ALPENA — Over the course of his high school career, Tony Byers Jr. delighted fans and befuddled opposing goaltenders on the way to scoring a lot of goals for the Alpena High hockey team.
Byers may have made things look easy, but all of those goals came after countless hours of hard work:
* Skating on a backyard ice rink
* Running in place while listening to Casey Kasem on the radio
* Routinely doing 100 pushups and 100 situps
* Going through grueling dry land training in the offseason, which often involved running with full hockey gear on.
“My dad had a philosophy of perfect practice makes perfect, and if you look at (what I did to train), it’s not easy,” Byers said.
Byers, 56, hung up his skates for good several years ago after many years of playing in men’s leagues. He’s now preparing to retire from a long career in warehousing and move to Nicaragua with his wife.
But, after a hockey career that included state titles at the youth and high school levels, as well as the chance to play collegiately, Byers has plenty of memories of the game he loves.
From a young age, it seemed Byers was made for the biggest of stages.
He made himself a household name — at least in Alpena — in 1978, when he helped Alpena’s VFW Bantam travel team win Alpena’s first hockey championship at any level. Byers was the tournament’s leading scorer, tallying 14 points over three days.
That experience established Byers as a superstar, but it also gave him and his teammates the big-game experience that would pay off when they suited up for Alpena High.
“We beat the best players in Michigan at that time,” he said. “At that time, everybody was playing travel hockey. We had to win 10 games in two weeks, and we gained experience playing the best in the state of Michigan.”
Playing at Alpena High under his father, an Alpena coaching legend, Byers quickly became a key goal scorer for the Wildcats when he was a sophomore.
During his sophomore season in 1980-81, Byers gained attention when he set a new national single-season scoring record. His 61 goals that season bettered the mark of 50 set by Aaron Broten of Minnesota just three seasons earlier.
Growing up playing with players like his brother, Tim, and Blaise Ilsley, among others, Byers and his teammates developed top-notch chemistry and Byers goal-scoring prowess was hard to match. Many of his goals came on wicked snapshots, a quick flick of wrists sending pucks into the net, usually after pinpoint passes from Ilsley.
“A lot of people weren’t doing that, but I worked on it,” Byers said. “The goalie never had a lot of time to get set.”
Byers and the Wildcats won a state championship in 1981, with Byers scoring what he called his most memorable goal in overtime to beat Midland in the regional final. The Wildcats made a return appearance in the finals in 1982, but lost to Trenton.
Byers graduated in 1983 as Alpena’s all-time scorer with 301 points — 158 goals and 143 assists. Ilsley, who graduated in 1982, is still Alpena’s No. 2 all-time scorer, with 114 goals and 136 assists for 250 points.
Byers got recruiting letters from schools all across the country — he estimates about 100 — and he ultimately chose Ferris State University, the first school to offer him a full ride.
He was inducted into the Alpena Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, joining his father, who was inducted in 1990, and the younger Byers thanked his dad for leading Alpena to championship glory.
“I told my dad, ‘Thanks for taking a bunch of hicks from Alpena and making them state champions,’” Byers said. “You’ve got to live for today and give it your all. That’s what I did. This is heaven on earth for me to be here.”