US teams in WHL vital, thriving 40 years after Portland made junior hockey history

Winterhawks_Daniel_Johnston_wikimediacommons

Forty years ago this summer, a moment that forever changed the hockey world in North America, especially junior hockey, took place.

The moment that Brian Shaw announced that he was moving the Edmonton Oil Kings to Portland, where they would become the Winterhawks, shook the hockey landscape. The team had been struggling as the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers became more popular, and it was decided that a move was needed to get the club back on track.

After being blocked from moving to Vancouver by the New Westminster Bruins, and taking into account coach Ken Hodge’s preference to move the team to Spokane, Shaw decided that Portland and its Memorial Coliseum was the place to be. Thus, Canadian major junior hockey set up shop in the United States, and it’s never left.

(Kamloops sportswriter Gregg Drinnan posted a story by longtime Winterhawks broadcaster Dean Vrooman on how the move transpired that’s well worth your time.)

It took a few years, but Portland hockey fans, used to the professional game and the highly successful Buckaroos, eventually took the Hawks into their hearts. It was the 1978-79 season, when the Hawks lost just 10 regular season games, that was the turning point in the franchise. Portland finally got past the Bruins in the playoffs and pushed a legendary Brandon Wheat Kings team, who lost only five games in the regular season, to six games in the WHL Finals. Where small crowds were mostly the norm the first couple of years in Memorial Coliseum (prompting one politician to try and force the Hawks to move to the considerably smaller Jantzen Beach Ice Arena), they picked up during that season.

But by then, Shaw’s move to Portland already had major impacts on the league and on Canadian major junior hockey. The year after the Oil Kings moved to Portland, the Kamloops Chiefs packed up for Seattle and became the Breakers, while the Calgary Centennials shifted to Billings, Montana and became the Bighorns. The league even changed its name, going from the Western Canada Hockey League to the Western Hockey League, the name of the old professional circuit that fans in Canada and the United States loved in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.

There was some early success outside of Portland. Billings was the first US-based team to make the playoff finals of a Canadian major junior hockey league, losing to New Westminster in the 1978 WHL Finals. Seattle was able to revive the long-time rivalry with Portland, giving the WHL another set of must-follow dates on the schedule.

It was also a badly needed move for the league, giving the then-Western Canada Hockey League a fourth team west of the Rocky Mountains, joining New Westminster, Victoria and (at that time) Kamloops in the West Division. The WCHL, mainly a Prairies-based league, was able to expand its footprint into new areas that also brought in needed revenue.

Of course, the move into the US was filled with ups and downs for the WHL. A second edition of the Edmonton Oil Kings moved to Great Falls, Montana in 1979 and became the Americans. Even with a new Four Seasons Arena to play in, that team lasted just 29 games before folding, but resurfaced the following season as the Spokane Flyers. The Flyers lasted a bit longer, making it through one season before folding 26 games into its second, the 1981-82 season. The Billings Bighorns lasted five seasons before moving to Nanaimo, BC, having never recaptured the great success of their first season.

Seattle, playing in the old Seattle Center Arena, struggled to break into the mindset of the fans who were still coming off of the disappointment of the failed move of the Totems from the old pro WHL into the NHL, and always seemed to be financially behind the rest of the league (leading to the infamous trade of Tom Martin to Victoria for a used team bus).

In the meantime, Portland was still creating history. The Winterhawks became the first US-based team to win a major junior hockey league title in 1982, when they beat the Regina Pats in the final, and thus became the first American team to compete for the Memorial Cup. While they came up short in Hull, Quebec, the experience led Shaw, still running the team, to propose something that would, again, shake junior hockey.

First, Shaw wanted Portland to host the Memorial Cup tournament in 1983, taking the event into the US for the first time. Second, after seeing the small crowds that attended the 1982 event in Hull that involved Portland, Kitchener (OHL) and Sherbrooke (QMJHL), he proposed that the host team also be a part of the tournament, expanding it to four teams and eliminating the double round-robin format before the final game. Both ideas were approved, and the 1983 Memorial Cup made history. That the Hawks, who had lost to Lethbridge in the WHL Finals, ended up winning the Memorial Cup added to the historic nature of the event, as they became the first American team to win junior hockey’s biggest prize. They also hosted in 1986, but didn’t make the final (the OHL’s Guelph Platers won the Cup).

The success of Portland and Seattle ended up offsetting the failures in Great Falls, Billings and Spokane for the WHL, and soon teams were moving back south of the border. The Kelowna Wings, after three seasons in tiny Memorial Arena, moved to Spokane and became the Chiefs. Unlike the last time the WHL was in the eastern Washington city, there was no successful senior amateur team to compete with (Spokane won four Allan Cups between 1970-80), and the Chiefs gained a foothold. After a few tricky years at the beginning, the Chiefs eventually became a major success, winning the Memorial Cup in 1991 and 2008 while hosting in 1998. Spokane holds the honor of being the last US city to host a Memorial Cup, and it was won by another American side, the Winterhawks.

Spokane’s success led to another move into the US market for the WHL, as the second version of the New Westminster Bruins (formerly the Billings Bighorns and Nanaimo Islanders) moved to southeastern Washington and became the Tri-City Americans. While the first 20 seasons were tricky at times, with move threats happening on occasion (WHL expansion to Vancouver and Chilliwack was a direct result of the league blocking owners from moving the Ams to those cities), ownership has stabilized and the team has become a success. The Spokane-Tri-City rivalry has also become one of the core rivalries of the WHL, with sellouts common for their games.

After a while, Seattle finally became more stable. After an ownership change, the team changed its name from Breakers to Thunderbirds in 1985, tapping into a bit of the Totems look. They finally started drawing consistently large crowds to the Arena, to the point that they started playing some games in the much-larger Seattle Center Coliseum, which hadn’t seen hockey since the Totems died over a decade earlier. They even hosted the Memorial Cup in 1992 at the Coliseum, a major accomplishment considering the crazy early history of the team.

However, the WHL wanted to add a second team in western Washington, as well. The first attempt was in Tacoma, where a natural rivalry with nearby Seattle would be set up. However, the Tacoma Dome was oversized and horrible for hockey, and after four seasons the Rockets moved to Kelowna, setting up a very successful run in the BC city in its second WHL attempt. If Tacoma had a smaller arena, maybe the Rockets would have succeeded, but we’ll never know.

The WHL eventually got another team in the Puget Sound region. There was a threat to move the Thunderbirds from Seattle’s KeyArena (which, after a basketball-centric remodel, became barely usable for hockey) to a new arena in Everett, 30 miles to the north. In the end, the T-Birds were sold, stayed in KeyArena for a few more years (before moving to a new arena in suburban Kent), and the former owner got an expansion team in Everett. The Silvertips made history by making the WHL Finals in their first season, and have established a solid fan base since.

Success came to all five teams now in the US Division. Portland and Spokane have both won the Memorial Cup twice, the only American teams to do so. Seattle has been to the league final twice, including last season. Everett and Tri-City have both been to the league finals, as well, while the US Division is often seen as the toughest division in the WHL.

What’s the future of US-based teams in the WHL? The five teams in the US Division (Everett, Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Tri-City) have all become very successful and are staying put for a long time. Even with the league tending to not include the American teams in promotions and special events, those five are among the healthiest teams in the league. They’ve done it on their own, and the WHL wouldn’t be the same, or as healthy, without them.

Are there American cities that could be future sites for a WHL team? There have been occasional mentions of Wenatchee as a possible future team location. They have a fairly-new 4,500-seat arena and have drawn very well for its current junior team, the Wenatchee Wild (which moved up to the BCHL last season and immediately had the best home attendance in the league). Billings still has Rimrock Arena, the same 10,000-seat arena that the Bighorns played in many years ago. But at this point, Billings is too far out of the way from the rest of the league to ever be considered seriously again. No other American city even gets in the discussion now.

While once upon a time places like Boise and Anchorage (who now have ECHL teams) were discussed, the current reality is that the WHL doesn’t have many places south of the border where they could expand, mainly because cities of decent size are too far from the border and would be tough to get to in a bus league.

But that they were even discussed at one point shows how vital the American teams are to the WHL. While Brian Shaw was seen as maybe a bit crazy when he got the league to approve the Oil Kings’ move to Portland in 1976, hindsight shows that it was a moment of genius. It gave junior hockey new areas to grow in and showed the hockey world that the Northwest was still a hotbed for the sport.

All one needs to do is go to a game in Everett, Portland, Spokane, Kent (Seattle) or Kennewick (Tri-City) to see that.

(Photo: Portland Winterhawks’ Daniel Johnston, 19 January 2009, by K.C. Gale from Wikimedia Commons)

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