There is no denying the impact of hockey in North America, especially in the states of Canada and the United States. With a strong fanbase and a long-standing history, hockey has become ingrained in the culture of these countries. And while the National Hockey League (NHL) is undoubtedly the biggest and most popular league in North America, it is the minor leagues that often showcase some of the most epic and memorable moments in hockey. And in Western Michigan, there is no shortage of these historic upsets and wins that have left a lasting impact on the sport and its fans.
From unexpected victories to remarkable performances, Western Michigan has seen it all on the ice. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and relive some of the most unforgettable moments in the region’s hockey history.
The Miracle on Ice: Lake Superior State University vs. Michigan State University (1987)
It was the semifinal of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) tournament, and the Michigan State Spartans were facing off against the Lake Superior State Lakers. But this game would go down in history as the Miracle on Ice, not to be confused with the iconic 1980 Winter Olympics game where the United States upset the Soviet Union.
The Lakers were huge underdogs coming into the game, with the Spartans boasting a 34-5-1 record and holding the top spot in the tournament. But the Lakers played their hearts out on the ice, and with just six minutes left in the game, they were up 8-7. The crowd at the Joe Louis Arena was in disbelief, and the energy in the stadium was electric.
The Spartans pulled their goaltender to get an extra skater on the ice, and with just 10 seconds remaining on the clock, they managed to tie the game and send it to overtime. But the Lakers refused to give up, and in double overtime, a goal from Jim Dowd sealed the victory for Lake Superior State, shocking the hockey world.
This historic upset not only ended the Spartans’ hopes of winning the tournament but also shattered their chances of making it to the NCAA Frozen Four. It remains a proud moment for the Lakers and a reminder to never underestimate the underdog.
The First Black Player in the NHL: Willie O’Ree (1958)
The NHL has a long history of being predominantly white, and it wasn’t until 1958 that the league welcomed its first black player, Willie O’Ree. O’Ree was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, but it was in Western Michigan where he made his NHL debut.
He played for the Kalamazoo Wings, a minor league team affiliated with the Boston Bruins, and on January 18th, 1958, O’Ree made his NHL debut, becoming the first black player in the league’s history. It was a milestone moment not just for O’Ree but also for the sport of hockey. And he didn’t stop there; he went on to play 45 games for the Bruins, paving the way for diversity in the NHL.
Despite facing racism and discrimination throughout his career, O’Ree remained determined and inspiring, and in 2018, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, solidifying his place in the history of Western Michigan hockey and the NHL as a whole.
Western Michigan University’s First MAC Championship: Men’s Ice Hockey Team (2012)
The Mid-American Conference (MAC) is not typically associated with ice hockey, but in 2012, the Western Michigan University (WMU) men’s ice hockey team changed that. It was a significant moment for the team and the university, as they won their first-ever MAC Championship in front of a record-breaking crowd of over 7,000 fans at Lawson Ice Arena.
The Broncos, coached by Andy Murray, defeated the Bowling Green Falcons 3-2 in a thrilling game that went down to the wire. It was a hard-fought victory, and the team received a warm welcome back on campus, with students, faculty, and alumni turning out to celebrate the historic win.
But it wasn’t just a one-time success for the WMU men’s ice hockey team; they went on to win the MAC Championship again in 2013 and 2014, solidifying their dominance in the conference and making a name for themselves in Western Michigan hockey history.
NHL Draft: Dylan Larkin (2014)
While the Western Michigan hockey region has a rich history in the minor leagues, it has also produced some remarkable talent that has gone on to make an impact in the NHL. One of those players is Dylan Larkin, who was born and raised in Waterford, Michigan, just an hour’s drive from Kalamazoo.
Larkin was a standout player for the WMU Broncos, racking up 47 points in 42 games in his freshman season. He caught the attention of NHL scouts and was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round (15th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft.
Larkin has since become an integral part of the Red Wings and has achieved numerous milestones, including becoming the youngest player to ever wear the C on his jersey as captain of the team. He continues to be a fan favorite in Western Michigan and a shining example of the talent that the region produces.
Remembering the Classics
Apart from these historic moments, there are also numerous classic games and rivalries that have been etched into the memory of Western Michigan hockey fans. Whether it’s the intense rivalry between Michigan-based teams, the annual Duel in the D between WMU and Michigan State at the Joe Louis Arena, or the iconic Teddy Bear Toss where fans throw teddy bears onto the ice during a WMU Bronco goal, these moments have become a part of the region’s hockey legacy.
Western Michigan continues to be a hub for hockey, with countless dedicated fans and a rich history of memorable moments on the ice. And with the minor leagues paving the way for future NHL stars and the sport continuing to thrive in the region, there is no doubt that there will be plenty more unforgettable moments to come.