History of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL)
More than 42 years ago, there were Junior "A" Hockey teams, however,
no Junior "A" Hockey League within the province of British Columbia.
Not until four men, representing four different Okanagan cities got together
one day at a Vernon hotel back in 1961. That's when Vernon Jr. Canadian's owner
Bill Brown persuaded three other owners of Junior "B" Clubs to convert
their league into B.C.'s first Junior "A" Hockey circuit.
�I did it for one reason," said Brown. "We had the nucleus of the
best Junior "A" Hockey League in Canada, but they kept raiding our
With his other three counterparts in agreement, the Okanagan (Mainline) Junior "A" Hockey
League was born. The Kamloops Rockets, Kelowna Buckaroos, Penticton Jr. Vees
and Vernon Junior Canadians made up the fledgling league, which took to the
ice to begin the 1961/1962 season.
Brown served as the league's first President, a post he held for two years.
Kamloops and Kelowna dominated the first five years of the new O.J.H.L., occupying
the first two places in the standings, and meeting in the championship final
every season. It wasn't until the Penticton Broncos, in their third year of
operation following the demise of the Jr. Vees, that a different champion was
born as the Broncos up-ended Kelowna in a six game final to win the 1966/67
title and put an end to the Kamloops/Kelowna dynasty.
At the time, each team was required to fill all but five roster positions
with 'home-grown' talent, products of their respective city's minor hockey
systems. As is pretty much the case by even today's standards, there wasn't
much money to be made minimizing their losses over a 30-game schedule was the
owners' greatest financial concern.
Once the league expanded outside of the Okanagan, it could no longer be called
the Okanagan Junior "A" Hockey League. The British Columbia Junior
Hockey League became the new name of the province's only Junior "A" League,
following the addition of the New Westminster Royals and Victoria Cougars.
With new owners came a name change for the Vernon franchise. Now nicknamed
the Vernon Essos, co-owner VernDye recalls mere existence. "In our first
year (1967/1968), our budget was $15,000.00. 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, sticks were $1.10."
A year after New Westminster and Victoria were admitted, the Vancouver Centennials
entered the BCJHL. One year later, the Chilliwack Bruins joined the fold, and
league governors opted for a two-division set-up. The four newest clubs were
in the Coastal Division, with the original Okanagan teams comprising the Interior
Division. With the league having doubled in size, so did the schedule, from
30 to 60 games.
The British Columbia Junior Hockey League's second decade of existence began
with the loss of two teams, but finished with league membership at an all-time
high of 13. In between, 13 clubs received expansion franchises, six relocated
and another seven ceased operations as the league struggled in some communities
but thrived in others.
Following the re-designation of - Junior Hockey by the Canadian Amateur Hockey
Association, which created Major Junior and Junior "A" Divisions
of competition, the Victoria Cougars jumped skip to join the Western Hockey
League as a Major Junior franchise. Meantime, the New Westminster Royals were
forced out of their home when the Estevan Bruins of the WCHL moved into the
Queen's Park Arena, leaving the BCJHL with just six teams for the 1971/1972
However, the league rebounded a year later, adding the Bellingham Blazers
and Nanaimo Clippers, and never operating with fewer than eight teams ever
again. Following the designation of Major Junior and Junior "A" Hockey,
BCJHL clubs were no longer eligible to compete for the Memorial Cup. Hence,
a new trophy, the Centennial Cup, was created for Canada's Junior "A" National
The Nanaimo Clipper won three straight BCJHL crowns in the mid to late 1970's,
but only challenged once for the Centennial Cup, when they were swept in a
best-of-five Provincial Championship Series by the Richmond Sockeyes of the
upstart P.A.C. (Pacific) "A" Hockey League.
A year earlier, the BCJHL chose not to enter the National Playdowns, conceding
the Provincial Championship to the P.A.C. "A" Champions.
The wildest possible finish to the BCJHL season occurred during the 1977/1978
season, a year in which there were two Champions but no Championship Series.
Opting to return to the Centennial Cup Playoffs, the BCJHL sent the Regular
Season Champion Merritt Centennials into Inter-Provincial play. Merritt swept
Richmond to win the Provincial Title, and then defeated the Calgary Cowboys,
before falling to the eventual Centennial Cup Champion Prince Albert Raiders
in the Abbott Cup (Western Canada) Final. Meanwhile, the rest of the BCJHL
carried on its post-season without Merritt.
Coastal Division Champion Nanaimo met the Penticton Vees in the BCJHL, Final.
However, the series ended after only three games when the Vees refused to continue,
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, 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 $70,000.00 a year, with coaches pulling in a few
hundred dollars a month.
The BCJHL's second decade ended with the demise of the PAC. "A" League
as former members Coquitlam Comets, Nor Wes Caps, Richmond Sockeyes and Vancouver
Blue Hawks joined the senior circuit over a two-year span.
With the granting of an expansion franchise to the Cowichan Valley Capitals,
the league's presence on Vancouver Island had doubled. While stability was
lacking and franchise shuffling became an annual event, now at 13 teams, the
BCJHL offered the province's young players two choices, a route to Major Junior
or College Hockey
The 1980's saw the B.C. Junior Hockey League shed its image as the 'weak sister'
of Canadian Junior "A" Hockey after advancing to the second round
of Inter-Provincial play just three times in 12 years since the creation of
the Centennial Cup, and never getting to a National Final. BCJHL teams went
on to four Centennial Cup appearances over the next five years, winning two
The Abbotsford Flyers broke the jinx in 1982/1983, knocking off Alberta's
Calgary Canucks and Dauphin Flyers of Manitoba to become the first B.C. team
to reach a National Championship Series. They fell in straight games to Ontario's
North York Rangers, but not before setting the trend of great things to come
for the BCJHL.
Two years later, in 1984/1985, the Penticton Knights got all the way to the
Centennial Cup Final only to lose the last game of the four-team tournament
to Orillia Travelways of Ontario.
However, one year later, Penticton gained a measure of revenge by going three
and one 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.
Mind you, BCJHL dominance was never as apparent as in the 1990's. 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 were simply incredible
that year, compiling a 52-3-4 regular season mark, establishing league records
for wins, fewest losses and total points. 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 1980's/early
1990's run amassed a record four straight Centennial Cup appearances.
Penticton, Richmond and Vernon championship teams from what had become Canada's
best Junior "A" League helped raise the profile of the BCJHL with
college scouts from south of the border. Each sent countless players to N.C.A.A.
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 as well.
The Kelowna Spartans assumed the BCJHL throne in 1993, eventually 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 Grizzlys.
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 newly nicknamed/ Vernon Vipers in '96, South Surrey Eagles
in '98 and Vernon Vipers again in 1999.
Amongst the on-ice success of the BCJHL was constantly climbing attendance
figures, media coverage was getting stronger and there was increased corporate
support. Ron Boileau became the league's first full-time President in the 1990/1991
Fewer clubs were operating on the brink of extinction. Only four franchises
had moved in the 90's, compared to 16 the previous decade. As well, one franchise
suspended operations, while four others folded in the 1980's.
Today, the BCJHL is fully aware of what it has to offer.
Whether the player is pursuing a pro career or seeking a 'full-ride' scholarship
from an American University, that player is a top level performer. The combination
of younger players after scholarships or a Major Junior career and older players
winding down their Junior Hockey days makes for a higher level of competition.
Small, skilled players test their mettle against the older, bigger and more
One such example is Paul Kariya, a diminutive star with the Penticton Panthers
during the 1992/1993 season. The then 5-foot 10-inch, 157 pound forward became
the first BCJHL player selected to the National Junior Team. The Vancouver
native chose the BCJHL for his Junior Hockey career in order to ' pursue a
College Scholarship, and was promptly recruited by the University of Maine.
Says Kariya, "when I was there, the BCJHL was a good league. It was a
good stepping stone because I was playing against some players who were 20
years old. I had an advantage. In Junior "A," I was playing against
guys three and four years older."
The British Columbia Hockey League has come an awfully long way in its 42+
years of existence.