982 CCHA Finals at Joe Louis Arena for "the start of our national exposure."

"Going down there was big time," Mason said. "The big thing there was that we were getting better as a team. I really felt we needed to make a statement."

The Spartans certainly made an impressive statement, entering the tournament as the number-two seed, then winning the championship 4-1 over Notre Dame. Michigan State sophomore goalie Ron Scott was recognized as the tournament MVP. And State would go on to finish first in the CCHA finals tournament at the Joe ten more times. In 2001, Michigan State captured the first Mason Cup, named after the beloved coach.

The momentum continues today as CCHA teams battle for the Mason Cup and the glory that awaits the champion at the final destination on the Road to the Joe.