May 13, 2009

BC Hockey Legends: The Penticton Vs

In 1955 the Penticton Vs were a small town hockey team that belonged to all of Canada.

This "Gas House Gang" from the Okanagan peach country (the team's nickname refers to three varieties of peaches grown in Penticton) was a fairy tale dream come true.

The hard nosed hockey team from a town then of 14,000 went to Germany, conquered mighty Russia and avenged a stinging Canadian defeat the previous year and, for one glorious year, rule the amateur world of hockey.

The Vs had qualified for their trip to the World Hockey Championships in 1954 when they defeated the Sudbury Wolves in one of the most gut-grabbing, nail-biting Allan Cup series in history. At one point in the series the Vs were within 12 seconds of elimination. Yet victory was an obsession for the Vs. Defeat was not an option in their minds. They won their Allan Cup and in 1955 they went to Dusseldorf, Germany for the World Championships.

The boys from Penticton were not just going to Europe looking for a world championship. No, they're task was much more important than that. They were there with the singular purpose of beating the surprise reigning champions from Russia and return amateur glory to Canada where they, and everyone else in the country, felt it rightfully belonged.

They were a rag-tag bunch if there ever was one. The team was composed of former pros and home grown kids. Their hockey was far from a beautiful finesse game, no nothing like that. They played brutally physical hockey, a style that drew much ire from media, fans and teams in Europe.

The backbone of the team were a trio of brothers, Grant, Bill and Dick Warwick. Grant, a gnarled, scarred former NHL rookie of the year was the playing coach and inspirational force of the team. Bill was a husky bully who scored goals by the bushelfull, but usually only after intimidating the opponents with high elbows. Dick, the youngest of the three, was the choir boy of the bunch, said to be a graceful skater with a sharpshooter's aim.

Slender Ivan McLelland was the goalkeeper. The rest of the team was made up of long forgotten names: Hal Tarala, Crusher Conway, Jim Middleton, Jim Fairburn, Doug Kilburn, Mike Shabaga, Bernie Bathgate, Jack MacDonald and George McAvoy.

The crew's task was mindbogglingly enormous, as representing Canada at the Worlds was never more important. The Russians shocked the world by dusting off Canada, the only hockey power at the time, in their very first World Championship, the year prior in 1954. They played an amazing brand of hockey, declaring to the world that they were as good if not better than Canada at hockey, setting up a rivalry that runs to this day.

Grant Warwick knew the task was not going to be easy. He knew the only way to beat Russia (he was not even so much concerned with the making the finals as much as defeating the Ruskies) his team would have to out hit and out muscle the Soviet team made of men from the armed services. He set up a rigorous pre-tournament schedule of exhibition games, which, purposely or not, served to spread the word around Europe about the aggressiveness of the Canadian team.

Both the Soviets and the Vs rattled off perfect 7-0 records, setting up the final game of the tournament, conveniently against each other, as the championship game. The winner won the championship, the loser lost so much more than just a game.

A reported 10,000 spectators somehow filled the 7000 seat Krefeld Arena on the outskirts of Dusseldorf to witness a game so filled with tension that no one would forget this game. It was obvious who the fans wanted to win. The Vs' bully tactics did not sit well in Germany.

The game itself was no contest. Say what you want about the Vs tactics, but the Soviets were no match for the Penticton boys on this night. The Vs intimidated the Russians with lusty checking checking early in the game, causing the Russians to shy away. "They quit on us, quit dead cold," barked Grant Warwick. "We banged 'em around good and hard and after we jumped into a 3-0 lead in the second period, that was it.

Mike Shabaga scored in each of the first two periods. Bill Warwick also scored twice, with George McAvoy putting the game out of reach with the fifth goal in the third period.

Goalie McLelland took care of everything else, turning aside all Soviet shots for his 4th shutout in the 8 game tournament. His puny 0.75 GAA led the tournament.

Bill Warwick led the way as the tournament's top scorer, tallying 14 goals and 22 points. The V's outscored their opposition by a combined scored of 66-6.

The V's victory led to almost more relief than joy.

"We won. Thank god we won," Grant Warwick was quoted saying. His team had just gone through a schedule of 16 games in 19 nights (including exhibition games), all on unfriendly European soil. And they carried the weight of a nation while doing so.

Back in Penticton there was much joy following the game. The town came to a virtual standstill until after the game when everyone jammed downtown to celebrate together.

The next day in Ottawa, Parliament put off all serious business while the Speaker of the House boasted about the new world champions. Governor General Vincent Massey, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and other politicians sent congratulatory telegrams.

When the club returned to Canada they received a national welcome not often seen in Canada, for any event.


frostedforest said...

Ivan McLelland's story is featured in Richard Buell's latest book
The Glory of Our Game Vol. 2 - Hockey Heroes, Heritage and History from The Golden Porcupine. $40 plus shipping. e-mail frostedforestpublishing@lionslink.com

Unknown said...

I have a picture of My father shaking hands with Ivan at that game. Cool

JIM GRADY said...

This is one of the greatest Hockey stories that you wiil ever hear.
This team is truly what legends are made of!

Grant said...

I was a great admirer of ivan, probably the best goalie the OMHL had ever seen. I hated the Vee's they were too good . Too good for my Packers in Kelowna. My lasting remembrance of Ivan was him, in protest of the goal judge's decision that the puck had passed over the goal line, climbed up the screened back mesh fully clad in all his goalie equipment including his goalie stick, threatening poor old Rex Rhodes, the goal judge sitting in his suspended seat above the zamboni entrance ,with death. the Vee's could have beaten any team in the NHL, trust me they were the not a "rag tag" team they were earning , per man, more $ per man than any player in the NHL at the time as they were guaranteed a full time job in the community. I am elated that I was so lucky to have seen this great team led by the greatest goalie not to be playing in the NHL at that time. Grant.