John “Jack” Liddell MacDonald Gibson, athlete, administrator, dentist (born 10 September 1880 in Berlin [now Kitchener], ON; died 4 November 1954 in Calgary, AB). Jack “Doc” Gibson founded the world’s first professional hockey team (the Portage Lake Hockey Club in Houghton, Michigan) in 1903 and the first professional hockey league (the International Hockey League) in 1904. He has been called the “father of professional hockey” and the “father of hockey in Michigan.” He was an inaugural inductee into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.
Ice hockey player Jack "Doc" Gibson of the Portage Lake Hockey Club in the 1902–03 season.
Jack Gibson grew up in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario. He excelled as a multisport athlete and as a student. He won medals in rowing, swimming, skating, and running, and could run the 100-yard sprint in 11 seconds. He played on a hockey team that won the Ontario intermediate championship in 1897. Also a talented soccer player, he was invited to join the development team of the Everton club in England but declined the offer to play football at Pickering College, near Toronto. He eventually graduated from the Detroit College of Medicine with a degree in dentistry; he also captained the school’s hockey team.
Life in Michigan
Gibson then settled in Houghton, Michigan, on the Upper Peninsula south of Lake Superior, where he opened a dental practice. He continued his involvement in sports, playing as a kicker and a back on the Houghton football team and as captain of the Houghton County bowling team. He was also active in the community. He was a member of the Knights of Pythias, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, and the Order of Elks, and he served in the Houghton light infantry of the Michigan National Guard.
In the centre of the back row, wearing suits, are Charles Webb and James Dee. Jack "Doc" Gibson sits in the centre of the middle row. To his left are Hod Stuart and Bruce Stuart. Goalie Riley Hern sits in the front row on the right.
Gibson was encouraged by Merv Youngs, a reporter with the Houghton Mining Gazette, to start a local hockey team. Gibson founded the Portage Lake Hockey Club, also known as the Portage Lakers, in 1900. The team initially played at the Palace Ice Rink, a former smelting plant. The Lakers were so popular that local businessman and team benefactor James R. Dee built the 5,000-seat Houghton Amphidrome, the world’s first facility built specifically for hockey. The Lakers played their first game there on 29 December 1902, defeating the University of Toronto Varsity Blues 13–2. In the 1902–3 season, the Lakers went undefeated with one tie (13–0–1). Gibson was the team captain and their leading scorer.
For the 1903–4 season, Gibson decided to recruit the best players available by offering them a salary to play for the club. The team that he and manager Charles Webb assembled is regarded as one of the greatest of all time. It included future Hockey Hall of Famers Hod Stuart, Bruce Stuart and goalie Riley Hern, as well as prolific goal-scorer Bert Morrison. The Lakers finished the regular season with a dominant 24–2 record, outscoring their opponents — which included teams from St. Paul, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis — by a total of 273–48. They claimed the unofficial American championship by defeating the Pittsburgh Bankers in a three-game series at Duquesne Gardens in Pittsburgh. They then beat the Montreal Wanderers 8–4 and 9–2 in front of packed houses at the Amphidrome to claim the unofficial world championship.
International Hockey League (1904–7)
Given the surging popularity of hockey as a spectator sport, Gibson and Webb convinced local businessman James Dee to help them organize a professional league. By the start of the 1904–5 season, the International Hockey League had been incorporated. It included three teams in Michigan (Portage Lake, Calumet, and Sault Ste. Marie), one in Pittsburgh and another in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Hod Stuart, widely considered the best player in the world at the time, was paid US$1,800 to play for Calumet. Gibson played the full 24-game season with Portage Lake and was named an All-Star. The Lakers lost the first IHL championship to Calumet in 1905.
Also in 1905, the Portage Lake Hockey Club issued a formal challenge to the board of governors committee in charge of the Stanley Cup to play a championship series against the Ottawa Silver Sevens. The Lakers made a similar request to face the Montreal Wanderers for the Cup in 1906. Both requests were refused by the Stanley Cup committee on the grounds that only amateur athletes could compete for the Cup.
The success of the International Hockey League ultimately led to its downfall. Other teams in Canada and the United States had to follow its lead and pay players to compete, regardless of concerns about professionalism in sports. This led to the 1906 decision by the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association (ECAHA) to officially allow professional players in the league. (See also The Birth of the National Hockey League.) After that, the best players from the IHL were poached by teams in Canada, many of them financed by wealthy mining magnates. The IHL disbanded in 1907.
Gibson then moved to nearby Republic, Michigan, before settling in Calgary in 1909, where he continued to work as a dentist. He later served with the Canadian Armed Forces in the First World War and was wounded in 1916. He died in Calgary in 1954.
Doc Gibson’s contributions to hockey in Michigan and the United States lived on well after his return to Canada. Of the 97 players who played in the IHL between 1904 and 1907, 15 were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, including Gibson, who was made a member in the Builder category in 1976. He was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class in 1973. He has also been inducted into the Waterloo Region Hall of Fame.
In 1938, the Badger State Hockey League (now the Great Lakes Hockey League) named its championship trophy the Gibson Cup in his honour. The third-oldest trophy in hockey, it is now played for annually by teams from Portage Lake and Calumet; their rivalry is considered the oldest in the sport.