A new idea
The British Columbia Hockey League is widely known as one of the top junior hockey organizations in North America, but it sprung from humble beginnings. In 1961, the owners of four Junior B squads — the Kamloops Rockets, Kelowna Buckaroos, Penticton Junior Vees and Vernon Junior Canadians — met in a Vernon hotel. That night, Canadians’ owner Bill Brown persuaded his three colleagues to create the province’s first ever Junior A hockey league. The Okanagan-Mainline Junior Hockey League played its first games in the fall of 1961 and Brown served for two years as the league’s first President. Kamloops and Kelowna dominated the first five years of the new OJHL, occupying the top two places in the standings and meeting in the championship final every season.
It wasn’t until 1967, when the Penticton Broncos won the title in their third year of operation, that a different champion was born. “In our first year (1967/1968), our budget was $15,000.00,” former Vernon owner Vern Dye recalls. “We traveled by car to road games, and we did pay the players a bit. They got $20.00 to $40.00 a month, and room and board. Back then, skates cost $50.00 and sticks were $1.10.”
After the New Westminster Royals and Victoria Cougars joined the league, a new name was needed to reflect its scope outside the Okanagan. Thus, British Columbia Junior Hockey League was born. Within two years, the Vancouver Centennials and Chilliwack Bruins joined the fold and the league’s Governors opted for a two-division set-up. The four newest clubs formed the Coastal Division, while the original Okanagan teams comprised the Interior Division. With the league having doubled in size, so did the schedule, from 30 to 60 games. Following the creation of the Major Junior and Junior “A” divisions by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association in 1971, the Victoria Cougars jumped ship to join the Western Hockey League.
Meantime, the New Westminster Royals were forced out of their home when the Estevan Bruins moved into Queen’s Park Arena, leaving the BCJHL with just six teams for the 1971/1972 season. The league rebounded a year later, however, adding the Bellingham Blazers and Nanaimo Clippers, and it never operated with fewer than eight teams again. Since only major Junior teams were eligible to compete for the Memorial Cup, a new trophy – the Centennial Cup – was created to honour Canada’s Junior “A” champion. The Nanaimo Clippers won three straight BCJHL titles in the mid-to-late 1970s, including a controversial championship victory in 1978. In that year’s final, the Penticton Vees refused to play out the series citing Nanaimo’s rough play. The Clippers were awarded their third straight Championship, but according to former Nanaimo coach Larry McNabb, his team could have gained more. “It was a disaster,” recalled McNabb. “We split two games in Penticton, and then we had a brawl in game three. Penticton’s coach pulled his team off the ice, but they started it. We were declared the winner, but the problem was that I was getting 2,000 fans a game. We won a Championship, but lost money. We got robbed!”
Playoff revenue was how many teams balanced the budget in the 1970’s. Budgets were in the neighbourhood of $70,000 a year, with coaches pulling in a few hundred dollars a month. The BCJHL’s second decade ended with the four new members – the Coquitlam Comets, Nor Wes Caps, Richmond Sockeyes and Vancouver Blue Hawks – joining the circuit from the defunct Pacific Junior “A” league over a two-year span.
Momentum builds in the 1980s
The 1980’s saw the B.C. Junior Hockey League shed its image as the ‘weak sister’ of Canadian Junior “A” Hockey after having advanced to the second round of Inter-Provincial play just three times in 12 years since the creation of the Centennial Cup. BCJHL teams went on to four Centennial Cup appearances over a five-year span, and won two National Championships. The Abbotsford Flyers broke the jinx in 1982/1983, knocking off the Calgary Canucks and Dauphin Flyers to become the first B.C. team to reach a National Championship Series. They fell in consecutive games to Ontario’s North York Rangers, but not before setting the trend of great things to come for the BCJHL. Two years later, the Penticton Knights advanced to the Centennial Cup final, only to lose the last game of the four-team tournament to Orillia Travelways of Ontario.
However, a year later, Penticton gained a measure of revenge by going 3-1 in Round Robin play before defeating the host Cole Harbour Colts 7-4 in Nova Scotia to bring the Centennial Cup back to B.C. for the first time. The surge continued with the Richmond Sockeyes capturing B.C.’s second consecutive Centennial Cup Title in 1987.
Dominance in the 1990s
BCJHL dominance nationwide was never as apparent as in the 1990s. To begin the decade, the Vernon Lakers battled the New Westminster Royals in an all-B.C. Centennial Cup Championship final in Vernon. The Royals had been nearly unbeatable that year, compiling a 52-3-4 regular season record and establishing league records for the most wins, fewest losses and highest points total. New West went 17-6 in Provincial and Inter-Provincial play to reach the Centennial Cup Tournament and strolled into the National Final with five straight victories. However, win number six would never come. Despite finishing some 37 points back of the Royals during the BCJHL regular season, the host Lakers pulled off what is arguably the most stunning upset in Centennial Cup history, a 6-5 overtime decision. It was the first of back-to-back National Titles for Vernon, which during its late 1980s and early 1990s run amassed a record four straight Centennial Cup appearances. Penticton, Richmond and Vernon’s championship teams helped raise the profile of the BCJHL with college scouts from south of the border. Each sent countless players to NCAA Hockey, most on full-ride scholarships, which gave players the opportunity to combine hockey development with a university education. And many went on to the National Hockey League.
“When I was there, the BCJHL was a good league,” former Penticton Panther and perennial NHL All-Star Paul Kariya recalls “It was a good stepping stone because I was playing against some players who were 20 years old. I had an advantage (when I got to college), because in Junior “A” I was playing against guys three and four years older.”
The Kelowna Spartans assumed the BCJHL throne in 1993, going undefeated at the Centennial Cup Tournament in Amherst, Nova Scotia to record B.C.’s third National Championship of the decade. The following year, Kelowna came up a mere one goal short at the Centennial Cup, losing the deciding game in overtime to the host Olds Grizzlies. Once the Centennial Cup was renamed the Royal Bank Cup in 1996, the now abbreviated BCJHL made four straight National Championship Final Game appearances, winning three, thanks to the Vernon Vipers in 1996, South Surrey Eagles in 1998 and Vipers again in 1999. Amongst the on-ice success, the BCJHL boasted constantly-climbing attendance figures, stronger media coverage and increased corporate support. To help meet these new demands, Ron Boileau became the league’s first full-time President in the 1990. Under his guidance, the league experienced its first run of prolonged stability. Only four franchises had moved in the 1990s compared to 16 the previous decade.
Into the New Millennium
In 2003, the league opened a League Office for the first time and a new leadership group came aboard to further the progress built over the past decade. Former Vancouver Canucks defenceman John Grisdale was named the BCHL’s Commissioner while former Powell River Kings General Manager David Sales became the league’s Executive Director. Under the stewardship of Grisdale and Sales, the league leapt into the 21st century by establishing a presence on the internet, expanding the league’s business operations, and setting in motion the audio and video broadcasting that now brings BCHL into homes all over the country. The league also enjoyed a series of fantastic seasons on the ice.
While the Chilliwack Chiefs and Nanaimo Clippers dominated on the ice, each winning a pair of Fred Page Cup Championships, players from all over the league were catching the attention of National Hockey League and NCAA scouts. In 2006, Burnaby Express forward Kyle Turris announced his presence on the hockey world’s radar with a dominant performance during his team’s RBC Royal Bank Cup-winning season. Turris quickly became one of the league’s best known and most heavily scouted players ever, and the buzz surrounding his talent culminated with the top pre-draft ranking by the NHL’s Central Scouting. In June of 2007, Turris was selected by the Phoenix Coyotes with the third selection in the NHL Entry Draft. With the pick, Turris shattered the Canadian Junior “A” record for the highest-drafted player. Within a year, Turris had led Canada to a World junior Hockey Championship and played his first game in the NHL.
Growth in the 2010s
The Vernon Vipers made three consecutive RBC Cup Finals from 2009 to 2011, winning national titles in the first two of those seasons. The Penticton Vees made it three titles in four years for the league with an RBC Cup in 2012 to cap off a historic year that saw them win 42 straight games at one point. The Vees would go on to win two more BCHL titles in in 2015 and 2017. The decade also saw several teams win their first championships in franchise history. The West Kelowna Warriors won their first in 2016 and followed it up with a National Championship. The BCHL expanded to the south in 2015-16 when the Wenatchee Wild joined the fold and by their third season they captured the first Fred Page Cup in team history. 2019 also saw a first-time champion when the Prince George Spruce Kings went 16-1 in the postseason to win their first title in one of the most dominant playoff runs in league history. The most recent National Champion to come out of the BCHL was the Chilliwack Chiefs in 2018, who won the title on home ice. After the team lost in the first round of the BCHL Playoffs, the Chiefs looked like a different team come tournament time and ended up capturing the title after a thrilling 4-2 come-from-behind victory over the Wellington Dukes.
After that 2018 season, longtime Commissioner John Grisdale retired and was replaced by Chris Hebb who has a long history as a sports executive, including working with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment and Orca Bay, former ownership group of the Vancouver Canucks and Grizzlies.
The league experienced even more growth in 2019 when it was announced that the Cranbrook Bucks would join the BCHL as an expansion team to start the 2020-21 season. The decade also saw increased recognition of BCHL players and alums in the NHL. 2016 was a banner year for the league as three BCHL players were selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, N.Y. The Colorado Avalanche selected Penticton’s Tyson Jost 10th overall, Vees defenceman Dante Fabbro went 17th to the Nashville Predators and Chilliwack Chiefs blueliner Dennis Cholowski was taken 20th overall by the Detroit Red Wings. 2019 was another good year as eight players from the league were chosen at the draft in Vancouver and an additional four players would play the 2019-20 season in the league. This group was headlined by Victoria Grizzlies product Alex Newhook, taken 16th by the Avalanche. 32 BCHL alums were on opening night rosters in the NHL in 2019-20 and several more were called up throughout the year. On top of the pro success in the 2010s, the league set a new standard when it comes to moving players on to college hockey as well. The BCHL has broken its own record for college-committed players every year since 2014-15. The new standard set in 2019-20 is 182 players, 167 of which are committed to NCAA Division I programs which is also a league record.