The Kids That Started it All
The true pioneers of Ann Arbor hockey were a group of boys that lived to play the game.
Eight-year-old Howdy Holmes threw the door open as his mother slowed the car down on Baldwin Avenue adjacent to Burns Park Elementary School. On his way out, he reached back and grabbed his hockey equipment, two ham sandwiches and a thermos of hot chocolate. The crisp December air hit his face as his boots hit the snow in full stride. Holmes ran toward the frosted tennis courts that had been converted into two side-by-side ice rinks for the winter.
Holmes laced up his skates and stood at the end of the line hoping he would be chosen by one of the two older ‘captains’ for the day’s 10-hour match.
The year was 1955, and every Saturday from Thanksgiving until the ice melted, dozens of boys from across Ann Arbor would gather on the east end of Burns Park at 7 a.m. to play hockey. These humble pick-up games may not seem momentous — at the time they did not even seem like much to the players — but it was from these modest beginnings that the rich tradition of high school hockey in Ann Arbor was born.
From the moment that the final school bell rang until they were called home for dinner, there was always a game being played. When boys like Holmes would go to Burns Park, it was not just to play hockey; they wanted to impress the “ringleaders.” For Holmes, this group consisted of the class of boys three grades ahead of him that spent every waking moment on the ice at Burns Park. Frequented names included Jim Baird, Douglas Hayes, Nick Boys, Mark Gilson and Dave Newton.
“We would choose teams and then play for about an hour or so,” Hayes said. “Then we would break up and individually just mess around. We would work on our skills, and then maybe half an hour later we would choose up again and play.”
Over the countless hours that this group of players spent on the ice together, they learned how each other thought. They could anticipate where their teammates were going to be and the game became second nature.
By the time they got to fifth grade, the boys were eligible to play their first season of organized hockey in the Ann Arbor Hockey League. The league was based out of the University of Michigan Colosseum, which was formerly home to the Michigan Wolverine hockey team.
“When I would have been 10, in 1954, there were about six 12-and-under teams playing,” said Paul Diamond, a player from the class below Baird, Hayes and Boys. The teams consisted of 14 to 15 boys who played about 20 games each season.
At the beginning of each season, a list of all the registered players was distributed to the volunteer coaches and teams were chosen draft style. This system split up the Burns Park players among the league.
The Ann Arbor Hockey League offered both a 12 and under and a 14 and under division, but once players turned 15 and were in high school they were out of options. Many players moved on to other sports like wrestling or basketball, some stayed with the Ann Arbor Hockey League as coaches and players like Gilson and Baird went back to Burns Park for pickup games.
Soon the boys realized that the pickup games alone were not enough, and they started looking for other hockey teams. At age 16, Baird, Hayes, Gilson, and Boys along with classmates Howard Lippert and Richie Kerr traveled to Detroit to try out for an adult team called Hessenaur’s.
They made the team and almost immediately became a known force throughout the adult league.
The attention they gained through Hessenaur’s was welcomed, but what they really wanted was an Ann Arbor High School (AAHS) team.
“We wished we had a high school hockey team,” Hayes said. “When I was a junior, a friend of mine was a senior named Tom Rowe. He and I decided that we were going to start a high school hockey team.”
At this point, it was the middle of winter in 1960, Rowe and Hayes created a list of three things necessary to start a hockey program: ice time, uniforms and funding. They approached the athletic director at AAHS and he laughed saying, “We can’t spend any money on hockey because there is no money around.”
After getting shut down by school administration, Hayes and Rowe had to come up with a creative solution. They contacted the father of a younger player who was a known business owner in town. The businessman hoped that his son would one day have a team to play on and by something just short of a miracle pledged $4,000 to Rowe and Hayes’s cause — in 2019 that calculates to about $30,000. Rowe and Hayes circled back to the Athletic Department after they had collected the funding that was needed to start a team, and were shut down again because there was, “no time.”
The following year, Hayes, Boys, Gilson, Baird and Newton continued the effort determined to start a team before they graduated in the spring. They finally came to the conclusion that if their team was going to become a reality, they could not rely on the school for help.
The remaining items on their list were uniforms and ice time. In 1961, The Colosseum was the only rink in town and ice time was scarce.
“We went down and talked to the coach at Michigan whose name was Al Renfrew,” Hayes said. “He said, ‘Oh, that is great I’d love to support Ann Arbor High School getting a hockey team, what can I do?’”
Renfrew offered the boys Michigan’s jerseys from the year prior and helped them convince rink management to find a time for the boys to skate. For the third time, they went to speak with the Athletic Department at AAHS, and for the third time, they were turned down. The athletic director informed them that hockey was insignificant compared to sports like basketball or baseball and that the school would not have enough interest to support the team.
This rejection only charged their drive to start a team and they wanted to prove the school administration wrong. The five boys came up with a straight forward plan. They would play one exhibition game against the high school state champions from the season before, Catholic Central. Their goal was not only to beat Catholic Central but also to sell more tickets at a higher price than any of the other Ann Arbor High School sports.
“We sold tickets for $1 a piece, whereas the basketball team sold tickets for 25 cents,” Baird said. “Because The Colosseum was where Michigan played it was not a small rink, there were probably around 800 seats, and we almost sold the place out.”
Everything seemed to be coming together smoothly until the team found out that they would not be able to get the Michigan uniforms by the day of the game. Unsure of what to do next they came together to consider their options. The boys had a random assortment of jersey and sock colors from playing in the Ann Arbor Hockey League. “We agreed that we would wear a blue jersey or sweatshirt of some sort, and our mothers ironed numbers onto the backs,” Hayes said. “Then because of our mismatched socks, we decided to call ourselves The Rainbows.”
The team was made of 11 skaters; two lines of forwards and two lines of defense plus one goalie.
“I remember sitting in the locker room before the game, and it just felt like any other game,” Baird said. “We didn’t care that we were playing against the state champions or that there were over 500 people out there, we were just ready to play like we had done countless times before.”
From the time the puck dropped until the final buzzer, The Rainbows dominated the game and came out with a 5-2 win over Catholic Central.
“We had played so much hockey together that we always knew where everyone else was and the game just flowed,” Hayes said. “We just kind of did whatever we wanted and from what I remember it was a pretty easy game.”
Catholic Central went on to win the state championship again in March later that season, and seven out of the 11 Rainbows went on to play collegiate level hockey the following fall.
During the 1961-1962 season, The Rainbows team was renewed. “You had to convince the other teams to play you in an exhibition game because the only teams that were out there were high school teams,” Dimond said. “They had their own league and because the class of ‘61’s team was so good everyone just assumed they would lose to us.”
They were only able to schedule eight games that year and won just over half of them.
Finally, the AAHS athletic department instated the first official team in the 1962-1963 season. “The coach was actually the cross country coach named Tim Ryan,” Holmes said of his first year on the AAHS team. In 1963, AAHS hired Art Armstrong to be a teacher and the new head coach. The team went on to with the state championships — in only its second year of existence.
Thanks to the class of 1961, the Ann Arbor Public School System now has three boys programs and two girls programs providing an opportunity to play high school hockey to all of their students.
In the summer of 2017, Col. Mark Gilson died at the age of 73 after a hard-fought battle with cancer. After graduating from AAHS, Gilson went on to play Division-1 hockey at Michigan Technological Institute for two years before returning back to Ann Arbor to get his degree from the University of Michigan. He then became a Medevac helicopter pilot in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, and finally was a pilot and flight instructor for the Air Force.
In the weeks preceding his passing, Gilson was nominated for induction into the Ann Arbor Pioneer Hall of Honor. On Oct. 6, 2017, Col. Mark Gilson was inducted into the Hall of Honor.
“His teammates from The Rainbows came to his induction and said, ‘we want to do something to memorialize him,’” said Ray Pittman, president of the Pioneer Fund for Excellence in Academics and Athletics. Together, The Rainbows came up with the idea to donate new jerseys to the Pioneer Men’s and Women’s hockey teams for the 2018-2019 season. Thanks to The Rainbows, every Pioneer hockey player sports a patch on their left shoulder embroidered, ‘Col. Gilson 1961’ carrying out his legacy on and off the ice.