CRYSTAL FALLS - The community of Crystal Falls mourns the loss of a U.P. sports promoter and well-known businessman, Malcolm McNeil, who passed away on January 6.
The name, "McNeil Oilers," on basketball jerseys, softball uniforms and bowling shirts has been coupled with sports success spanning over 75 years.
Malcolm's father, Henry, started the McNeil Oilers in the 1930s, financially backed by the McNeil Mobil Service station formerly at the junction of US2 and 141 in Crystal Falls.
In the 50s, Malcolm originated the Crystal Falls Legionnaires independent basketball team after he returned home from service in the U.S. Army stationed in Korea. From that time forward, he was the owner-operator of the McNeil Mobil gas station and the motivating force behind decades of McNeil Oilers teams, as well as the Eastside All-Stars, West Iron County McNeil Oilers and the popular "Buzzy Bandits" coached by Buzzy Galbraith.
Besides hosting the best teams in the U.P. and launching the highly successful Tournament of Champions held each year in the Eddie Chambers Memorial Gym, McNeil organized, promoted and sponsored local competitions between the Oilers and entertaining cagers such as the Harlem Globetrotters, Boston Whirlwinds, Honolulu Surf-riders, Wayne-Detroit All-Stars, Iowa Ghosts, New York Harlem Chics, Texas Cow Girls, All-American Red Heads, The House of David, Harlem Clowns and All-American Indians. These popular events filled bleacher seats and brought fans from throughout the Midwest to the Crystal Falls area.
The Oilers, coached and managed by Allan and Dobie Anderson and more recently by Bryan LaChapelle, have won several significant titles over the years and have participated in the Gold Medal Classic tournament in Hermansville since 1953.
Many U.P. sport aficionados will remember the Oilers' 1973 Class A victories in the Negaunee and Hermansville tournaments, two major independent basketball events in the U.P. The Oilers also won the first Baraga Holiday tourney in 1979 and repeated the following year.
They took the Negaunee Class A in 1971 and the Iron Mountain-Kingsford Community School tournament in 1972 in Class AA, setting several records in the process. The victories in Baraga, Iron Mountain-Kingsford, Negaunee and Hermansville are considered a basketball "grand slam" in U.P. independent play.
In 1965, McNeil was the first person selected as Crystal Falls Man of the Year by the Lions Club. Other honors include Businessman of the Year in 1968, Sportsman of the Year in 1972, the President's Award for Distinguished Citizenship from NMU in 1975, induction into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame in 1985 where he later served as president, and numerous other civic and business honors.
For Malcolm, promoting sports and a serving the community as a "one-man Chamber of Commerce" for Crystal Falls went far beyond winning tournaments and titles.
"I am thankful for the associations I have made in sports and the many friends I have all over," said McNeil in a 1980 Iron Mountain News article. "This means more to me than all the titles I have won with my teams."
Malcolm McNeil leaves a personal legacy of more than 65 years of U.P. sports leadership. Throughout his life he told everyone how proud he was to be a part of U.P. sports history, and that Crystal Falls was the greatest town in the world. Crystal Falls is also proud of Malcolm McNeil.
(Diane McNeil Emo provided information for this story. Malcolm McNeil's family has established a McNeil Oilers Scholarship Fund in his honor. For more information or to make a donation, call 906-284-1206 or 1201.
Forest Park High School athletic director Dwaine (Dobie) Anderson was asked to offer his thoughts on Malcolm McNeil:
"I first became associated with Malcolm as his Sunday morning Milwaukee Sentinel delivery boy back in the mid 60's.
Upon my graduation from high school, he asked me if I would like to work at his gas station, McNeil's Mobil. I worked there through my four years of college and then for 11 more years after that (15 years total).
I also began playing basketball for the Oilers in 1969 and continued to play well into the 80's. So between Malcolm being my boss, and also playing for the Oilers, we had a long, a very friendly relationship throughout the years.
The thing that stands out most to me about Malcolm was the way he treated other people. He was a man of generosity, integrity and most of all, sincerity. He treated everyone as family.
He was fun to be around, especially if he hit you with one of his famous "Mac Back Slaps."
If you were his employee or played on one of his many teams, he wanted everyone to mesh together, respect each other, and have fun.
Malcolm was a very successful business man and sponsor because of his tremendous work ethic and his love and respect for other people. He gave many, many people the opportunity to continue playing basketball, softball and bowling.
"He created tons of memories for all of us to talk about for years to come. He was a GREAT!! man. We will all miss him."