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 in the process of 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 that are posted here are pretty much as originally written. . . . Here is Part 2. . . .
When the 1970-71 season ended, the Western Canada Hockey League was still very much a prairie circuit, what with 10 teams spread over Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
But that wasn’t the case when the 1971-72 season rolled around.
By then, there were three teams in British Columbia — Ernie McLean and Bill Shinske had packed up their Estevan Bruins, moved west and taken up residence in New Westminster, and two expansion franchises, the Vancouver Nats and Victoria Cougars, had set up shop. (Interestingly, the Nats’ logo used an apostrophe — Nat’s — but in print the nickname always seemed to be Nats.)
The WCHL had, indeed, become a western league.
And there would be just two franchise shifts (Vancouver to Kamloops, Swift Current to Lethbridge) by the time the league completed its 10th season in the spring of 1976.
But it was an announcement out of New York that made the biggest news in the summer of ’71. Bill Hunter, one of the WCHL’s founding fathers, was involved, as was Ben Hatskin (Winnipeg). It would change the face of hockey forever.
“We announced we’d start the World Hockey Association with 12 franchises and we would have parity,” Hunter said.
In an interview in 1988, Hunter maintained he wanted nothing to do with drafting under-age juniors.
“Ben (Hatskin) and I made an agreement with the CAHA (Canadian Amateur Hockey Association) that we would not sign under-age juniors,” Hunter recalled. “The NHL made the same agreement. We had two separate meetings. The very next day: Baby Bulls.”
The WHA’s Birmingham Bulls signed half-a-dozen under-age juniors, including Rob Ramage and Ken Linesman.
“We couldn’t control the owners within our league,” Hunter said.
Prior to the birth of the WHA, the WCHL was the only game in town everywhere but Vancouver. In the next few years, pro hockey would come to Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg and junior hockey would lose out in the process.
Everyone was fighting with someone in those days, on and off the ice. The juniors in the west, in Ontario and in Quebec were fighting with the NHL, with the WHA, with the CAHA, with themselves.
The WHA continued to romance under-age juniors. Dennis Sobchuk, a flashy centre with the Regina Pats, was courted by the Los Angeles Sharks after his second WCHL season.
The House of Commons in Ottawa threatened to get involved. WCHL president Ed Chynoweth said his league was thinking about obtaining an injunction against players who sign pro contracts while still holding junior eligibility.
The action off the ice was hot and heavy. It’s a wonder they could find time to play the games.
The Edmonton Oil Kings had won the 1971-72 championship, their second straight and the last junior title that city would win. But it was the Medicine Hat Tigers, in only their second season, who had everyone talking.
The Tigers, with Tom Lysiak winning the scoring title and Stan Weir and Lanny McDonald finishing second and eighth respectively, were fourth in the West Division, five games over .500.
That was a harbinger because the Tigers, coached by Jack Shupe, won it all the next season, in only their third season of operation. Lysiak won his second straight scoring title, with McDonald finishing third.
It was at meetings in Medicine Hat in February of 1973 that the WCHL took a giant step forward, announcing plans to establish an office, with a full-time administrative staff, in Saskatoon. Chynoweth would replace Thomas K. Fisher of New Westminster as executive secretary.
And there was more talk of shifting franchises. Lethbridge was on the verge of getting a $2-million sports centre for the 1975 Canada Winter Games.
The first mention of Lethbridge actually getting a franchise came on Feb. 15, 1973, when Chynoweth, in discussing possible franchise moves, said: “Swift Current is another possibility, even though (owner) Bill Burton would like to keep the club in that city. Economically, it might not be possible.”
Meanwhile, Regina Pats owner Del Wilson said he was tired of “scrimping and saving, trying to operate in a building like (Exhibition) Stadium. It’s like beating your head against a brick wall.”
Regina met the Flin Flon Bombers in the first round of playoffs in ’73. The series opened in Flin Flon with the Bombers winning, 3-1 and 5-3. There was no Agridome in Regina then and Exhibition Stadium was booked by the annual Regina Horse Show. So, the Pats played their home games in Moose Jaw, and lost, 5-1 and 4-3.
A glorious season awaited the Pats, though, as they would win the Memorial Cup in the spring of 1974. Under coach Bob Turner, the former Montreal Canadiens defenceman and five-time Stanley Cup champion, the Pats became the first WCHL team to win the Canadian championship.
Edmonton had won it in 1966, the year before the major junior league was formed. Between ’66 and ’74 the WCHL wasn’t always eligible for the Memorial Cup, what with the CAHA outlawing it at various times.
By the time that 1973-74 season arrived, the Vancouver Nats were gone, purchased by Kamloops interests and reborn as the Chiefs.
There was concern, too, over the Winnipeg Junior Jets, who were struggling because of the presence of the WHA. Ben Hatskin soothed the troubled waters, saying he didn’t “plan to sell the franchise, or move it out of Winnipeg.” Shortly after, Hatskin sold it and the team was renamed the Clubs.
At the 1973 annual meeting in Saskatoon, Chynoweth, who had joined the league in December of 1972 as assistant executive secretary and was named executive secretary in February of 1973, was named president.
On July 16, it was revealed that the WCHL, Ontario Hockey Association Junior A Series and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League had united under the umbrella of the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League.
It was during the 1973-74 season where things started to get out hand on the ice.
On Oct. 12, 1973, a brawl between Swift Current and Regina spread to the stands. Three days later, the WCHL had a board meeting in Regina and put the onus for increased security on its teams and arena operators.
Unfortunately, people in Regina were slow to react to this directive and the Broncos were in the stands during a playoff game on April 20. Three days later, two Broncos — Dave Williams and Terry Ruskowski — were charged by police.
On Aug. 23, Ruskowski and Williams were fined a total of $450, both pleading guilty to charges of common assault.
The two “disgraced themselves,” said Judge Howard Boyce. “Hockey is considered tops with many among body contact sports. It contains controlled violence. When control and direction are lost, it deteriorates into a criminal spectacle and that’s what happened.”
It would happen again and again through the 1970s.
On March 27, 1974, Chynoweth took what was then believed to be a drastic step. He announced that an undercover agent (an official from a neutral team) would attend each playoff game. It is a policy the league follows to this day.
There were good things happening on the ice, too. After centre Ron Chipperfield scored three goals in a 3- 1 victory in Regina, Brandon Wheat Kings GM/head coach Rudy Pilous said: “Ron Chipperfield is the greatest box-office attraction this league has ever had or ever will have.” Chipperfield would score 261 goals in 252 games, a career record that stood until 1989-90 when Glen Goodall (Seattle Thunderbirds) finished with 262 goals (in 399 games).
By late in the 1973-74 season, the Pats were talking about moving. “We certainly don’t want to leave Regina but we may be forced to,” Wilson said, admitting that he had talked with operators of the Spokane Coliseum. “Like I said before, we don’t want to leave Regina. But unless there is a firm commitment on a new building forthcoming, we have no other choice but to look elsewhere.”
And by now Burton was admitting that he was thinking of moving: “I will be in Lethbridge to discuss the move with a committee they have formed to study the possibility of joining the league.”
The Broncos changed cities on May 6.
On April 30, 1974, things heated up as Sobchuk signed a 10-year, $1.7-million contract with the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers. Charles Hillinger of The Los Angeles Times wrote: “The kid earns only $300 a month. Come fall his paycheque soars to $472 a day, $14,166 a month, $170,000 a year.”
Sobchuk was thrilled: “I’ve been skating since I learned to walk, but I sure never expected anything like this. It all happened so sudden. My name on a piece of paper and I’ve gone from farmhouse to penthouse.”
Two weeks later, Chynoweth revealed the three major junior leagues were looking at using a limited number of 20-year-old players to compensate for losing under-age players to the pros.
The 1974-75 season signalled the beginning of the New Westminster dynasty. Shinske, McLean and the Bruins would win four straight league titles.
But before that happened, there were some interesting developments.
On Oct. 17, 1974, Chynoweth, Wilson and Scotty Munro were given the OK by the board to visit Spokane.
“Regina has the right of first refusal on the Spokane question,” Chynoweth said, “but we are just testing the waters.”
They were also to visit Portland, the first time the Oregon city had been mentioned publicly as a possible franchise site.
On Jan. 14, 1975, the stuff hit the fan as the WCHL announced it had decided to withdraw from the CAHA. The WCHL said it would increase its age limit from 19 to 20 and would seek separate agreements with NHL and WHA.
“We now will control our own destiny and we’re through dealing through a third party (CAHA) comprised of people who have no direct investment in the sport,” Chynoweth said. “We operate a $1-million business and some guy who doesn’t own one puck comes along and tells us what to do. It’s time we started looking after ourselves.”
At the time, the WCHL claimed the NHL and WHA owed it $640,000 for players drafted in 1974.
“Eight NHL clubs and six from the WHA have yet to pay for players they’ve been using since October,” said Chynoweth. “We have an obligation to support minor hockey leagues, our source of supply, and we’ll live up to any agreements we make. All we ask is that the pro leagues do the same.”
Chynoweth was quickly becoming one of the most popular hockey people in the country. Accessible and blessed with a dry wit, the media was going to him with more and more frequency.
In the press box at the Calgary Corral one night, Chynoweth was clowning with the press. Chatting about some of the owners who were losing money, he said: “You know something. When it comes to it, we’ve got some guys in this league who wouldn’t get to first base in a women’s prison with a handful of pardons.”
Chynoweth continued to have his hands full with the likes of Pat Ginnell, who by now was in Victoria as head coach of the Cougars, and McLean. At one point, Chynoweth fined and suspended Ginnell, who in turn threatened to hit Chynoweth with an injunction.
Then, on March 11, 1975, McLean became physically involved with Regina sportscaster Mal Isaac and police were called. McLean was hit with a five-game suspension and had to post a $1,000 bond.
The Pats announced on April 30 that they would stay in Regina and that a new building should be completed by Christmas of 1976.
The Bruins, down 3-2 in the best-of-seven final to Saskatoon, won 4-1 and 7-2 to claim the title. They became only the second B.C. team, after the Trail Smoke Eaters in 1944, to advance to the Memorial Cup final.
“We moved the franchise here from Estevan four years ago,” McLean said, “and it’s taken us that long to get the farm system where we want it. We’ve got a solid system now with plenty of good, young talent on the way and we’re going to be OK for a long time.”
He was right.
But before the Bruins could continue to build their dynasty, the WCHL turned down expansion bids from Portland and Vancouver. Brian Shaw, coach of the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers, Nat Bailey and Oil Kings coach Ken Hodge wanted to move the Oil Kings to Vancouver. Of course, Shaw and Hodge would later move the team to Portland.
The 1975-76 season would be perhaps the ugliest in WCHL history.
It began with Victoria mayor Peter Pollen leaving his seat to have a heated discussion with Ginnell in the middle of a game against Calgary. Pollen, angry after a 20-minute second-period brawl, left his seat behind the penalty bench, circled the rink, climbed on the Cougars’ bench and gave Ginnell a tongue-lashing.
“I asked him if he was going to get his animals under control,” Pollen explained. “Is this the example we set for our young people? This is a complete disgrace. If I have my way, they won’t play here anymore. This isn’t sport — it’s barbarism.”
On Nov. 4, Ginnell said he had proposed two rule changes that were designed to reduce fighting and that both would soon come into effect. One forced players not involved in a fight to go immediately to the player benches or be given game misconducts. The other called for a match penalty and a suspension for anyone charging a goaltender in his crease.
Twelve days later, Ginnell was hit with a game misconduct after he jumped on the ice to protest a game misconduct that had been given to one of his players.
It was on Feb. 20 when the situation bottomed out.
In Saskatoon, Blades defenceman Bryan Baron was struck in one eye by a high stick belonging to Victoria’s Tim Williams. That touched off a brawl involving all players, and it took 50 minutes before play was resumed.
Moments before the brawl, Saskatoon’s Bruce Hamilton, who would go on to own the Tacoma/Kelowna Rockets, was taken to hospital with a concussion. He later was joined by Glen Leggott, who got a concussion in the brawl. And teammate Fred Williams needed 14 stitches to close a cut.
Before this one blew over, politicians at the city and provincial levels were involved, as were police. On Feb. 22, Saskatoon council, fearing another outbreak of violence, voted unanimously to shut down the Arena for the evening, forcing postponement of the rematch.
On Feb. 24, Ginnell resigned as coach of the Cougars during a 4-1/2 hour governors’ meeting in Saskatoon. He returned for the playoffs and apparently never was fined or suspended for the brawl. Ginnell said he wasn’t pressured into resigning, but “if I am responsible for violence in hockey, I don’t want to be in it.”
With the Bruins in Saskatoon on Feb. 24, Blades coach Jack McLeod and McLean signed an agreement in which they pledged to do everything in their power to see that the game was played within all rules and regulations for proper conduct. New Westminster took five of eight minors and won the game, 5-2.
On March 16, three players — Victoria’s Greg Tebbutt and Williams and Saskatoon’s Peter Goertz — were charged with assault causing bodily harm. The charges later were dismissed.
Amidst everything, Chynoweth offered his resignation. “It isn’t a play for more money; it is simply that there is too much hassle,” he reasoned. “It is starting to bother me that all my friends in Saskatoon are going to the airport to take flights out for winter holidays. I go to the airport and fly to Flin Flon.”
Some of the hassle was relieved when it was announced the league office would move from Saskatoon to Calgary at season’s end.
Meanwhile, Shaw and Hodge put together a group that bought the Oil Kings from World Hockey Enterprises, owners of the WHA’s Oilers, for more than $150,000.
And Chynoweth revealed in January that the WCHL was increasing its playoff teams from eight to 10. “We added the two teams simply for financial reasons,” Chynoweth said.
Still, the goofiness wouldn’t go away.
Lethbridge coach Mike Sauter and defenceman Darcy Regier, who wasn’t dressed for the game, spent almost two hours in a Medicine Hat jail after a bench-clearing incident.
Winnipeg owner/GM/coach Gerry Brisson pulled his team from the ice in New Westminster. The game, won by the Bruins 17-0, was delayed 30 minutes after Winnipeg’s best player, defenceman Kevin McCarthy, had his nose broken in the first minute of play. “I think (McLean) recruits his players in a lumber camp,” Brisson said. “Playing in New Westminster is like sending a pig to slaughter, and hoping he comes out alive.”
McLean responded: “Whatever happens in our building we get blamed for it. The other teams know they can start anything and we’ll end up getting blamed for it.”
Through it all, the Bruins rolled to title No. 2. But the march to the title was marred by an incident involving McLean and linesman Harvey Hildebrandt.
On April 30, McLean was fined for criticizing the officiating in a 10-3 loss to the host Saskatoon Blades in the championship series. That night, during a game his team would lose 9-3 in Saskatoon to even the eight-point series at 4-4, McLean reached over the boards and yanked the toupee off Hildebrandt’s head. It was in the third period and the Blades had just scored their eighth goal.
“Losing causes some coaches to grasp at straws,” wrote Lyndon Little of the Vancouver Sun. “Ernie McLean grabs toupees.”
McLean had to post a $5,000 personal performance bond before the next game.
On June 11, the WCHL headed south of the 49th as Shaw announced the Oil Kings would move to Portland.
“The attitude of the people in Portland is fantastic,” Shaw said. “I really don’t think we could have picked a much better location. The first year I was involved with the (Oil Kings) was 1971. We drew something like 150,000 fans. The following year, when the Oilers moved in, we attracted 90,000, and the next year only 68,000. There is the charisma of a professional team that we can’t compete against. We had to make the move.”
Not everyone was thrilled. Alberta NDP leader Grant Notley spoke up when the WCHL declared Edmonton a protected area for the Portland Winter Hawks.
Notley said the arrangement “makes hockey players look like pigs and swine being sold at an auction.”
Leo LeClerc, a founder of the Oil Kings, added: “It’s change enough for a youngster to move from Stettler in central Alberta to Edmonton. Imagine moving to a foreign country. I’m frankly appalled that the ruling class in hockey — the board of governors of the WCHL — would even consider moving Canadian youngsters into a foreign country. The next thing you know they’ll be sending them to East Germany.”
There was a change in Saskatoon in June when Jim Piggott, who had been involved in ownership of a junior team in Saskatoon for almost 20 years, sold to McLeod, Nathan Brodsky and Joe Reich. Brodsky became the majority shareholder.
NEXT: Part 3 of 5.