Today, British Columbia’s top junior league is known as the BC Hockey League (BCHL), or as some of the more old-school fans call it, the BC Junior Hockey League (BCJHL) as it was known from 1967 to 1995. But, when the league was formed in 1961, it was called the Okanagan-Mainline Junior Hockey League or the OMJHL.
The Founding Four
The league began when the owners of four Okanagan-based Junior B teams decided to join forces and create their own league. The owners of the Kamloops Rockets, Kelowna Buckaroos, Penticton Junior Vees and Vernon Junior Canadians met in a Vernon hotel and 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 dominated the early years of the league, winning the league championship four out of the first five seasons. The Kelowna Buckaroos were also a top-end team. They won the title in 1965 after finishing second the three years prior.
The OMJHL underwent many changes throughout the ’60s as it tried to find its footing as a league. The Penticton Junior Vees went on hiatus after the 1962-63 season and returned a year later as the Broncos. Name changes seemed to be a theme at that time as well. In 1963, the league officially changed its name to the Okanagan Junior Hockey League or the OJHL (not to be confused with the current-day Ontario Junior Hockey League which uses the same abbreviation). Kamloops changed its name from the Junior Rockets, to the Kraft Kings and then back to the Rockets all within a six-year span. It was the same thing in Vernon as the Junior Canadians rebranded to the Blades and then the Essos during the decade.
Tom Williamson was a member of the Blades and the Essos and got the opportunity to play for his hometown team in Vernon from 1966 to 1968. He remembers a league that was bursting with a sense of community, even though the players at the time had to be tough as nails.
“My first year, I was 10th in scoring, but I also was 10th in penalties, so if you add the two, I was the leading scorer,” Williamson said with a chuckle. “There were no helmets, so the attitude was, don’t pretend to be tough unless you are.”
“It was a community then. The other cities were the same too. One of the reasons why we attracted a lot of fans in those days is we were all Vernon kids. We all played minor hockey together. There was that sense of community there.”
Another good way to gauge how different the game of hockey and life in general was back then is a quote from the late Vern Dye, who was one of the founders of the BCHL, an owner of Vernon’s franchise for decades and the current namesake of the league’s Most Valuable Player trophy.
“In our first year, our budget was $15,000.00,” he said. “We traveled by car to road games and we did pay the players a bit. They got $20 to $40 a month and room and board. Back then, skates cost $50 and sticks were $1.10.”
The rebranding of teams and the Penticton hiatus wasn’t even the biggest change of the decade. That came in the form of expansion.
Just like the NHL, the league decided to add teams in 1967. They introduced the New Westminster Royals and the Victoria Cougars both in the same year. Since the league expanded beyond just the Okanagan, a new name was needed. Thus, the BC Junior Hockey League or BCJHL was born and the league would be known as such for the next 28 years. Before the end of the decade, one more team was added when the short-lived Vancouver Centennials joined the fold in 1969, only to cease operations three years later.
The BCJHL also crowned new champions late in the decade as the Penticton Broncos won back-to-back titles in ’67 and ’68 and the Victoria Cougars became the first expansion team to win the league in 1969.
Three of the founding four teams are still alive today. Although there was the brief hiatus and several name changes, the Penticton Junior Vees live on today and are back under the Vees name. The Vernon Junior Canadians experienced the same thing with a brief hiatus in the 1970s and several name changes, but are currently known as the Vernon Vipers.
You may think the Kamloops Junior Rockets are defunct, but that is not the case. After a brief move to White Rock in the 1973-74 season, the team packed up and headed to Merritt where they have been known as the Centennials ever since. They are the longest continuously-run franchise in the BCHL.
The Kelowna Buckaroos weren’t so lucky. After winning the 1965 and 1974 league championships, they moved to Summerland in 1983 and eventually folded in 1988 after a 27-year run. BCJHL hockey came back to Kelowna shortly after the Buckaroos left and now days they are able to cheer for the West Kelowna Warriors franchise.
When he reflects on the BCHL’s 60 years, Williamson says the league’s longevity and ability to withstand adversity in those early days is what is most impressive.
“What stands out the most is the fact that [the league] has sustained itself over time,” he said. “I know Penticton had to drop out at one point and Vernon suspended operations for a period as well. Different owners came along and really made it roll.”