The good news for the WHL is that there have been some great crowds of late. The Spokane Chiefs had their largest crowd (7,918) since before the pandemic on Saturday night for a visit by the Tri-City Americans. The Moose Jaw Warriors drew a season-high 4,895 that same night with the Regina Pats in town.
But there is a long way to go before things get back to where they once were.
Granted, we are in the middle of a pandemic and teams have had to deal with mandates and restrictions. But this season, using figures compiled by the WHL, its 22 teams have combined to play 642 games through Sunday with an announced average attendance of 3,080 — that’s actually up 34 fans per game in nine days. Hey, baby steps . . .
In 2018-19, the last time the WHL was able to play a complete season, teams played 748 games with the announced average at 4,361.
But the warning signs were there before this season.
In 2019-20, teams got in 694 games before the pandemic brought the season to a close. The announced average for those games was 4,154, which was down 207 from the previous season. Eighteen teamsexperienced a decrease in attendance from 2018-19, with only the Everett Silvertips, Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets and Prince Albert Raiders showing an increase.
Last season, a number of teams received government funding due to the pandemic, with six teams in Saskatchewan counting $600,000 apiece among their revenues. The Prince Albert Raiders, for example, received $1,081,179 in government grants and were able to announce a profit of $25,891.
Richard Doerken, the WHL’s vice-president, hockey, told Hartley Miller on his Cat Scan podcast earlier this year that none of the teams has received any government money this season.
We can only imagine how much some of the other teams bled last season and how large the puddle on the floor is this season.
Recently, I asked fans why they no longer attend WHL games, or perhaps are going to fewer games than they once did. A number of Portland fans referenced the hassle of getting into Winterhawks games. The above video, which was posted on Twitter on Sunday evening by Chad Balcom, a regular at Portland games, is an example of to what they were referring.
And it is that kind of thing that WHL teams have to deal with as they work to get fans to return to their games.
They also have to deal with the lifting of so many things pandemic-related that now some of those fans who choose to continue to wear masks are concerned about being around the unmasked and even anti-vaxxers. Back in the day one of the biggest beefs likely had to do with the in-game music. Too loud? Not loud enough?
But as things continue to inch towards some semblance of whatever normal is going to be, we wonder what WHL teams should be looking at in their attempts to get fans back into their buildings.
One person who has been on the front lines in the WHL and maintains a love for the league contacted me and offered up some suggestions. The Insider has been deep inside a team’s front office — on the business and marketing side — so has a feel for what is happening there. As well, The Insider remains in the game; he now is in the front office of a pro team.
In writing to me, the approach was: “I thought I would focus on the ‘what to do about it.’ ”
With that, The Insider approached the situation from three angles — teams needing to show patience, teams needing to take a long, hard look at the fan experience, and teams needing to look at the overall cost of attending games.
“First,” The Insider wrote, “it is going to take time for fans, particularly casual fans, to get back into their pre-pandemic habits, so understand that the further the pandemic and mandates recede into memory (let’s hope there’s not another variant around the corner) the more likely fans are to return . . . Teams should understand that it isn’t going to correct itself overnight so set some realistic timeframes for attendance growth.”
When you think about it, as we go through life a lot of what we do is dictated by habits. There is a reason why your favourite TV show is on at the same time every week. Marketers want to create a habit. Once they are able to do that, they know that should you ever break that habit you may never come back. That is what WHL teams are up against now.
“Second,” The Insider wrote, “teams need to raise their game when it comes to the fan experience, not only in-venue but also with their streaming video production . . . Give kids in particular plenty to do on the concourse, offer fun experiences like Fanboni rides and puck shoots, let them meet the players after games, etc. . . . As for the video production, bad lighting, poor camera work, lousy graphics and unstable streaming platforms aren’t going to help any team/league monetize their video content, and in-home viewing continues to grow and grow.”
One season-ticket holder who emailed me on Sunday seemed to echo The Insider, writing about his favourite team: “It’s also the same thing every season. Same promotions. Same giveaways (first 500 or 1,000 people). Same first- and second-period intermissions. They really need to jazz it up and make changes.”
“And third,” The Insider wrote, “teams and the league need to re-examine their pricing structure/value proposition to bring in new fans to the sport, particularly younger families . . . As gas prices and other ‘basics’ increase in price, junior hockey needs to price the game-night experience (tickets, parking, food, etc.) so that a family can attend a game at a reasonable investment. Otherwise they’ll stay at home and stream Disney+ for the evening . . . cheaper and less hassle.”
From where I sit, WHL teams have to learn to put a whole lot of attention on game operations and presentation. They need to get to a place where even if the home team gets blown out the fans go home feeling that they still received good entertainment value and that not only would they return, but that they would spread the word.
“I don’t know that enough WHL teams are thinking that way,” The Insider wrote. “And you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.”
In closing, The Insider added:
“It takes creativity. Thinking outside the box. Looking at other sports like minor league baseball and events like music festivals. The sport itself is a great product, but these days fans want more if they are going to pay the prices and fight the traffic and deal with the hassles at the doors. Otherwise you’re right . . . fans will watch from home whether it’s WHL or NHL or Schitt’s Creek or whatever.”
And if the fans are going to stay home, some teams are going to be up the creek without the proverbial paddle. If they aren’t already, that is.
Rick Westhead of TSN tweeted on Friday afternoon that “a Russian player on the OHL’s North Bay Battalion (one of two Russians on NB) was allegedly targeted during Thursday game with an anti-Russian slur by at least one Sudbry Wolves player, North Bay GM Adam Dennis confirms. Dennis says OHL is investigating and conducting interviews.”
Shortly after, Dan Milstein, a Ukraine-born hockey agent, tweeted: “Disturbing news . . . I confirm Rick Westhead’s report that my teenage Russian-born client on OHL North Bay Battalion was targeted with Anti-Russian slur at (Thursday’s) game.”
What you look like after getting the first win in an international ice hockey game of your country's history after two games. Congrats Iran🇮🇷 @IranHockey
It is because of information like this that I subscribe to Hockey Unfiltered with Ken Campbell:
“Iran has a national hockey team that is currently playing in the Division IV World Championship in Kyrgyzstan. Their backup goalie’s name is Oveis Hassanzadeh Moghadam Tabalvandani. Their first-line left winger is Mohammadmatin Ghaharzadehmahabadi and manning the blueline is Abbas Dehghanimohammadabadi. Despite a spirited effort, Iran lost 13-1 to the host country in its international hockey debut before beating Singapore 5-2 on Friday.”
Seriously, while Campbell did have that in a Friday piece, he also reported this:
“The Canadian Hockey League could be doing a major about-face when it comes to having players from Russia and Belarus included in its 2022 import draft. A source close to the situation said the CHL was prepared this week to announce that players from those two countries would be barred from the draft this year as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“But there was significant pushback from some owners on the proposal, which led the CHL to delay making an announcement. It’s believed they will continue deliberating and will have a decision by the end of this month. There are 24 Russians and 13 Belarusians playing in the Ontario, Western and Quebec Leagues this season. The OHL has the majority of Russian players this season, with 15 on rosters. There is only one player from Ukraine in the entire CHL this season, Barrie Colts defenseman and Vegas Golden Knights prospect Artur Cholach.”
You are able to check out Campbell’s work right here.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes are on the road for six games because the Brier, the Canadian men’s curling championship, has taken over the ENMAX Centre. . . . The Hurricanes met the Wheat Kings in Brandon on Friday night, losing 6-3, and also will make stops in Regina, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, Regina (again) and Moose Jaw before returning home to face the Pats on March 16.
My wife, Dorothy, who underwent a kidney transplant on Sept. 23, 2013, is taking part in her ninth kidney walk, albeit virtually, on June 5. She has been involved in every walk since she had her transplant. If you would like to sponsor her, you are able to do that right here. . . . A huge thank you to those who already have joined Dorothy’s team. Much appreciated!
Richard Doerksen’s name first shows up in a WHL Guide prior to the 1978-79 season. He is listed, quite simply, as statistician. I am pretty sure he kept the WHL stats with pencil and paper in those days. . . . Anyway, Doerksen, now the WHL’s vice-president, hockey, was Hartley Miller’s latest guest on Cat Scan. They chatted about the past two seasons, scheduling and rescheduling and a whole lot more. . . . It’s a 30-minute listen and it’s all right here.
F Nolan Ritchie, playing in his 100th regular-season game, had three goals and an assist to lead the host Brandon Wheat Kings to a 6-3 victory over the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Friday night. . . . Brandon F Jake Chiasson had a goal and an assist in what was his first game this season. He underwent shoulder surgery after being injured while at an Edmonton Oilers rookie camp in September. The Oilers selected him in the fourth round of the NHL’s 2021 draft. . . .
F Connor Bedard had one assist to run his point streak to 14 games as the Regina Pats dropped a 3-2 decision to the visiting Red Deer Rebels, who have won seven in a row. . . . F Jake Neighbours of the Edmonton Oil Kings also is riding a 14-game streak, but he is out week-to-week with an undisclosed injury. . . . Bedard has 29 points, including 16 assists, in his past 14 games, while Neighbours has 23 points, 10 of them goals. . . .
Dan O’Connor, the radio voice of the Vancouver Giants, called the play of his 700th WHL game on Friday night in Langley, B.C. The Giants lost 4-3 in OT to the Kamloops Blazers as F Daylan Kuefler tied the game at 19:31 of the third period and won it at 4:43 of extra time. O’Connor also has done play-by-play with the Prince George Cougars. . . .
The Edmonton Oil Kings clinched a playoff spot by scoring the game’s last five goals in a 7-2 victory over the visiting Calgary Hitmen. . . . In Kelowna, F Gabriel Szturc’s 12th goal, at 1:29 of OT, gave the Rockets a 5-4 victory over the Victoria Royals who took a 4-2 lead into the last 10 minutes of the third period. Kelowna has won nine of 10 from Victoria. . . . In Prince George, the Spokane Chiefs scored the last three goals and beat the Cougars, 4-3. F Graham Sward (8) broke a 3-3 tie 37 seconds into the third period. The Cougars are 2-13-1 in their past 16 outings. . . .
F Jakin Smallwood scored his 20th goal of the season with 0.7 showing on the clock as the visiting Winnipeg Ice got past the Saskatoon Blades, 4-3, in OT. F Jack Finley (17) had pulled Winnipeg even with a PP goal at 17:15 of the third period. . . . F Ozzy Wiesblatt scored his 10th goal and added two assists as the Prince Albert Raiders escaped from Moose Jaw with a 5-3 victory over the Warriors. . . . The Seattle Thunderbirds scored once in each period as they beat the Tri-City Americans, 3-1, in Kennewick Wash. . . .
G Taylor Gauthier, who signed a three-year free-agent deal with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the week, stopped 47 shots as the Portland Winterhawks beat the Silvertips, 4-2, in Everett. Portland scored the game’s last four goals. Gauthier is 14-1-0, 1.66, .945 since being acquired from the Prince George Cougars. The Winterhawks have taken four straight from the Silvertips and now trail the U.S. Division leaders by five points. . . .
Russian F Ivan Miroshnichenko, a potential top 10 selection in the NHL’s 2022 draft, has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the Russian Hockey Federation has said he will be taking time away from the game. “At the moment,” the federation said in a tweet, “he is receiving medical treatment in Germany and might miss the entirety of next season.” Miroshnichenko, 18, had 16 points, including 10 goals, in 31 games with the VHL’s Omskie Krylia club. He captained the Russian team at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup last summer, putting up four goals and five assists in five games.
If you are interested in being a living kidney donor, more information is available here:
Here is the fifth and final piece on the WHL’s first 25 years. The five stories were written in the late 1990s, while I was the sports editor at the Regina Leader-Post. I had pretty much forgotten about it until recently when I was asked if I might post it again. So I have done just that over the past couple of weeks. . . . As you read each piece, please remember that I wrote them more than 20 years ago and they cover 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. . . . The stories are pretty much as originally written. . . . Here, then, is Part 5 of 5. Thanks for reading along. I hope you have enjoyed these stories, and thank you for all of the positive feedback. . . .
The fifth five-year segment was easily the best of the WHL’s first 25 years.
There was success in the stands, particularly in the Pacific Northwest corner of the United States, and in Saskatoon where the Blades welcomed a new facility.
There was stability, too. Recent additions, like the Tri-City Americans and Lethbridge Hurricanes, settled in for what appeared to be long stays.
But the greatest success came on the ice where the WHL won four Memorial Cup championships during the five seasons, opening with three in a row and closing with a victory by the Spokane Chiefs.
The 1986-87 season actually started on something of a strange note. The Regina Pats signed Doug Sauter, who was under contract to the Medicine Hat Tigers, to a two-year deal as general manager/head coach. The result was that the Pats agreed to compensate the Tigers.
The compensation turned into two veteran players — defenceman Kevin Ekdahl and forward Kevin Clemens. It was the first time in WHL history that a coach had, in effect, been traded.
The Pats also welcomed back another familiar face with Dennis Sobchuk, the greatest and most-popular player in franchise history, signing on as assistant coach/assistant manager.
This was a time of great change in the front offices and behind the benches. Barry Trapp left the Moose Jaw Warriors, saying, “I wasn’t fired. It was just a mutual agreement. It was a very friendly parting.”
Medicine Hat signed Bryan Maxwell to replace Sauter, while Peter Esdale was the new coach in Spokane and Wayne Naka took over the Cougars in Victoria. In New Westminster, John Olver was the GM, with Ernie McLean the coach. Harvey Roy was out as the Bruins’ director of marketing, but he would surface in Moose Jaw as the GM and would hire Greg Kvisle to coach the Warriors. In Prince Albert, GM/head coach Terry Simpson left to coach the NHL’s New York Islanders and Rick Wilson took over.
Perhaps the biggest news in the summer of 1986 came on June 2 when the WHL announced it was doing away with round-robin playoff series in the East Division. Instead, the top two teams would get first- round byes.
In the WHL office, Richard Doerksen’s title was upgraded from executive assistant/referee-in-chief to vice-president.
There was trouble in Brandon, where the Bank of Nova Scotia called in a $77,000 demand loan, asking for payment on July 31. This resulted in the Wheat Kings’ board recommending to shareholders that the franchise be sold.
In August, shareholders voted 1,411-404 in favour of selling the Wheat Kings. Offers were received from two groups — one in Edmonton headed by Vic Mah, the other comprising Brandon businessmen Bob Cornell and Stuart Craig, and Winnipeg businessman Dave Laing.
Cornell’s group purchased the Wheat Kings for more than $300,000 and then added a unique twist to the situation by signing a 10-year working agreement with the Keystone Centre. The Keystone took over operation of the club, and hired Bill Shinske to run the front office. Shinske hired Marc Pezzin as coach.
The WHL also welcomed the Swift Current Broncos to the fold. Behind the bench was Graham James, who had recently reached an out-of-court settlement with the Warriors over a lawsuit he had started the previous year.
“If we continue to average close to 2,000, we’ll have a real successful year and we’ll show a profit of about $80,000,” Gary Bollinger, the Broncos’ vice-president and alternate governor, said. “That doesn’t include playoff revenue. We were budgeting for an average of 1,600. If we averaged that, we’d still make a bit of a profit.”
The first coaching change of the 1986-87 season took place on Dec. 8 in Seattle when Sheldon Ferguson gave up the Thunderbirds’ coaching reins, but stayed on as GM. Dan McDonald was the new head coach, with former Portland Winter Hawks star Jim Dobson as the assistant.
Disaster struck on Dec. 30 when the Broncos, en route to Regina to play the Pats, were involved in a bus accident. Four players — Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Brent Ruff and Chris Mantyka — were killed.
“There has never been anything more devastating that has happened to me personally,” Ed Chynoweth, the WHL president, said. “The question I keep asking myself is ‘Why?’ My heart goes out to all the parents and the people involved. I wish someone would call and say this is all a mistake.”
John Foster, the Broncos’ publicity director, said: “This team will band together and win it for those guys who died. The (survivors) were absolutely professional under stress. If the people of Swift Current could have seen them, they would have been proud.”
There was never any thought of the team not continuing. As team president John Rittinger said: “It’s up to the players and the fans now. We aren’t ready to throw in the towel.”
Defenceman Ed Brost, talking about the club’s next game, stated: “It will be difficult. To go right back out on the ice would be cheating ourselves emotionally and physically. Right now people have to remember athletes are human beings, not robots.”
Moose Jaw centre Theoren Fleury was in Czechoslovakia with Canada’s national junior team at the time of the accident.
“I just can’t believe it,” Fleury said. “I just sat on the bus all the way to practice today thinking about what’s going on with all those guys on that team right now. It just blows me away. I don’t know what to say. There’s nothing we can do about it and I think being helpless is the most frustrating thing about it.”
As if losing four players in the accident wasn’t enough, Herman Kruger, 67, suffered a fatal heart attack as he entered the church for his great-grandson’s funeral.
And later the same day, Sauter and Regina trainer Stan Szumlak came to the rescue of Keith Giles, a member of the Prince Albert executive, who was choking on some food.
Donations in memory of the players poured into the Broncos’ office and an education fund was set up in their memory. Another fund was started to raise money that would go towards the cost of replacing the bus.
On Feb. 2, a longtime veteran of the WHL’s coaching wars returned for one last fling when John Chapman replaced Wally Kozak behind the bench of the Calgary Wranglers. Chapman also was the Calgary GM.
On Feb. 15, Portland won a game in Spokane and Ken Hodge took over as the winningest coach in WHL history. His 547 victories were one more than Ernie McLean.
Tragedy struck the WHL again on March 1 when Regina centre Brad Hornung was checked into the end boards at the Agridome and suffered a broken neck.
Dr. Chris Ekong, a neurosurgeon, said Hornung suffered a burst fracture of the third cervical vertebrae and a crushed spinal cord. “Brad has no feelings in his arms and legs,” Dr. Ekong said. “He is completely paralysed from the neck down.”
Hornung would never regain the use of his arms and legs, but that didn’t stop him from going on with his life.
As the WHL completed its 25th season, Hornung was continuing with his education, taking courses at the University of Regina.
Despite the bus accident, Swift Current made the playoffs in its first season. But there wouldn’t be a Cinderella story as the Broncos dropped a best-of-five series to Prince Albert, 3-1.
April was highlighted by three coaching changes — Esdale’s contract wasn’t renewed by Spokane, Kvisle resigned in Moose Jaw and McLean stepped aside in New Westminster.
And Medicine Hat won the WHL championship. The Tigers faced elimination twice in each of their last two series, and dumped visiting Portland 7-2 in the seventh game of the championship final.
The Tigers would win their first of two consecutive Memorial Cup championships, the first under Maxwell, the second under Barry Melrose. Both came with Russ Farwell as general manager.
John Van Horlick took over as coach in New Westminster for 1987-88, with
Butch Goring the coach in Spokane. Jim Harrison was the new head coach in Moose Jaw, with Ed Staniowski his assistant. Harrison and Roy, the GM, were friends from their days in Estevan, while Staniowski was a former all-star goaltender with Regina.
And the WHL was returning to Lethbridge. The Tier One Junior Hockey Club of Lethbridge purchased the Wranglers for about $350,000 from Brian Ekstrom. The Lethbridge franchise would be called the Hurricanes, causing Lethbridge Herald columnist Pat Sullivan to wonder if the logo would be an overturned mobile home.
The sale also meant that there wouldn’t be a franchise in the city in which the WHL office was located. But the office wasn’t about to be moved.
“It was decided that it was certainly the most central location for our league,” Chynoweth said.
Going into the new season, the WHL passed a rule cracking down on checking from behind.
“We do use (NHL) rules and the NHL doesn’t have hitting from behind instituted in its rule book,” Chynoweth said, “but I predict that within two years the NHL will have the same rule.”
That is exactly what happened.
There was change in the WHL’s boardroom, too, as Portland’s Brian Shaw stepped down as chairman of the board and was replaced by Saskatoon’s Rick Brodsky.
On June 5, Swift Current celebrated its first birthday by revealing the franchise was no longer in debt.
Rittinger said: “We bought the franchise and we borrowed money to buy the franchise. So we took the season-ticket money to pay the bank loan off. The bank loan is paid off. We don’t owe the bank anything. And that’s incredible because we just got the franchise last year.”
Maxwell left Medicine Hat, joining the Los Angeles Kings as an assistant coach. Lethbridge named Glen Hawker as its first GM/head coach. Before the season started, Lethbridge reorganized, with Wayne Simpson taking over as GM.
On July 6, Hornung, in his first interview since being injured, told the Regina Leader-Post: “You have to accept it. Life goes on and you do the best with what you have. At first, it was a time of change, shock really, but right now, it’s actually gotten easier because you get used to the adjustments. Like everybody else, I have my good days and bad days. But I don’t have many bad days.”
Separate pregame warmups came to the WHL on Sept. 28.
With Seattle off to a 2-15-0 start, owner Earl Hale told Ferguson, the GM, to take a leave of absence. On Nov. 16, Ferguson was fired. A couple of weeks later, Hawker was fired in Lethbridge, where Blaine Galbraith took over. And on Dec. 8, Moose Jaw fired Harrison and hired Gerry James, the only person to have played in a Grey Cup game and Stanley Cup final in the same season.
On Feb. 2, Saskatoon beat Regina 7-2 before 3,308 fans in the final game at the Saskatoon Arena. Regina coach Doug Sauter, for one, was glad to see the end of the old barn: “I get screwed every time I come in here and I haven’t been kissed yet.”
One week later, on Feb. 9, Saskatoon beat Brandon 4-3 in front of 9,343 fans at Saskatchewan Place. Chynoweth announced prior to the game that the 1989 Memorial Cup would be played in Saskatoon.
On March 11, amidst rumours that the Warriors were on the verge of major financial problems, it was announced that Roy’s contract wouldn’t be renewed.
WHL attendance figures compiled by the Regina Leader-Post showed that Swift Current drew 82,080 fans to 36 home games, which was 99 per cent of capacity. Portland led in total attendance — 200,911. The league drew 1,405,874 fans, an increase of almost 80,000 over the previous season.
For the first time in league history, the scoring race ended in a dead heat.
Two centres — Fleury and Swift Current’s Joe Sakic — finished the regular season with 160 points. Sakic had 78 goals, Fleury 68. But there was nothing in the WHL bylaws to deal with the situation so the scoring race was ruled a tie.
The rumours were true — there were financial problems in Moose Jaw. The Warriors began sorting things out by separating the hockey side of things from the business side. With an accumulated debt of $234,000, Joe Celentano, a former referee with basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters, was hired as business manager.
On April 17, Medicine Hat beat visiting Saskatoon 3-0 to win its third straight East Division title. The only other team to win three consecutive East titles was the Flin Flon Bombers, beginning in 1968-69.
On May 3, the Tigers beat visiting Kamloops 5-2 to win their second straight WHL title, this one in six games.
The very next day, Bob Vranckaert, who was in the construction business in Alaska, said he would like to put an expansion franchise in Anchorage in time for the 1990-91 season. Born in Drumheller, Alta., and raised in Burnaby, B.C., Vranckaert spent more than 20 years in general commercial construction 800 miles north of Anchorage.
The WHL said it would play two exhibition and four regular-season games in Anchorage and use that, plus the 1989 world junior championship, which was to be held in Anchorage, as a barometer.
On May 8, the Pats announced that Sauter’s contract wouldn’t be renewed.
A week later, Sauter’s old team, the Tigers, beat the Windsor Spitfires 7-6 in Chicoutimi to become the sixth team in the 70-year history of the Memorial Cup to win back-to-back championships.
The board in Moose Jaw put H.J. (Toby) Tobias in charge and then resigned en masse. Tobias was empowered to chair a committee whose immediate responsibility was to carry on a fund-raising campaign aimed at erasing the club’s debt. The immediate goal was to raise $150,000.
Tobias said he would look into the team’s accounting procedures, recommend constitutional changes and appoint an auditor to present a year-end statement at the club’s annual meeting.
“To me it’s a four-stage project,” Tobias said. “Stage 1: Solve the immediate debt crisis and give us some breathing room. Step 2: Have a look at the front office and see if there are some things we can tighten up. Stage 3: Come up with a budget we can live with in years to come. Stage 4: Make sure fund-raising becomes a year-round effort.”
In mid-May, Pezzin resigned as coach in Brandon. He would be replaced by Sauter, who was reunited with Shinske. The two were old friends, going back to the Estevan and New Westminster Bruins. Sobchuk replaced Sauter in Regina.
Celentano resigned in Moose Jaw, saying: “By my staying I become just another liability, one of those accounts payable that they have to make every day, and they don’t have the money.”
On May 31, Tobias announced that the Warriors had reached their goal of $151,800. That figure covered debts accrued up until March 31. Tobias said: “The phoenix has risen from the ashes. The financial health of the club remains fragile . . . but it’s business as usual from here on in.”
Indications were that New Westminster owner Ron Dixon would move the franchise to the Tri-Cities area of Washington State. He just happened to be building an arena, the Tri-Cities Coliseum, there.
In July, Farwell and Melrose resigned in Medicine Hat. Shortly after, they signed in Seattle. Wes Phillips was named GM in Medicine Hat and hired Ron Kennedy, a former Estevan player, as coach. Before the season started, Phillips quit, citing business and family pressures, and Tim Speltz replaced him.
Peter Anholt was named head coach in Prince Albert, where Wilson quit to join the L.A. Kings as an assistant coach. Brad Tippett was the GM in Prince Albert.
The WHL arrived in Anchorage on the weekend of Sept. 24 and 25, 1988.
Kamloops and Portland played two exhibition games in Anchorage, drawing 2,100 to the first game and 1,750 the next night.
A shakeup occurred in Spokane. It started on Oct. 14 when Spokane GM Bob Strumm acquired six players while giving up four others in trades that involved three other teams. The Chiefs were 1-4-0 and had given up 33 goals in those five games.
Twelve days later, with the Chiefs 2-9-0, Strumm relieved Goring of his duties. Strumm, with a three-year contract extension that would take him through the 1991-92 season, went behind the bench, went 2-4-0 and immediately installed Gary Braun as coach.
On Nov. 11, Moose Jaw dumped Gerry James and installed Kvisle as head coach/director of hockey operations.
Three days later, Regina shook up things. Sobchuk moved from coach to GM, with Bernie Lynch moving up from assistant coach to head coach.
It was announced on Nov. 17 that Vranckaert had purchased the Victoria Cougars from Fraser McColl. Ownership actually had changed hands 10 days after the end of the season.
“Bob has been after me for a long time,” McColl said. “He wants to get into the business with a passion. And, perhaps, that’s the type of enthusiasm this team needs right now.”
On Nov. 20, the Tri-City Americans, having played their first 17 games on the road because the Coliseum wasn’t ready, opened at home with a 4-3 overtime victory over Seattle in front of a sellout crowd of 6,004.
Swift Current started the season with 12 straight victories, and went into the Christmas break at 28-5-0 and on a 10-game winning streak. Referring to the bus accident of two years previous, James said: “I think the bus accident galvanized the spirit of the community. I think that was a catalyst. Since then we’ve had to provide a product that’s been worthy of fans coming, but I think that incident certainly rallied the community.”
Added centre Tim Tisdale: “That’s all anybody in town talks about. It’s hard to believe. You go downtown and you’re eating in a restaurant and everybody at the next table is talking about the Broncos. It definitely helps your hockey.”
There was big news out of Calgary on Jan. 3, 1989, when Petr Nedved, a centre with a midget team from Litvinov, Czechoslovakia, defected after a midget tournament. His WHL rights belonged to Moose Jaw, but the Warriors would deal them to Seattle.
The season wasn’t over when Spokane owner Vic Fitzgerald said that Braun wouldn’t be returning.
On March 14, Chynoweth revealed that the WHL “had an inquiry from Terry Simpson about putting a team in Red Deer. They would have to get a new building.” A conditional franchise was sold to Simpson on Aug. 12, 1991. The Rebels would begin play in the fall of 1992.
Attendance figures compiled by The Regina Leader-Post showed that attendance was up 232,951 over 1987-88. Most of that was attributable to the first-year Americans who attracted 203,532 fans, which was 156,149 more than they drew the previous season in New Westminster.
There was a change in Seattle on April 11 when Medicine Hat businessman Bill Yuill bought the Thunderbirds from Earl Hale of Calgary.
The usual spate of front-office changes began in earnest with the news that: 1. Galbraith would not be back in Lethbridge; 2. Al Patterson, who quit in Victoria after the season ended, had signed as Tri-City’s GM; 3. Ron Byrne had signed as the GM in Victoria; 4. Sobchuk had resigned as GM in Regina; 5. Shinske had resigned in Brandon; and, 6. Tippett had quit in P.A.
Swift Current won 4-1 in Portland on April 30 to sweep the Winter Hawks in the championship final. The Broncos became the first team to sweep its way to the WHL championship — they also got past Moose Jaw and Saskatoon in four games each. The Broncos, just a season and a half after having four players killed in a bus accident, went 55-16-1, the best record in the CHL.
“This is a great accomplishment for our franchise,” James said. “But I don’t want the Memorial Cup to decide if we had a great year.”
Tisdale added: “We have the team to do it this year. If we can’t get up for four games, we don’t belong there. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t win the Memorial Cup.”
On May 14, Tisdale’s goal at 3:25 of the first sudden-death overtime period gave the Broncos a 4-3 victory over Saskatoon in the final game of the Memorial Cup. The game was played in front of 9.078 fans in Saskatchewan Place and brought to an end the most successful Memorial Cup tournament ever played.
Shortly after the Memorial Cup, the changes continued: 1. Lynch found out his contract in Regina wouldn’t be renewed; 2. Rick Kozuback signed a two-year contract as coach with Tri-City; 3. Simpson returned to Prince Albert as GM/head coach; 4. Bill Hicke was named GM in Regina; 5. Tippett signed as Regina’s head coach; 5. Maxwell returned from L.A. to sign as co-coach and director of hockey operations in Spokane; 6. Braun was Spokane’s co-coach and assistant director of hockey operations; 7. Melrose left Seattle to become head coach of the AHL’s Adirondack Red Wings; 8. Marcel Comeau signed a two-year deal in Saskatoon but shortly after resigned to become head coach of the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks; 9. Anholt quit in P.A. to join Seattle as head coach; 10. Rob Daum signed as assistant coach/assistant manager in P.A.; and, 11. Terry Ruskowski signed to coach the Blades.
On June 14, 1989, Moose Jaw, so close to financial ruin just one year earlier, revealed at its annual meeting that there was a paper profit of $119,722 and that the Warriors had about $40,000 in the bank.
At its annual meeting, the WHL had two major announcements. It had decided for the first time to use full-time referees. “We’re hoping it leads to more consistent, professional refereeing,” Regina governor Ted Knight said. By the time all was said and done, the WHL had hired eight full-time and four part-time referees.
The WHL also said it would no longer allow teams to list 13-year-old players. From that point on, 14-year-olds would count for two spots on a list, players 15 and older for one.
Seattle set a single-game attendance record on Oct. 7 when 12,173 fans showed up to watch the Thunderbirds edge Portland, 4-3. “We could have sold 2,000 more tickets,” Seth Landau, the club’s director of marketing and public relations, said. “We were sold out the day before the game.” The previous attendance record belonged to Portland, which had attracted capacity crowds of 10,437 to Memorial Coliseum on numerous occasions.
The first coaching change came on Oct. 15 when Naka resigned in Victoria. Lyle Moffat replaced him.
On Nov. 1, Ken Hitchcock, 36 years of age and in the neighbourhood of 400 pounds, went public with the news that he was going on a serious diet.
“There comes a time in life when it becomes a case of now or never,” said the popular coach of the Kamloops Blazers. “I look down the road four or five years from now, what do I want to be doing? If that’s what I have to do to move up the ladder, that’s what I have to do.”
Victoria made another coaching change on Nov. 13 with Garry Cunningham becoming the Cougars’ third coach of the season. Moffat stayed on as marketing director.
A lawsuit launched by Hornung was settled out of court in November. Thirteen defendants, including the WHL, were named in the suit launched in July of 1987. Details of the settlement weren’t made public.
At a WHL board of governors’ meeting on Nov. 20, the chair switched bodies again. It was a case of deja vu, with Shaw taking over from Brodsky.
On Dec. 17, Sauter was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder that strikes at the central nervous system. He would not return to coaching until late in the 1990-91 season when he finished the winter with the SJHL’s Estevan Bruins. Brandon GM Kelly McCrimmon moved in behind Brandon’s bench.
There was a player revolt in Tri-City when Dixon named Bill LaForge director of player personnel. LaForge said he had a five-year contract.
On Dec. 31, with Portland scheduled to play in Tri-City, the Americans players refused. A statement signed by 19 players read in part: “We will definitely not participate in any further games without the termination of Mr. Bill LaForge from the Americans organization.”
The players ended their holdout the next day, winning 8-4 in Portland. Dixon had contacted players earlier in the day and said LaForge would no longer have any contact with them.
Defenceman Colin Ruck later explained the Tri-City deal: “He came into the dressing room screaming and cutting guys down. To get to us, he said we had to call him Coach. He had (coach) Rick Kozuback picking up pucks during practice. That really upset us. Bill came out and ran a really brutal practice. We felt we had to do something.”
Byrne was gone as Victoria’s GM before January ended, while Cunningham was out as coach on Feb. 5. Moffat went back behind the bench. The Cougars would set a CHL record, losing 29 in a row.
On Feb. 7, Seattle centre Glen Goodall had an assist in a 5-3 victory over visiting Tri-City to break the WHL record for most points in a career. That lifted his point total to 530, one more than Craig Endean, who had played with Seattle and Regina.
Two nights later, Seattle broke the WHL single-game attendance record as 12,253 fans watched a 5-3 victory over Spokane.
Figures compiled by the Regina Leader-Post showed that attendance totalled 1,678,651, up about 40,000 over the previous season. Tri-City, which sold out every home game, led the way with total attendance of 216,360. Saskatoon, in its first full season in Saskatchewan Place, played in front of 209,542 fans. Seattle, which finished with its best-ever record (52-17-3; the best previous was 32-28-12 in 1977-78), drew 181,211 fans, up 66,189 from a year previous.
On March 28, Chynoweth admitted that two groups had applied for an expansion franchise for Tacoma, Wash.
The Spokane franchise changed hands on April 10, with Fitzgerald selling to the Brett brothers — Bobby, George and Ken — for more than $600,000. Bob Brett wouldn’t say what they paid, other than to say it was “too much.”
The postseason changes started in April when Speltz and Kennedy learned that Medicine Hat wouldn’t renew their contracts, and Rick Hopper was named head coach/director of hockey operations in Victoria. Jack Shupe, the Tigers’ first GM/head coach in 1970-71, was the new GM in Medicine Hat. He hired Tim Bothwell as coach.
On April 29, Kamloops scored a 6-5 overtime victory in Lethbridge to win the WHL final in five games. Kamloops lost the opener and then won four straight. The Blazers struck out at the Memorial Cup, though, as the Oshawa Generals, with Eric Lindros, won it all in Hamilton.
There was much expansion talk in the WHL, resulting in this comment from Brodsky: “It’s sort of like being in love. If you have to ask yourself whether you’re in love, you’re probably not. If we’re wondering why we should expand, then maybe we’re forcing the issue a bit. If expansion is right, we’ll know it.”
Farwell left Seattle to become GM of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. Anholt added the GM’s nameplate to his door, and hired assistant GM Dennis Beyak from Saskatoon. Beyak had been in Saskatoon since 1981 and was the person deemed most responsible for the success of the 1989 Memorial Cup in Saskatoon.
Simpson left Prince Albert again, this time to become an assistant coach with the Winnipeg Jets. Daum was promoted to replace him.
There were shockwaves in Kamloops when Hitchcock resigned after six seasons with the Blazers. He signed as an assistant coach with Philadelphia. Tom Renney replaced Hitchcock, who left with a 291-125-15 regular-season record over six seasons, his .693 winning percentage the highest of any coach in WHL history.
Leaving wasn’t easy for Hitchcock, who said: “I got cold feet a couple of times. I almost went into (GM) Bob Brown’s office and said, ‘Call the whole thing off, I don’t want to go.’ ”
On Sept. 30, Chynoweth chatted about expansion: “There are what I like to call tire-kickers in Boise, Idaho; Eugene, Oregon; and, Tacoma, Washington. The WHL is in good shape and we’re aggressive to expand by one, possibly two teams in the West Division sometime soon. We are coming off our second record-setting attendance season. We’re also proud of the fact that this is the third year in a row we aren’t opening a new site. Believe it or not, but we’re stable.”
Bruce Hamilton, a former player and scout with the Blades, headed a group of Saskatoon and Tacoma investors who were eventually granted a franchise for Tacoma to start with the 1991-92 season.
On Oct. 30, with the 1990-91 season one month old, one night before Halloween, James went wild in Swift Current. Upset with referee Kevin Muench after the Broncos turned a 7-3 second-period lead into a 9-8 loss to visiting Medicine Hat, James went on to the ice in pursuit of Muench, then returned to the bench and threw sticks and water bottles onto the ice. James then removed his jacket, tie, shirt and one shoe and threw them onto the ice before his players escorted him to the dressing room.
Bothwell summed it up: “All I can say is, ‘Wow.’ I don’t know what words can describe what happened out there, from a lot of different aspects.”
James was suspended for six games and fined $2,000. “At least they didn’t ask me for the shirt off my back,” he said. The incident would show up on video on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the David Letterman Show among others.
There was some silliness in Spokane, too. On Dec. 6, with Tri-City visiting Spokane, Maxwell and Americans assistant Gerry Johannson got into it after first period.
Here’s Maxwell: “He was waiting for me. He was yapping at me. He challenged me and I accepted the challenge.” Maxwell was said to have out-punched his opponent, 4-0.
Here’s Johansson: “He throws punches like marshmallows.”
Maxwell was suspended for three games and fined $500. Johansson got hit for $1,000 and four games.
Remember that $1 parking fee in Regina? Well, on Dec. 17, Regina Exhibition Park announced it was doubling it to $2. “I don’t think our fans will take very kindly to it if it does happen,” said co-owner/GM Bill Hicke. “If that’s the case it’ll drive another nail in the coffin.”
The Pats’ lease would expire after the 1990-91 season and Hicke had already made at least one trip into the Pacific Northwest to scout buildings.
A change in Prince Albert had Dale Engel move in as GM, with Rob Daum giving up that title but staying on as coach. It was no surprise when Daum left P.A. for Swift Current at season’s end.
On Feb. 4, Saskatoon fired head coach Terry Ruskowski, replacing him with former Blades defenceman Bob Hoffmeyer.
On March 17, Seattle was awarded the 1992 Memorial Cup.
The Leader-Post’s attendance figures showed that Tri-City, with 36 sellouts, again topped the WHL with 216,360 fans. Seattle was next at 215,248, up 34,037 from the season previous. But overall attendance was down 22,861 to 1,655,790.
On April 17, Marcel Comeau was named the first head coach of the Tacoma Rockets. Hamilton would be the GM, with Lorne Frey, most recently with Swift Current, as director of player personnel.
Spokane scored a 7-2 victory over home-town Lethbridge to sweep the WHL final. The Chiefs would go on to win the Memorial Cup, with goaltender Trevor Kidd and right-winger Pat Falloon wrapping up dream seasons. Both played for the Canadian junior team that won the gold medal in Saskatoon.
One thing more than any other summed up the WHL as it headed into its second 25 years. When the 1991-92 season opened, the league not only had the same 14 teams for the fourth consecutive season, but it had welcomed the Tacoma Rockets to the fold.
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 when I was asked if I might post it again. So I am doing just that. . . . As you read each piece, please remember that I wrote them more than 20 years ago and they cover 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. . . . The stories are pretty much as originally written. . . . Here is Part 4 of 5, and it’s a long one (but not as long as Part 5). I hope you enjoy it. . . .
When the WHL headed into the 1981-82 season, which was the beginning of its fourth five-year segment, stability was not exactly a strong suit.
For example, of the 13 teams that came out of the gate in the fall of 1981, only two — the Portland Winter Hawks and Saskatoon Blades — wouldn’t undergo a change in ownership or location over the next 10 years.
But had you predicted the WHL would be as healthy and as stable as any league in existence just 10 years later, well, not many people wouldn’t have scoffed.
Hockey in the early 1980s was fighting to leave its fightin’ image behind.
The WHL was no different. The days of the Broad Street Bullies were coming to an end. Unfortunately for the WHL, it took some people longer than others to realize that.
For starters, the Regina Pats hired Bill LaForge as their head coach on May 20, 1981. At the time, he was under an OHL-imposed suspension that was to last until Jan. 1, 1982. LaForge, while with the Oshawa Generals, had become physically involved with Peterborough coach Dave Dryden and then with Petes player Doug Evans in a pregame brawl.
Neither the suspension nor LaForge’s reputation scared off Regina general manager Bob Strumm, who gave LaForge a two-year contract.
Of his OHL suspension, LaForge said: “I’ve never been suspended in 12 years of coaching and I have no intention of it ever happening again.”
Before the 1981-82 season ended, LaForge would be suspended three times. And he would also be in a Lethbridge courtroom, facing an assault charge.
At the same time, there were other changes that would mean a lot to this league as its history continued. For starters, Russ Farwell moved into
Calgary as the Wranglers assistant coach and assistant GM. He would later prove to be as astute as any hockey man who has ever sat behind a WHL desk.
An NHL team also became involved in the WHL at the ownership level. Peter Pocklington, the owner of the Edmonton Oilers, purchased the New Westminster franchise and moved it to Kamloops as the Junior Oilers.
Pocklington owned 70 per cent, with 35 shareholders holding the rest.
“They seem to be an enthusiastic group,” WHL president Ed Chynoweth said. “And a new building there in the future would be a plus for us. I know the franchise moved out of Kamloops in the past. But I think that was a case of people looking for greener pastures after seeing the success that was achieved in Portland.”
On Aug. 19, the WHL began shaping its office for the future when Richard Doerksen, the league statistician for three seasons who was named referee-in-chief midway in the 1980-81 season, was given the title of executive assistant.
There was an ugly incident in Medicine Hat on Oct. 14 when, during a bench-clearing brawl against the Lethbridge Broncos, Tigers general manager/coach Pat Ginnell got into it with linesman Gary Patzer. According to The Canadian Press, Ginnell “exchanged blows” with Patzer.
The next day, Medicine Hat RCMP laid an assault charge against Ginnell. One day later, Ginnell and Patzer were suspended indefinitely. Ginnell would later charge Patzer with assault, and both would plead not guilty. Ginnell eventually pleaded guilty and was fined $350, while the charge against Patzer was withdrawn by the Crown. Ginnell ended up serving a 36-game suspension.
There were serious problems in Spokane. And on Dec. 2, the WHL suspended the franchise. A proposed sale fell through and the 3-23-1 Flyers were done for the season.
One of the WHL’s great success stories began on Jan. 19, 1982, when, during meetings at the all-star game in Winnipeg, an expansion application from Prince Albert was accepted.
It was a sad night, March 23 was, in Regina. It was Fan Appreciation Night and by the time the ice chips cleared, the Pats and Calgary had done it up right. When the WHL office got through, the teams were hit with $1,250 in fines and 36 games in suspensions. Regina got 27 games and $1,000.
On April 8, it was revealed that Bill Zeitlin of Chicago, a minority owner with baseball’s White Sox, had bought the Billings Bighorns from Joe Sample for $300,000. Zeitlin promptly moved the team to Nanaimo.
Regina brawled its way into the WHL final, but not before LaForge landed in a Lethbridge courtroom.
LaForge became physically involved with Alfred Gurr, a fan, while players brawled on the ice during the first period of Game 1 of the East final.
LaForge was charged with assault causing bodily harm. Ultimately, LaForge was acquitted as the judge ruled it was hard to convict a person of assault for hitting “an obnoxious person trying to get into the coach’s area.”
Charges against the fan were dropped on June 22 when LaForge, the chief witness, didn’t appear in Lethbridge Provincial Court.
On April 29, Farwell was named GM of the Tigers and, just like that, the foundation was laid for back-to-back Memorial Cups.
Portland defeated visiting Regina 9-2, at home on May 2, to take the WHL final, 4-1. Regina was without Brent Pascal, Al Tuer and Dale Derkatch, who were suspended after a Game 4 brawl, the third time in the playoffs that the Pats were involved in a donnybrook.
Four days later, LaForge resigned. He later signed as GM/head coach in Kamloops.
Kelowna got into the league when Kelowna Sports Enterprises Ltd., headed up by Chris Parker, was sold an expansion franchise. Parker had operated the BCJHL’s Penticton Knights. The Wings named Marc Pezzin coach and Joe Arling GM. The Wings were bad — really bad. They were 1-26-2 at the Christmas break.
On June 22, the WHL approved the sale of the Wranglers to Wilf Richard and Jim Kerr from Pat Shimbashi and the Calgary Flames.
Regina landed defenceman Rick Herbert, 15, one of the most-wanted players in WHL history on Sept. 20, 1982, but it cost the Pats seven players. It happened during a draft that was held as teams cut their lists from 60 to 50 players. Regina traded Byron Lomow, Tim Brown and Kevin Pylypow to Kamloops for the draft’s third pick. Darryl Watts, Scott Wilson, Peter Hayden and Scott Gerla were given to Kelowna and the Wings agreed to pass on Herbert with the first pick. Due to draft rules, Prince Albert, with the second pick, couldn’t take Herbert. The Pats held pick No. 4.
Seattle picked up a 12-year-old from Thompson, Man., in that draft. His name? Glen Goodall.
On Oct. 18, the WHL admitted it had on file franchise applications from Moose Jaw, Edmonton, Red Deer and New Westminster. The Moose Jaw group included Lorne Humphreys, Bill Kelly, Jim Little, Barry Webster and Emmett Reidy. Other groups were headed by: Bill Burton and Ron Dixon, New Westminster; Vic Mah, Edmonton; and, Alf Cadman, Red Deer.
On Jan. 19, 1983, newspaper headlines everywhere read: Player swapped for bus.
Here’s what happened: The Seattle Breakers dealt the rights to left-winger Tom Martin to the Victoria Cougars for a used bus. “Actually, just the down payment,” said Breakers’ owner John Hamilton. “It might have been the best deal I ever made.”
At the time, Martin was playing at Denver University but said he wanted to play in his home town. The bus in question was purchased by the defunct Spokane Flyers from Trailways in 1981 for $60,000. The Flyers spent $15,000 on inside renovations. When that franchise folded, the Cougars bought the bus but it was sitting in the U.S., because Victoria was not prepared to pay customs, excise and sales taxes. Hamilton said he got the bus for Martin and $35,000.
Brandon owner Jack Brockest pulled the plug in March, selling the Wheat Kings to a group of local businessmen. “I simply, as an individual, could not have survived much longer,” said Brockest, who sold just four years after buying the franchise. Average attendance had fallen below the 1,500-mark.
Calgary lost out to Lethbridge in the East final, and Wranglers coach Doug Sauter resigned. He later signed with the AHL’s Springfield Indians.
Lethbridge went on to beat Portland in the WHL final. Both teams advanced to the Memorial Cup, the Winter Hawks getting in as host team. And, lo and behold, the Winter Hawks became the first host team to win the tournament.
On June 14, Bill Burton and Ron Dixon announced they had bought the Nanaimo franchise. They moved it to New Westminster. Yes, major junior hockey was back in Queen’s Park Arena.
On Aug. 28, Brandon traded centre Blaine Chrest to Portland for five players — centre Ray Ferraro, defenceman Brad Duggan, right-winger Derek Laxdal, and left-wingers Dave Thomlinson and Tony Horacek. Ferraro would set a WHL record with 108 goals and, in the process, may have saved the Brandon franchise.
As the 1983-84 season opened, it was revealed that a familiar face had returned to New Westminster. Bill Shinske was back as vice-president of operations.
Early in the season, Kamloops coach Bill LaForge, after beating Kelowna 7-5, said he was tired of facing little opposition: “It’s no fun taking two points off a team that gives you no resistance. They have no breakout, no forechecking, no system, nothing. The only adjustment you have to make is to duck.”
Meanwhile, out east, Ferraro was having a glorious season. He scored his 50th goal in his 32nd game, the second fastest 50 goals in WHL history. Bill Derlago had 50 in 27 games with Brandon in 1977-78. “The trade was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Ferraro said. “I wasn’t going to play that much in Portland. At the start of the season, we wrote down our goals and I wanted to have 35 goals by Christmas.”
It was a Merry Christmas in Moose Jaw as it was announced that Moose Jaw Tier One Inc. had purchased the Winnipeg Warriors Hockey Club Inc., and that the franchise would move for the 1984-85 season. Winnipeg would go on to finish with a 9-63-0 record, losing its last game 14-1 to visiting Regina on March 21.
Brawls were few and far between, but there was one with a difference in Regina on March 7. Brandon GM Les Jackson was fined $1,000 and suspended indefinitely for leaving the press box and attacking Strumm, Regina’s GM/coach, at the Pats’ bench, all this while players were fighting on the ice.
“I just wanted to let him know that if the kids are going to fight, I’m going to stick up for the guys, too,” Jackson said.
On March 12, Ferraro became the first player in WHL history to score 100 goals in a season when he scored twice in an 11-9 victory over visiting Winnipeg.
Swift Current was hot on the heels of another franchise, this time offering $360,000 to the Edmonton Oilers for Kamloops. Local businessmen rode to the rescue and kept junior hockey in Kamloops.
The story in the playoffs had to do with the failure of the Pats. It’s doubtful any team has ever been so close to the Memorial Cup and then not made it. Regina was 12 seconds away from eliminating Kamloops in the sixth game of the final. But Dean Evason tied the game 3-3 at 19:48 of the third period in Kamloops and Ryan Stewart won it at 13:03 of overtime. One night later, the Oilers won 4-2 and were off to the Memorial Cup.
Brian Ekstrom, president of Oakwood Petroleum, headed a group that purchased the Wranglers from Jim Kerr for $300,000. Kerr bought the team from Shimbashi in 1982 but still owed $200,000 to the former owner. Ekstrom didn’t renew Marcel Comeau’s contract as coach (Comeau went to Saskatoon), and named Hank Bassen as GM and Sandy Hucul as coach.
Another franchise changed hands in late May when Dennis Kjeldgaard and Al Foder bought Lethbridge from Ross McKibbon of Taber.
And in mid-June, Sauter returned to the WHL, this time as head coach in Medicine Hat.
In Regina, Herb Pinder Jr. assumed controlling interest of the Pats.
Before the 1984-85 season started, LaForge left Kamloops for the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. Kamloops dipped into the midget coaching ranks in Sherwood Park, Alta., and signed Ken Hitchcock.
Goodall, just 14, played his first game with the Seattle Breakers on Oct. 10, 1984. It was a 12-3 loss in Regina. “My parents were here tonight,” Goodall said, “and they’ll follow us around on the rest of our eastern swing, and they might take a trip out to Seattle and I’ll see them at Christmas, so it won’t be too bad.”
As for his first game, he said: “I thought I played OK in the third period. When you’re down by a lot of goals, it’s hard to keep it up.”
He would play 399 regular season games by the time his career ended.
A rivalry was born on Nov. 13, 1984, when Moose Jaw scored its first victory over Regina, winning 6-4 in Moose Jaw. But referee Darren Loraas was forced to call the game with 26 seconds left.
“I was surprised and disappointed,” Moose Jaw head coach Graham James said. “I thought the league was past that. It’s not necessary to play like that. The whole thing was disgusting. If Bob (Strumm) really wants to do battle like that, let the generals do the fighting and let’s leave the troops on the bench. We’re trying to sell the game here and I don’t think this helps it.”
The Pats were fined $1,500 and hit with 21 games in suspension; Moose Jaw got $200 and four games.
The under-age draft was playing havoc in Portland, where the Winter Hawks were missing a few players. Here’s Portland co-owner/GM Brian Shaw: “We should have had 11 returning players this year from the team that won the Memorial Cup. We have one — John Kordic — and that’s through no fault of our own.” Ken Yaremchuk, Richard Kromm, Alfie Turcotte and Cam Neely were in the NHL, while five other players walked away from the game.
The Winter Hawks gained some publicity, too, when their policy on drug and alcohol use was revealed. Here’s Shaw, again: “Everybody says there’s drugs in sport and nobody does anything about it. We are trying to do something about it. We take urine tests approximately every two weeks, and we also take spot tests, to assure ourselves that there’s no alcohol or drug involvement.”
Shaw said parents were fully aware of all of this: “We sent them a letter saying: “For the benefit of your boy and our organization each boy takes a urine test.” If he wants to refuse to take the test, he can do it. Nobody refuses . . . why would they want to refuse?” And, according to Shaw, no parents objected.
On Dec. 3, Prince Albert, in its third season, moved into first place in the East for the first time. The Raiders got into the WHL for $100,000 and then paid $75,000 for what was left of Spokane’s player list. You see, when the dispersal draft of the Flyers was held on Dec. 3, 1981, WHL teams were allowed to select only players on the active roster. The Raiders, then, bought the list and got three future stars — centre Dan Hodgson, right-winger Dave Pasin and defenceman Manny Viveiros.
On Dec. 12, New Westminster’s Cliff Ronning set a WHL record with a goal in his 16th consecutive game, a 3-2 home-ice victory over Medicine Hat.
It was revealed in January that Seattle owner John Hamilton was having financial problems and — surprise, surprise — Swift Current made him an offer.
“When I got into the hockey business, I was $60,000 short of being a millionaire,” Hamilton said. “Now I’d take the $60,000.” He said he had lost $500,000 since getting involved in 1979.
Swift Current struck out, again, on Jan. 14 when the WHL board of governors, not wanting to lose a West Division team, voted against the sale of the Breakers.
Hallelujah! On Jan. 22, 1985, the WHL did away with round-robin series in the playoffs, choosing to go strictly with best-of-five/seven series in the East, and best-of-nines in the West.
Rumours involving Swift Current surfaced in late March when the Bank of Nova Scotia asked the Wheat Kings for a written financial plan. Swift Current would strike out again when three Brandon businessmen bought the team.
The Raiders, 16-55-1 and last in their first season, were 41-29-2 and fifth the next season. In their third season, though, they went 58-11-3 and went on to win the WHL championship, sweeping Kamloops in the final.
“Winning the world championship was a thrill, but winning the WHL title is more satisfying,” said Terry Simpson, the Prince Albert GM/head coach who had led Canada to a world junior gold medal earlier in the year. The Raiders then won the Memorial Cup, cruising past the Shawinigan Cataractes 6-1 in the final game.
New Westminster beat Victoria 5-4 on March 22 and Ronning had four assists, giving him 197 points, one more than the WHL record set by Brandon’s Brian Propp in 1978-79.
In April, the WHL announced 12-year-olds were no longer eligible for its player lists. The league also decided to allow its teams to use three 20-year-olds, rather than two, in the 1985-86 season.
On April 2, the WHL took over the Seattle franchise, later selling it to Calgary businessman Earl Hale.
The end of Pinder’s association with the Pats began on May 1 with a story in the Regina Leader-Post. The May 1 story began: “Regina Pats fans are going to have to dip into their pockets for an extra dollar to cover parking charges announced by the Pats’ landlord, the Regina Exhibition Association.”
Pinder said he was “very disappointed and very concerned” by the decision. “We’re disappointed because they made a policy and then came and told us after it was in place.”
On May 6, Strumm resigned as GM/head coach in Regina, ending a six-year association with the Pats. He later accepted an offer to join the Sudbury Wolves but changed his mind before leaving for the Ontario city.
And there was trouble brewing in Moose Jaw where James was offered a position as co-coach and assistant GM by general manager Barry Trapp. Here’s James: “The bottom line is they took away my head-coaching position and that is a breach of contract. I can’t work with Barry Trapp anymore.”
James resigned shortly thereafter, saying: “I didn’t quit as head coach. They took that away from me.” He later sued the Warriors for breach of contract, a suit that was settled before it got to court.
For the first time since the fall of 1975, the WHL was ready to open a season with the same teams that finished the previous season.
But before 1985-86 could begin Vic Fitzgerald, now the majority owner in Kelowna, moved to Spokane.
Pat Ginnell was back in the WHL, this time as head coach in New Westminster. On Sept. 11, in their first exhibition game, the Bruins brawled with Seattle in Chilliwack. Ginnell was suspended for five games and fined $500. He was also told that another bench-clearing incident would cost him 25 games and $2,500.
On Oct. 10, the WHL made half-visors mandatory for all players.
As the season began there were ominous signs in Regina. In 1984-85, there were only four (of 36) regular-season crowds under 2,000. In October of 1985, there had already been five crowds under that figure.
Regina businessman Bill Hicke, a former NHL and WHA player, admitted he almost bought the Pats in June for $450,000. But he said he wouldn’t pay that for the team in November with its apparent problems.
Hicke said the Pats were faring poorly at the gate because of poor marketing strategy and low season-ticket sales.
“I think the Pats have to get more aggressive in marketing,” he explained. “They don’t have enough people to do the marketing now. You have to go knocking on doors. I know, for a fact, that they’ve sold only 600 season tickets. I have three partners who would sell 500 season tickets apiece.”
On Nov. 21, John Chapman was fired as head coach in Lethbridge. He was in his sixth season with the Broncos. Earl Jessiman replaced him.
In New Westminster, there was a changing of the dinosaurs — Ginnell was out, replaced by Ernie McLean who said hockey has “gone too much European . . . and I don’t agree with it. I still believe in the Boston style of hockey.”
Things really started to happen in Regina in mid-December. First, GM/head coach Bill Moores confirmed that the Pats had informed their landlord, in writing, that they intended to vacate the Agridome by Jan. 6. By this stage, the team and the Regina Exhibition Association were embroiled in a messy lease negotiation, not the least of which concerned paid parking.
It was evident that Pinder intended to sell the franchise to Swift Current. Moores scheduled practice ice at various Regina arenas and made plans to move to Swift Current in mid-January.
On Dec. 30, Pinder ordered the postponement of the Pats’ first home game of 1986. Chynoweth agreed with the decision: “We thought it would be in the best interests of everyone to cancel the game until the situation is settled.”
But on Jan. 13 the WHL’s board of governors rejected Pinder’s sale of the Pats to Swift Current, choosing instead to purchase the franchise itself.
Hicke, still interested in buying the Pats, said he felt sorry for the people of Swift Current: “I believe down the line that Swift Current deserves a team, but they don’t deserve the oldest team in the league.”
By now, the Swift Current people had at one time or another tried to buy Winnipeg, Brandon, Kamloops, Kelowna, Seattle and Regina.
Ironically, on Jan. 14, about 12 hours after Pinder announced the sale of the Pats to the WHL, the exhibition association said it was dropping its controversial $1 parking fee for Pats games. Mike Kelly, REA general manager, explained: “We feel this is a positive step. While the Pats are in this transition period, we’d like to help out.”
To which Pinder responded: “I think the paid parking has ruined our business and I’ve had to relinquish our business.”
In late February, the WHL sold the Pats to four Regina businessmen — Hicke, Morley Gusway, Ted Knight and Jack Nicolle.
Meanwhile, it was business as usual around the league. In Queen’s Park Arena, for example, Kamloops head coach Ken Hitchcock was seen, according to The Canadian Press, “holding a hand over his eye to mock New Westminster’s one-eyed mentor, Ernie McLean, while McLean brandished a sign depicting the heavy-set Hitchcock as a pig eating hotdogs.” They were later fined $250 each.
And still the Swift Current people weren’t done because on Feb. 23, 1986, Dennis Kjeldgaard revealed the Broncos were for sale.
Guess what! Yes, the WHL brought back the round-robin format, this time deciding that the East’s top six teams would play in a home-and-home round-robin with the top four teams moving on. This would prove to be a disaster, and last just one season.
On March 25, Chynoweth suffered a mild heart attack and was in intensive care in a Calgary hospital. He would return to work, on a part-time basis, early in May.
Finally, Swift Current was in. On April 11, the WHL returned to Swift Current when a group headed by Rittinger purchased the Broncos from Kjeldgaard and Foder.
And Strumm was back in the WHL, this time as the GM in Spokane. Chapman was back, too, as GM in Calgary.
But Lethbridge wasn’t done. By May 1, city officials had contacted Chynoweth, stating their desire for another franchise.
Swift Current moved quickly to get its organization moving. Rittinger announced on May 1 that James would be the club’s GM/head coach.
The WHL final featured Kamloops and Medicine Hat, the latter making the first of what would be three straight trips to the final. This time, Kamloops lost the opener and then won four straight, taking the last one 7-2 on May 5.
There wouldn’t be a WHL team in the Memorial Cup final — the OHL’s Guelph Platers beat the QMJHL’s Hull Olympiques, 6-2 — but Medicine Hat would solve that problem next season. And the season after that.
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 when I was asked if I might post it again. So I am doing just that. . . . As you read each piece, please remember that I wrote them more than 20 years ago and they cover 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. . . . The stories are pretty much as originally written. . . . Here is Part 3. . . .
The mid-1970s belonged to the Ernie McLean-coached New Westminster Bruins. They were the Western Canada Hockey League’s most-dominant team.
If you didn’t believe that, well, they would convince you of it. And they’d do that any way they felt like it.
The Bruins ran their string of WCHL titles to four, and won the Memorial Cup the last two seasons, in 1976-77 and 1977-78. But by the time the 1980-81 season ended, the bloom was off the rose in New Westminster. Little did anyone know that it never would return.
Prior to the start of the 1976-77 season, the WCHL instituted a rule calling for an automatic game misconduct to any player who initiated a fight. Ironically, the first player stung was Brandon Wheat Kings starry centre Bill Derlago. He got the heave-ho after starting a scrap with Brian Schnitzler of the Saskatoon Blades in a season-opening 3-0 Brandon victory.
Two coaches felt WCHL president Ed Chynoweth’s wrath on Nov. 2. Ivan Prediger of the Kamloops Chiefs was suspended for 20 games, while Ken Hodge of the Portland Winter Hawks got 10 games. Prediger apparently struck Hodge during an altercation between the benches on Oct. 24.
There was joy in Regina on Jan. 27 when the Pats scored a 3-2 victory over visiting Portland. It ended a 36- game Regina winless streak that covered 96 days. “I hope the players don’t become satisfied with the win,” said Lorne Davis, who had taken over as GM/head coach from Del Wilson and Bob Turner with the Pats at 2-32-5.
A nine-hour meeting in Calgary resulted in a new playoff format. Under the original format, the Flin Flon Bombers, third in the East, were 20 points ahead of Regina and all but had a playoff spot locked up. Suddenly, there was a new format and the Bombers were fighting for a spot. Oh yes, they were also on a 15-game West Coast road trip.
“In this league, you need two pieces of equipment,” said Flin Flon boss Mickey Keating. “You need a face-guard when you play some of the teams on the ice and a back protector for the committee room. I had inklings that there may be changes in the playoffs but I had confidence there were intelligent hockey men in this league. I was shown different.”
In Portland, the Winter Hawks were beginning to carve out a niche, which resulted in this March 1 comment from GM Brian Shaw: “We’re selling the all-American boy image. Our players are all properly dressed in public. They all have respectable hair lengths. We feel image is important. Our players have become our outstanding selling point, and they have actually played much better because of the great acceptance which now is blossoming in Portland.”
In mid-April, Kamloops majority owner Ephram Steinke admitted the franchise would likely move to Spokane over the summer. The reasons? Steinke blamed almost $500,000 in losses over four years, and the city’s refusal to construct a new arena.
On May 12, the Calgary Centennials signed Bob Strumm as general manager. One of Strumm’s first moves was to confirm that a move to Billings was being contemplated.
Strumm, who had been Chynoweth’s executive assistant, was, at 29, the WCHL’s youngest GM. He would be one of the league’s most-prominent figures through the mid-1980s.
The Calgary move became official on May 19. Eleven days later, Kamloops moved to Seattle and became the Breakers under new owner John Hamilton.
On July 19, at the annual meeting in Calgary, the transfer of the Winnipeg Monarchs to Calgary was approved. Del Wilson, president and governor of the Pats, was named chairman of the board, replacing Bill Burton.
When Winnipeg moved to Calgary and became the Wranglers, owner Gerry Brisson named Doug Barkley as GM. The coach? It was Brisson. Would the GM be able to fire the owner/coach.
The 1977-78 regular season hadn’t even started when McLean was in trouble. It stemmed from an exhibition game against the host Victoria Cougars when midway in the second period he ventured into the stands to tangle with a fan who was taunting him. For his troubles, McLean got a gash on his forehead and, later, a $250 fine. This would serve as an omen.
A fierce rivalry was building between Regina and the Brandon Wheat Kings. After one early-season game, Davis had this to say: “If (Dave) Semenko would have been close enough to the box I would have swung at him . . . he came over by our bench trying to intimidate us.” To which Brandon coach Dunc McCallum responded: “How can a 220-pound man be held back by a stick boy?”
A few days later, Semenko joined the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers. A couple of years later, Davis joined the Oilers as a scout.
Derlago, perhaps the best pure offensive talent this league has seen, had a 40-game point streak end on Nov. 9 when he left a game with a thigh injury during his first shift. One month later, he blew out a knee in an exhibition game against the Moscow Selects. Had Derlago not been hurt, who knows what kind of numbers he would have put up? When he was injured, he had 48 goals and 80 points in 26 games. He was on pace for 133 goals, three more than the then-CMJHL record of 130 held by Guy Lafleur.
On Feb. 3, Jack McLeod resigned as coach of the Saskatoon Blades. He stayed on as GM, but put Garry Peters behind the bench. In Calgary, Barkley, the GM, took over as coach from Brisson, the owner.
More bad ink, and lots of it, in early February when McLean was slapped with a 25-game suspension for allegedly hitting an official. He returned for the playoffs.
“Our league has long been accused of protecting either our coaches or, more particularly, owner/coaches, but there is no way one coach or one franchise is bigger than the league,” Chynoweth said. “I can live with the so-called violence on ice, as projected by the media, but when it comes to our officials, qualified or unqualified, I look at things much differently.”
More bad ink in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, it emerged from a round-robin series. This one featured Brandon, Flin Flon and Regina in a double home-and-home series. When it got to the final game, Flin Flon at Regina, the Pats had to beat the Bombers by at least six goals to eliminate Brandon and set up a Regina-Flin Flon division final. Regina won 10-4 and the high-powered Wheat Kings, led by the likes of Derlago, Brian Propp, Laurie Boschman and Ray Allison, were done like so much burnt toast.
“For us to say anything is stupid. You saw what happened,” Flin Flon defenceman Ray Markham said after the game.
Ultimately, Flin Flon, New Westminster and Billings advanced to the WCHL’s round-robin semi-final to eliminate one team and put the other two in the championship final. Out went Flin Flon. New Westminster then swept Billings in the final. It was the Bruins’ fourth straight WCHL title and they would win their second consecutive Memorial Cup.
The Bruins, a power for oh, so long, would rarely be heard from in a positive light again.
On May 22, Flin Flon governor Gord Mitchell revealed that the community-owned team would cease operations. “I hate to see it go,” Mitchell said. “It’s certainly not the fault of the league. The league’s not kicking us out. But there comes a time when something like this seems to be the most reasonable thing to do. We’re a small centre and it got to the point where the league had outgrown us.”
A week later, Chynoweth, who had threatened to resign, announced he would remain as president, thanks to a promise from the governors that an executive assistant would be provided to help with such things as discipline. Wilson, the part-owner of the Pats, filled the bill as vice-president and referee-in-chief. Shaw replaced Wilson as chairman of the board.
On June 1, Gregg Pilling was named GM/coach in Regina, replacing Davis who, in a surprise move, was fired. Davis professed sadness, saying he had worked awfully hard and that all of that work would bear fruit in two years. Which is exactly what happened — two years later the Pats were in the Memorial Cup. But Pilling was gone by that point.
It was during the summer of 1978 when Chynoweth began talking of an education program. On July 4, he announced a program whereby teams would provide a year’s tuition and books at a recognized post-secondary institution for every season a player was in the league.
On Aug. 16, Chynoweth announced an Edmonton group headed by Bill Hunter had purchased the Flin Flon franchise from the league. Hunter would be president and governor, Vic Mah would be first vice-president.
The 1978-79 season began with news of a name change and ended with a new champion for the first time since the spring of ’74.
With three of 12 teams situated in the U.S., the WCHL was no more. Now it was the Western Hockey League.
The goofiness started on Oct. 22 when Pilling went into the penalty box at the start of the third period of a game in Calgary. He said he would serve a bench minor handed him for delay of game at the end of the second period in what would be an 8-1 loss. Pilling also alternated goaltenders Jeff Lastiwka and Gregg Dumba every shift change after a brawl at 2:52 of the second. Changing goalies ended 30 seconds into the third period when, with the faceoff outside Regina’s blueline, Dumba lined up behind his net. He was given a gross misconduct.
Chynoweth, who fined Pilling $1,000, said: “I thought it was a circus. I wouldn’t blame anybody if they didn’t go back.”
This was to be the season of McCallum’s Wheat Kings. That much was evident when Brandon ran its two-season unbeaten streak to a WHL-record 49 games and its single-season streak to 29 games. Brandon finally lost, going down 9-4 in Edmonton on Dec. 13 with the Oil Kings scoring all nine goals with the man advantage.
There was more news from Brandon on Jan. 11 when GM Jack Brockest, one of the WHL’s most likeable people, bought the team.
If any team could match Brandon it was Portland. The Winter Hawks had a 19-game unbeaten streak ended when visiting Brandon won 7-4 to go to 42-3-7.
In mid-March, rumours had the Edmonton franchise, which was averaging about 500 fans a game, moving to Great Falls, Montana, or Red Deer.
Things got ugly on March 22 in New Westminster when an incident involving the Bruins and Portland resulted in McLean’s being suspended indefinitely and seven of his players being charged by police. A game-ending brawl broke out, but this one was different because, while the Bruins left their bench, Hodge managed to keep his players under control.
On March 27, Wilson said McLean would not be allowed to coach during the playoffs, nor would he be allowed to communicate with the bench from the press box as he had done during previous suspensions.
McLean apologized for the brawl at a Vancouver press conference: “I have to take the full load, the full responsibility for what happened . . . when I look at it, maybe the game has gone by me. Maybe my coaching style isn’t what’s needed anymore. I’m an old horse that’s been at it for 25 years and it’s tough to change your thinking. The game is changing — maybe I haven’t changed with it.”
On April 4, GM Bill Shinske and McLean announced the Bruins were for sale, for $350,000.
The Winter Hawks got a small measure of revenge, beating the visiting Bruins 5-3 on April 8 to eliminate them from post-season play.
But this sad episode would drag on through the summer.
Meanwhile, Brandon was finishing with a 58-5-9 record, setting or tying 19 records.
The Oil Kings were sold on April 10, with ownership handed over to a Portland group headed by Bob Cooper and Tom Gauthier, who said they would move the franchise to Great Falls. “I guess sports is not my bowl of rice,” said Mah, an Edmonton restauranteur. It was Mah’s second go-round as an owner in Edmonton, and he wouldn’t give up. He would try and try again and again to get another franchise for the Alberta capital.
On April 20, charges of common assault were filed against seven Bruins — J.P. Kelly, Terry Kirkham, Bruce Howes, Rick Amann, Boris Fistric, Rob Roflik and Bill Hobbins. In August, the seven pleaded guilty. Judge James Shaw — no relation to the Portland general manager — granted conditional discharges to all seven, then banned them from league games at any level until Dec. 1. McLean said Shaw was “trying to be the judge who is going to clean up hockey. I’m worried about the affect on the game because the judge’s ruling makes a hip-check a criminal offence.”
Portland and Brandon ended up in the final, with Brandon winning in six games.
And, on May 28, Chynoweth resigned, effective June 30. This time he would leave, becoming part-owner of the Wranglers. “It’s more than 25 per cent and less than 50,” said majority-owner Jim Morley.
In late May, Pat Ginnell, who had been with the Lethbridge Broncos, moved north to take over the Medicine Hat Tigers. Mike Sauter would replace him in Lethbridge. Dave King left as coach in Billings to become head coach at the University of Saskatchewan.
The Pats were sold on June 8, with Wilson, Bill Patton, Gord Wicijowski, D.K. MacPherson, Wilf Degelman and Bob Babchuk selling to the Pinders — father Dick and sons Herb, Gerry and Tom. The price was believed to be near $300,000. Strumm was named GM, governor and part-owner.
Strumm later signed Bryan Murray as head coach and one of the great turnarounds in WHL history was under way.
But before that got started, Dave Descent was chosen to run the WHL. In his third season with the Canadian Amateur Wrestling Association at the time, Descent had lots of hockey experience at various levels in the OHA. “This job is an opportunity to get back into hockey, which is my chosen sport, and advance my sporting career,” he said.
Regina, which finished 18-47-7 (last in the East, second-worst in the league) in 1978-79, would go 47-24-1 in 1979-80 to win the division.
It was obvious early that the Bruins were going to pay a steep price for the brawl against Portland. They got their first point, after 13 losses, with a 5-5 tie in Great Falls on Oct. 31.
And on Nov. 16 McLean was at it again. And again it involved Portland.
McLean got tangled up with a fan at a game in Portland and was charged with fourth-degree assault. In one of the most ironical situations in WHL history, McLean was in jail until Brian Shaw posted his bail of $525. Charges were later reduced to harassment and it was all cleared up when a civil compromise was signed, ending the criminal case.
In mid-December, Descent’s title was changed from executive director to president. And concern was being shown about Great Falls, which was 2-22-1 and hurtin’ at the gate. The Americans folded on Dec. 13.
On March 2, McLean threw a 30-gallon garbage can onto the ice to protest the work of referee Ken Wheler during a game against visiting Portland.
The next day, Descent announced his resignation. Said Descent: “Speaking honestly, I’ve enjoyed my stay and feel it was a positive experience. But for personal reasons I’ve decided to take a different career path which is something I’m not at liberty to discuss now.”
Shaw said a five-man board would run the league, and that McLean would be suspended for three games for throwing the can. Oh yes, McLean was later named acting chairman of the management committee.
On March 24, McLean said he was leaving the Bruins. “I’ve made up my mind,” he said. “I’ve worn out my welcome. I will not be in New Westminster next year. We built a dynasty here but it’s time to move on.” All this after the Bruins set a WHL record with 61 losses. It was the first time in 18 seasons that McLean had missed playoffs.
On April 17, Vancouver businessman Nelson Skalbania bought out McLean and Shinske for slightly more than $300,000.
A week later, the WHL announced that Winnipeg would have an expansion team for 1980-81 and that the owners were former Pats star Fran Huck, his law partner Gerald Gunn and Winnipeg businessmen Harry Buekert, Arnold DeFehr and Marsdon Fenwick. Buekert would be GM, with Huck as coach.
On April 27, Regina beat visiting Victoria, 5-4, to win the WHL final, 4-1. The 1980 Memorial Cup, which would be won by the Cornwall Royals, opened in Brandon and closed in Regina.
During the Memorial Cup it became apparent the major juniors were terribly concerned with NHL’s practice of drafting 18-year-olds.
Chynoweth said: “I understand the legal problems the NHL has, although I don’t sympathize with it . . . at this rate, the pros will be scouting midgets soon.”
McLeod remembered the 1979 draft: “Back in June one NHL general manager said there was nothing to worry about, that only seven or eight under-ages would be taken. When they took 58, we were a little disturbed. Once they got into it, they just kept going.”
Junior teams were to be paid $50,000 to $65,000 for under-age players who stuck in the NHL.
Some NHL people said they weren’t in favour of the 18-year-old draft, either.
“The general managers unanimously fought to the 11th hour to avoid drafting under-ages,” said Washington GM Max McNab. “We were going to get caught in a lawsuit. But the NHL is like the government in the eyes of the public here. We’re going to get shot at in any decision.”
On May 15, the WHL announced that the dormant Great Falls franchise would relocate to Spokane with Cooper remaining as majority owner.
On June 26, Skalbania, already the owner of New Westminster and the NHL’s Calgary Flames, bought 50 per cent of the Wranglers. Skalbania explained: “It’s a sympathetic thing. I said when we bought the Flames that we’d support junior hockey in Calgary and I can’t think of a way we’d be supporting it any more than owning the team. I just hope we don’t lose that much money with them.”
Pat Shimbashi, a minority owner in Lethbridge, bought the other 50 per cent of the Wranglers from Jim Morley and Chynoweth, which meant that the latter would return as WHL president.
On June 27, Skalbania completed his purchase of the Bruins, buying 100 per cent for $325,000. McLean stayed as GM, while Skalbania’s 20-year-old daughter, Rozanda, was named president.
McLean resigned a couple of weeks later and Tracy Pratt was named GM. “I’d like to forget about the big bad Bruins of the past,” Pratt said, “and I’d like to think of them as the scrappy Bruins in the future. My concern is putting families back in the building. There was a shade too much violence in past years and many people became very bitter about what happened at Queen’s Park Arena.”
The league lost its referee-in-chief on Aug. 8 when Wilson announced he would scout for the Montreal Canadiens, a team with which he had long been associated.
The 1980-81 season opened quietly enough, but the silence was shattered on Dec. 1 with a shakeup in Saskatoon. McLeod and coach Lorne Frey ended their association with the Blades. Majority owner Nate Brodsky bought McLeod’s share (20 per cent) and named Daryl Lubiniecki GM and coach.
Lubiniecki began shaking things up when, on Jan. 15, he traded one player — centre Rocky Trottier — to Billings for six players — Pat Rabbitt, Dave Brown, Brad Duggan, Dave Chartier, Lyndon Byers and Al Acton.
Fighting was still a concern and on Dec. 17 Chynoweth announced that teams would be fined $2,500 if their players fought before games or between periods. Players who started the fights or were main combatants would get a minimum of five games.
A black cloud continued to follow the Bruins. A labour dispute forced them to play their last 29 games on the road. Their last 13 home games were played in such places as Bellingham, Wash., Kamloops, Trail, Duncan, B.C., and Coleman, Alta. The Bruins set a WHL record by losing 25 in a row and had to give season-ticket holders a refund for the 13 home games that were moved.
There were rumblings out of Swift Current that the locals were interested in a WHL franchise. John Rittinger, president of the SJHL team there, was trying to raise money for the venture. “I can’t give you a figure at this time,” he said on April 1, “but, personally, I feel there has been insufficient support.”
The juniors were beginning to realize they were going to have to live with the 18-year-old draft. Said Chynoweth: “The under-age situation is a problem but also a fact of life. The law of the land says at 18 you can fight for your country, drink and get married. Consequently, they’re also eligible to be drafted and play for NHL teams.”
The WHL had a new referee-in-chief — Richard Doerksen — and he was in the news in the playoffs after Strumm grabbed him in the press box during a game. Strumm was slapped with a two-game suspension and a $1,000 fine.
Victoria, under coach Jack Shupe, would win the WHL championship in 1980-81. Trailing Calgary 3-1, the Cougars bounced back and wrapped it up on May 1, beating the visiting Wranglers, 4-2, in Game 7.
Singing a song that would become popular in NHL circles in years to come, Calgary coach Doug Sauter explained: “(Goaltender Grant) Fuhr was the difference.”
F Cam Braes (Lethbridge, Moose Jaw, 2007-12) has signed a contract for the rest of this season with Aalborg (Denmark, Metal Ligaen) after obtaining his release from Orli Znojmo (Czech Republic, Erste Bank Liga). With Znojmo, he had three goals and two assists in 16 games. . . .
F Tyler Coulter (Brandon, 2012-17) has signed a tryout contract with Tyringe (Sweden, Division 1). Last season, he had one goal and three assists with the Jacksonville IceMen (ECHL), and two goals and one assist in 11 games with the University of Calgary (Canada West, USports). . . . Coulter had signed a contract with Vimmerby (Sweden, Division 1) on Nov. 3, but was released by mutual agreement on Sunday without playing in a game. . . .
F Zach Boychuk (Lethbridge, 2005-09) has signed a contract for the rest of this season with Bern (Switzerland, NL A). Boychuk was released by mutual agreement by Severstal Cherepovets (Russia, KHL) on Nov. 13 after recording two goals and two assists in 25 games. . . .
F Toni Rajala (Brandon, 2009-10) has signed three-year contract extension through April 2022 with Biel-Bienne (Switzerland, NL A). This season, he has nine goals and 10 assists in 20 games. He leads the team in points.
If you’ve ever wondered how the WHL puts together its schedule, you should give a listen to Hartley’s Cat Scan that is right here. . . . This one is 38 minutes long and features Richard Doerksen, the league’s vice-president, hockey, in conversation with Hartley Miller, the analyst on home broadcasts of Prince George Cougars’ games. . . . There’s a lot more here than just talk about the schedule, too.
The Kootenay Ice has returned F Owen Pederson 16 to the OHA-Edmonton prep team after played two weekend games, scoring in both of them. . . . A fifth-round selection in the WHL’s 2017 bantam draft, Pederson has two goals in eight games with the Ice this season. He has six goals and 14 assists in 12 games with his club team.
Hey, if you have ever wanted to own a piece of a hockey team this may be right up your alley. . . . The BCHL’s Alberni Valley Bulldogs are looking for “ownership partners” to help “solidify the long-term success of the franchise in Port Alberni.” The team is owned and operated by the Port Alberni Junior Hockey Society. . . . There’s more on this right here.
If you stop off here and enjoy what you see — or even if you don’t — feel free to click on the DONATE button over there on the right and make a contribution. Thanks in advance.
Gregg Popovich has indicated he doesn't want to coach forever, Steve Kerr will get tired of locker-room drama very soon. Looking better and better for #PopovichKerr2020@PopovichKerr