As the Brandon Wheat Kings get set to host the Swift Current Broncos and help celebrate the start of the Western Hockey League’s 50th season, it seems like a good time to look back on the birth of the league in 1966. The following article was published by The Albertan in Calgary back in 1973.
The story of the Western Canadian Hockey League (WHL today) is truly a blood, sweat and tears saga.
If you know anything about this controversial league you’ll understand what I mean when I say a lot of water, not to mention the odd bucket of blood, has flown under the bridge since these rogues first went fishing.
That was in 1966 and they cast their lines into Clear Lake – a Manitoba resort located in Riding Mountain National Park – where the original concept of the Western Canadian Hockey League was born.
Since then the dreams of these pirates have trickled all the way from Clear Lake to the Pacific Ocean and that, they say, fulfills their ambitions.
However, in the years that preceded the expansion to the West Coast seldom did anything occur without warfare. Warfare between the league and the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, warfare between the league and the National Hockey League and yes, even warfare within its own ranks.
Let’s turn back the clock…
What was involved in that infant year of 1966, was on the expansion of the Saskatchewan Junior League into Edmonton and Calgary. There were those, of course, who were dead against such a move, but despite lawyers, the legal hassles, the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League (as it was called back then) was formed.
Clear Lake also became murky with the blood of victims as the rogues decided that Melville and Flin Flon were no longer needed. Both were given cement boots. Melville, they reasoned, was too small at 5,000 population and Flin Flon, who had been taking it on the chin (14-1, 13-0, etc.) and doing absolutely nothing to attract people into anyone’s rink including its own, was told to get out and clean up its shop.
The CAHA also stood against the move, so the rogues simply bolted from within its jurisdiction. They were tabbed throughout the land as outlaws and their pictures hung on post office walls, although, they, like any other head-strong revolutionaries preferred to be known as independent.
The bulk of those meetings were called because of a lack of financial support and were best exemplified by Edmonton’s Bill Hunter.
“No one had any money and there wasn’t any because crowed weren’t nearly what they are today, plus we were outside the CAHA. Panic buttons were being pushed and every time someone wanted out we would all meet with him and by the time we were through he would boldly be walking to Household Finance telling everyone he still owns a hockey club.”
The following season they changed the name of the league to The Western Canada Junior Hockey League and were back in the good books of the CAHA. They were back expanding, too, as Winnipeg, Swift Current, Flin Flon and Brandon joined the league.
And, the difference in Flin Flon was simply unbelievable. The people in the northern outpost hired a bloke by the name of Pat Ginnell to run the show and he had the most exciting team in the league. Bombers also reached the league final that season, and although they lost out to Estevan, it set the temp for playoff conquests the following two years.
In the league’s third year, it again pulled from within the ranks of the CAHA. Regina, Moose Jaw and Weyburn were hesitant and the league, in its customary hard-nosed fashion, dropped from 11 to eight teams.
The 1968-69 season also marked the shaping of the Calgary franchise into the contender and for three seasons to come the top draw at home in the league. And, that was one of its most important maneuvers in solidifying the circuit. In those trying years it could not afford to keep a white elephant in the size of the city of Calgary.
In 1968-69 they again changed the name of the league – to the Western Canada Hockey League, dropping the world ‘Junior”. Later it became what it is today, the Western Hockey League.
Two years later, back within the ranks of the CAHA, the structure of the league change again. Regina was back and Medicine Hat joined the league. The Tigers were an instant hit, continually drawing capacity crowds.
In 1971-72 British Columbia became part of the league with the transfer of the Estevan franchise to New Westminster and the addition of Vancouver and Victoria. A genuine Western Canada League…
And, that’s how it stands today. A young league with a story that could only have unfolded in Canada’s West…
In the formative years, it was the guidance of Chairman of the Board Bill Hunter that spurred everyone on. Hunter held that position for four years and was succeeded by Ben Hatskin of Winnipeg, who, in turn gave way to Jim Piggott of Saskatoon and later Calgary’s Ed Chynoweth.