Last season, 24 hours before its first game, the fledgling Blue Water Stars semi-pro
hockey team based in Port Huron had no sponsors for the season, and seemingly no future in the Michigan Independence Hockey League.
That’s when defenseman Austin Dunn, 25, and owner and CEO of Dunn Boats, LLC, a boat detailing business near Port Huron, decided to take matters into his own hands.
Dunn made more than 50 phone calls in those 24 hours and got some sponsorship funds. Those calls got the Blue Water Stars through its first two home games and eventually the entire season. The Stars wound up in the semifinals of the playoffs before their inaugural season came to an end.
But this offseason, the Stars were again rudderless and in search of leadership. Dunn stepped up again and decided to take ownership of the team – literally. The Stars moved to Macomb Township and Suburban Ice Macomb to avoid direct competition with the Port Huron Prowlers of the Federal Prospects Hockey League (FPHL).
And a new season is about to get under way.
Owner/player Dunn calls the Michigan Independence Hockey League (MIHL) a “working man’s league,” with jobs and families the first priorities. The average player age is 25-28, and most have backgrounds in college hockey or junior hockey. Some players are looking to move up in the ranks of professional hockey, while others are happy to still be playing the game at a high competitive level.
The Motor City Rockers, who made their debut at Big Boy Arena in Fraser last season, play in the Federal Prospects Hockey League. The FPHL and the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL), are the next step up for MIHL players looking to become professional hockey players.
“Ultimately, the league is on its way to becoming a mainstream league in the state. We’re making sure we progress properly and get all the teams on the same page,” Dunn said. “This is a full-contact league that still has big hits and big fights. We came down here to provide Saturday evening entertainment and occasional Sunday afternoons. But mainly we want to give this community another option for entertainment on a Saturday night.”
The Stars are one of six teams in the MIHL. The others include: the Gaylord Snow, the Kalkaska Battlers, the Muskegon Voyagers, the Warhawks Hockey Club and the Waterford Sharks.
Dunn said 15-16 players on the 28-player roster are from Macomb County.
“We do have a lot of local talent, and we want to showcase that local talent,” Dunn added.
The team has four or five players from out of state including the league’s first female player. In October, the Stars signed goaltender Taylor Schwandt who played collegiately at Neumann University in Pennsylvania.
Most of the players in the MIHL play for their passion for the game, Dunn says. (The players are only paid a ticket sales percentage once team operational budget have been met for each game.) But that wasn’t always the case for him.
After playing hockey in high school, Dunn planned to hang up the skates and play football at Northern Michigan University as a preferred walk-on. But instead he stayed home and got an associate’s degree in business management and marketing from St. Clair County Community College.
He stayed on the periphery of the game by becoming the public address announcer for the Port Huron Prowlers. One night, he was in a local bar after a game and was approached by someone planning to create the Stars team. He was asked if he’d like to play on the team as an enforcer and fight when needed. Dunn, who is 6-foot, 2-inches tall and is listed as the heaviest player in the league at 256 pounds, thought about it for a couple of days and decided to strap the skates on once again.
“I was hoping that I still had something left under me. And I became an important part of the team’s defensive efforts,” he said. “I was able to play at a competitive level and build on it for the season.”
Dunn said he got in five or six fights last season, one of which gave him a broken nose. True to the working-man’s league, Dunn never sought medical attention and went to work the next morning.
That’s a hockey player.
The Stars season began Oct. 28 and includes 24 home games at Suburban Ice Macomb among a 36-game season.
Single game tickets are $7 on the website or $5 cash at the arena. Other website prices Starsprohockey.hockeyshift.com/tickets include $5 for military/student with ID; $3 for children six to 12, and free for children five and under. Dunn said youth team players from any sport wearing a t-shirt or jersey from their teams get in for free. Season tickets and group tickets are also available.
Numerous sponsorship opportunities are available, including advertising schedules, programs, team photos, banners, in-game sponsors, live stream commercials, live stream in-game features, equipment and theme nights. The team is also looking for a kids club partner and wants to have kids at every game with face painting and balloon artist opportunities. Interested parties can call 810-488-3646 to learn about sponsorship packages, special events and more. Non-alcoholic concessions are available at the games.
Last year, Dunn said the team averaged about 200-300 fans per game. By the end of the season, he hopes to average 500 fans per game.
“We're expecting to be part of Macomb Township and invite all of the fans to come watch our team and help us establish ourselves in the community and build our base in Macomb County,” Dunn said. “It will be a good time.”
Don Gardner is a communications specialist for Macomb County Planning and Economic Development.