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