As we celebrate the BC Hockey League’s 60th Anniversary season, we will take a look back at the past and celebrate the teams and people that made this league what it is today. Today, we go back to the 1980s, a decade which proved to be monumental for the league.
The 1980s were a landmark decade for the BC Junior Hockey League (BCJHL), as it was known at the time. Not only did the league begin to produce true NHL superstars and get consistent representation at the draft, it began to make its mark on a national level and emerge as a powerhouse Junior A league in Canada.
Superstars in the Making
The previous decade saw a crop of BCJHL alumni reach the NHL and make a significant impact. Players like Stan Smyl, John Ogrodnick and Hockey Hall of Famer Glenn Anderson made it to the top of the professional ranks and continued on with successful NHL careers.
But it was during the 1980s when the true superstars started to filter through the BCJHL and burst onto the scene in the pros. The prime example is Brett Hull. Fresh off his 18th birthday and a season playing Juvenile hockey in the Vancouver area, Hull joined the Penticton Knights for the 1982-83 season and the rest was history. He scored 48 goals in 50 games his rookie season and finished sixth in league scoring with 104 points. His second season in Penticton was even more impressive as he set the single-season record for goals with 105 in just 56 games, a mark that still stands today. He also set the record for points in a single season with 188, another record that has yet to be broken. His scoring prowess was so notorious that the league eventually named its top scorer trophy after him.
Hull was surprisingly passed over in the NHL Draft after his rookie campaign with the Knights, but his record-breaking second year sealed the deal and he was selected in the sixth round of the 1984 draft by the Calgary Flames. Hull would go on to play two years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award his second year after recording 84 points in 42 games. Once he reached the NHL, he turned into one of the best and purest goal scorers the league has ever seen. Hull led the NHL in goals on three different occasions, including the 1990-91 season where he scored 86 times, which was the third most in NHL history. He also won the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player that season.
Hull won the Stanley Cup twice in his career, once with the Dallas Stars in 1999 where he scored the overtime finals clinching goal, and once more late in his career with the Detroit Red Wings. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
Not to be outdone, another eventual Hockey Hall of Famer came through the BCJHL in the ’80s and that was former Langley Eagle Mark Recchi. The Kamloops, B.C. native played his 16-year-old season in Langley where he put up 65 points in 51 games before jumping to the Western Hockey League and eventually being selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft. Recchi played in the NHL for for 23 years, won three Stanley Cups and racked up 1,533 points, the most by any BCHL alumni.
Not quite superstars, but big-time offensive producers in their own right, players like Ray Ferraro (Penticton Knights, 1981-82), Cliff Ronning (New Westminster Royals, 1982-83), Geoff Courtnall (Cowichan Valley Capitals, 1980-81) and Joe Murphy (Penticton Knights, 1984-85) all spent time in the BCJHL during the decade and ended up having lengthy NHL careers.
NHL Draft Representation
1975 marked the first time a player was chosen by an NHL team in the draft directly from the BCJHL when Merritt Centennial Greg Agar went in the 10th round. In the 1980s, that became a regular occurrence.
Every year from 1980 to 1989, there was at least one BCJHL player drafted by an NHL team. The most significant pick was Brett Hull to Calgary in 1984 for all the reasons above, but the highest pick was also a milestone for the league. In 1989, Jason Marshall of the Vernon Lakers was the first-ever first-round pick to come out of the BCJHL when he was selected ninth overall by the St. Louis Blues. Marshall was coming off a season where he had 40 points in 48 games for Vernon, but also had 197 penalty minutes, which was likely another enticing factor given the style of play at the time.
The 1982 NHL Draft featured eight selections out of the BCJHL, which stood as the high-water mark until 2003. The most significant player out of that year’s group was Ray Ferraro, chosen in the fifth round by the Hartford Whalers after notching 135 points in 48 games for the Penticton Knights during the ’81-82 campaign.
Dynasties Born and National Recognition
The Penticton Knights dominated the 1980s, winning the league championship five out of 10 years, including three straight to start the decade and another two in a row in 1985 and 1986.
The ’80s also saw the dawn of the Vernon Lakers dynasty which bled into the early ’90s. The Lakers won back-to-back titles in 1988 and 1989, to start their run of four championships in five years.
Mixed in with the two dynasties were a handful of first-time winners. The Abbotsford Flyers won the title in 1983, the Langley Eagles were league champions the following year after only two years of existence and the Richmond Sockeyes took home the top prize in 1987.
A key member of that Sockeyes team was Dave Tomlinson, a second-year forward at the time and Richmond’s leading scorer that season with 108 points in 51 games.
Tomlinson, who went on to play 15 years of professional hockey, recalls how dominant that team was and how they seemed destined to win it all.
“As the season and the playoffs went on, we realized that there probably wasn’t another team in the country that could beat us,” he said. “Our coach was Orland Kurtenbach and he had a tight grip on our hockey club from the very start. I think he knew we had something special. We got better as the season went on. It was a really special team and a special feeling knowing you had a team built for the postseason.”
“There wasn’t a team that was setup like we were, that could play any style you wanted and of course, with Orland Kurtenbach as our coach, he really knew the temperature of a hockey game and how to get us ready for what we needed to do that night.”
That Sockeyes team would go on to win the Centennial Cup as national champion, but they were not the first BCJHL team to accomplish the feat. That milestone belonged to the Penticton Knights the year prior. That was the first of many to come for the league as it established itself as a dominant force in the country. That set off a run of BCHL teams winning the national championship 14 times over the next 32 years.
Records Set, Records Broken
Keeping with the hockey trend of the high-flying ’80s, the BCJHL saw several offensive records set during the decade, only to see them broken shortly after.
At the conclusion of the 1979-80 season, Nanaimo Clippers forward John Newberry set the all-time single season record for most goals with 84. That record would be tested over the next few years with Cliff Ronning scoring 83 in 1982-83, before Brett Hull shattered the mark in ’83-84 with his 105 tallies.
Newberry also set the all-time points record in 1980 with 185, before Hull came along and topped that one with his 188. The league’s single-season assists record was also set in the ’80s when Burnaby Blue Hawks forward Bob Ginnetti recorded 111 in 1985-86.
The ’80s were not as hectic as the previous decades when it came to expansion, although some significant additions were made. The Coquitlam Comets entered the league in 1980-81, but moved to Langley to become the Eagles after just one season. The team won the league title in 1984 before moving to Chilliwack, Ladner and Bellingham. They ultimately landed in Trail and became the Smoke Eaters that are in the league today.
The Cowichan Valley Capitals also entered the fray in 1980. The team moved to Sidney, Juan de Fuca, back to Cowichan and then to Victoria before returning to the Cowichan Valley for good in 1993.
1988 sadly saw the end of one of the league’s founding four franchises when the Summerland Buckaroos ceased operations. The team moved from Kelowna to Summerland in ’83 before shutting things down five years later. Thankfully, the league has returned to Kelowna in several different forms since then, including the current-day West Kelowna Warriors.