The WHL: In the beginning . . .
Written by Gregg Drinnan
From his blog "Taking Note"
It was the summer of 1966. There was unrest on the Prairies.
“Junior hockey in western Canada needs reorganization. But as long as certain provinces oppose progress, we will have problems.”
The speaker was Bill Hunter. At the time, Hunter was general manager of the Edmonton Oil Kings. And, to give you some idea of the state of confusion the junior game found itself in, the Oil Kings held two franchises — one in the Alberta junior league, the other in the Alberta senior league.
Ah, yes, it was a fine summer for reorganization and some men had a vision.
The likes of Scotty Munro in Estevan, Bill Hunter in Edmonton, Ben Hatskin in Winnipeg, Del Wilson in Regina and Brian Shaw in Moose Jaw saw bigger days ahead for junior hockey. The time, they believed, was right for progress. Unless, of course, you happened to be from Melville.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s annual meeting was scheduled for Wasagaming, the beautiful Manitoba resort community nestled on the shore of Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park.
“Neither Melville nor Flin Flon work hard enough at building a strong contender and it’s killing everyone,” Munro, the owner of the Estevan Bruins, offered prior to the meeting. “Melville has been rebuilding for the past four or five years. Flin Flon is in much the same position. We just can’t afford to have franchise holders who don’t work at making it a financial success.”
The SJHL constitution didn’t contain a provision for getting rid of a team unless said team was indebted to the league. Melville didn’t owe any money. Flin Flon did. But the constitution didn’t say anything about teams leaving on their own.
On June 17, 1966, it became unofficially official. Word leaked out that a new Western Canada Major Junior Hockey League had been formed and would include teams in Estevan, Weyburn, Regina, Moose Jaw and Brandon, all out of the SJHL, along with Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton. And so it came to pass that the SJHL began its annual meeting in Clear Lake. The date was June 21, 1966.
What came to pass is remembered by those who were there as the Clear Lake Massacre.
One man who was there is Ernie McLean, a junior hockey legend who was involved with Munro and the Estevan franchise back then.
“We were getting very disgusted with the CAHA (Canadian Amateur Hockey Association),” McLean, today a gold miner in the summer and a hockey fan in the winter, remembers. “We weren’t getting any help from them and they were taking a percentage all the time off the gates in the playoffs. At that particular time, we weren’t getting what we felt was a fair deal from the National Hockey League.
“At that time, the CAHA was bringing in any team that they thought could come into the league. They would apply and we were supposed to look after them. Melville was in, Yorkton was coming in.
“So at Clear Lake . . . it was really funny. In those days, you had to pay up your dues or you couldn’t vote, you never had a vote. As it happened, (SJHL president) Frank Boucher was the chairman. He called the meeting to order in Clear Lake.”
As McLean recalls, Boucher asked Munro for a cheque.
“Scotty said, “I can’t afford to pay.”
They said, “Well, Mr. Munro, you can’t vote.”
“They asked Bill Hunter for his cheque and he said, “I haven’t got one.”
They said, “Well you can’t vote.”
“It went around the table like that. All of a sudden they said, “Well, I guess we have no meeting.” And Frank says, “I guess we haven’t.”
“At that point in time, the guys got up from the table and walked across to another room in the hotel and formed a new league.”
It wasn’t quite that simple but that, in essence, is how what today is the Western Hockey League was born. Naturally, there was no joy in Melville, or Flin Flon, or Saskatoon, or Swift Current. These teams were suddenly looking at trying to put together a league that would also include Dauphin, Yorkton and North Battleford.
“What the hell,” Brandon Wheat Kings coach Eddie Dorohoy said, “if Melville can’t afford the opera, they gotta go for the barn dance.”
Plans for the new league weren’t finalized until later in the summer, though. And by that time Saskatoon was in, and Brandon and Winnipeg were out.
Today it seems strange, almost incomprehensible, that Saskatoon wasn’t included in the league’s formative talks. But the Blades were sponsored by the Los Angeles Blades, a team in the pro Western Hockey League. And when Los Angeles didn’t get an NHL expansion franchise in 1966, the future of the parent Blades was up in the air.
Today, Saskatoon is the only city to have been in the league since the start of the 1966-67 season. So, it wasn’t until later in the summer of ’66 that Saskatoon came on board with the new major junior league.
The Clear Lake meeting, originally scheduled for three days, didn’t even get through its second day. It adjourned until July 15 in Regina.
Before July 15 arrived, news came that the CAHA was refusing to grant official recognition to the new league. That bothered the likes of Munro and Hunter about the way a mosquito bothers a horse. And it was at that July 15 meeting that the SJHL was disbanded.
Melville showed up for the meeting with lawyer Isador (Red) Grotsky in tow, and that was a sign of things to come. Laurie Artiss, then sports editor of the Regina Leader-Post, reported: “When Melville objected to the reorganization of the league on constitutional grounds (and they were legally correct), Estevan’s Scotty Munro submitted a motion (prepared in advance) for the dissolution of the league. Melville’s amendment attempt was ruled out of order and the motion passed, predictably, 6 to 2. “
The vote was promptly followed by a “new” meeting of the “new” Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and it was announced applications for entry would be entertained. Melville flatly stated it wanted no part of a new league and before starting a seven-delegate walkout Grotsky fired a parting shot and his best lick.
“We contend this move is unconstitutional and will take all legal steps necessary to prove it,” he said.
That is exactly what happened on July 27 when Melville filed a lawsuit, asking for more than $250,000 in general and special damages. Before then, on July 21, Brandon pulled out.
“We want to play in the SJHL as it was incorporated prior to the Regina meeting,” Wheat Kings president Paul Dunn said.
Sorry. It was too late for that.
But then Boucher muddied the waters. No longer the SJHL president (the league gave him six month’s pay in lieu of notice), he now was commissioner of the CMJHL. And now he was proposing a six-team major- junior league in cities with universities (Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Brandon and Winnipeg), along with a six-team junior A league in Alberta and reformation of the SJHL.
The day after Boucher’s proposals were made public, Melville filed suit, asking for $250,000 in general damages and $8,800 in special damages. The $8.800 would cover such things as Buster Brayshaw’s salary; he had signed on to coach for $4,800. The legal action simply was another fly in the soup. In the early years, it seemed that there was a line going into the courthouse and another line going out. And, of course, the new league was an “outlaw” circuit.
“We had quite a league,” McLean says. “Of course, we were outlaws from the CAHA. We preferred to call it independent.”
When they finally got around to dropping the puck for that first season, answering the bell were the Edmonton Oil Kings, Estevan Bruins, Regina Pats, Moose Jaw Canucks, Saskatoon Blades, Weyburn Red Wings and Calgary Buffaloes.
Edmonton finished in first place over the 56-game regular season, while Saskatoon’s Gerry Pinder won the scoring title, with 140 points.
Come playoff time, though, it was a different story. Moose Jaw, with Brian Shaw (yes, the Portland hockey magnate) running the bench, ousted Regina in five games to win the best-of-seven final.
One other note to that first playoff season: They played one best-of-nine series without overtime, and Moose Jaw beat Edmonton three games to two with four ties.
By the time the 1967-68 season rolled around, the seven-team league had grown to 11 franchises and the Calgary Buffaloes had become the Centennials. Joining the original cities were Swift Current and three Manitoba centres — Flin Flon, Winnipeg and Brandon. Still, there were problems (as there would be off and on for years) with the CAHA.
“As we went along,” McLean says, “the CAHA said you won’t be drafted, that the kids wouldn’t be drafted and wouldn’t be playing in the National Hockey League. We just told them to go jump in the ocean.”
Concerned about their relationship with the CAHA, three teams — Regina, Moose Jaw and Weyburn — pulled out before the 1968-69 season. Regina would return two seasons later, but Moose Jaw didn’t get back in until the summer of ’84. Major junior hockey never did return to Weyburn. Flin Flon became the league’s most successful franchise on the ice, with the best regular-season record three years running and winning league championships in 1968-69 and ’69-70.
“Paddy (Ginnell) went into Flin Flon and turned that franchise right around,” McLean says. “He made them a tough, aggressive hockey club. It was worth your life to go in there and play.”
How tough was it? McLean recalls one weekend during the reign of commissioner Ron Butlin when Mike Shabaga was coaching Swift Current: “We always played Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Flin Flon. Well, Saturday night, they beat the crap out of Swift Current, just pounded the hell out of them. So they called for a conference call.
“Mike said, ‘Things are so bad, I’ve got the Red Cross signs on the bus so we can get out of town.’
“Anyway, Mike didn’t have enough players to play the game. So it was decided that so it would be fair to both sides, however many Mike could dress, that’s all Paddy could dress. Paddy moaned and groaned and the whole thing, and then Mike won the hockey game. Paddy came out of there, he was just livid.
“Those were the things that were done in those days. If, as a league, we made a decision, that was it.”
Shaw, now owner and general manager of the Portland Winter Hawks, agrees.
“Those guys then had balls,” Shaw says. “They wouldn’t stand for a troublemaker being in the league; they’d all get on him.
“Those guys would have a great deal of difficulty operating in the league the way it is today.”
Shaw continues: “The other thing, too, in those days there were lots of leaders. That’s why we were strong. No one ever went to a meeting and didn’t say anything. If you were new you shut up for two years until you learned what was going on. Yet, they never looked down their nose at you.
“If there was a problem with a club, it was the league’s problem. What I respected about them is that they would go and put their name on a banknote for another team. There’s not too many governors now who would do that. And if they couldn’t get the money from the bank for them, they’d go to a finance company.”
McLean adds: “Bill Hunter, Scotty Munro and Ben Hatskin . . . Scotty Munro would have the idea on hockey, Bill Hunter would sell it and Ben Hatskin would financially back it. Those were in the days when we had nothing else but Household Finance to get us started the next year.
“It was so much different back then. The guys were friends. We were partners.
“Then the corporations started moving in. The non-hockey people, people who didn’t know hockey got involved. It was a progression thing. You can’t say exactly when it all started to take place.”
The face of the league started to change prior to the 1970-71 season, which is when the Medicine Hat Tigers came on board as an expansion franchise, and the Regina Pats returned to the fold. In the first five seasons, three cities enjoyed championship seasons. Moose Jaw (1966-67) has yet to win another. The same holds true for Estevan (1967-68) and Flin Flon (1968-69 and 1969-70).
Edmonton (1970-71) would later win one more championship, but that would be its last one. That, as much as anything, was a harbinger of the change this league would go through during the 1970s.
The WHL, Part 2: Changes of scenery, battles on and off the ice and, uhh, a toupee . . .
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.
The WHL, Part 3: Bruins’ dynasty ends, franchises on the move and more mayhem . . .
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 hurting’ 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.”
The WHL, Part 4: Winds of change, Ferraro lights it up, and a player for a bus . . .
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.
The WHL, Part 5: There was tragedy, lots of movement and marshmallow punches . . .
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.
When the Swift Current Broncos’ bus crashed on Dec. 30, 1986, the hockey world lost Chris Mantyka (left), Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger and Brent Ruff. (Photo: Swift Current Broncos)
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 long-time 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.'