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Hockey Comes to Kalamazoo

Harry Lawson & the Beginnings of Bronco Hockey


Who knows?… Maybe hockey some day will catch on in Kalamazoo …” Prophetic words, perhaps, from a Kalamazoo Gazette article in March 1959 about Harry Lawson’s “quite informal” new hockey team at Western Michigan University. Lawson, a counselor at WMU and an avid hockey supporter, organized a group of students that year who wanted to play hockey. It was through Lawson’s tireless efforts that Bronco Hockey came to be.

The Kalamazoo hockey team will play the college team this afternoon at 2 o’clock on Root’s rink. This will be an exciting game.

Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 February 1895

Early Years

Kalamazoo-Gazette-March-8-1893-p6-400
Kalamazoo Gazette. 8 March 1893.

The game of hockey evolved from an earlier street game called “shinny,” a sport without formal rules or even specific positions. By the 1890s, ice hockey had become a popular winter sport in Kalamazoo. Match games at that time consisted of two half-hour periods with a ten-minute halftime. Players faced off on whatever frozen lakes or ponds they could find. Early Kalamazoo team rosters included the nationally known Ganzel brothers of pro baseball fame, and a young Joe Westnedge, Kazoo’s WWI hero.

Most of Kalamazoo’s earliest hockey teams were made up of local high school and college students. They often played on “Root’s ice rink,” an old pond once located where Waldo Stadium and Hyames Field are today. Years earlier, Arcadia Creek had been dammed to create a large pool of water near the original Kalamazoo Brewery. It was there that Frederick Root set up his ice harvesting and storage business. In 1913, Western State Normal School (WMU) purchased the property and drained the pond to create an athletic field. Several decades would pass, however, before organized ice hockey would find a home here.

Independent City Team

In 1906, an independent city hockey team was organized called the Shamrocks. Donning white sweaters emblazoned with a green letter ‘K’, the Shamrocks (William Edwards, Nelson King, March Edwards, Roland Maus, Fred Sanford, Frank Dodson, and Herbert Dodson, all of whom were experienced players) took on teams from Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Saginaw, and elsewhere. Most home games were played on a newly opened ice rink at the corner of Rose Street and Kalamazoo Avenue, although a few were held on a pond near the Bryant paper mill. The team only lasted two seasons, yet reports lauded the Shamrocks as “one of the strongest teams in the state” (Gazette).

There was, of course, lots of hockey activity played on frozen lakes and rivers with youngsters using a variety of homemade items for sticks and, more often than not, a rounded piece of wood for a puck.

But it was the late Harry W. Lawson who started to bring order out of chaos when he organized a club hockey team at Western.

Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 October 1977

Harry Lawson

Harry-Lawson-WMU-Headshot-2-400
Harry Wilbur Lawson (1896-1967)

During the years that followed, various attempts were made to establish college hockey in Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo College had a team briefly in the 1890s but that didn’t last. A couple of Western State Normal (WMU) students attempted to form a team in 1916, but their attempt failed, as well. Finally, in February 1959, intercollegiate hockey arrived in Kalamazoo when Harry W. Lawson formed the Western Michigan University Hockey Club, the university’s first ‘unofficial’ team.

A Boston native with a certificate in mechanical engineering from MIT and degrees from Boston University and the University of Michigan, Harry Lawson had a passion for hockey and helped organize college and prep teams in and around Boston. After serving in the Second World War, Lawson arrived in Kalamazoo in 1946 to head the Pine Lake School for Disabled Veterans (a WMU program) and later became a counselor at Western. “At Pine Lake,” he recalled, “we made a rink and put up some goals and the boys would play hockey in the winter. Had some boys from the Upper Peninsula who knew the game pretty well.”

Although the school was without resources to support a varsity hockey team, Lawson and his students were determined. Players purchased their own equipment and paid their own expenses. Using goal nets and posts loaned by a local sporting goods store, Lawson’s team practiced at the City Ice Rink on Lake Street whenever they could, often skating into the early morning hours after the rink’s 10 p.m. closing time.

WMU vs. MSU

One of the team’s first matches was an unexpected scrimmage against MSU’s varsity players in March 1959. With only a few informal practices under their belts, the fledgling WMU team was “swamped” by MSU. Still, Lawson was pleased with his team’s performance regardless of the score, and they didn’t give up. By the early 1960s, WMU was competing successfully against the likes of Rutgers, Port Huron, Wayne State, the University of Wisconsin, and Ohio State. In 1965 the Broncos, still an unsponsored team, joined the Ohio Intercollegiate Hockey League.

WMU-Outside-Hockey-Circa-1960-1600
Western hockey players at the City Ice Rink c.1960. Courtesy, Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections

Western’s student-sponsored hockey team, already regarded as one of the best collegiate teams in the nation, never had a losing season under Lawson’s leadership. His 1962 team went ten and one, losing only to Army at West Point after defeating both Penn and Rutgers. Harry Lawson retired from WMU and resigned as its hockey coach in 1966. Lawson passed away in March 1967 at the age of 71, still several years before WMU added hockey as a collegiate sport.

WMU Bronco Hockey

The Men’s Ice Hockey program at Western became official in 1973 and joined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association soon after. Games and practice sessions were held at the Kalamazoo Ice Arena on South 11th Street for a time. When WMU’s Lawson Arena opened in 1974, it was named in Harry’s honor.

The 2021-22 season was historic for the WMU Bronco hockey team. For the first time in program history, the Broncos entered the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Tournament semifinals as a No.1 seed and captured a first ever NCAA tournament win. As of this writing, the Broncos were ranked among the top ten teams in the nation. Harry Lawson would be proud.

Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, April 2022. Edited January 2023.

Sources

Articles

“Hockey is revived”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 March 1893, page 6

“A fine winter game”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 February 1894, page 3

“Played hockey”
Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 2 January 1895, page 4

“Town Topics”
Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1895, page 6

“Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 January 1895, page 5

“Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 January 1895, page 5

“Hockey match”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 February 1895, page 4

“Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 February 1895, page 5

“The hockey match”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 February 1895, page 1

“Hockey challenge”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 February 1895, page 5

“Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 February 1895, page 5

“Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 October 1895, page 5

“Changes in hockey club”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 December 1899, page 8

“Their new togs”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 December 1899, page 8

“Will play hockey”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 December 1905, page 5

“Organize for hockey games”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 December 1905, page 7

“Schedule for hockey club”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 December 1905, page 11

“Kazoo has six kinds of sport”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 December 1905, page 12

“Skaters busy this weather”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 December 1905, page 3

“Fine hockey game played”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 January 1906, page 5

“Ice skating is promised”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 January 1906, page 2

“New rink is opened”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 January 1906, page 6

“Form new hockey club”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 January 1906, page 2

“Organize as independents”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 January 1906, page 7

“Hockey practice”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 January 1906, page 7

“Professional hockey team”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 January 1906, page 12

“The Shamrocks”
Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, 15 January 1906, page 8

“City hockey club meeting”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 December 1906, page 6

“Shamrock hockey team reorganizes”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 December 1906, page 6

“Shamrocks reorganize”
Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, 15 December 1906, page 3

“Hockey enthusiasts want game at U. of M.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 January 1911, page 70

“Hockey boomed as major sport by Normalites”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 January 1916, page 10

“Collegiate hockey in Kalamazoo?”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 March 1959, page 40

“Flying pucks—”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 March 1959, page 36

“WMU squad drills at municipal ice rink”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 December 1959, page 49

“Western hockey club team awaits tests after upset”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 February 1960, page 23

“Mild weather keeps Western hockey club members idle”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 November 1963, page 67

“WM’s Harry W. Lawson dies At 71”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 March 1967, page 1, column 1

“Let’s honor Lawson”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 December 1972, page 41 (D1), column 1

“New Western facilities to honor Lawson, Gabel”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 April 1974, page 8

“Kalamazoo: Hockey Town, U.S.A.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 October 1977, page 57

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