The Hanson Brothers and more: The story of the Red Wings’ 1974 training camp in Hartland

This is the latest in the Livingston Post’s ongoing series on The Amazing Things That Happened in Hartland Township in the 1970s. You’ll recall the previous entries in this series:

This story about the April 1975 KISS concert at the Nordic Ice Arena in Hartland, which featured Rush as an opening act, and took place three weeks before REO Speedwagon performed at the very same venue.

This story about Livingston County’s very own version of Woodstock, a three-day rock festival in 1978 at Waldenwoods that featured legendary rock bands (MC-5, Brownsville Station), naked people swimming in Lake Walden and a stabbing.

And this story about how Frank Zappa spent the month of May 1976 in Hartland, recording an album with Grand Funk Railroad and learning to shoot a gun.

Now comes this story about how the Detroit Red Wings – yes, the Detroit Red Wings – held their 1974 training camp in Hartland. It’s a story that features a fat, out-of-shape Hall of Fame legend; Mickey Redmond scoring a bunch of goals; and the Hanson Brothers from “Slap Shot.”

Hockey is huge in Livingston County and it always has been, but I can guarantee you that this is the best Livingston County hockey story you’ve ever heard. This story has the Hanson Brothers in it, so by default, it’s already the best hockey story in Livingston County history, because any hockey story with the Hanson Brothers in it will always be the best hockey story in any conversation.

So if you’re a Livingston County hockey person, listen up. You’re going to love this.

If you aren’t a hockey person, though, or if you don’t know much about the National Hockey League, a little primer is probably in order here.

The NHL regular season begins every year in October, so for the month of September, every team goes someplace for training camp. Similar to baseball’s spring training, the idea is to go away someplace together – away from your home city – for a few weeks of practice and team bonding.

This is a huge deal for the city that’s selected. In recent years, the Red Wings have held their training camp in Traverse City. Tourism is always booming in Traverse City, and it’s especially booming in September, thanks to the Red Wings.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Wings held their training camp at McMorran Arena in Port Huron. For whatever reason, when 1974 rolled around, the Wings were booted out of Port Huron and had to find a new home.

They thought about holding their training camp at their home rink – Olympia Stadium in Detroit – but a “Disney on Parade” show was going to be using the ice for much of the month, so that option was out.

The task fell to Alex Delvecchio, the Red Wings legend who was in his second year as head coach, to find a new location for the team’s fall camp. There were hundreds if not thousands of rinks all over Michigan. He just needed to find one. 

Delvecchio stumbled upon the Nordic Ice Arena, which had somehow become the most kick-ass hockey arena in North America in the mid-1970s.

I mean, think about it: In the span of eight months, the Nordic Ice Arena and its amazing manager, Allen Demas, were able to lure the Detroit Red Wings, KISS, Rush and REO Speedwagon.

They were able to lure all of those groups to come to a tiny ice rink that was, to put it kindly, RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF DAMN NOWHERE.

Yes, the Hartland of 1974 was nothing like the Hartland of 2019, with its endless traffic, confusing roadways and a mega-plex shopping center on every corner.

No, the Hartland of 1974 was nothing like that. To call it sleepy would be an insult to sleepy. 

The Hartland of 1974 was a lazy little two-lane highway (M-59) that crossed under another lazy little expressway (U.S.-23). You had the Oasis truck stop on one corner and across the street, you had a small shopping center that featured the Food Town supermarket and Matthews Pharmacy. And next to that, you had the Nordic Ice Arena.

That was it. That was Hartland. Everything else was just lakes and farmland.

So to think that this lazy little farm town was able to bring the Detroit Red Wings, KISS, Rush and REO Speedwagon to town in the mid-1970s was nothing short of remarkable.

In any case, when Alex Delvecchio stumbled upon the Nordic Ice Area in little old Hartland, he somehow decided “this is the place.”

Next, he needed somewhere for the players, coaches and everyone else associated with the Red Wings to stay for the month, so he asked the people at the Nordic Ice Arena the question, “What’s the best hotel in Hartland?”

Everybody laughed, of course, because back in 1974, there were no hotels in Hartland. There were barely any houses. For what it’s worth, there were no hotels in Brighton, either.

The closest hotel to Hartland – actually, the only hotel in all of Livingston County – was the Holiday Inn in Howell, so that’s where the Detroit Red Wings stayed. (It was torn down years ago, but the Holiday Inn was located right at the I-96/Michigan Avenue interchange.)

When I heard this part of the story, I was hoping to hear about some raucous, bawdy, out-of-control parties that took place at the Howell Holiday Inn in September of 1974. These were hard-drinking, chain-smoking, hard-living hockey players in the 1970s, for Pete’s sake. They liked to live large. So I was expecting some stories of smashed-up hotel rooms and the police being called every night to break up fights.

Alas, none of that took place. According to the Holiday Inn manager at the time, you would have thought a bunch of insurance agents were staying at the hotel.

“I couldn’t say enough about the Red Wings,” Holiday Inn manager Dale Smaltzer told the Brighton Argus back then. “They’ve been real gentlemen – in fact, less trouble than the same number of regular guests would be.”

Darn it.

Anyway, training camp opened for the Red Wings in Hartland on Sept. 11, 1974, and it ran until Sept. 29. The team bused over to Hartland every afternoon for practice, and then they bused back to the Holiday Inn every evening, where apparently, they did nothing but go to sleep.

The Wings’ top farm team, the Virginia Red Wings, were holding their training camp at the Nordic at the same time, so the ice was busy all day long. According to Allen Demas, the main problem for the Nordic Ice Arena staff was keeping up with all that skating.

“These guys skate really hard,” Demas said at the time. “Of course, it’s their business and they put all they have into it. At first, we didn’t know how to resurface the ice for them, but we learned.”

Among other things, they had to make the ice a whole lot thicker.

All of the practices at the Nordic Ice Arena were open to the public, and according to the newspaper reports, every one of them was packed. Livingston County loved its hockey back then, and they loved having the Detroit Red Wings in town. The local folks showed up in droves for every practice, and the Wings obliged by meeting with the fans and signing anything they wanted. They were great.

Here were some of the other story lines from the Red Wings’ training camp in Hartland:

Chubby Marcel Dionne. The Wings were a really, really bad hockey team back then – one of the worst in the NHL – but they had a budding superstar on the team named Marcel Dionne. He spent the first four years of his career with the Wings before playing the bulk of his career with the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.

As training camp opened in 1974, though, much of the conversation centered around how much weight Dionne had gained in the off-season. (Hockey players did zero workouts in the off-season back then.) Delvecchio was pretty brutal every time the reporters asked him about it.

“I’ve already heard some reports that Mickey Redmond and Marcel Dionne are a little plump,” he said. “They’ll just have to work harder than the others to get the fat off.”

Mickey Redmond’s hat trick. Speaking of Redmond, Wings fans these days know him as the voice of the team on Fox Sports Detroit broadcasts, but back in 1974, he was one of the team’s stars.

And one of the highlights of the training camp in 1974 came on Sept. 18, when the Wings played an exhibition game against their farm team, the Virginia Red Wings. Tickets were $2 for adults and $1 for students, and the Wings donated all the proceeds to the Hartland Minor Hockey Association.

The place was packed, as 1,800 fans crowded into the 1,500-seat arena to watch the game. And Redmond was the star of the show, scoring three goals as the Wings and Wings skated to a 5-5 tie.

The Hanson Brothers in Hartland. The greatest hockey movie ever made – heck, probably the greatest movie movie ever made – is “Slap Shot,” the 1977 film that starred Paul Newman as the coach of a downtrodden minor league hockey film.

The real stars of “Slap Shot,” though, were the Hanson Brothers, the three goons who revive the team’s fortunes with their fighting and rough play.

The Hanson Brothers became legends in the world of hockey after the film was released in 1977, but before that, they were just hockey players trying to earn a job.

And in September of 1974, two of the Hanson Brothers were in Hartland, hoping to earn a spot on the Red Wings.

The Hanson Brothers were actually the Carlson brothers, and in real life, they were also hockey players who loved to fight. Two of the Carlson brothers were in the film – Jeff and Steve. The third Carlson brother, Jack, was played by another actor in the film, but he was probably the biggest fighter of them all. His nickname was “Killer” Carlson.

In 1974, Jack and Jeff were both in Hartland, trying to win a spot on the Red Wings. And their legends were already starting to grow. This is how the Livingston County Press described them at the time:

“Jack Carlson spent 159 minutes in the penalty box for Marquette, while brother Jeff managed 98 penalty minutes. If Detroit is looking for some hard-hitting, rough-and-tumble hockey, these boys could provide it.”

Alas, neither Carlson brother ended up making the Wings’ roster.

The Hanson Brothers in the movie “Slap Shot.” Jeff Carlson, right, is the one who spent training camp in Hartland in 1974.

When the Wings broke camp on Sept. 29, everybody in Hartland was thrilled.

“We’d love to have them back,” Allen Demas said. “It’s been quite an experience, and they’re a great group of people.”

As for what happened after that, the Wings went on to have a predictably bad season, finishing 23-45-12, good for just fourth place in the five-team Norris Division.

Marcel Dionne went on to have a hell of a season for a crappy team, notching 47 goals and 74 assists. All that extra weight apparently didn’t hurt him.

The Nordic Ice Arena went on to host a KISS concert just seven months later, but a couple years after that, the rink was sold. By 1982, it had become a BMX track, and years later, the building itself was torn down.

At the exact site where the Nordic Ice Rink once stood, there’s a Walmart store that has also closed down and gone out of business and is now a Rural King.

It’s kind of sad that there’s nothing to note that for eight glorious months in the mid-1970s – from September 1974 to April 1975 – this was the center of the universe.

There needs to be. Perhaps I’ll just drive out there and write something on the sidewalk in chalk.

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