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West Side Story: 50 Years of the WHL

By Graeme Frisque on November 05, 2015


 

The 2015-16 season marks the Western Hockey League’s 50th season. In honour of the occasion, HockeyNow explores the journey from a small start-up, seven-team league in the 1960s to the hockey development powerhouse it is today. Countless stars and coaches called the “Dub” home before ever setting foot on an NHL rink. Like any longstanding organization, it has seen its ups and downs but has persevered. Over the next few pages we will explore the people, events and some of the historical landmarks that have helped turn the league into a Canadian institution and one of the top developmental leagues in the world. The WHL’s impact on the game of hockey is undeniable, and its journey there is the stuff of legends.

 

Established in 1966, the Western Hockey League (WHL) was born during a tumultuous time of transition for junior hockey in Canada.

The establishment of a major junior hockey league in western Canada was the brainchild of Scotty Munro, who had made a name himself in Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) after moving the Humboldt Indians to Estevan, Saskatchewan, re-establishing the team as the Estevan Bruins in 1956.

Prior to 1966, major junior hockey in western Canada was pretty much a one-team show, with the Edmonton Oil Kings considered the gold standard of junior hockey in the western provinces, wining six Memorial Cups between 1954-1965.

After a successful 10-year run in the SJHL, Munro decided there was a market for major junior hockey in Western Canada and enlisted Oil Kings owner Bill Hunter in an effort to create the region’s first major junior league.

Jim Piggott, owner of the SJHL’s Saskatoon Blades and Regina Pats GM and eventual owner, Del Wilson, were also on-board with the plan. That foursome is celebrated today as the league’ s co-founders.

The WHL began life as the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League (CMJHL) in the 1966-67 season with seven member clubs: The Calgary Buffaloes, Edmonton Oil Kings, Estevan Bruins, Moose Jaw Canucks, Regina Pats, Saskatoon Blades and Weyburn Red Wings.

The Moose Jaw Canucks beat the Regina Pats 4-1 in a best-of-seven series in the first ever President’s Cup finals (later re-named the Ed Chynoweth Cup).

The following season, the league shortened its name to the Western Canada Hockey League and added four more teams: The Brandon Wheat Kings, Flin Flon Bombers, Swift Current Broncos and Winnipeg Jets.

However, by 1969, the number of teams had dropped to eight and were formed into two divisions, East and West. The Flin Flon Bombers – led by a young Bobby Clarke – appeared in three straight President’s Cup finals, winning in 1969 and 1970, while losing to the Edmonton Oil Kings in ’71.

The 1969 President’s Cup final between Flin Flon and the Western Junior ‘A’ champion St. Thomas Barons in particular, highlighted the disparity of talent between the new WCHL and the rest of the junior teams in western Canada. The series was a blowout with the Bombers sweeping the Barons in a historically one-sided affair.

The disparity highlighted by that series would be a sign of things to come. While the WHL was still finding its legs in the late 1960s, a massive shift in Canadian junior hockey was afoot across the country.

Back in 1933, the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) broke junior hockey down into two tiers – ‘A’ and ‘B’ divisions. The ‘A’ division operated as the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League (OMJHL) and would eventually become the OHL.

In 1969 the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) was established with 11 teams, creating the final piece in what is known today as the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).

 

The 1970s kicked off  with a major shift in Canadian junior hockey. The decade began with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) reconfiguring their junior tier into two separate classifications – Major Junior and Junior ‘A’.

The WCHL, OMJHL and QMJHL broke off from CAHA to form their own major junior governing body — which would become the CHL in 1975 — while the remaining clubs across the country would compete under the Junior ‘A’ banner (often referred to as “Tier 2” until 1980).

The change also meant the Memorial Cup, competed for annually by junior clubs across the country since 1919, would become exclusive to major junior and those three leagues.

The new Memorial Cup format began in 1972 and featured the champions in each of the three major junior leagues squaring off in a round robin phase to determine which two teams would meet in the seven-game final.

The Edmonton Oil Kings were the first WHL Memorial Cup representatives in 1972, with the Regina Pats becoming the first western Memorial Cup champs under the new system in 1974.

Also in 1972, the league appointed Ed Chynoweth as President. Chynoweth has become synonymous with Canadian major junior hockey and is considered by many to be the most influential individual in the WHL’s long history. Chynoweth would also be named CHL President in 1975 and would hold both positions until he retired in 1995.

“Definitely Ed Chynoweth is the person who helped put the Western Hockey League on the map. He came in at a time when it was necessary to bring the league together to make it respectable in Canada and internationally as well,” said current WHL commissioner Ron Robison.

“He did a great job of providing leadership, both in the WHL and Canadian Hockey League, so if there is one individual (who had the greatest impact on the league), Ed would be the one I point to because of his contributions over the years,” added Robison.

The early seventies saw the WHL go through some growing pains with teams coming and going year-after-year.

The first American franchise entered the league in 1976 after the Edmonton Oil Kings relocated to Portland to become the Winterhawks. Just two years later the Flin Flon Bombers moved to Edmonton, becoming the second incarnation of the Oil Kings.

That same year in 1978, the league shortened its name one last time from the WCHL to the now familiar Western Hockey League (WHL).

Hockey was a very different game in the ‘70s from the much more refined and polished product we are used to as fans today. Throughout the decade the WHL began to earn a reputation as a rough league, not for the feint of heart.

“High-scoring and rough and tumble, I think that’s the best way to describe the league (back then),” said former NHL goalie and Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Kelly Hrudey, who played for the Medicine Hat Tigers from 1978-1981.

“It was a league where you had to stand up for yourself and that meant the goaltenders, too. We had all sorts of brawls and things like that. It was definitely a different era, you can look back now and think, ‘Seriously? That was hockey back then?’”

That culture would begin to change in the 80’s, but what Hrudey says he remembers most about the era – aside from meeting his wife Donna while playing with the Tigers – are the future stars who emerged from the league during that time.

“Prior to my playing days, I think of guys like Lanny McDonald and Tom Lysiak – two former Medicine Hat Tigers – I think of Bobby Clarke and Bryan Trottier, Pete Peeters, Reggie Leach … There are just so many guys to me that made a mark on my life,” he said.

As bell-bottoms and disco  switched to big hair and synthesizers at the dawn of the 80’s, the WHL had grown to 13 teams, including four American franchises.

In 1983, the Memorial Cup tournament expanded to four teams to include the host city as well as the three league champs – The same format that exists today. The first WHL team to host the tournament was the Portland Winterhawks, representing the first time the Memorial Cup had been played outside Canada. Portland also won the tournament to become the first ever U.S. franchise to be named Memorial Cup champs.

By this point, the WHL had gone through its initial growing pains, but had a bit of a public relations problem on its hands after earning a reputation as a rough and somewhat disorderly league.

WHL Hockey Vice-President Richard Doerksen has worked for the league for 38 years and has witnessed the league's evolution during and since those days.

“Anybody who followed our league in the 70s and 80s, some of the stuff that went on in the games in those days, people might be in jail now,” joked Doerksen. “We went through a very rugged era that really mirrored sort of what was going on in the NHL in those days with teams like the Broad Street Bullies in Philadelphia.”

It wasn’t until the mid part of the decade that the league really began to clamp down on player safety. According to Doerksen, in an effort to curb the “mayhem on ice” as he described it, the league began implementing rules prohibiting hits from behind and handing out suspensions for players who received too many game misconducts.

Unfortunately, it took a tragic event that rocked the whole hockey world in 1987 to really set those wheels in motion. On March 1, 1987, Brad Hornung of the Regina Pats was paralyzed during a game after being checked from behind.

The WHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Player award was later renamed the Brad Hornung Trophy in his honour.

“That incident really opened the eyes of people all around hockey from the pros on down. Things really started changing after that,” said Doerksen, adding that the change in style from a more physical to the skilled game we see today has been by far the biggest change he’s seen in league over the years.

“I think when people look back on the early days they remember the roughness and some of the other stuff that went on, but we always had tremendous skill as well,” he said.

The culture of player safety that began in the late 80s has been a running theme since and there is no arguing that both the league and players are better off for it.

 

As the last decade  of the millennium started, the WHL as we know it today began to come into focus.

The league held its first Bantam Draft in 1990, which represented a major change in how teams found talent and built their rosters.

“Back then you weren’t drafted. You were sent a letter from teams to come and try out,” said Hrudey, who was 17 years old at the time. “I received letters from the New Westminster Bruins and one from the Medicine Hat Tigers. My goal that year was to make the Saint Albert Saints in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. On my second day in training camp I was called into the office by Vic Stasiuk – who was the coach at the time – I thought I was being cut, but he told me I made the team.”

Darcy Mattersdorfer became the first ever WHL draft pick when the now-defunct Victoria Cougars took him first overall from the Elk Valley Raiders that year.

In 1992, the CHL also held the first CHL Import Draft, which gives all 60 CHL teams the opportunity to draft players born outside of the U.S. and Canada. Each team is allowed two imports on their rosters at any given time.

Many league insiders, including current commissioner Ron Robison, highlight the WHL Scholarship program as one of the biggest accomplishment of 90s and the Chynoweth era.

The program was born from the realization that the vast majority of WHL grads will not progress to a professional career and prior to the scholarship program, the commitment required to play at that level made education difficult and hampered many players in their pursuits once their junior careers ended.

“When the league introduced a standardized, fully-indexed scholarship program for the benefit of all players, I think that’s probably one of the most significant dates in the history of our evolution,” said Robison.

This year alone 337 WHL grads have taken advantage of the program, representing more than $2 million. Since 1993, the league has handed out more than 5,500 scholarships worth over $19 million.

Kyle Ross, who played parts of six seasons with the Red Deer Rebels and Regina Pats, is one of the 5,500 players who’ve taken advantage of the program and a two-time winner of the CIS Top Eight Academic All-Canadian Award.

“The WHL scholarship program overall is wonderful. It’s something that you really don’t appreciate until you get to university and see the lengths some people have to go to get their education,” said Ross. “On the hockey-side it was a great experience. I really enjoyed all five years of my CIS career and the scholarship really helped me keep playing while I finished up my studies.”

Ross attended both the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan, graduating with a law degree.

In 1995, the league bid farewell to long-time commissioner Ed Chynoweth, who retired after 23 years in the post. The President's Cup was renamed in his honor in 2007.

Dev Dley replaced Chynoweth and would remain in the role until 2000 when Robison took the reins.

 

By the end of the ’90s and the beginning of the Robison era, the league had grown to 18 teams. By 2015 it would add four more to fill its current complement of 22 franchises on both sides of the border.

The WHL dominated the Memorial Cup starting in the early 90’s when the Kamloops Blazers won three titles in four seasons between 1992-1995. That impressive group included the likes of future NHLers Darcy Tucker, Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Nolan Baumgartner, Ryan Huska and Tyson Nash, to name a few.

Between 1989 and 2008, WHL teams claimed an impressive 11 of 20 Memorial Cup titles. A five-year drought following that run finally ended in 2014 when the Edmonton Oil Kings put the league back atop the podium.

It is impossible to tell any story during the information age without recognizing  the impact of technology and the WHL is no exception.

Technological advancements since the turn of the century have changed not only the WHL, but also the game of hockey itself.  Since the advent of the Internet in the mid 90’s and the rapid evolution that has followed, everything from scouting to how fans watch the game has changed.

The word “streaming” would have inspired visions of a small waterway in times past, but now Robison says technologies like online video streaming and social media – as well as advancements in health and player fitness – have drastically changed the face of the league, while at the same time expanding its reach, popularity and fan base.

“A lot of things have changed. First of all the quality of players and the on-ice product has changed significantly. You’re looking at a game that’s all about skill and speed,” said Robison. “(Technology) has had a big impact… (Online) streaming, for example, has become a new means of delivering our product to our fans and has helped expand our reach internationally.”

Rule changes throughout the 2000s have also had a major impact with the implementation of shootout to decide tie games, removing the red line and, just this year ,the advent of 3-on-3 overtime in an effort to cut down the number of aforementioned shootouts.

With the rise of the concussion debate, which dominated the late 2000s and early 2010s, player safety once again came to the forefront. The rule changes that have followed have been the driving force behind the shift to a faster, skilled game.

The 2000s have bred many memorable moments – too many to name here – but one in particular sticks out in Robison’s mind.

“From my standpoint, that memorable seven-game series in 2007 where Game 7 was played in the fog really sticks out,” he said.

“The Medicine Hat Tigers won that game in overtime and went on to the Memorial Cup, where they lost to the Vancouver Giants in the final, the same team they beat in fog during the league championship a couple weeks earlier. That and more made 2007 a very memorable year for me,” added Robison.

The 2015-16 season marks the league’s 50th season and through all the ups and downs, the “Dub” has survived and thrived. The league has been the incubator for countless NHL stars and provided fans and players alike with countless memories and an ongoing glimpse into the game’s future.

It’s been a great ride so far and the league’s future looks brighter than ever.

Thanks for the memories and here’s to the next 50!

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By Graeme Frisque| November 05, 2015
Categories:  Major Junior

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