Major news from WCHA schools brings back memories of CMJHL’s birth

There was major news in the world of NCAA Division 1 hockey on Friday when seven schools served notice that they are on the verge of taking their hockey programs out of WCHAthe 10-team WCHA and forming a new conference in time for the 2021-22 season.

Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan, all of which are located in Michigan, along with Bemidji State, Bowling Green and Minnesota State/Mankato want out, a move that would leave Alaska-Fairbanks, Alaska-Anchorage and Alabama-Huntsville as the only three schools left in the WCHA.

A statement released by the seven schools reads, in part:

“They are like-minded in their goals and aspirations for the potential new league with a focus on improving regional alignment and the overall student-athlete experience while building natural rivalries within a more compact geographic footprint.”

The seven schools, it seems, are tired of travelling to Alabama and Alaska.

As uncomfortable as it sounds, the seven schools would continue play in the WCHA through two more seasons before leaving for a new league.

At the same time, the future of the hockey programs at both Alaska schools has been in question for a few years due to financial issues. Those schools took another hit on Friday when Mike Dunleavy, the governor of Alaska, vetoed $130 million in state support.

Why was this potential move revealed on Friday?

Dr. Morris Kurtz, a former athletic director at St. Cloud, Minn., State, the spokesperson for the seven schools, told Austin Monteith of the Grand Forks Herald that WCHA bylaws call for a 25-month advance warning in situations involving future withdrawal, and that process now has begun.

Monteith’s complete story is right here.

——

All of this brought back memories of something I wrote a while back about the birth of what now is the Western Hockey League. Here it is, in its entirety. . . .

To find the beginning you have to return to June 21, 1966, and the opening day of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s annual general meeting.

Oh, there had been a lot of back-room chatter and negotiating prior to that, but it was on June 21 when the doors opened and the sun beat back the shadows.

It happened in Wasagaming, a resort community in Riding Mountain National Park, just north of Brandon.

Prior to then, Canadian teenagers who aspired to play junior hockey didn’t have a whole lot of options. What now is considered Junior A was the top rung.

But people like Winnipeg’s Ben Hatskin, ‘Wild’ Bill Hunter of Edmonton, Estevan’s Scotty Munro, Moose Jaw’s Brian Shaw and Regina’s Del Wilson had visions of a Prairie-wide league, centred in larger communities.

A few years later, some of those same men would dream of even bigger things as they became involved in the World Hockey Association and its attempts to sour the NHL’s world.

Most of them were larger-than-life characters who were years ahead of their time in terms of marketing. They were entrepreneurs and more. Dick Chubey of the Albertan, then a Calgary-based newspaper, wrote a piece for the league’s first Yearbook — for 1973-74 — in which he referred to them as “rogues” and “pirates.”

Ernie (Punch) McLean, who later would be the head coach of the New Westminster Bruins, says there wasn’t any doubt who were the leaders.

“Bill Hunter, Scotty Munro and Ben Hatskin . . .,” McLean, who in those days was with Munro in Estevan, said in a 1990 interview. “Scotty Munro would have the idea on hockey, Bill Hunter would sell it and Ben Hatskin would financially back it. Those were in the days when we had nothing else but Household Finance to get us started the next year.

“It was so much different back then. The guys were friends. We were partners.”

Four days prior to the start of the SJHL meeting, word leaked that a new junior league — the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League — was in the works. This league would include Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, along with Brandon, Estevan, Moose Jaw, Regina and Weyburn, the latter five having decided to leave the SJHL.

At the same time, there were issues with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and the National Hockey League.

“We were getting very disgusted with the CAHA,” McLean recalled. “We weren’t getting any help from them and they were taking a percentage off the gates in the playoffs. At that particular time, we weren’t getting what we felt was a fair deal from the National Hockey League.

“At that time, the CAHA was bringing in any team that they thought could come into the league. They would apply and we were supposed to look after them. Melville was in, Yorkton was coming in.

“So at Clear Lake . . . it was really funny. In those days, you had to pay your dues or you couldn’t vote, you never had a vote. As it happened, (SJHL president) Frank Boucher called the meeting to order. . . .”

When asked, Hunter and Munro said they didn’t have cheques. Boucher told both men, “You can’t vote.”

“It went around the table like that,” McLean said. “All of a sudden they said, ‘Well, I guess we have no meeting.’ And Frank says, ‘I guess we haven’t.’

“At that point, the guys got up from the table, walked across to another room in the hotel and formed a new league.”

It wasn’t quite that simple, but that, in effect, was the genesis of what now is the Western Hockey League, even if it meant places like Melville, Flin Flon and Swift Current were left scrambling.

“What the hell,” Brandon Wheat Kings coach Eddie Dorohoy said, “if Melville can’t afford the opera, they gotta go for the barn dance.”

The CMJHL finalized its lineup later that summer. Before then, Melville filed a lawsuit, asking for $250,000 in general damages and $8,800 in special damages. As well, Brandon pulled out, Saskatoon came in, Winnipeg left.

Interestingly, the Saskatoon Blades are the only franchise to have been there since Day 1. In 1966, the Blades were an affiliate of the Los Angeles Blades, a team in the professional WHL that had hoped to become an NHL expansion franchise. When that didn’t happen, Saskatoon slid into the CMJHL.

If you are looking for an ‘official’ date to mark the league’s birthday that would be July 15, 1966. That is when the teams met in Regina. Munro moved for the dissolution of the SJHL. The motion passed. A new league was formed, and it announced it would accept applications.

By now, Boucher had left the SJHL and was commissioner of the CMJHL. When the 1966-67 season began, it featured the Calgary Buffaloes, Edmonton Oil Kings, Estevan Bruins, Moose Jaw Canucks, Regina Pats, Saskatoon and the Weyburn Red Wings.

While all of this was going on, the CAHA was refusing to recognize the CMJHL, something that didn’t particularly disturb the newcomers.

“We had quite a league,” McLean said. “Of course, we were outlaws from the CAHA. We preferred to call it independent.”

After Edmonton finished atop the regular-season standings, Moose Jaw won the first playoff championship, the only such title in the city’s history. That playoff season included best-of-nine series without overtime. In one semifinal series, Moose Jaw took out Edmonton 3-2 with four ties.

Prior to 1967-68, the league changed its name to the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League. The Buffaloes became the Centennials, and the league, still unrecognized by the CAHA, welcomed Brandon, the Flin Flon Bombers, Swift Current Broncos and Winnipeg Jets.

The Bombers didn’t win the championship — Edmonton beat the Bombers, 4-0, with one tie, in the final — but the Flin Flon Flu was born.

“Paddy (Ginnell) went into Flin Flon and turned that franchise right around,” McLean said. “He made them a tough, aggressive hockey club. It was worth your life to go in there and play.”

How tough?

“We always played Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Flin Flon. Well, Saturday night, they beat the crap out of Swift Current, just pounded the hell out of them. So they called for a conference call,” McLean said of the Broncos, who were coached by Mike Shabaga.

“Mike said, ‘Things are so bad, I’ve got the Red Cross signs on the bus so we can get out of town.’

 “Anyway, Mike didn’t have enough players to play the game. So it was decided that so it would be fair to both sides, however many Mike could dress, that’s all Paddy could dress. Paddy moaned and groaned and the whole thing, and then Mike won the hockey game. Paddy came out of there, he was just livid.”

By the time the 1968-69 season arrived, the league — now calling itself the Western Canada Hockey League — was down to eight teams. Moose Jaw, Regina and Weyburn left because of concerns with the outlaw status. As well, the league split into divisions — East and West — for the first time.

Flin Flon, led by Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach and Chuck Arnason, won the decade’s last two championships, winning 89 of 120 regular-season games and twice beating Edmonton in the playoff final.


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