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Working to Live- up to Downriver’s Tradition

By Dan Vasquez, 01/03/16, 12:00AM EST


Detroit Junior Hockey for many brings up a whole menagerie of memories and reminders of a past when Detroit Junior Hockey was considered the best in North America.  . The Roots of Youth hockey in the United States really took shape here in the Downriver area where nearly any organization wishing to make a name for itself would seek to play.  Legendary Junior teams such as Big D, Paddock Pools, Stu Evans, Downriver Stars, Hennesey Engineers and in youth Juvenile teams in  Allen Park, Ecorse , Wyandotte and Trenton were fierce competitors  and brought countless National and International Championships to the Area.   Most of those rosters were filled by players whom learned to skate , learned  the game right her in their home towns in Ecorse, Trenton, Wyandotte, Allen Park, Southgate, Lincoln Park, Melvindale, River Rouge and Taylor all of which had their own programs , their own arena’s and their own unique influence on the way the game was  played.  From September thru March the game played on the ice was Down Rivers calling and Junior Hockey was it’s card to the rest of the US and Canada.  
Those little arena’s would be packed 1000 people strong on those Wednesday and Saturday Nights and there is no doubt that many of the Downriver Community’s political battles were debated and contested as the politicians would be at “the Game” clutching that Styrofoam cup of coffee not missing an opportunity to be seen by their public. “The Game” was the humble beginnings of relationships that turned to marriages and “The Game” was a place where young  want to be junior players whom later in their lives would become the coaches and the keepers of the game would wait at the back doors of those arenas for their heroes come out just to get a hello or a high five.
Filon (Phil) Beatag “No No” as he is affectionately called by his family and friends is 93 years old will turn 94 on Christmas Eve is watching the Red Wings on TV at the Wyandotte American Legion where he ventures nightly to have a beer and talk about a couple of things that are his life line the Marines and his family.  You don’t have to be in the conversation too long and the subject will turn to those old hockey days in Ecorse.  Beatag was a coach and would become the president of that program and the twinkle and the smile that hits his face when he speaks about those times is absolutely contagious.  He’ll tell you in one sentence he don’t remember the names but then he’ll talk about a certain game and it’s as if your right there in the arena and not only does he remember the names he can give you a personal account of every players skating style and most importantly their families.  He’ll let you know most of those kids whom played and participated became good family men and respected their community. What is more amazing stop in any tavern or coffee shop Downriver and bring up the game of hockey and you will find many just like Beatag who can kick up a story or two about those days and all feel the same way that the Game had a greater purpose it was about community, about service and important tool in teaching the values and traditions that a young person would carry on in life.
Unfortunately as frequent economy downturns impacted the country the Downriver Detroit  area dominated by auto workers, and steel factory workers was  probably hit as hard or harder than any metropolis in United States . The game of hockey was a big victim. Today there are no longer arenas or programs in River Rouge, Ecorse, and Melvindale and programs and Lincoln Park and Taylor are no more.  Allen Park , Trenton, Wyandotte, Grosse Ile still have strong community organizations while programs in Woodhaven, and Southgate  are beginning to rebuild. However there is only one Junior Team representing the Downriver Area:  The Detroit Fighting Irish.
The Fighting Irish was formed in 2010-2011 and original calling the Ice Box Sports Center in Brownstown home. During that season there were 6 Detroit Based Junior Programs. The team was a founding member of the American Athletic Union AAU which was a rival organization to USA Hockey. General Manager and Head Coach Dan Vasquez and co coach Pete Flynn were part of the formation of the league and had a vision to put Downriver Junior Hockey back on the map.. The result was the formation of an 8 team Michigan Based league with 4 of the teams located right in the Detroit Area.
 In Season two the league grew to 9 teams with Bloomington Illinois being entered into the league.  The Irish that season also moved to the Allen Park Ice Arena which that season also was home to 2 other programs in the same league the Bruins and Growwl. The teams first two seasons were very successful with 2 second place league finishes as well as a trip to the Nationals in Las Vegas Nevada  more importantly the team placed 9 players in Collegiate programs with scholarship and grants.  Fast forward to the Spring of 2013 when life-long Downriver Resident Lisa Cruz and her husband Mark Cruz purchased the club from owner Keith Lang. 
Lang an auto dealer when meeting with the Cruz’s from the very first time knew that the two were just the right people to share the organizations vision of keeping Downriver Hockey at the top of the game, and to use Junior hockey as a life developmental tool thru community service and mentorship. The first priority for the Cruz’s was to return the team to the Ice Box (Now the Brownstown Sports Center).
The Cruz’s plan included a branding of the organization with a full identity to Downriver Hockey which was significant in their first season as the teams rosters was made up of 85% downriver residents.
 2nd was to create a core values in which all members of the organization would abide to and would become the code in which any member of the Fighting Irish past and present would adopt as their own code.
Third was to create a mentoring program in which Fighting Irish players and staff would share those core values.
 Fourth which was the most difficult was for the organization to return to USA Hockey this they felt was necessary to eliminate any doubt of legitimacy of the program and to put the organization more visible in the Landscape of Junior Hockey in the US
 “What makes the Cruz’s unique as junior hockey owners is that priority has been their sense of community which is very endearing to Pete and I in addition when adopting our core values they included players from our program that were part of our organization before their ownership”. States Vasquez.
In the Spring of 2015 it was announced that the Irish along with 5 other MWJHL teams would combine with the Minnesota League to become part of the largest Junior Hockey organizations in USA Hockey the United States Premier Hockey League this move which placed the Irish in the 20 team Midwest Division not only opened the Irish up to competition in the Michigan Major Markets but also now offers the Irish exposure in Indiana , Illinois and Wisconsin and Minnesota as well as inter-league play on the entire eastern seaboard.
The team currently is sitting in 3rd place in the Midwest Division and have several home games left for the regular season before playoffs in Late February.  Several special community events will be held over the next few months which include Hero’s Day which will be held to benefit the American Cancer Society and honor Cancer Survivors on January 10th.  The Teams annual Teddy Bear Toss game for St. Joesph Mercy Hospital will be held  January 31st,  and Veterans and Armed Forces day which will honor Disabled and American Veterans and Military on February 2oth.
 In addition the team will also be participating in an event with league partner and cross town rival Motor City Hawks which is a benefit for Ice Dreams a non-profit organization dedicated to the mentoring of inner city youth in the City of Detroit through sports and community service the game will played outdoors at Detroit’s Clark Park on January 29th
During a recent conversation with team owners Lisa and Mark Cruz it was apparent that the Cruz’s and their staff believe they have a responsibility to carry on a tradition of keeping the game of hockey Community driven that in some way the Irish will be a catalyst for the games stability and continue to be part of downriver Detroit’s well earned identity in the game of hockey on the National Spotlight.
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