By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal
It’s hard to say where you start when talking about former Muskegon Lumberjack owner Larry Gordon.
Gordon, who skated into Muskegon in 1984 and bought the struggling Mohawks’ franchise and turned it a championship contender right from the start, died on Tuesday at the age of 74.
There were many faces of Larry Gordon. He was a shrewd businessman, a hockey mogul, a fearless negotiator and a winner.
You could start with Larry Gordon, the businessman.
- I walked into Gordo’s cramped office at L.C. Walker Arena one day and he was on the phone. I sat down and seconds later, he hung up and proclaimed, “I just made $3,000 in American money today.” Obviously, he had been talking to his financial advisor and it was a bountiful day for Gordon and his investments.
- Or the day I sat down in his office and he was adamant with the person on the other end of the line that if the Muskegon Lumberjacks were an affiliate of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers then players under contract with the Oilers’ should be playing in Muskegon. Gordon wanted Dave Michayluk, a 66-goal scorer in Kalamazoo the year before, to be required to play for the Lumberjacks. Days later, Michayluk arrived in Muskegon and had a hall of fame career. Year after year, Michayluk scored 100-plus points and led the Lumberjacks to regular-season and playoff championships. Yes, he was a tough negotiator.
- As the story goes, he bought the Muskegon Mohawk franchise for $1 in 1984, and reportedly, left Muskegon eight years later having made more than $1 million.
From there, there was Larry Gordon, the party animal.
- My wife, Kristi, and I were invited to several of Gordon’s Christmas parties at his house. I won’t get into much detail, but it’s safe to say everyone had a good time.
- Then there was the Turner Cup final series against the Salt Lake City Golden Eagles. When the series shifted to Utah, a small group of Lumberjack fans and two hockey writers went along. After one game, the party moved to poolside at the hotel, where Larry was having a few cocktails and singing his Irish songs, some of which were laced with a little profanity.
- Gordon would take his championship teams on postseason trips to warmer climates. As the story goes, it was time for a team party. Gordon whipped out his wallet and gave one of his players several hundred dollars to go buy some liquor and other party supplies. When the player returned from the shopping trip, Gordon put out his hand looking for the change. “Change?” said the player. “You owe me another $75.”
There are many, many Larry Gordon stories out there. Some are printable, others are not. But I do have one more that I will never forget.
One winter, Gordon and I were supposed to be partners in a media snowmobile race at the Muskegon Race Course. The harness track was iced over and ready for racing. Gordon seemed a bit apprehensive about touring the icy track at a high rate of speed on a high-performance snowmobile.
I knew better. Gordon wanted to win no matter what he did.
He jumped on that brand new snowmobile, hit the gas and began his practice lap around the track. The timer was supposed to start timing when he came around to the start/finish line. I could see he was going fast when he crossed the line. I later heard he was going 86 mph on the front stretch. Needless to say, disaster struck when Larry failed to negotiate the first turn and crashed through the tall wooden fence at the end of the track. That $7,000 snowmobile was totaled and Larry nearly was as well. He spent more than a month in the hospital recovering from his severe injuries.
Despite the outcome of that race, Gordon was a winner. He came into town and took over a minor hockey league franchise that seemed to be in its “last season” year after year due to financial troubles.
From Day 1, Gordon did not promise his teams would win championships. He simply said his teams would be competitive. That was an understatement as the Lumberjacks won Huber Trophies as overall regular-season champions, two Turner Cups as the playoff champion and divisional championships.
Crowds grew as the team continued to prove that this team was not the Mohawks. They were the Lumberjacks and they were winners. One season, the Lumberjacks averaged nearly 3,700 spectators per game.
But as the IHL continued to move into larger markets, it was apparent little Muskegon couldn’t hang in there. In 1992, Gordon packed up his team and headed to a major market, Cleveland. There were mixed results and in 2000, Gordon sold the team and retired.
The last time I saw Gordon was at the Muskegon Holiday Inn where Michayluk was being inducted into the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame. I never did get a chance to talk to him that night.
Gordon will forever be remembered for saving professional hockey in Muskegon back in 1984. We’re fortunate he made good on his promise to put a competitive team on the ice year after year. He didn’t get along with everyone, but who does?
He was not afraid to challenge a hockey player, a politician, a hockey commissioner or anyone else. He backed down from no one. But in the end, he was a winner.
And that’s just the way Larry rolled.