“Dee Stadium, also called The Dee, is an ice hockey arena in Houghton, Michigan, that replaced, and is located on the same site as, the Amphidrome. It is regarded as the birthplace of professional hockey, and is the seventh oldest indoor rink in the world.” (wikipedia)
“1902: The Amphidrome was builtin 1902 on the South shore of Portage Lake in Houghton, MI, and was the first structure ever built in this country specifically for hockey.” (wwwcchockeyhistory.org)
“The first professional ice hockey league was the International Pro Hockey League, founded in 1904 in Michigan.” (history.com)
I’ve always loved history. Where did things start and how did they evolve? Fun facts bring out questions that spur more reading, more in depth learning and more questions. Learning about history develops perspective, understanding, and empathy. It’s fascinating where things originate and why. What’s the story behind it, I always wonder. History is like one long continuous, riveting story. Hockey, of course flows through my family’s blood, so hockey history gets us especially on the edge of our seats.
When I was growing up, I spent every summer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan visiting my grandparents and cousins who lived in a tiny town called Calumet. The neighboring town, also pretty much considered the same town, with the same zip code was Laurium. 49913. I’ll never forget the zip code since I wrote countless letters to my grandma and grandpa from wherever I was traveling with my parents and for birthdays and holidays. The U.P. as they call it, is what my Dad would say is “small town USA”. It was totally different than where I grew up in Westport, CT. I loved going there and feeling how differently and similarly people could live. At the heart of it all was family. We flew to Detroit in a bigger plane, then switched to a tiny one with loud propellors and a majestic view of forests, lakes, and farms. From Detroit there would be several stops before you got to Houghton, and Calumet was a 30 minute drive from there. Marquette, Iron Mountain, Escanaba, and finally Houghton. I can’t remember if we stopped at each of these places or just one or two, but as a child the journey seemed to take all day, while I waited in anticipation to get there. There were no cell phones or distractions, so I just savored the view while gazing out of the window. The runway in Houghton seems like the length of a driveway, and when it snows (accumulation of approximately 278.5 inches so far this year), the runway looks like a white blanket. Somehow the pilots land and taxi the puddle jumper to a startling halt. The stairs get unfolded onto the tarmac, passengers hold the flimsy railing and climb out, excited for the hugs that await them.
My grandparents would pick me up, and they would fuss over me and envelope me with their hugs and love. They were big people, so they moved slowly, ambling to the car, after we’d collected my bags. “She’s finally here, Paul. Can you even stand it??” Kisses and more kisses. They were the quintessential doting grandparents, making sure the house was stocked with my favorite snacks. Eating was a BIG priority with my family, and their love was shown by the abundance of food and special traditional dishes they would have and make, just for me. Their house was handed down to them by my great-grandmother, Helen. The house had originally been an all purpose store when they emigrated from Finland when Helen was a child, and then it became a residence in her and my great grandfather’s retirement. It was gray and old with creaky stairs and peeling paint on outside of the window frames. No one had extra money, so updates were not possible. The basement was always wet with some leak, and there was no dishwasher or any updated appliances. It was warm though and homey, and the kitchen always had the best cooking smells you can imagine. I loved looking through all the old photo albums on the shelves and the Peanuts cartoon coffee table book my grandma kept on the table. My grandmother also took pictures like a maniac on her kodak camera with the cube flash on the top that would rotate every time an indoor shot was taken. I definitely got the picture bug from her. All the kids in the family called my great grandma Helen, “Grandma Mummy”, and she had only kind things to say and love in her heart for everyone. She was truly the matriarch. She had also been a teacher up until the time she got married, and I love that she was educated at a time when it was not always the case for women. Bad-ass before it was fashionable, paving the way for other great women educators. She was a strong lady with a tender heart, raising her 3 daughters during the time of the Great Depression, and for her, family was everything. We all loved and cherished her until the day she died. I was 8 years old, and her memory is ingrained in me forever. I vividly remember all of my cousins, there are dozens of them, standing around her open casket, and I thought how strangely beautiful and peaceful she looked. I wanted to be like her. I respected her journey.
While visiting my grandparents, there was always a predictable agenda. We would take trips to Copper Harbor, a summer tradition, stopping by the big look out to take pictures of the breathtaking scenery below. We would make our way to the fudge shop and buy copper trinkets at the gift store, some that I still have to this day. Copper was this area’s claim to fame. When we would drive to the “big city” of Houghton in the other direction to go to the one mall, and its neighboring rival town, Hancock, we’d pass the Quincy Mine which was in operation from 1846-1945 with some operation continuing through the 1970’s. When the mines were open, there was industry, and men would work there bringing copper out of the Earth. At that time, the area flourished, but when the mine closed, the people left seeking out new work to feed their families. Calumet and the surrounding towns turned into somewhat of a ghost town. It was sad. There were lots of old folks, churches, movie theaters and bars that remained, creating a whole wave of social change. My grandparents and various cousins had “camps” which were summer cabins right on Lake Superior. No running water and an outhouse. There was an old fashioned sauna with rocks piled in the metal cylindrical container that would get doused with water and create the steam that opened and cleansed the pores. Pour the water, steam up the sauna, lather up with soap, run and jump in the frigid water of the lake. It would TAKE your breath away, and my cousins and I would do this over and over, until we got tired. The Finns swore by this method to stay healthy. Then, we transitioned to bonfires and s’mores, wrapped in blankets while telling stories, enjoying the stars. Heaven on Earth. The Lake offered rejuvenation. Nature’s healer.
When I got older, you could easily work on one $20 bill throughout a fun night with the cousins. Drinks were cheap and the conversation was fulfilling. My great uncle and my uncle had worked in the mine. They had some amazing stories that I loved to hear while we ate pasties, which are like turnovers filled with cut up meat, onions, and rutabaga. It was a dish that the miners could easily take with them into the mine, and it filled the belly and sustained them for the their stay under the Earth’s surface. History was everywhere in this place, and stories abounded and I soaked it up, year after year.
My grandparents always drove me to other points of interest, various restaurants along the beautiful Lake Superior, waves crashing onto the rusty colored sand, smooth rocks everywhere which were great for skipping when the lake was calm. One of our outings took us out of Houghton and past Michigan Technological University, known for its excellent engineering program. We would drive out of town to go do something or other, and pass a row of fraternity houses, sofas in the front yards, and Greek letters hanging proudly on the awnings of big old fashioned homes. When we would return and head back to Houghton and eventually towards Calumet, 30 minutes away, there was always this ONE sign that caught my eye. I never read it carefully, but I loved how it looked. Blue like the lake, shaped like the state. It was the landmark of getting back into a more populated area from whatever rustic day’s adventure we had come and I loved seeing it year after year. I never thought it would be meaningful to my future son. Going there every summer filled my heart so much, and one day, 20 years later, I was thrilled to bring Brett there to see what I had been talking about all these years.
Brett immediately loved the UP, as I knew he would, when we got there. He loves the outdoor life, woods, water, saunas, kayaking, and bonfires. He fits in beautifully with the rustic, Lake Superior life surrounded by loving family. When we drove from Marquette to see my people in Calumet, we drove through Houghton and stopped for coffee. While I was driving past the old fraternity houses, I saw my sign. THE SIGN. Oh my god…The one that always caught my eye as a kid. I said, “Brett, quick, what does it say?” I was going to pull over. It was a symbol of my roots, my home away from home.
“MOM, it says, ‘Welcome to Houghton. The birthplace of professional hockey’!!!! “MOM that’s so cool!!! I wonder how it started here…I wonder why not in Canada…but HERE?? Where our family is from?? NO WONDER I PLAY HOCKEY. It’s in my BLOOD. It’s because I’m also partially from the U.P. I have to tell Daddy and Coach Chris!!” Then, he sat back in his seat, loving this historical fact anticipating finding a book that would tell him the “story” of why and how. I had never read the sign before or I didn’t remember it. Until Brett came to be and played hockey, it wouldn’t have been as interesting. It used to be just a cool shaped wooden symbol at the edge of town, reminding me my family was about 30 minutes away. Now, I felt like history had rolled out its giant scroll and scooped up Brett… allowing him to feel special and connected to this gorgeous place and his heritage. Next summer, we will check out Dee Stadium…and maybe get Brett on the ice with high school kids who play there for sticks and pucks. Thank you hockey, thank you history.