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High on Bill Sproule's list of things to do when he retired from full-time teaching at Michigan Tech University was to write the book he was destined to write: Houghton, the Birthplace of Professional Hockey.
Though primarily a professor of civil and environmental engineering, Dr. Sproule taught a course at Michigan Tech in Houghton several years ago titled, “Hockey History and Culture.”
“As I was gathering course materials I came across a newspaper article claiming that professional hockey started in Houghton,” recalled Sproule in an email. “As a Canadian I was skeptical so I spend many hours to discover the story. I wrote a few papers, made several presentations, and continued to research the story. As Bill Fitzell once said, 'Claims of first things are never without dispute.' I got diverted with an airport planning and design textbook, a book on Copper Country Streetcars, and my real job but always hoped to write this book.”
The result is a self-published, 134-page book detailing how a Canadian-born dentist, Jack "Doc" Gibson, changed hockey by openly paying players to come to Michigan's Copper Country to play hockey. The Portage Lake (Houghton) hockey team won the 1904 U.S. Championship and defeated a team from Montreal for what was billed as the World's Championship. Following this successful season, Gibson and James Dee of the Portage Lake hockey team began promoting the idea of a professional hockey league and, in December 1904, play began in the International Hockey League (IHL). The league had five teams: Calumet, Pittsburgh, Portage Lake, and two Sault Ste. Marie teams, one in Michigan and the other across the border in Ontario. Although the league lasted only three seasons, it was the start of professional hockey.
Local ties helped Sproule with the research and the production itself. “I felt that the Houghton book would be most interest to a local audience and it would be well received in local bookstores. I could use my Michigan Tech connections for a broader Tech alumni market—it's available in their bookstore and on-line through Michigan Tech,” he said. “I was encouraged by a few people in the area and was able to find a good book designer, editor, and printer locally. I am the distributor and the local bookstores can reach me easily and I can replenish their stock within a hour or two.” [Buy it here: https://bit.ly/36gsVXb] (Note to reader: If when following the purchase link you receive a message which reads "Error: The product you have requested is not available.", it means that the store is only temporarily out of stock. A new batch will be available on December 9, 2019)
Doc Gibson, who died in 1954, is a fascinating figure to Sproule, and his journeys are a big part of the book. Gibson was originally from Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener), and he arrived in Houghton to set up his first dental practice in the fall of 1900; he moved to Calgary in 1907 after the IHL folded. Two of Gibson's grandsons were sources of photos and newspaper clippings.
As an avid hockey historian and currently the vice-president of the Society for International Hockey Research, Sproule thought about different directions the book could take. “I debated for a while whether it should cover the whole league or focus on Houghton. I ended up with the Houghton focus and when hockey began in Houghton, 'Doc' Gibson, the IHL, and what happened after the IHL—the time period was late 1890s to World War I. I also included a chapter on early hockey in Canada and the role of the Stanley Cup and amateur hockey in Canada.”
A couple of the various subplots and connections that Sproule set aside during the process have been made into other short articles. He's also gained some prominence for his work in hockey history, and appeared on the NBC Sports telecast of September 2019's Kraft Hockeyville game in Calumet, Michigan.
The initial print run of Houghton, the Birthplace of Professional Hockey was 1,500 copies, and he's closing in on a thousand sales, and that's without broadening its availability to Amazon and other online sites. “We'll see how well it sells at Christmas; it seems like a perfect Christmas gift,” he mused.
Dr. Sproule is not done, either. “I am now working on my next hockey book project on Michigan Tech hockey—next year will be the 100th anniversary of when it started as a varsity sport on campus,” Sproule said.
Fortunately, he has the time.
REST IN PEACE, TIM GASSEN
Who will the world turn to for details on the World Hockey Association with the unexpected death of Tim Gassen on November 29, 2019? He created the WHA Hall of Fame online and was involved in documentaries and books about the league.
But Tim was about far more than the WHA. He was a husband, and his wife, Sarah, shared the sad news of his passing after heart surgery: “my beloved husband Timothy Gassen passed away last night. He was everything. Thank you for all the light and love and support during his illness. Your words of love and healing helped him and made him smile.”
He was a musician too, in his band Marshmallow Overcoat, and he wrote about that love with 1995s The Knights of Fuzz: the new garage & psychedelic music explosion (which he updated in a 2014 edition), and 1991's Echoes in Time: The Garage and Psychedelic Music Explosion, 1980-1990.
Gassen was involveed with the University of Arizona Wildcats hockey team as well, and the school tweeted, “It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our media director and commentator, Timothy Gassen. Tim’s passion and commitment to the U of A Wildcat Hockey program will be greatly missed. We ask that you please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers.”
I talked with Tim back for “Two Minutes for Reading so Good” when he put together a massive WHA collection of media guides: Keeping the WHA memory alive [link https://sihrhockey.org/__a/public/column.cfm?cid=4&aid=533]
Other hockey authors, like Gare Joyce and Todd Denault, paid tribute to Gassen in online posts, thanking him for sharing info on the WHA for various projects.
One of Gassen's columns [LINK https://tucson.com/opinion/local/timothy-gassen-face-to-face-with-mortality-we-find-power/article_9f78eea2-6ee8-5b89-933f-15fc710c122e.html ] for the Arizona Daily Star, from December 2018, is especially poignant now. We'll leave the last words here to Tim, from his opening lines from the column, as a reminder to cherish what we have today:
We love sports, I think, because deep down they fulfill our fantasy that we can create victory over death.
Each touchdown, each overtime goal, each buzzer-beater basket from our favorite team tricks us into believing we can win it all. In fact, no one ever wins it all. Our mortality proves otherwise.
But sports help us feel alive, right now, in the moment.
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