The WHL: In the beginning . . .

At some point in the late 1990s, while I was the sports editor at the Regina Leader-Post, I put together a brief history of the Western Hockey League. I had pretty much forgotten about it until recently I was asked if I might post it again. So I will do that over the next while. . . . As you read each of the five pieces, please remember that I wrote them more than 20 years ago and it covers only the league’s first 25 years. It isn’t an all-encompassing history, but hits on some of the highlights and a few lowlights. . . . And I post it here now pretty much as I wrote it. . . .

——

It was the summer of 1966. There was unrest on the Prairies.

 “Junior hockey in western Canada needs reorganization. But as long as certain provinces oppose progress we will have problems.”

The speaker was Bill Hunter. At the time, Hunter was general manager of the Edmonton Oil Kings. And, to give you some idea of the state of confusion the junior game found itself in, the Oil Kings held two franchises — one in the Alberta junior league, the other in the Alberta senior league.

Ah, yes, it was a fine summer for reorganization and some men had a vision.

The likes of Scotty Munro in Estevan, Bill Hunter in Edmonton, Ben Hatskin in Winnipeg, Del Wilson in Regina and Brian Shaw in Moose Jaw saw bigger days ahead for junior hockey. The time, they believed, was right for progress. Unless, of course, you happened to be from Melville.

The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s annual meeting was scheduled for Wasagaming, the beautiful Manitoba resort community nestled on the shore of Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park.

“Neither Melville nor Flin Flon work hard enough at building a strong contender and it’s killing everyone,” Munro, the owner of the Estevan Bruins, offered prior to the meeting. “Melville has been rebuilding for the past four or five years. Flin Flon is in much the same position. We just can’t afford to have franchise holders who don’t work at making it a financial success.”

The SJHL constitution didn’t contain a provision for getting rid of a team unless said team was indebted to the league. Melville didn’t owe any money. Flin Flon did. But the constitution didn’t say anything about teams leaving on their own.

On June 17, 1966, it became unofficially official. Word leaked out that a new Western Canada Major Junior Hockey League had been formed and would include teams in Estevan, Weyburn, Regina, Moose Jaw and Brandon, all out of the SJHL, along with Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton. And so it came to pass that the SJHL began its annual meeting in Clear Lake. The date was June 21, 1966.

What came to pass is remembered by those who were there as the Clear Lake Massacre.

McLeanMunro
Ernie McLean (left) and Scotty Munro are all smiles moments after the Estevan Bruins won the 1968 Abbott Cup by sweeping the Penticton Broncos in a best-of-seven Western Canada final. (PHOTO: Estevan Mercury)

One man who was there is Ernie McLean, a junior hockey legend who was involved with Munro and the Estevan franchise back then.

“We were getting very disgusted with the CAHA (Canadian Amateur Hockey Association),” McLean, today a gold miner in the summer and a hockey fan in the winter, remembers. “We weren’t getting any help from them and they were taking a percentage all the time 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 up your dues or you couldn’t vote, you never had a vote. As it happened, (SJHL president) Frank Boucher was the chairman. He called the meeting to order in Clear Lake.”

As McLean recalls, Boucher asked Munro for a cheque.

“Scotty said, “I can’t afford to pay.”

They said, “Well, Mr. Munro, you can’t vote.”

“They asked Bill Hunter for his cheque and he said, “I haven’t got one.”

They said, “Well you can’t vote.”

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

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

It wasn’t quite that simple but that, in essence, is how what today is the Western Hockey League was born. Naturally, there was no joy in Melville, or Flin Flon, or Saskatoon, or Swift Current. These teams were suddenly looking at trying to put together a league that would also include Dauphin, Yorkton and North Battleford.

eddie dorohoy
EDDIE DOROHOY

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

Plans for the new league weren’t finalized until later in the summer, though. And by that time Saskatoon was in, and Brandon and Winnipeg were out.

Today it seems strange, almost incomprehensible, that Saskatoon wasn’t included in the league’s formative talks. But the Blades were sponsored by the Los Angeles Blades, a team in the pro Western Hockey League. And when Los Angeles didn’t get an NHL expansion franchise in 1966, the future of the parent Blades was up in the air.

Today, Saskatoon is the only city to have been in the league since the start of the 1966-67 season. So, it wasn’t until later in the summer of ’66 that Saskatoon came on board with the new major junior league.

The Clear Lake meeting, originally scheduled for three days, didn’t even get through its second day. It adjourned until July 15 in Regina.

Before July 15 arrived, news came that the CAHA was refusing to grant official recognition to the new league. That bothered the likes of Munro and Hunter about the way a mosquito bothers a horse. And it was at that July 15 meeting that the SJHL was disbanded.

Melville showed up for the meeting with lawyer Isador (Red) Grotsky in tow, and that was a sign of things to come. Laurie Artiss, then sports editor of the Regina Leader-Post, reported: “When Melville objected to the reorganization of the league on constitutional grounds (and they were legally correct), Estevan’s Scotty Munro submitted a motion (prepared in advance) for the dissolution of the league. Melville’s amendment attempt was ruled out of order and the motion passed, predictably, 6 to 2. “

The vote was promptly followed by a “new” meeting of the “new” Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and it was announced applications for entry would be entertained. Melville flatly stated it wanted no part of a new league and before starting a seven-delegate walkout Grotsky fired a parting shot and his best lick.

“We contend this move is unconstitutional and will take all legal steps necessary to prove it,” he said.

That is exactly what happened on July 27 when Melville filed a lawsuit, asking for more than $250,000 in general and special damages. Before then, on July 21, Brandon pulled out.

“We want to play in the SJHL as it was incorporated prior to the Regina meeting,” Wheat Kings president Paul Dunn said.

Sorry. It was too late for that.

But then Boucher muddied the waters. No longer the SJHL president (the league gave him six month’s pay in lieu of notice), he now was commissioner of the CMJHL. And now he was proposing a six-team major- junior league in cities with universities (Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Brandon and Winnipeg), along with a six-team junior A league in Alberta and reformation of the SJHL.

The day after Boucher’s proposals were made public, Melville filed suit, asking for $250,000 in general damages and $8,800 in special damages. The $8.800 would cover such things as Buster Brayshaw’s salary; he had signed on to coach for $4,800. The legal action simply was another fly in the soup. In the early years, it seemed that there was a line going into the courthouse and another line going out. And, of course, the new league was an “outlaw” circuit.

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

When they finally got around to dropping the puck for that first season, answering the bell were the Edmonton Oil Kings, Estevan Bruins, Regina Pats, Moose Jaw Canucks, Saskatoon Blades, Weyburn Red Wings and Calgary Buffaloes.

GerryPinder
GERRY PINDER

Edmonton finished in first place over the 56-game regular season, while Saskatoon’s Gerry Pinder won the scoring title, with 140 points.

Come playoff time, though, it was a different story. Moose Jaw, with Brian Shaw (yes, the Portland hockey magnate) running the bench, ousted Regina in five games to win the best-of-seven final.

One other note to that first playoff season: They played one best-of-nine series without overtime, and Moose Jaw beat Edmonton three games to two with four ties.

By the time the 1967-68 season rolled around, the seven-team league had grown to 11 franchises and the Calgary Buffaloes had become the Centennials. Joining the original cities were Swift Current and three Manitoba centres — Flin Flon, Winnipeg and Brandon. Still, there were problems (as there would be off and on for years) with the CAHA.

“As we went along,” McLean says, “the CAHA said you won’t be drafted, that the kids wouldn’t be drafted and wouldn’t be playing in the National Hockey League. We just told them to go jump in the ocean.”

Concerned about their relationship with the CAHA, three teams — Regina, Moose Jaw and Weyburn — pulled out before the 1968-69 season. Regina would return two seasons later, but Moose Jaw didn’t get back in until the summer of ’84. Major junior hockey never did return to Weyburn. Flin Flon became the league’s most successful franchise on the ice, with the best regular-season record three years running and winning league championships in 1968-69 and ’69-70.

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

How tough was it? McLean recalls one weekend during the reign of commissioner Ron Butlin when Mike Shabaga was coaching Swift Current: “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.

“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.

“Those were the things that were done in those days. If, as a league, we made a decision, that was it.”

Shaw, now owner and general manager of the Portland Winter Hawks, agrees.

“Those guys then had balls,” Shaw says. “They wouldn’t stand for a troublemaker being in the league; they’d all get on him.

“Those guys would have a great deal of difficulty operating in the league the way it is today.”

Shaw continues: “The other thing, too, in those days there were lots of leaders. That’s why we were strong. No one ever went to a meeting and didn’t say anything. If you were new you shut up for two years until you learned what was going on. Yet, they never looked down their nose at you.

“If there was a problem with a club, it was the league’s problem. What I respected about them is that they would go and put their name on a banknote for another team. There’s not too many governors now who would do that. And if they couldn’t get the money from the bank for them, they’d go to a finance company.”

BillHunter
BILL HUNTER

McLean adds: “Bill Hunter, Scotty Munro and Ben Hatskin . . . 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.

“Then the corporations started moving in. The non-hockey people, people who didn’t know hockey got involved. It was a progression thing. You can’t say exactly when it all started to take place.”

The face of the league started to change prior to the 1970-71 season, which is when the Medicine Hat Tigers came on board as an expansion franchise, and the Regina Pats returned to the fold. In the first five seasons, three cities enjoyed championship seasons. Moose Jaw (1966-67) has yet to win another. The same holds true for Estevan (1967-68) and Flin Flon (1968-69 and 1969-70).

Edmonton (1970-71) would later win one more championship, but that would be its last one. That, as much as anything, was a harbinger of the change this league would go through during the 1970s.

NEXT: Part 2 of 5.

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