Brett Hull was Penticton’s and — the BCHL’s best player — who almost never was.
When recruiting Alie Cooke, who was considered the best midget player in the province, prior to the 1982-83 season, Larry Lund, then owner of the Knights, agreed to allow his friend Hull to come with Cooke for a visit. Hull stayed and Cooke eventually left. Hull went on to score 153 goals, including 105 in 1984, and finished with 292 points with the Knights in two seasons. Lund admitted to not having been recruiting Hull but said they “should have been.”
Hull also finished a Hockey Hall of Fame career as the third highest goal-scorer in NHL history behind Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
As the British Columbia Hockey League celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend, Hull’s impact on the league resulted in the scoring championship trophy named after him. Before Hull, other Penticton players to win the scoring championship (not named after him yet) were Eugene Peacosh, Ed Hays, Chad Campbell, Del Iannone, Kevin Maxwell, Ron Vincent, and Ray Ferraro. The last one was Beau Bennett in 2010.
Junior hockey began in Penticton, Kamloops, Kelowna and Vernon in 1961 when the owners of the junior B teams met. The four formed what was called the Okanagan-Mainline Junior Hockey League. The Junior Vees folded in 1963. Penticton’s first league championship didn’t come until 1967 when the El Rancho Broncos won. The Knights folded in the midst of an ownership change and then the Panthers suffered the same fate in 2005 before the franchise was purchased by local owners and renamed the Vees, in honour of the 1955 World Champions.
Fred Harbinson, coach-GM of the Vees, said the ‘55 World Champion V’s played a part in shaping the scene. He learned from talking to Rick Kozuback, who coached the Knights to their ’86 National Championship, that the team would look at the banner of the ’55 V’s in Memorial Arena every day for motivation. The current Vees now use that team and the ’86 Knights as their inspiration.
While Lund’s ’86 Knights were the only team to win Penticton a national championship, he said the 1972-73 Broncos coached by Don Slater was the team that put Penticton on the junior hockey map. Lund, founder of the Okanagan Hockey School, feels that team is a favourite because of the local content that featured Bob Nicholson, Chad Campbell, Stan Swales, Doug Lawton and Bruce Affleck among others.
Harbinson, a Calgary native, was brought in by then Vees managing partner and GM Scott Carter to replace Bruno Campese.
Harbinson and his wife Heidi fell in love with a city rich in history.
“The first thing that comes to mind is the passion of the people in town for their team,” he said. “If you win here in Penticton, they will never forget you.”
Harbinson guided the Vees to Penticton’s first BCHL championship in 22 years. He has experienced the appreciation by fans.
“I have always been treated real well here,” said Harbinson.
Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada, said that while growing up it was his goal to play junior hockey in his hometown. And he loved playing with his teammates.
“We had a group of players that were very close knit,” said Nicholson, whose son Grant Nicholson plays for the Vees. “We had one common goal and that was to win.”
While the Broncos had success with that group they also experienced not winning. After taking the first two games against Portage in the 1972-73 National Championship, the Broncos had a 3-1 series lead. The Broncos eventually lost in seven games. It didn’t help that they played 32 games in 40 nights. Nicholson said they didn’t have anything left in the tank.
“We felt we let the city down,” he said.
Hanging in the rafters of the South Okanagan Events Centre is a Canadian National Finalist banner from that season.
Al Formo, who retired from being a colour commentator for the Vees this season following a career that began in 1967 with the Penticton-Summerland Combines, feels that the junior hockey scene in the city became important when the team became competitive and attracted crowds. The team played for the Memorial Cup during a time when the Estevan Bruins dominated in the late ‘60s.
Nicholson said that the BCHL has evolved into the top junior A league in Canada. He said there are other good junior A leagues but the BCHL is the benchmark. It has several players graduate to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Canadian college hockey and Western Hockey League.
“Not only do they develop good players but they are very good franchises,” he said. “To have a team (Vernon Vipers) that’s won two Royal Bank Cups and really could have won three in a row, that’s unheard of in hockey at a national level. That has been huge for the BCHL.”
Formo said teams in Penticton have accomplished what they have because of the dedication of its management.
“There has been so many guys that have just sunk money into the hockey club over the years just to keep it going because of their love for the game,” he said. “You love to see kids develop at that level. It’s exciting.”
Extras that didn’t make the cut:
Formo names his all-time team.
On defence, he started with Jack Taggart and Bruce Affleck. At forward, local Chad Campbell, played the left wing and won the scoring title in 1973 with 123 points, at centre Joe Murphy and at right wing, Hull. In goal, he chose Ivan McLelland, but he never played junior hockey in Penticton. His selection for goalie is Glen Buechert, who played on the ’73 team.
Formo’s choices for top coaches are Rick Kozuback, Don Slater and Fred Harbinson.
Formo shares a story that still makes him chuckle about Greg Guidinger, who captained the ’86 Knights.
“Guidinger was death and one game he’s skating up the right wing and a teammate gave him a perfect pass, which he misses,” said Formo. “He got back to the bench, and Rick Kozuback said, “How come you missed that pass?” He looked at the coach and said, “I didn’t hear the pass coming.”
Blaine Pollock a defenceman for the El Rancho Broncos played in the late ‘60s shared this story.
In all the time Pollock played, Larry Palanio was the only player that terrified him.
“I’d go with him but only if necessary,” said Pollock.
Here is how their conversation went during their first practice:
“Pollock, how ya doin?” asked Palanio.
“&%$# you,” responded Pollock.
“You’ve got a bad attitude,” said Palanio.
“Yeah, I do,” said Pollock.
“You want to go?” he asked.
“Forget about it,” said Pollock.
“No, You get into a lot of scraps but you don’t know what the hell you’re doing,” said Palanio.
“What do you mean I don’t know what I’m doing,” said Pollock.
“The first thing you do in a fight is you drop your gloves,” he said.
“Yeah, I know that,” said Pollock.
“The second thing you do is take two shots,” said Palanio.
“And that’s the way he was,” said Pollock of Palanio. “He’d take the first two shots, and then just level you.”
Current local Vees Cody DePourcq and captain Logan Johnston talk about their father’s John and Lance, respectively.
“He loved it,” said DePourcq of his dad John. “He grew up here just like me, so it’s just nice to be able to have that. Everybody that watches me now remembers my dad.”
That is why DePourcq chose to wear No. 19.
“A lot of people when they look at me they remember my dad and the good old days,” said DePourcq. “Back when the Knights won and I think that is pretty special for me.”
DePourcq has heard the stories that junior hockey then was rougher. The 16-year-old remembers watching games in Memorial Arena and players such as Robert Skinner, his favourite, Brett Hextall, Cody Collins and Tanner House.
Johnston said that his physical style would have been better suited when his dad played in 1979 to ‘81.
“We joke about how different we are,” said Johnston. “He was a speedster. I’m not a speedster. I think I was more like my uncle, just run into things. My dad was always fast enough to get out of the way.”
Johnston’s dad told him they could have bench brawls and get minor penalties.
“Now we’re out for the season,” said Johnston.
Johnston’s dad recorded 66 points in 54 games during his final season with the Knights before playing four seasons with Western Michigan University.