One of hockey's first movers and shakers, Dr. John L. "Jack" Gibson organized the world's first professional hockey league, in 1904. Not only did he give fans their money's worth, he assembled one of hockey's first powerhouses in Portage Lake.
Born in Berlin (later renamed Kitchener), Ontario, Gibson was a gifted player who contributed to the provincial intermediate championship team in 1897. As a youth he also excelled at soccer, football and academics. Such were his soccer skills that he received an offer to play in the developmental system of the famous English team Everton. After considering the move, he decided to stay in North America to play hockey and football while furthering his studies.
Gibson played football at the Pickering College while working towards his B SC then moved on to the University of Detroit Dental School. After graduation he set up a practice in the northern Michigan community of Houghton. Still a gifted hockey player, he recruited other talented individuals and established the Portage Lake team in 1902-03. He was the team captain and leading scorer on this strong squad.
In 1903-04 the Portage Lake squad posted a 24-2 record, outscored the opposition 273-48 and caught the attention of the public. They competed against teams from St. Paul, Minnesota, St. Louis, Missouri, and Montreal. They even vanquished the famous Montreal Wanderers by scores of 8-4 and 9-2 in front of 5,000 fans at the Houghton Amphidrome.
It was obvious to Gibson that northern Michigan was a hockey hotbed and could sustain a league. He enticed a number of individuals to start franchises and attract the likes of Hod and Bruce Stuart, Riley Hern, and Cyclone Taylor to play in the league. The financial incentives made the International Hockey League (IHL) the first professional circuit in the world when it opened for business in 1904-05. In addition to Houghton, teams were based in the Michigan communities of Calumet and Sault Ste. Marie as well as Pittsburgh and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
The Portage Lake team was so strong and confident that it issued formal Stanley Cup challenges to the Ottawa Silver Seven in 1905 and the Montreal Wanderers the following year. They were refused in both cases by the trustees of the Stanley Cup who preferred that amateur clubs compete for hockey's ultimate prize. Lacking the opportunity to go after the Stanley Cup surely influenced a number of players to leave the IHL and return to Canada. After practicing dentistry and refereeing local games in Houghton for a few years, Gibson also returned to Canada and set up a dental practice in Calgary, Alberta. He resided there until he passed away in 1954.
Gibson was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.