The Western Hockey League celebrates its 50th anniversary this season. Victoria has been a part of 27 of those 50 seasons, 23 with the Cougars from 1971-72 to 1993-94 and the last four with the Royals.
So why is the greatest singular achievement of those 27 seasons — the Cougars’ 1980-81 WHL championship — not honoured at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre?
The concourse walls of Memorial Centre honour the Island’s numerous past Olympians and inductees into the Victoria Sports Hall of Fame, and feature panels depicting high-level Island sporting history from cycling to rowing. But the only two hockey banners hanging from the rafters are for Lester Patrick’s pro 1925 Stanley Cup champion Cougars and 2008 ECHL divisional-champion Salmon Kings.
Missing is the 1981 WHL championship banner. That’s a big omission, considering the WHL is the league in which the Royals play.
The 1981 banner is in the possession of the Victoria Sports Hall of Fame, which would like to see it hoisted to the rafters of Memorial Centre.
Everybody seems to be at a loss to explain why it hasn’t been, after it was taken down before the demolition of the old Memorial Arena.
Royals owner Graham Lee said it’s the first he has heard of the issue.
“I’ll talk to our guys. It was the WHL championship. We should see about that,” he said.
It predates Lee’s Royals, who have no connection to the WHL Cougars franchise, which was moved from Victoria and now plays in Prince George. But the WHL Cougars remain an integral part of Victoria hockey lore.
“It’s appropriate for the banner to be hung,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robison.
“We know the Cougars are in Prince George, but we [WHL] are back in Victoria. It’s absolutely important to recognize our history … and the history of hockey in Victoria. The Cougars provided a lot of great junior hockey history [in Victoria].”
That 1980-81 Victoria Cougars team, although it did not win the Memorial Cup, still holds both the WHL and Canadian Hockey League records for most wins in a season — 60.
“We have the WHL championship banner in a storage locker with some of our other artifacts and ready to be hung up again,” said John Bate, a Victoria Sports Hall of Fame board member, who served as manager or assistant manager of the old Memorial Arena for 32 years.
“It’s long overdue. Along with the Vikes [UVic’s national championship basketball dynasty], the Cougars were so big in town during that era. The seventh game of the 1981 WHL final was Grant Fuhr versus Mike Vernon in goal. There’s a lot of history to it.”
Asked if he thinks the Cougars’ record of 60 wins will ever be broken, WHL commissioner Robison chuckled and replied: “You’ll have to ask hockey historians that question.”
Robison also noted: “The bantam draft [which did not exist back then in the WHL] has levelled the playing field and it’s hard for a team to be as dominant as that.”
Meanwhile, a series of season-long events are planned this year to commemorate the WHL’s 50th anniversary.