Life After Hockey

Muskegon Fury dynasty lives on at the dealership

Muskegn Fury Robin Bouchard
Robin Bouchard was arguably the catalyst in shaping the Muskegon Fury's legendary identity. The brand is long gone, as is pro hockey altogether, but Bouchard and contemporary key cogs have stuck around. (Photo by Derek Wong via the Muskegon Lumberjacks)

The Muskegon Fury employed one or more of Rob Melanson, Robin Bouchard and Todd Robinson for 15 of their 16 seasons. The three contributed to one or more of the brand’s championships, combining for eight rings between them. Now they service Muskegonites as teammates – and as bona fide townspeople themselves – once again.

Muskegon’s L.C. Walker Arena is barely a five-minute stroll from Lake Michigan. Its artificial 200-by-85-foot pond is practically a branch of the lake’s basin.

The Betten Baker Chevrolet-Cadillac-GMC dealership is a mere five-minute drive straight north to the Port City Princess Cruises docks. Another 10-minute drive, tops, will take you to the town’s Lake Express terminal, where Milwaukee-bound ferries arrive and depart.

Given what is on the other side, the lake is not quite, to quote a tourism campaign, pure Michigan. After all, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois all have a piece of the slender waterway’s borders.

But perhaps you can call it pure America. After all, it is the only one of the five Great Lakes not touching Canada.

Yet from this side, at least, it is the backdrop to a fountain of fondness for various voluntary imports from the northern neighbor. Ditto a few from overseas. They came and made things happen on the indoor pond, then decided there were more reasons to stay than their laurels.

“I’ve got my wife here, my kids,” Todd Robinson, a veteran of nine glorious seasons playing, three coaching and now eight satisfying months of auto sales in Muskegon, told Pucks and Recreation. “If hockey didn’t bring me here, none of these things would be around. I enjoy being a part of a community here.”

Muskegon is a modest mammoth of a town along Michigan’s “west coast.” Despite boasting fewer than 40,000 residents, its size eclipses the eponymous state’s other municipalities brushing the lake.

It is thus little surprise to remember that, for exactly a half-century, this was a stable minor-league hockey market. Here the original IHL’s Muskegon Zephyrs/Mohawks/Lumberjacks won four Turner Cups over a 32-year run. Afterwards, the Muskegon Fury of the Colonial/United/International League nabbed four Colonial Cups.

Muskegon Fury

(Photo by Derek Wong via the Muskegon Lumberjacks)

The pros have since given way to juniors, as they have in most medium Michigan cities. But the affectionately dubbed Skeetown’s small side lends it a magnetic grip that transcends the transition from athletic to “normal” careers.

Three maple-leaf men became mighty Muskegon men upon making Walker Arena their workplace in the ’90s and ’00s. As of the 2017-18 hockey season, they were teammates again at Betten Baker.

One former blueliner is now monitoring the bottom line as a finance manger for the dealership. Meanwhile two one-time prolific forwards are still on offense, scoring sales in the used-auto lot.

And it is safe to ascertain that neither they nor the time-laden townspeople would have it any other way. Case in point: Fury Night at the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks game this past November.

The Lumberjacks averaged a respectable 2,168 fans per home game in 2017-18. But two nights after Thanksgiving, they swelled that average by nearly 50 percent to 2,917 spectators.

Surely the presence of Fury threads on the home skaters had something to do with that. Even without that element, the ceremonious presence of former Fury fan favorites must have been the main thrust, right?

Not if you ask Robinson. Having served as a USHL Lumberjacks assistant coach the previous three seasons, he has the distinction of having participated in Muskegon hockey at both levels. So naturally and forgivably, that residual, habitual hockey humility will affect his assessment.

“It’s not fair to compare,” he cautioned in a recent phone interview.

Indeed, there are limits inherent to the junior ranks that are not enforced in the pros. As a team, and with an age-based revolving door in play, the current Lumberjacks can theoretically strive to match their forebears’ precedent. But the individuals who played the game here in the past have their own legacies.

Transition made easy
Rearguard Rob Melanson began his association with Muskegon in 1991-92. One year removed from going to Pittsburgh’s pipeline in the fifth round of the NHL Draft, he was promoted from the ECHL to the Penguins’ then-IHL affiliate, the original Muskegon Lumberjacks.

After the Triple-A Lumberjacks gave way to the Double-A Fury, Melanson stuck and rode through the expansion club’s lean years to Colonial Cup contention. He left the game with one ring in 2001.

Within another 15 years, after career stops at two other dealerships, he was teammates with Robin Bouchard again. Melanson transferred from crosstown rival Great Lakes Ford in June 2016.

At 44, Bouchard is practically a player-assistant coach on a new team of 20. That is, the 20 men and women listed and pictured under the used-sales heading on the Betten Baker website. An eight-year dealership veteran, he has risen to one of his division’s two management slots.

This is the same Bouchard who logged four years as a player-assistant coach for the Muskegon Fury, including back-to-back championship runs in 2004 and 2005. Who gave all or part of 13 seasons to the Fury/Lumberjacks franchise, saturating the scoresheets in the goal, assist and penalty columns alike. Who in the twilight of his skating days reached a minor-league record career count of 683 goals, then added five more.

And who, after spending his first 20 years of existence in Quebec, has since logged more time in Muskegon. At the dusk of the previous millennium, he had spent his mid-20s forging a new relationship for the next century.

By the dawn of that century, Melanson had already cemented that adulthood adoptions and moved on to his new field. Ditto veteran Russian striker Sergei Kharin, who started working at Great Lakes Ford in 2001 and has been employed at other regional dealerships since.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the British Columbian Robinson began his own conversion from Canadian to Muskegonite. As of his first non-hockey season, he has consummated that conversion.

Make no mistake, Robinson’s arrival at Betten Baker was not in the camp of Johnny Upton’s lament, “(Expletive) Chrysler plant, here I come.” He had exhausted his energy for formal involvement in his lifelong pastime. But he knew when and where he wanted to start tapping into new pursuits.

Muskegon Fury Todd Robinson

Todd Robinson accelerated the Fury’s status as a model UHL team. Once he exhausted his energy at ice level, he followed his elder hockey brothers to Betten Baker. (Photo by Derek Wong via the Muskegon Lumberjacks)

“I was transitioning,” he said. “Trying to find something else to do so I could spend more time with my kids.”

He added, “I never had a weekend off during the winter my whole life.”

Such was the price of success and stability. Robinson’s otherworldly scoring output in major junior’s Western League never translated to staying power in the high-end professional ranks. But that production rate did translate smoothly to Double-A for 15 seasons, nine of which he spent fully or primarily in Muskegon.

Of those nine seasons, three culminated in a Colonial Cup championship. With Robinson, Bouchard and other Muskegon mainstays constantly brushing their ceiling, the Fury forged a rare modern-day minor-league dynasty.

In his crack at coaching, Robinson almost recaptured that glory. His first USHL season saw the Lumberjacks reach the Clark Cup Final. But they were swept by Sioux Falls, and have not been back since.

Today he is happy to limit his athletic involvement to volunteer coaching his daughter’s youth basketball team. Even so, his competitive streak idled no longer than the summer, just as it had for three-plus decades running. He joined the veteran Bouchard in Betten Baker’s used-sales sector this past September.

Here he had built enough familiarity with the town, the personnel and the expectations to quell any qualms about entering an uncharted line of work.

“I never really had many normal jobs,” Robinson said. “I was in the hockey world my whole life” and “didn’t know a whole bunch about cars when I started.”

But Bouchard, five years Robinson’s senior in life and seven years in auto sales, “taught me the ropes.” Ditto other ex-players who preceded him in the department.

When they worked for rival dealerships, Melanson and Bouchard alike dangled a reunion with Robinson as an eventual option. It was simply the thing to do for Muskegon’s pucksters when they needed an occupation for the offseason or their next professional life. And so, in Betten Baker’s case, Robinson joined Bouchard and Melanson to complete what he calls “the trifecta.”

“There’s some similarities (to hockey),” he said. “It’s competitive. They keep a scoreboard every day.

“I’m a competitive guy. I like to win at things, and the more you put in, the more you get out.”

Determining Betten Baker’s equivalent of the Fury’s treasure trove may be just as hard as reaching it, though. The brand lasted 16 seasons, yet secured a spot on this site’s list of the 10 greatest defunct minor-league identities.

Swirling state of affairs
When one rehashes minor-league hockey tales, Slap Shot references can constitute a trap of triteness. But it works too well when assessing Muskegon’s timeline.

From the sport’s pre-helmet era through the country’s Reagan/Bush years, this town was a fixture in a league one stride from The Show. The largely independent development circuit had the Zephyrs/Mohawks/Lumberjacks partaking in scores of feisty regional rivalries. At least four fellow Michigan markets — Flint, Kalamazoo, Port Huron and Saginaw — were regular dance partners most years.

With a nominal downgrade to Double-A came a similar brand of bus-league spiritedness. Many of the same cities had undergone the same change, sustaining or reviving classic feuds. And for anyone who went to a CoHL/UHL game in the ’90s or ’00s and has bothered to watch the first game scene of 2002’s Slap Shot 2, one experience likely reminds you of the other.

Then the Slap Shot franchise produced a third movie in 2008, with a new Charlestown Chiefs team playing in the junior ranks. It turned out to vaguely and inadvertently foreshadow what was to come in Muskegon.

In its 58th year of usage, Walker Arena has aged well. It began with the arrival of the Zephyrs, and has housed the city’s whole hockey story since.

Once pro gave way to junior in 2010, the building finished immersing itself in the 21st century. That summer the facility refurbished its locker and training rooms and installed a center-ice video screen to replace the old scoreboard’s rectangular LED message ticker.

The building got younger in accordance with the VIPs it puts on its pond. But with four Turner Cup and four Colonial Cup banners, its hallowed history is indispensable. As long as a given entity is synonymous with winning, it suits the snug, seasoned sports house.

Besides its revolving door of Zephyrs, Mohawks, Lumberjacks and Fury players, Muskegon can claim a few prominent hockey residents pre- and post-fame.

Native son Justin Abdelkader (born 1987) was around for the better part of the Fury dynasty. He was still attending and starring on the ice at nearby Mona Shores High School the year of the team’s third Colonial Cup victory. After one year out of state with the USHL’s Cedar Rapids Roughriders, he gradually moved eastward to Michigan State, then Detroit, where he is coming off his 11th NHL season.

Jeff Carlson — Jeff Hanson from Slap Shot — finished his playing days after the movie with parts of four seasons as a Mohawk. He subsequently settled in Skeetown for a second career as an electrician.

And with the current Lumberjacks refining aspirant collegians and NHL prospects, there can always be more to come. But no one has directly represented the city during his peak quite like Bouchard. Nor have many filled the same comparable chronicles as Melanson or Robinson.

Bouchard’s 823 games for the city trail only the 888 outings Brian McLay aggregated as a Zephyr and Mohawk. He was the lone constant through the Fury’s four championships, making him the most ring-laden puckster in Muskegon history.

Like the NHL team across the state, Muskegon’s Double-A franchise made six appearances in their league playoff final between 1995 and 2009. Uncannily enough, it too sandwiched its four championships with two runner-up statuses at the bookends.

The Fury arrived in 1992 as a replacement for the first version of the Lumberjacks, who had caught their league’s big-city bug and moved to Cleveland.

Joining the upstart Colonial League, the Fury felt their share of growing pains on the ice in the mid-’90s. They failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs in four out of five seasons, minus a run to the 1995 final.

Apart from one full AHL season that year and portions of three others at the next level, Melanson was a Muskegon mainstay through that time. A stay-at-home specialist, he translated his aggression to 552 penalty minutes in 117 games his first three Fury seasons. His 260 PIM fell three notches shy of the team lead in 1995-96.

Meanwhile, as a second-year pro, Bouchard led Flint with 107 points en route to the 1996 Colonial Cup. Over the subsequent Thanksgiving weekend, the Generals dealt him to the Fury. It would be one of several midseason Muskegon imports that paid maximum dividends at decade’s end.

Crowd-pleasers, though, made for one measure of instant gratification. Jeff Carlson’s onscreen and real-life brother, Steve, cited in a Slap Shot 2 featurette the two developments in a hockey team guaranteed to arouse applause. Namely, “When a goal is scored or a fight breaks out.”

Bouchard promptly brought the whole package in peerless quantities. Despite only being available for 52 of Muskegon’s 74 games in 1996-97, he placed second on the goal chart (34), fourth in points (52) and first in the penalty-minute leaderboard (220). He would start being voted most popular player in the club’s annual season-end awards regularly.

For Bouchard’s first full campaign in his new home, the league and the team transformed. The Colonial League had rebranded as the United League. The Fury added purple, then gold to their simple San Jose Sharks-like teal-and-black scheme, giving them one of the loudest looks in the league. Meanwhile, their straightforward tornado-and-puck logo morphed into a snarling stick-wielding twister.

With the mutated identity came one of the most extravagant pregame presentations in the low-level minors. Atop a house-shaped tunnel, an inflatable rendering of the new logo looked like Gumby just swigged the serum in Dr. Jekyll’s lab. A crew set up the display at the Zamboni entrance as the building darkened and pulled strings on each end, as if to simulate wind gusts.

The arena sound crew complemented the visual by playing Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “The House Is Rockin.” Then they cued up the era’s all-the-rage Michael Buffer/2 Unlimited mashup. And the Fury mascot (a Tasmanian devil named Furious Fred) and players entered to the distinctive techno tune while four red lights and a disco ball supplemented the spotlights from the scoreboard.

That was about as much as the small-to-medium building could do in its pre-videoboard era to rev up the audience. With that said, it wasted no assets to that end.

The franchise’s fortunes elevated hand-in-hand with the energy. For the second time in six years of operation, the Fury made it past the first round of the playoffs. Along the way, Bouchard was one of four forwards to break triple-digit points. Although he placed three spots behind Kharin, a Russian league, NHL and IHL veteran obtained from Port Huron the previous winter.

Among other transactions, the hiring of a new coach and director of hockey operations proved the last prerequisite boost. Rich Kromm came to Muskegon for 1998-99 with five years of Triple-A tutelage experience to his credit. As an assistant on John Anderson’s staff, he had just helped the Chicago Wolves to the IHL’s Turner Cup.

Under Kromm, the Fury were slightly less ravenous on offense, but more efficient on defense. For his part, Bouchard finished third on the team with 82 regular-season points. Melanson ran away with a leading 251 PIM.

As a team, Muskegon finished first in the UHL standings, then followed up with a Colonial Cup victory. The road included a seven-game semifinal triumph over Bouchard’s old friends in Flint and a six-game vanquishing of the two-time defending champion Quad City Mallards.

After the Fury failed to repeat, Kromm enlisted a fellow Portland Winterhawks alum as one of the drops of new blood for 2000-01. Robinson came to Muskegon after spending his professional rookie season in the West Coast League.

Like Bouchard and Kromm, he came with a proven winning pedigree, having co-piloted Portland to the 1998 Memorial Cup. His 109 points that year led the team, eclipsing even Brenden Morrow and Marian Hossa.

For nine of the next 10 seasons, the exception being 2007-08, either Robinson or Bouchard topped Muskegon’s scoring charts. As Robinson’s first impression, his touch erupted to the tune of 100 points, 16 more than the runner-up Bouchard.

For his encore, he topped the team chart again with 92 regular-season points, 23 more than the runner-up. By that point, his importance was magnified by the aforementioned offseason retirements of Kharin and Melanson.

He then ran away with another lead in the postseason, tallying 24 points en route to the franchise’s second Colonial Cup. While the bulk of his output was always in the assist column, he helped himself to the deciding play. In overtime of Game 6 in the final round, he picked off the puck at center ice as the visiting Elmira Jackals tried to regroup after a Fury clear.

Robinson wasted no time bolting down Broadway and roofing a breakaway conversion. The sudden-death strike ended what would be Muskegon’s only home-ice championship clincher, after which he collected the MVP trophy.

By entering a more interactive field this season, Robinson has afforded himself bottomless opportunities to hear fans rehash that moment. “I get chills when I think about it,” he said. “When people bring that stuff up it brings back great memories. It’s near and dear to our heart for sure.”

Bouchard had spent most of that 2001-02 campaign with the Central League’s San Angelo Outlaws, but returned to Muskegon for the homestretch. His 17 playoff points tied Brant Blackned for second on the Fury’s 2002 playoff leaderboard.

Bouchard would lead the club in each of the next four seasons, including two more championship campaigns in 2004 and 2005. Robinson was a close second in 2003-04 with 106 points. In addition, he tied Blackned for the playoff lead with 22 points in 2005, cementing the notion that his acquisition was the key to ensuring a bona fide dynasty in Muskegon.

Robinson reclaimed the regular-season throne with a career-high 123 points (his third triple-digit season) in 2006-07, the year Bouchard played in Italy. Robinson had his own year abroad in Denmark the next season. As he abdicated his regal spot on the Fury leaderboard, the returning Bouchard tied Bill Collins for the team lead while playing in six fewer games.

Upon the tag team’s reunion, a change in management yielded a change in brand. Though the switch to a new incarnation of the Lumberjacks met mixed reviews, the Cup contention continued.

And in their final year together, Robinson and Bouchard were a runaway one-two punch with 109 and 101 points, respectively. When Bouchard broke the minor-league goal record at home, an eight-minute ceremony put the game on hold.

One year after losing on a return trip to the championship round, and with Kromm back behind the bench after leaving in 2001, the 2009-10 Lumberjacks fell one win shy of reaching the yet-again-rebranded IHL’s Turner Cup Final. None other than the Generals spoiled their swan song, winning Game 7 at Walker Arena.

Bouchard struggled to keep his eyes dry upon meeting local news cameras afterward. It is easy to ascertain why. He and Robinson are second and fifth, respectively, on the Fury’s all-time games chart with 709 and 429 appearances. (Melanson is fourth overall and second among defensemen with 439.)

Bouchard’s 919 points and Robinson’s 613 are good for the top two slots among anyone who ever wore the sneering tornado crest. The next runner-up, Brett Seguin, accrued a meager 366 points in his Muskegon career. And that was before the twister on the team’s thread became anthropomorphic. Before Bouchard was obtained from Flint over Thanksgiving weekend in 1996.

In their two years as Lumberjacks, Robinson racked up 221 points, Bouchard 168 and everyone else double digits at best. Throughout its dynamic duo’s tenure, Muskegon won at least half of its games and filled more than half of its 5,400 seats every year. It was a straightforward system of supply and demand, and it worked.

“We won most nights at home,” Robinson noted. “And if we didn’t win, there’d be four, five or six fights. So even if we didn’t win, there was something to cheer about.”

Plenty left to prove
For their eight nonconsecutive seasons as ice colleagues, Robinson watched Bouchard maximize his assets and block out bitterness.

When the Lumberjacks retired his No. 32 jersey in 2012, Bouchard confessed his mild regret over never having touched NHL ice to the Muskegon Chronicle. But he also implied that he reached a point where this was the only city he could live and work in, with or without skates on.

“People in Muskegon are a simple kind of people, hard-working people,” he told reporter Mark Opfermann at the time. “That fits me.”

Between the Betten Baker “trifecta” of Fury alumni, Bouchard had the most meager stints at the next level. He had played two games for Fort Wayne of the original IHL in 1996-97, then four with Grand Rapids of the AHL in 2004-05.

Yet he embraced his riches in a town blissfully oblivious to its gargantuan Lake Michigan brethren in Chicago and Milwaukee. To that point, when he theoretically could have continued his career when the Lumberjacks relocated to Evansville, Ind., he stayed.

On the flipside, he played five seasons strictly in North American Double-A and overseas after last Triple-A sip of joe. When he could have theoretically conceded, he stretched his participation in pro hockey for as long as Muskegon did.

“He always wanted to do well as a player,” Robinson said. “When he got older, I think he got better. He took care of his body and prolonged his career.”

Robinson stretched his playing days by stopping in four more cities in as many years. Beyond 40 games in Grand Rapids in 2004-05, he too never got back to the AHL. But he added to his trophy case with the 2013 Central League champion Allen Americans, then led the Tulsa Oilers with (surprise) 57 assists in his final season.

That helper’s instinct has served him well in his gradual crossing from playing to post-playing to post-hockey altogether.

“I think it’s just talking to people and being honest,” he said of the secrets behind successful sales reps. “There’s a stigma about them a little bit. But I try to do things the right way, be honest with people.”

Hardly any regular Walker Arena ticketholders, past or present, need convincing that hockey players are far from hulking, huffing haymaker-seekers. More broadly, though, it takes extra effort for a used-car hawker to contrast oneself from a Roald Dahl character. And no one in the field will be getting any help from Carvana commercials.

Some Betten Baker customers may develop into the equivalent of a Flint/Fort Wayne/Quad City fan or player. But like when the ice chips settle on an intense playoff series, one must be ready to seek and keep good relations post-sale.

That has become the rookie Robinson’s mantra. He has his head up, ready to respond constructively if and when a buyer comes back with complaints.

Anything less on his part and “I wouldn’t be able to sleep well at night,” he said.

Even if not every sale is an outright win, he will fight to set things right. That incentive to ensure everyone always leaves with something to be pleased with will likely never leave him. It is as ingrained in him as he is in this mild metropolis at the “other” end of the Milwaukee ferry line.

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Al Daniel

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