Tag Archives: Kamloops Rockets

KAMLOOPS: HOCKEYTOWN

by Ron Spence

A number of B.C. teams have excelled in hockey.

The Vancouver Millionaires won the Stanley Cup in 1915, and the Victoria Cougars repeated ten years later. The Kimberly Dynamiters won the World Championships in 1937, and the Penticton Vees in 1955. The Trail Smoke Eaters won the Worlds both in 1939 and 1961. And the Vernon Lakers/Vipers topped Canadian Junior A hockey, when they won the Centennial/Royal Cups in 1990, 1991, 1996 and 1999.

B.C.’s consistent success story has been the Kamloops Blasers. They have achieved eight 50 win seasons, and eleven WHL championships, during their twenty-six year history. The Blasers have made six Memorial Cup appearances, and have the most tournament wins – nineteen.

Kamloops also won the Memorial Cup three times in four years, from 1991-92 to 1994-95, which is a record. During these years, three Blasers were named Cup MVPs: Darcy Tucker, Shane Doan and Scott Niedermayer. Sixty-eight Blaser grads have moved on to play in the NHL.

Also, five Kamloops coaches have graduated to the NHL. Ken Hitchcock (Columbus), Tom Renney (New York) and Don Hay have been head coaches, and Dean Evason (Washington) and Marc Habscheid have been NHL Assistants.

Why has this small B.C. city repeatedly beaten higher budgeted teams, in larger centres across Canada, and the U.S.?

First of all, the Blasers have the community support of eighty-four thousand fans.

Tom Renney states: “There is a tremendous sense of pride in the community that collectively supports the tradition of the team.”

The Kamloops tradition started nearly seventy-five years ago, when they first registered a team with the B.C.A.H.A. during the 1927-28 season. Their teams played on natural ice until Kamloops built a 2200 seat Memorial Arena during the 1948-49 season. The first championship Kamloops team, the Elks played the following year in the new Mainland Okanagan Amateur Hockey League. The champs had three of the league’s top five scorers (in a five team league), and went on to win the Savage Cup. A few years later the Kamloops Loggers, a Senior AA team, won the Coy Cup.

Another Kamloops team, the Chiefs played in the Okanagan Senior Hockey League during the late 1950s. The Chiefs won the Coy Cup in 1963 and 1964, while the Kamloops Rockets, a Junior A team, won the Mowat Cup in 1962, 1964 and 1971.

In 1973, the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League’s Vancouver Nats relocated to Kamloops. They adopted the Chiefs’ name, and featured future NHLers Ryan Walter and Reg Kerr. Unfortunately, the twenty-five year old Memorial Arena was too small, and the Chiefs moved to Seattle in 1977.

Kamloops’ next team was the B.C. Junior Hockey League’s Braves, who were a development team for Major Junior. Future NHLers Andy Moog and Tim Watters started their careers with the Braves, who also folded. Following the Braves came the Tier 11 Rockets, who also left Kamloops, but to Revelstoke this time.

Then Kamloops’ big break came in 1981, when the New Westminster Bruins moved north. The Kamloops Junior Oilers – as they were next called – were owned by the Edmonton Oilers, who soon considered relocating to the prairies. That was when the Kamloops community pride stepped in and raised, and borrowed, enough money to buy their own team.

Another reason for the Blasers’ success has been their management. Don Hay stated: “The strength of the Organization starts at the top with guys like Colin Day, Bob Brown, Stu McGregor and the scouts. As a result, we all believed in the same philosophy and what it took to be successful.”

Blasers’ new management was smart enough to hire the best minor league coach in Canada. Ken Hitchcock, from Edmonton, led the Blasers from their inception in 1984, until 1990. He established the Blasers’ philosophy, before moving on to the International League, and a Stanley Cup in Dallas in 1999.

Hitchcock’s first W.H.L. season, the Blasers placed third, and the second year they won the championship, and finished third at the Memorial Cup. Kamloops roared to first place in 1987 and 1988, and went to the Division Finals in 1989. The 1989-90 season, the Blazers again won the WHL Championship, and played for the Memorial Cup for the third time in their seven year history.

Hitchcock left Kamloops with a .693 winning percentage (291-125-15), and had been named the league’s Coach – of – the – Year in 1986-87 and again in 1989-90. Hitch was also voted Canadian Major Junior Hockey’s top coach that same season.

Tom Renney, from Cranbrook, followed in Hitchcock’s footsteps. His first season, the Blasers finished in first place, with a 50-20-2 record, but injuries kept them from the Memorial Cup. In 1991-92 they compiled a 51-17-4 season (Their third consecutive 50 win season, a C.H.L. record.), won the WHL Championship, and went to their fourth Memorial Cup in nine seasons. The Blazers won their first Cup, defeating the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds.

Renney was named the Coach-of-the-Year his rookie season, and earned a .731 win percentage over two seasons, the highest in W.H.L. history.

It was also in 1992, that the new Riverside Coliseum – renamed the Interior Savings Centre – was built.

Kamloops homeboy Don Hay succeeded Renney, and won two Memorial Cups over the next four years, and achieved a .699 winning percentage.

Since Kamloops’ golden years, the Blasers have had their ups and downs. However, one thing has remained the same.

“…hard work has been the common denominator,” Don Hay summarized, “with each successful Blazer team over the years.”

It’s this common denominator, that many believe will lead the Blasers to a Memorial Cup championship once again.

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The preceding blog was written for the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame:

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THE B.C. (JUNIOR) HOCKEY LEAGUE

by Ron Spence

Background

British Columbia hockey was alive and well by the time that the West Coast Hockey League folded in 1926. B.C.’s first junior hockey championships were scheduled the following season, when the Vancouver Terminals beat Salmon Arm. The next year, when the Mowat Cup was introduced, there were nine eligible teams from the Kootenays, Okanagan, Prince George, Victoria and Vancouver.

Talent was evenly distributed, and Fernie won the first cup, Nelson the second and Vancouver the third and fourth.

There were thirteen junior teams by the 1930-31 season, and Trail won the fifth and sixth cups.

The Okanagan Junior “A” Hockey League was formed the 1961-62 season, with the Kelowna Buckaroos, Vernon Canadians, Kamloops Rockets and the Penticton Vees competing. The Kootenay Junior “B” Hockey League was started the 1969-70 season.

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BCHL Graduate Carey Price - courtesy of Tri-City

BCHL Grad Carey Price - courtesy of Tri-City Americans

The B.C. Junior Hockey League was formed the year before NHL expansion, and included teams from Kamloops, Kelowna, Vernon, Penticton, New Westminster and Victoria.

Fewer teams were included to maintain a higher standard. Additional junior teams were relegated to B circuits.

Three years later, Vancouver and Chilliwack joined the league in 1970, and the BCJHL was divided into Coast and Okanagan divisions.

The league’s first major problem arose when some owners wanted to split from the B.C. Amateur Hockey Association (Only three of eight attended the Association’s annual meeting.). These owners wanted over-age players, and didn’t want Memorial Cup playdowns interfering with their lengthy seasons. The Association compromised, allowing the owners to have four over-age players. The teams had to compete in Tier Two Provincial playdowns, however, and were told to discontinue any affiliation with prairie teams. A second problem resulted when some prairie teams started signing B.C. players without proper releases.

Nanaimo and Bellingham next joined the BCJHL, and New West, Vancouver and Victoria left for the WCHL the following season.

In August, 1972 the rival Pacific International Junior “A” Hockey League was formed. It consisted of six teams, expanded to eight, and became the Pacific Junior Hockey League two years later, when Seattle and Portland left. The league folded the 1980-81 season, and several of the Pacific teams joined the BCJHL.

With teams coming and going, the BCJHL formed two different divisions. The interior teams were Kelowna, Merritt, Penticton and Vernon, and the coast teams were Bellingham, Chilliwack, Langley and Nanaimo.

Some of the BCJHL’s best players starred during the early and mid-eighties.

Ray Ferraro of Penticton, Dan Hodgson of Cowichan Valley, and Craig Redmond of Abbotsford led the league in scoring. And during the 1983-84 season, Brett Hull of Penticton set a league record with 105 goals and 188 points.

Other NHLers, who once played in the BCHL include: Boston’s Chuck Kobasew (Penticton Panthers), the Rangers’ Scott Gomez (South Surrey Eagles), St. Louis’ Paul Kariya (Penticton), and Montreal’s Carey Price (Quesnel Millionaires).

The B.C. Hockey League has expanded into three divisions and developed into Canada’s best Junior A circuit. Three lower mainland teams and Powell River have been grouped with four island teams to form the Coastal Conference.

The eight Interior Conference teams range from Prince George, through the Cariboo plateau, and Okanagan valley to the Kootenays.

The winner of the BCHL playoffs is awarded the Fred Page Cup, and continues on to play for the Doyle Cup against the champion of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The winner of the Doyle Cup then competes in the Junior “A” National Championship for the Royal Bank Cup (formerly called the Centennial Cup).

Over the past two decades, the Vernon Lakers (later called the Vipers), won the Royal Bank Cup in 1990, 1991, 1996 and 1999. The Kelowna Spartans won it in 1993, the South Surrey Eagles in 1998 and the Burnaby Express in 2006.

Courtesy of Hockey Canada

Courtesy of Hockey Canada

It’s great for the B.C. Hockey League, because four other provinces/areas have been giving them a run for their money.

The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League won the Royal Bank Cup in 2003, 2008 (both times Humboldt Broncos), and in 2005 (Weyburn Red Wings). The Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League won the Cup in 2004 and 2007 (Aurora Tigers twice) and the Maritimes Junior “A” Hockey League twice in 1997 (Summerside Western Capitals) and in 2002 (Halifax Exports). And two Alberta teams, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, and Camrose Kodiaks won the Royal Bank Cup in 2000 and 2001.

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This article was first written for the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame.