"Of the major pro sports, hockey is the oldest after baseball. The Upper Peninsula is the birthplace of American Hockey, and we could feel that while we were there. There's a depth of emotion and attitude towards the game, the rinks, and the youth players that you just don't find at more modern city rinks. Hockey is an institution up there, and they are very proud of that." - Matthew Halmy, producer of VICE World of Sports and "The Perfect Sheet"
The Gibson Cup by the Numbers
Population of Calumet: 726
Population of Houghton: 7,708
Distance between the two: One 1,000 foot bridge
First Year of the Gibson Cup (third oldest in U.S. hockey): 1939
Streak: Portage Lake Pioneers have won 8 years in a row
Sport and Society
The Gibson Cup isn't about the prestige—the Great Lakes Amateur Hockey League certainly isn't the NHL. It's not about the fans or the money, either. They are, respectively, scarce and nonexistent. It's about the history.
The Gibson Cup is named after former Portage Lake player-coach Jack Gibson, who is regarded as "the father of professional hockey," and has plenty of history of its own. The "Stanley Cup of the North" was founded in 1939, and is the third-oldest Cup in U.S. hockey. It was originally awarded to the winner of the Michigan-Ontario Pro Hockey League, but after decades of a fierce competition between some outstanding Portage Lake Pioneers and the Calumet Wolverines teams—and a league break during and 10 years after World War II—the Cup became dedicated solely to their rivalry. Now, the two teams compete in a best-of-three series every year in late March.
But what makes Michigan's Upper Peninsula such a uniquely heated battleground for hockey—even in towns as tiny as neighboring Calumet and Houghton—is its place in hockey history. The exact origins of hockey are muddled at best—some claim it's a variant on stick ball from ancient Greece; others say Native American lacrosse; others point to a 1797 etching of ice hockey being played on the River Thames. But whichever origin myth you favor, Michigan is central to the development of the sport in the United States.
A particularly corny 45-minute Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary on the history of hockey. Enjoy.
While the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League took root in Pittsburgh as the first professional American hockey league in 1896, it wasn't until Michigan's involvement in 1904 that the league became truly national. The Houghton-based Portage Lakes Hockey Club started to compete against Pittsburgh teams like the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, Pittsburgh Duquesne, Western University, and the Pittsburgh Bankers (comprised entirely of, yes, bankers). Portage Lakes had the distinct advantage of recruiting more skillful Canadian players for small sums of money, and the results reflected that edge.
The Great Lakes Hockey League was later established in 1937, and is based in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula. Alongside the development of hockey, the towns of Calumet and Houghton boomed from a flourishing copper mining industry. In 1900, Calumet Township had a population of 26,000. But due to the drop in demand for copper after World War I, and with an extra kick from the Great Depression, the township's population diminished almost twentyfold in 30 years. Today, the township (not the city) has a population of 6,489. Without a main industry to drive the area's economy, hockey is the center of life in these two small towns. In the words of Calumet Wolverines captain Jeff Erkkilla, "I truly believe that without hockey, we have nothing here." You can imagine the stakes.
Catching Up With…
We had a chat with Michael H. Babcock, 30, who plays for the Calumet Wolverines. Michael, along with his brother Zach grew up in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and are the only two players on the Calumet Wolverines' roster not from the town of Calumet itself. Now, after playing with the Wolverines for 11 seasons, Michael feels like he's come to know the area, and its unique brand of hockey, like the back of his hand.
As an outsider, what was it like coming to Calumet? And what differentiates Calumet's of hockey from any other style?
Calumet is a very small town. There's not a lot of people. But they produce hockey teams that are among the best in the state, all the time. It's not because they have so many people coming out. It's because the parents, they know hockey. They know hockey inside and out. They've lived it, they've played it. They can teach it to their kids right away. And they can teach their kids not just to play, but to love the game, to skate 110 percent.
The Calumet High School coach, who won something like eight state championships, didn't teach his kids to do really intricate plays, like you'd expect a multi-state championship coach to do. Instead he just made those kids work their asses off. They got so used to that being a part of their game, that that's what they do. They can't not do that. And that's what helps our team stay competitive in the league where we're playing against teams from much bigger areas who get players from all over their regions. It's cool to play with these people who are so used to playing hard.
Their of play is so skillful. They have so many guys that are just really gifted with the puck. They know where to be without the puck, and that makes it really hard to stop them. They have a lot of players that play for the Pioneers while they're in college, instead of playing DIII hockey. They're just really skilled from top-to-bottom. Every year they seem to be like that. And they're definitely bigger than us, for sure. That doesn't necessarily mean they're more physical than us—the guys on our team can hang with them on that front.
What makes the culture, as opposed to the style, of hockey so special in Calumet?
I was blown away by how many cultural norms were in that hockey community that I didn't see in any other hockey communities that I'd been in. I've been to a lot of different ice arenas. I've played in a couple of different organizations. But the guys that still play in Calumet, it's crazy. They love the place, they love going to that rink. They have a lot of respect for that rink, which is really neat. Guys that I know that have been playing there their whole life, they still walk into that arena, and I can still see it in their eyes. They're still excited to be there—it's just a great place to be.
The arena that we play in is just magnificent. It's gorgeous—it's aging, it's over 100 years old. It's the oldest still-standing ice arena in the world. But when you walk in, and think about the fact that it's that old, and is still in pretty good condition—and think about all the hockey that's going on in there—it's really quite cool. The kids that grow up there—they're just there. The kids just seem to live at the arena. No matter what time of day or night, there's just kids there. They're not skating necessarily, they're playing in the hallways, they'll be chatting you up, they'll be watching the games on TV—it's a really cool feel in that building. The big guy on the Pioneers didn't feel that way, however.
The year before [this episode's Gibson Cup], Blake Miller, that 6'4" guy [from the Portage Pioneers, in the trailer], at the end of Game 1, him and our coach, who's about 5'5"—when they're shaking hands, they start jawing at each other. Blake's a lot bigger than me, but I got in there and pushed him out of the way, and so things got pretty interesting. And our coach is like 70 years old, too. That's just the kind of player Blake is.
How do you deal with living in such proximity to this team that you hate? What's it like running into them at the grocery store?
A couple of the Pioneers are my best friends over here. Two guys that I talk with all the time—I used to play hockey with them in high school. We just chose opposite directions when we were 19. I know those two really well. I see a lot of those other guys around quite a bit. The guys you don't know really well, you just look at each other. And you think about the thing you might've said to them.
One of those guys for their team—he actually works with my wife. I didn't know him at all, so I always used to trash talk with him, but then I go to my wife's work now and see him there now on occasion. I talk to him a lot more now. Really good guy—you can tell he's a good guy. But I just think about all the times me and him would scrap in the corners. We definitely had a few penalties going after each other.