Remembering 1976 . . . when Pats and Cougars met in first round of playoffs . . .

What follows for your reading enjoyment is another episode from the WHL’s past. This memory begins with a decision by the WHL’s board of governors to change the playoff format in mid-season strictly for financial reasons. . . . But when you look at the first-round playoff matchups they ended up with, you are free to wonder if they really had thought things through. . . . Anyway, here you go. Thanks to Al Dumba and Norm Fong for their time, even if it was almost three years ago!


The Western Canada Hockey League’s 1975-76 season was more than half over when its president, Ed Chynoweth, announced a change to the playoff format.

On Jan. 15, 1976, during the league’s all-star festivities in Lethbridge, Chynoweth revealed that there would be 10 teams advancing to the playoffs, up from eight the previous season.

“We added the two teams simply for financial reasons,” Chynoweth explained in his usual blunt manner.

At the time, the 12-team WCHL was split into two divisions — Eastern and WCHLWestern. The Saskatoon Blades, Brandon Wheat Kings, Lethbridge Broncos, Winnipeg Clubs, Regina Pats and Flin Flon Bombers finished one through six in the east; in the west, it was, in order, the New Westminster Bruins, Kamloops Chiefs, Medicine Hat Tigers, Victoria Cougars, Edmonton Oil Kings and Calgary Centennials.

The teams voted 8-4 for the new playoff format that called for the teams to be seeded one through 10 according to regular-season points, with the matchups to be 1 vs. 6, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 8, 4 vs. 9, and 5 vs. 10.

Brandon, Saskatoon, Victoria and Winnipeg, four teams on the league’s geographic edges, voted against the format.

“I feel it wasn’t done for the good of the league,” Gerry Brisson, Winnipeg’s owner, general manager and head coach, told Bruce Penton of the Brandon Sun. “It was done purely for selfish motives. Nobody wants to play New Westminster.

“All we’re doing is making the airlines a lot of money.”

He was right about that.

Under the new format, Flin Flon and Calgary didn’t make the playoffs, and what they called a “preliminary round” would feature the Medicine Hat Tigers against the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Victoria Cougars versus the Regina Pats. In the second round, the New Westminster Bruins faced the Brandon Wheat Kings, the Saskatoon Blades met the Lethbridge Broncos, the Kamloops Chiefs went against the Winnipeg Clubs and Victoria met Medicine Hat.

The Blades advanced and had to go against Kamloops in one semifinal, with New Westminster and Victoria meeting in the other. In the final, New Westminster took out Saskatoon, 4-2 with one tie.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Regina was locked into that 10th spot. But either Victoria or Brandon still could wind up fifth.

For that to happen, the Wheat Kings needed to win their final game, while the Cougars lost twice.

“If I was forced to make a choice between the two,” Regina coach Bob Turner Reginatold the Regina Leader-Post, “my preference would be Brandon as far as the travelling goes. It’s closer and a series with the Wheat Kings would be easier on the club’s pocket book.”

On Friday, March 26, the Cougars settled the issue with a 7-6 victory in Lethbridge. That same night, the Wheat Kings lost 5-4 to host Winnipeg.

After winning in Lethbridge, the Cougars scurried home to Victoria where they dumped the Tigers, 8-4, on Saturday night.

After losing 9-1 in Saskatoon on Friday, the Pats bussed home and flew to Victoria on Saturday night. Game 1 of the eight-point series was scheduled for Sunday evening.


The series:

Game 1 — Sunday, March 28, Regina 1 at Victoria 3.

Game 2 — Tuesday, March 30, Regina 2 at Victoria 5.

Game 3 — Wednesday, March 31, Victoria 4 at Regina 4.

Game 4 — Friday, April 2, at Victoria 5 at Regina 4.

Game 5 — Saturday, April 3, Victoria 4 at Regina 6.

Game 6 — Sunday, April 4, at Regina 3 at Victoria 9.

(Victoria won eight-point series, 9-3)


The series schedule — it was an eight-point series, meaning there wouldn’t be any overtime if the score was tied after three periods — called for the teams to play six games in eight nights, including twice going back-to-back IN DIFFERENT CITIES. By highway and ferry, the two cities are more than 1,800 km apart; by air, they are separated by 1,370 km.

“We flew, which really helped,” Al Dumba, a forward on that Regina team, remembered 44 years later.

Perhaps it was a sign of the times that Dumba doesn’t remember even one player complaining about the schedule or the back-to-back games in different cities.

To get to Victoria for Game 1, the Pats flew commercial to Vancouver and then took “a small prop” to Victoria, Dumba recalled.

When the Pats’ flight landed in Victoria in the wee hours of March 28, “there was nobody to greet them at the airport, not even a night watchman,” Dave Senick wrote in The Leader-Post. “The Cougars’ team bus eventually picked up the members of the Regina squad, but that was after a wait of nearly an hour.”

The Cougars opened by holding serve at home, winning 3-1 and, after a day off, 5-2.

After Game 2, both teams boarded the same flight and headed to Regina, changing planes in Calgary along the way.

Dumba said he won’t ever forget that flight.

“On the way back to Regina . . . when we changed planes in Calgary . . . my first cousin’s husband was our pilot,” Dumba said. “We talked as we boarded in Calgary and later he called me up to the cockpit. I flew to Regina with him in the cockpit.”

Dumba, laughing, recalls Turner, the Pats’ coach, and Del Wilson, the president and general manager, along with the Cougars all “wondering why I went up to the cockpit. That was an experience I will never forget.”

The next night, March 31, a late third-period goal gave the Cougars a 4-4 tie in Regina.

Dumba had suffered a bruised hip in the last regular-season game in Saskatoon. He tried to play through it in Victoria and only made it worse. So he didn’t play in the tie, but was back for Game 4.

“The doctor gave me some pills and I was cured in a day,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t imagine what it was.”

After a day off, the Cougars won Game 4, 5-4, erasing a 3-0 deficit in the process. That left Victoria with a 7-1 series lead, meaning a tie in Game 5 would end it.

A fan might have expected the Pats to fold like a cardboard suitcase in a thunder storm the next night. After all, a Regina victory would force a sixth game in Victoria the following night, meaning even more travel. Instead, the Pats got three goals from Jon Hammond, the last one into an empty net, as they won, 6-4, despite trailing 2-0 just six minutes into the first period. Regina tied it 2-2 before the period ended and then scored the only three goals of the second period.

“We were up after two periods,” Dumba remembered, “and we knew Del Wilson did not want to fly us back to Victoria for Game 6. Gerry (Bucky) Minor was a rookie. He stood up after the second and started hollering ‘Let’s go back.’ ”

Norm Fong, the Pats’ trainer/equipment manager who would go on to a lengthy career with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, recalls that intermission.

“I remember in between periods of that fifth game, the players asked everybody to leave and they took a vote,” he said. “They were actually voting on whether they wanted to go ahead and throw this game or come back and try to win it.”

Fong remembers talking with Drew Callander, a forward on that Regina team, in later years.

“Drew said he couldn’t remember who stood up, (but) he remembered somebody saying, ‘What do you guys think?’ Drew said he definitely remembers the team voting and saying, ‘Let’s go and win this because that would mean they would have to spend some money.’ ”

Fong added: “Del and Bob were really good guys, but they were tight.”

As the players were voting, Fong said it was all he “could do not to burst out laughing because I knew what they were doing. It was really funny. They were actually voting if they were going to try and win or just throw in the towel.

“Everyone knew Del was cheap, so we went out and won the game.”

In fairness to Wilson, who died on Nov. 3, 2016, there likely wasn’t an owner in the junior game who would have wanted to fork out that kind of money, knowing that his team likely was only going to be alive for one more game.

And that’s what happened.

The next night, the Cougars, back at home, put up a 9-3 victory, behind four goals and two assists from Mike Will, and the series was over.

“They had a good team,” Dumba said. “(Al) Hill, Will and (Jeff) McDill was a great line.”

The Cougars also had winger Archie Henderson, who spent a lot of the 1975-76 season in Chynoweth’s bad books and would find himself facing charges — later dismissed — after a donnybrook against the Blades in Saskatoon.

“Archie was tough, but a nice guy,” Dumba said. “He is still a friend. We went to (the Washington) Capitals’ camp together and have touched base over the years a few times.”

But back to the end of Game 6 . . .

“It was my 19-year-old season and my draft year,” Dumba said, “so a few of us knew we wouldn’t be back. We spent a night in Victoria and then the next night in Vancouver before we got home. So we partied a little to end the season.

“It was a long time ago but they are good memories.”


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