ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF) — Last Saturday night the Rockford IceHogs would have held their annual jersey auction game were it not for the coronavirus. They were set to commemorate the first hockey team in the Rockford region the old Wagon Wheel Cardinals. Who were the Cardinals? This is who they were?
They were a team of 18 men, mostly from around Madison, Wisconsin. They played at the Ice Palace at the former Wagon Wheel Resort in Rockton. In 1958 Wagon Wheel owner Walt Williamson purchased the team and moved the Cardinals from their former location in Madison.
“I don’t know how Walt Williamson got the team from Madison down to here , but they were originally the Madison Cardinals,” said Gary Glaser of the Rockton Township HIstory Society. “They had outdoor rinks. They didn’t have an indoor rink that I know of, and when Walt found out about it he built a hockey arena the Ice Palace, and the Madison Cardinals became the Wagon Wheel Cardinals.”
In their first four seasons the Cardinals competed in the amateur Illinois Ice Hockey League. The team’s first game was played October 12, 1958. Admission was a $1.50 for adults and 90 cents for kids. The Cardinals got a hat trick from Noal Rassow and they defeated the Chicago Blades 7-1.
That first season was marred by a tragedy. In early November two players were killed when they were hit by a drunk driver on Route 51 in Wisconsin near Edgerton. Three other teammates who were passengers in their car were lost for the season with injuries. The remaining players and the parents of the deceased players decided the season should continue. It did. The Cardinals won 20 games. They lost only two, and they won the Illinois Ice Hockey League championship. The Cardinals also won the league championship the next three years.
Large crowds turned out at the Ice Palace to watch the games.
“The Ice Palace orginially held about 1400 people,” said Glaser. “It got up to 2,000 and they’d fill it. They’d fill it.”
But the original Wagon Wheel Cardinals disbanded in 1965 due to financial reasons. A second Cardinals franchise eventually took over and competed in the tougher North Central Hockey League. That team played until 1971 when it also disbanded. The Wagon Wheel couldn’t keep up with the changing hockey landscape.
“Other places were building new arenas, multi-million dollar arenas, and it’s hard to compete,” said Glaser.
There later was another hockey team called the Rockton Wheels that played at the Wagon Wheel in the 1977-78 season. College hockey teams from Wisconsin, Notre Dame and elsewhere also played games at the Ice Palace. The very first hockey game ever played there was a Chicago Blackhawks preseason intrasquad scrimmage in October of 1958.