May 14, 2009

The Long Wait For The NHL

Note: This article is part two of a two part history of hockey history in British Columbia prior to the NHL's arrival. Here is part one.

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, hockey suffered in BC's Lower Mainland.

The Patricks were gone, and so was big league hockey. To make matters worse the Denman Arena, the famed Vancouver ice rink built by the Patricks, burned down in 1936. The site of so much BC hockey history disappeared in the smoke.

Semi-professional hockey tried desperately to fill the void in the Lower Mainland, but to no great success. Operating on budgets of $50 a week per player plus some guarantee of a real job, teams like the Vancouver Towers, Vancouver Ex-King George, Vancouver Amateurs, Vancouver Quakers, Vancouver Cubs, Vancouver Young Liberals, and even, heaven forbid, the Vancouver Maple Leafs arose.

These teams all had one goal - not the Stanley Cup, but the Allan Cup. The Allan Cup was symbolic of the best amateur hockey team in Canada, although amateurism was never too closely monitored back then. At one time the Allan Cup was nearly as highly regarded as the Stanley Cup. After all, the Allan Cup champion was asked to represent all of Canada in international hockey events, such as the World Championships and the Olympics.

There was a lot of great hockey played in BC in these lean years, but most of the success came in the Interior rather than the Lower Mainland. These communities offered better paying and more secure jobs, as well as great hockey. Teams from Trail, Kimberley and Penticton all would win the Allan Cup and go on to international glory.

The Birth of the Canucks

In 1948 professional hockey returned to BC. The Patricks were not involved this time, but the Pacific Coast League was reformed, complete with the Victoria Cougars and New Westminster Royals. Vancouver's team was given a new name - the Canucks. The owner was a Vancouver born self made millionaire known once as a great pitching prospect but later for his short temper - Coley Hall.

Over the next couple of decades the PCHL, which later changed its name to Western Hockey League, proved to be a top minor league, developing great talent for the NHL. Names like Gump Worsley, Johnny Bower, Tony Esposito, Cesare Maniago, Andy Bathgate, Phil Maloney, Allan Stanley, Lou Fontinato, Pat Egan, Bill Ezinicki and even Don Cherry spent time in BC.

The Pacific National Exhibition, where the Vancouver Forum ice rink was located, took control of the Canucks in 1958, although Hall would be back in a minority owner and adviser role later. During the 1960s rumblings of NHL expansion increased into reality by 1967 when the league doubled in size from 6 to 12 teams. With its' great population base and unquenchable thirst for good hockey, Vancouverites wanted a NHL franchise. All of Canada expected it to happen. Much to their surprise, they would not get one right away.

It is a long though interesting of missteps, delays and, of course, petty politics...

As early as 1964 rumors started of a NHL franchise coming to Vancouver. Toronto Maple Leafs president Stafford Smythe had publicly mused about building a NHL suitable rink as a way to generate new wealth. But he wanted Vancouver to grant him free property in the prime downtown area. Smythe and his assistant, Harold Ballard, came west to promote their plan, but turned off many with their brash approach. Westerners were always weary of Easterners' exploiting intentions. Some rumors had Smythe building a hotel and racing track on the property, too. Their proposal was rejected.

The smarting Torontonians returned home with a stern message - there would be no way that Vancouver would get a NHL franchise in his lifetime.

NHL Expansion Announced

In 1965, when the NHL announced their intention to expand to six new markets for the 1967-68 season, Vancouver's interest peaked. "Friendly Fred" Hume, the former mayor and owner of the WHL Canucks offered to finance and build a $6.5 million dollar rink on Pacific National Exhibition property. That proved to be unnecessary as through funding from the three levels of government the PNE was able to go at it alone. The Pacific Colisuem was formally christened on January 8th, 1969. Sadly, Fred Hume, a great friend of BC hockey, had passed away on February 17th, 1967, never seeing the emergence of his dream of the Coliseum or NHL hockey in Vancouver.

Hume's contributions to hockey in Vancouver can not go unmentioned. The former owner of the New Westminster Royals bought the money losing WHL Canucks in 1962 if only because he did not want to see hockey die in the city. First he tried to buy the team with a 50-50 partnership with the NHL's New York Rangers. The WHL board of directors denied that bid, thankfully as that may have delayed the NHL's arrival in Vancouver for some time. When they refused the partnerships offer Hume stepped up offering to purchase the Canucks all by himself.

Shortly after announcing his NHL bid, Hume would fall ill, and he sold his interests in the team to a group that could continue the NHL chase. It was thought that Hume would sell to oil millionaire Frank McMahon, a owner that the NHL good ol' boys certainly approved of. But instead he sold to a group led by Cyrus McLean. That group was coldly rejected by the NHL. They clearly wanted McMahon as the owner of any Vancouver franchise. NHL president Clarence Campbell even urged the McLean group to go home and regroup by merging with or completely selling to McMahon.

With a price tag of $2 million the NHL granted expansion franchises to St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Oakland and Los Angeles, leaving Vancouver in the cold. Campbell sheepishly stated publicly, "It would have been in the best interests of the NHL to have another Canadian franchise. It's too bad Vancouver fumbled the ball so badly when they had it in the first place."

The Fight Continues

Grudgingly, the McLean group merged with McMahon by Christmas of 1967 with the mandate to bring the NHL to Vancouver as soon as possible. Again they set about it in a way that could not make NHL owners happy: by trying to relocate an existing franchise to Vancouver.

They courted Oakland owner Barend Van Gerbig after he realized hockey in California's Bay Area was not going to work at that time. After the NHL rejected the relocation bid, Van Gerbig turned to the deep pockets of brewer Labatts. Three times the tandem tried to gain the Canucks approval of their proposed merger, but fearing loss of control, the Canucks said no.

Perhaps because of these insistent efforts, or more likely because of the great public backlash from all across Canada, the NHL formed a sub-committee in the summer of 1968 to explore further expansion, vaguely promising admission to include Vancouver next time around.

Gambling that expansion was imminent, the Canucks paid the NHL a $25,00 deposit and even paid $1 million to purchase the roster of the Rochester Americans and their coach Joe Crozier. Yet Vancouver remained no where close to gaining admission into the NHL.

In January, 1969 another attempt was made to purchase and relocate the Oakland franchise, but the NHL refused to let the Seals die. Rumors of Pittsburgh's early financial difficulties also bred rumors of the Penguins relocation to Vancouver, although it seems nothing serious happened on this front.

A High Price To Pay

In June 1969 the NHL expansion committee worked out a formula where by they felt they could expand again for the 1970-71 season. In September 1979 the NHL announced that they would grant 2 NHL expansion franchises for a mere $6 million - three times what the 1967 teams had to pay.

Although they thought the price was out of line, with McMahon even threatening to withdraw. They even countered the NHL with a proposal to expand by four teams at $3 million each to lessen the costs. The NHL refused, but McLean was not about to let this NHL dream die now.

With help from the NHL the Vancouver group secured financing from Minnesota based Medical Investment Corporation, or Medicore, a widely diversified medical equipment company that had expanded into property, banking and even sports with the highly successful tour "Ice Follies." Medicore would buy majority interest in the Canucks. They ponied up the $1.75 million down payment and made arrangements for yearly payments of $850,000 (plus interest) for five years.

A group from Buffalo was also welcomed into the NHL. Interested applicants from Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta and Kansas City all balked at the high price tag.

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