Sixty years ago, with the hopes of the nation riding on their backs, a small-town team from Penticton returned world amateur hockey supremacy to Canada.
It was March 6, 1955 and thousands of disbelieving fans who packed the Krefeld Arena on the outskirts of Dusseldorf, West Germany watched as the Penticton Vees, behind the shutout netminding of Ivan McLelland, blanked the defending World Champion Russians 5-0.
Relying on the gritty, physically-punishing style of play that got them through the first seven games of the tournament undefeated, the boys from the Peach City hit hard and scored often, building up a 3-0 lead by the second period en route to victory and a place in history.
However, in McLelland’s book Gold Mine to Gold Medal and Beyond, he wrote that the game actually did not begin well for Canada.
“Our defence gives up the puck in our zone, and Russia is handed two good scoring chances,” he wrote. “Then, George McAvoy is given a penalty. The Russians try again, but no goal for their efforts.”
After killing off the penalties, Mike Shabaga scores on a beautiful pass by Jim Fairburn, giving Canada a 1-0 lead. Bill Warwick made it 2-0 while trying to clear the puck from behind the Russian net and it hits their defenceman and goes in. Warwick scored again and McAvoy added Canada’s fifth goal.
Viktor Shuvalov, 92, the lone surviving member of the Russian national team said they were “hopelessly unlucky.” He responded through an email, translated by the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, that the Canadians gathered a really powerful team after the loss in 1954 and the game against them was really tough.
“After 1954, I guess the Hockey Canada management understood that they can’t beat us by hardly shedding any blood, so in Germany, team Canada was much stronger than a year ago.”
Shuvalov, a five-time all-star in Russia, said they didn’t learn anything about Canada until they were at the tournament. During the loss, Shuvalov said the top line of Yuri Krylov, Alexander Uvarov and Valentin Kuzin missed a lot of good chances.
“The defenceman Pavel Zhiburtovich played with broken finger (had novocaine injections) since the first game, but the Canadians were lucky to score almost every chance,” said Shuvalov, who scored 222 goals in 150 games in the Russian Elite League. “Former professionals, the Warwick brothers played brilliantly.”
For the Vees, who defeated the Sudbury Wolves 3-2 in the 1954 Allen Cup, there were some substantial on-and off-ice hurdles just to get to Europe for the chance to compete for the title.
Described by some people in their own country as unsuitable to represent Canada ,there were members of the media and sports experts who questioned the team’s ability to be there in the first place, let alone have the strength to tackle the mighty Russians who crushed Canada 7-2 the year before.
One of those hurdles was being told by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association that the team would have to foot the $30,000 bill to get to West Germany.
“That would be like raising $300,000 today,” said Vees goalie McLelland, who added that he wouldn’t even be talking about this had the experts had their way. “To raise $30,000 was huge. I’m sure they thought that by doing that we would fold the tent up and say send the pros. That’s what they wanted to do.”
He said the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens even offered some of their players to help prevent Canada from being embarrassed on the world stage.
“It was not a hotbed (for hockey),” said McLelland of Penticton, adding that minor hockey wasn’t established when he arrived to the city in 1951 and that he was one of the first coaches after leaving the game in 1956. “B.C. was not producing hockey players at that time. This team had gone out and won every amateur championship that was available in Canada. They had done it all in a three-year span.”
There wasn’t any faith in a group of amateurs whose only big name player was Grant Warwick, who played in the NHL for nine years with the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens from 1941-50.
Warwick was the player/coach of the Vees and wouldn’t allow that to happen, saying if they aren’t allowed to go with their team, they don’t go at all. The Vees didn’t embarrass Canada, defeating the Russians 5-0. It’s the widest margin that hasn’t been repeated since. Canada went 8-0 while scoring 66 goals and allowing six.
Sports writer Sid Godber called the Vees “Canada’s Cinderella kids” in a story he wrote after they whipped the Russians. Godber added that the Vees did “it in convincing fashion, wrestling the title of world amateur hockey champions from the Russians.”
It’s estimated that 1.5 million radios were tuned in to listen to Foster Hewitt call the game.
Among those listening were Formo and June Bregg.
“I remember us sitting around the radio. Every time the Vees scored you could hear all over the neighbourhood,” said Formo. “Everybody was listening to that hockey game.”
“You just glued yourself to the radio and listened and got excited,” said June Bregg, whose father Clem Bird was president of the Vees and her husband Merv played on the first team.
Celebrations began back home not long after the game ended with a parade of about 1,000 cars. There were more celebrations 10 days later when the team arrived in Penticton.
“People came from Keremeos, and Princeton, Grand Forks, Kelowna,” said McLelland.
McLelland, Jim Fairburn, Ed Kassian, Dino Mascotto, Doug Kilburn and Dick Warwick are the only members of the team still alive today. Ernie Rucks died on Oct. 2/14. The other members were Bernie Bathgate, Don Berry, Jim Middleton, Don Moog, Jack MacDonald, Jack McIntyre, Jack Taggart, Hal Tarala and Dick Warwick.
McLelland recalls there being thousands of people there to welcome them back.
“I can’t believe that people were so excited,” he said.
“It was pretty exciting because what happened is as they worked their way across Canada, they were held up at a lot of places in the country because people wanted to congratulate them and meet them,” said Bregg. “The team didn’t arrive until late afternoon instead of the morning. By then the excitement had really built up.”
She said it was wonderful being immersed in the crowd.
“It made you feel very proud of not just the hockey players, but the fact that Penticton had raised a lot of the money to send them there,” she said.
“What really got dad was how the citizens of Penticton and the surrounding area helped get those guys over there, the donations,” said Pat, who joked he was a product of the celebrations.
“When those guys came down the street in the convertibles, it was like watching heroes,” said Formo. “Get a shiver up and down your neck just watching these guys.”
Formo recalls thousands of people being at the airport.
“When they came home there were thousands of people on Main Street. Before winning the world championship, the Vees were hated.
“It was such a rivalry up and down the valley,” continued Formo, whose father was a Greyhound driver and drove the Vees’ bus. “Once they got into that world championship, everybody got behind them. There were more people on Main Street that day than lived in the town. Those were magical days.”