Chances are, the next time they drop the puck at center ice for a Milwaukee Admirals game at the Bradley Center, few fans will recall the name Erwin J. Merar. However, if it wasn’t for Merar and his business savvy and commitment, Admirals hockey might never have existed.
Merar, 87, of Bayside, passed away on Aug. 15, leaving behind his wife, Emmie, and sons David and Robert along with a large extended family. He also had many friends, both in the business community as well as those who remember his many years at in Fox Point.
Merar left a legacy on the Milwaukee sports scene as the founder of the Admirals. Should you ask one of his sons to describe what type of man his father was, you will get a simple, direct answer.
“Honest, straightforward and he had a lot of integrity,” said David Merar. “If he gave you his word it was his bond. Very entrepreneurial, as well.”
Birth of the Milwaukee Admirals
That entrepreneurial spirit served the elder Merar well as Founder and Chairman of the Board of Merco Group. In 1971, Merar was approached by the operators of a struggling amateur hockey club known as the Milwaukee Wings.
“The team was started by a bunch of guys from the Upper Peninsula who moved to Milwaukee because of the job market,” recalled Phil Wittliff, whose 34-year association with the Admirals included roles as star player, public relations director and head coach. “It was an expensive proposition for these guys because they all had other jobs so they needed insurance, they needed uniforms, pucks, skates and sticks. They were under funded and they found Erv Merar as an angel in 1971.”
“Those players and a gentleman by the name of Bill Chimo came to my dad and wanted him to invest in the team,” said David Merar. “Actually, they wanted him to pay for the jerseys. In his normal sense of humor, he would say, ‘I don’t really want to pay for the jerseys. I’ll just buy the team.’ And so that’s what he did.”
Merar’s contributions to the team didn’t stop there.
“He actually re-named them the ‘Admirals’ because he owned the Admiral Appliance distributorship in the state of Wisconsin,” said Wittliff. “A lot of people think it’s because of the nautical theme but in reality it’s because Erv Merar had the Admiral Appliance distributorship.”
The Admiral Appliance distributorship was located in Milwaukee while the makers of the appliances were based in Chicago. Interestingly, Merar wasn’t actually a hockey fan.
“I think it was something fun and different (for him),’ said David Merar. “I don’t think he had ever been to a hockey game. He came home and told us and we all said, ‘OK.’ And we all became involved. I was a disc jockey at the time. I became the public address announcer and my brother did the score keeping. We’d go to Wilson Park every Saturday night, watch the games and work. That’s how it started. Those were some great times.
"We’d leave Wilson Park and we’d take the receipts. I put them into my car and we’d drop them off at the bank.”
But after a few years, the winds of change began to blow once more. Chimo, who had been running the team for Merar, approached him about moving the games from Wilson Park to the Milwaukee Arena (later re-named U.S. Cellular Arena).
Merar wanted no part of it.
“They said they wanted to move down to the Milwaukee Arena and my dad said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,'” said David Merar. “He said, ‘We’re packing them into Wilson Park and literally turning people away every Saturday.’”
Merar didn’t believe there was enough hockey interest in Milwaukee at that point to draw crowds large enough fill the arena. Besides, he felt that the arena’s rental charges were exorbitant. When Chimo’s group insisted on moving the games to the arena, Merar sold his interest in the team.
Merar’s instincts were later proven correct. The team soon again struggled financially and was sold to Lloyd and Jane Pettit in 1976. Now back on solid financial ground, the team continued to grow, especially with construction of the Bradley Center in 1985. The Admirals were purchased by their current owners, an investment group led by Harris J. Turer, in 2005.
A Hockey Success Story
The Milwaukee Admirals have come a long, long way from their early days as an independent team (1970-1973), a member of the United States Hockey League (1973-1977), the International Hockey League (1977-2001) and the American Hockey League (2001-present). They’ve won one USHL championship, two IHL championships, four AHL title and one Calder Cup. They are a fixture in Milwaukee professional sports.
“It’s amazing,” said Wittliff. “Who would ever have thought back in 1972 when I got here that there would ever be a Bradley Center? I wouldn’t have believed it. The really fortuitous event was when Jane Pettit bought the team in December of 1976.”
However, that event very likely wouldn’t have been possible without the foresight of Erwin J. Merar. It’s one of the many things his family would like the fans and the general public to remember about him.
“Just that he believed in something,” said David Merar. “He put his time and his effort and his money behind it. He enjoyed those games with our family and it’s good to see that they survived and made it through the tough times and today they’re a great franchise.”