Posted by: cedarsurf | February 12, 2010

Don Cherry A Vancouver Canuck?

Ice Warriors –The Story of the Western Hockey League
By Jon Stott
Sports Crap Review

Don Cherry a Vancouver Canuck? The Maple Leafs in Victoria? And get this – a face-off circle located directly in front of the goal net. Pure hockey fantasy?

Hardly, welcome to the Western Hockey League.

Between 1948 and 1974 the Pacific Coast/Western Hockey league operated in a total of 22 cities in four provinces and seven states, in what was arguably one of the two best professional hockey leagues outside of the National Hockey League. While some of these players went on to have careers in the NHL including future hall of famers such as Glenn Hall, Alan Stanley and Gump Worsley, most were career grinders (like Don Cherry who played one season for the Canucks in 1968-69) who are now at long last remembered in Ice Warriors (Heritage House), by Jon C. Stott.

From 1915 to 1926, teams from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association and the Western Canada Hockey League had competed against NHL clubs for the Stanley Cup, with Vancouver, Seattle and Victoria each winning professional sports most prestigious cup. After that competition for the cup remained largely an eastern based affair until the 1970s. The advent of the Pacific Coast Hockey League in 1948 was seen as a western counterpart to the eastern-based NHL.

The Pacific Coast Hockey League (it became known as the Western Hockey League in 1952) had great aspirations. Duke McLeod reported in the Vancouver Sun that ‘league Directors believe that…not too long from now, the loop… will become a distinct threat to the NHL and AHL as a ‘big-time’ professional hockey organization.” Actually it would die trying.

The inaugural season of the PCHL in 1948 would operate two five-team divisions: the San Diego Skyhawks, Los Angeles Monarchs, Fresno Falcons, Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Shamrocks would play in the Southern Division. The Portland Eagles, Tacoma Rockets, Seattle Ironman , New Westminster Royals and Vancouver Canucks would make up the Northern Division.

The 1948-49 season saw Vancouver lead the league in attendance with New Westminster close behind. The southern teams did not fare nearly as well, although the San Diego Skyhawks would be the leagues first champions defeating the New Westminister Royals.

The following year saw the Victoria Cougars entered the league led by hockey legend Lester Patrick as its owner. In their first year the Cougars were a lousy team-setting records of futility -that drew great crowds.

The 1951-52 season saw a Prairie shift for the league with the addition of franchises in Calgary Edmonton and Saskatchewan. To reflect its extended geographical range, the PCHL renamed itself the Western Hockey league (WHL). The prairie franchises would do well for several years until the introduction of a spoiler known as Hockey Night in Canada drew live audiences away from the rink and onto the couch.

The 1951-52 season also saw the introduction of a new look on the ice level. Instead of two faceoff circles in each defensive zone, there would be only one, directly in front of the goal. League officials made the change to increase the punishment for non-penalty infractions by the defending team. Should the attacking club win a faceoff, officials reasoned, it had a better opportunity of making a screened shot on the goal. This experiment would be tried for three years before being abandoned in favour of the traditional two faceoff circles on either side of the net.

The 1955-56 season saw the addition of Winnipeg with its state of the art 10,000-seat arena. The league was constantly shifting franchises and allegiances with NHL teams in efforts to become more viable. Its experiments in various markets would eventually point the way for the NHL in its location of franchises. Although an official ‘white paper’ was signed between the NHL and WHL promising compensation for the location of NHL franchises in WHL territory this all came to naught.

The peripatetic nature of the league would see its shift its prairie expansion of the 50s into another southern expansion in the early 60s. It would become part of a pattern of expansion, contraction and alas, failure. The 1959-60 season also saw another league innovation a best of nine (!) championship series. This was played between the Vancouver Canucks and Victoria Cougars and won by the Cancuks.

In 1963, the WHL introduced a pension plan, the first in minor league professional sports.

By 1964 Victoria would have left and returned to the WHL, purchased by the Toronto Maple Leafs owner Stafford Smythe and renamed –surprise! -the Maple Leafs. They’d last three more seasons in the provincial capital before being sold to Phoenix.

Smythe also had his eye on Vancouver. Smythe was prepared to build a downtown coliseum, if the city would give him the land for free. Vancouver voters turned him down. In 1965-66 when the NHL awarded six new conditional franchises Vancouver was not on the list and speculation was that Stafford Smythe, still miffed by Vancouver voters’ refusal to give him free land on which to build an arena, had influenced his fellow owners’ votes against the Vancouver delegation. (Vancouver fans voiced their displeasure by boycotting products of Molson Breweries, owners of the Montreal Canadiens and a major sponsor of Hockey Night in Canada).

A total of 26 WHL players from the 1966-67 season became NHL regulars in the first year of expansion. This led to many older players in the WHL including Vancouver’s Phil Maloney (39) hanging in a few more years. As Stott writes, “From major-league aspirant to strong and independent professional league, the WHL was now moving toward becoming a place where NHL teams could send their aging farmhands and their not-so-brightly shining prospects.”

In Vancouver, the Canucks moved into their new arena, the Pacific Coliseum on January 7,1968 losing 4-2 to Providence of the AHL before 12,403 fans. The Vancouver Canucks played their last WHL game on May 2,1970. The team entered the NHL along with the Buffalo Sabres for the 1970–71 season. Ex-Ranger centre Orland Kurtenbach was named the Canucks’ first-ever captain, and the team played its inaugural game against the Los Angeles Kings on October 9, 1970, in which Barry Wilkins scored the first goal in franchise history. Two days later, the squad netted its first franchise win, with a score of 5–3 over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As for the WHL it would struggle on until 1974, the ongoing expansion of the NHL and the creation of the World Hockey Association would all contribute to the demise of a wonderful experiment that served western hockey well and in its way gave birth to our beloved Canucks. Jon C. Stott recounts the history of the league in a detailed, chronological order that honours the ambitions and dreams of a quarter century of ice warriors.

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