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From the Salsa to Grizzlies: 25 years and counting

The Victoria Grizzlies franchise, born during a tumultuous time in Victoria hockey history, will celebrate its often-colourful past with a 25-year anniversary celebration.
NHL first-round draft pick Alex Newhook is just the latest of many high-end players who have come through the Salsa/Grizzlies organization.

The Victoria Grizzlies franchise, born during a tumultuous time in Victoria hockey history, will celebrate its often-colourful past with a 25-year anniversary celebration.

The Grizzlies will wear the franchise’s original jersey, when the team was born as the Victoria Salsa, for their B.C. Hockey League home opener tonight at The Q Centre against the Powell River Kings. Dropping the ceremonial first puck will be club graduate and Canadian world junior medallist and former Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals NHLer Matt Pettinger.

The very un-Victorian sounding Salsa nickname came about because the original owners of the team, the Kowalko family, also owned the Taco Time fast-food franchises around the Island. The logo was a green chili pepper that was often mistaken for a pickle, which confused people even more.

“It’s something we think is totally different and highly marketable. It wasn’t something we came at lightly,” the late Sam Kowalko told Darron Kloster of the Times Colonist in 1994.

“The league loved it. That shocked us.”

But Victoria’s mayor at the time, Bob Cross, wasn’t a big fan and was asked by Times Colonist reporter Carla Wilson what he thought of the nickname.

“Not much,” Cross replied.

“I think that an appropriate name is something that the community can identify with, and salsa to me, might be in Tijuana or Tucson.”

A fresh name was needed for Victoria’s new hockey team after WHL major-junior Cougars owner Rick Brodsky took the traditional Victoria Cougars name with him in the franchise’s move to Prince George in 1993-94, despite outrage across the capital region, because the name was so strongly associated with Victoria dating to 1912 and including the 1925 Stanley Cup championship. Cross even contacted then WHL commissioner Ed Chynoweth about what the name meant to Victoria hockey, but both the WHL and Brodsky were unmoved.

The Victoria BCHL team wore the garish and oft-mocked Salsa name until the 2006-07 season when it was changed to Grizzlies by then-owner Len Barrie, who was developing Bear Mountain at the time.

It was not the original BCHL team in the capital. Far from it. The Victoria Cougars joined the BCHL in 1967-68 after the professional Victoria Maple Leafs of the old WHL departed. The Cougars played in the BCHL until the club moved up to the major-junior WHL in 1971-72.

The Cougars’ run in the WHL lasted until 1993-94 when the team was moved out of the so-called old Barn on Blanshard to a new arena in Prince George. That left a gaping hole in the city’s hockeyscape and that’s when Sam Kowalko, later chairman of the BCHL, stepped in with his family to bring the league to town in the form of the Salsa. Brother Brian Kowalko managed the Salsa.

Actually, the BCHL had already freshly been here. The Cowichan Valley Capitals had relocated as the Victoria Warriors in 1989-90 before returning over the Malahat to Duncan in 1993-94. The Juan de Fuca Whalers, who boasted future NHL goaltender Byron Dafoe of Comox, played in the BCHL in the mid to late 1980s.

But if Victoria hockey fans were looking for a reprieve from those dismal, losing final WHL seasons by the Cougars before they moved, they didn’t get it. The Salsa, later sold to Mark Wagstaff in 1996, missed the playoffs their first three seasons.

A turnabout eventually came. Franchise highlights have included winning the BCHL championship in 2001 as the Salsa and hosting the Royal Bank Cup in 2009 as the Grizzlies.

Famous alumni include Jamie Benn, the 2014 Sochi Olympic-champion captain of the Dallas Stars, and brother and fellow-NHLer Jordie Benn, defenceman of the Vancouver Canucks.

A starry alumnus, Tyler Bozak, won the Stanley Cup last spring with the St. Louis Blues. The most notable recent alumnus is Alex Newhook, taken 16th overall in the first round of the 2019 NHL draft by the Colorado Avalanche as one of three Grizzlies selected in the draft held over the summer at Rogers Arena.

Greater Victoria was the largest market in Canada without professional or major-junior hockey for a decade from 1994 to 2004, and the Salsa/Grizzlies were the only game in town. But the club always operated with a background chorus in town that clamored for a higher level and saying a market this large needed something more than Junior A as its main brand of hockey.

That eventually came in 2004-05 with the pro Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL followed by the return of the WHL with the Victoria Royals in 2011-12. The building of Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre was the impuetes.

While major-junior is the undisputed champion of junior hockey in Canada, both in fan interest and media attention, the Grizzlies have proven Junior A serves its purpose in preparing players for the U.S. collegiate NCAA. Players develop at different paces and have different outlooks. There is no one best way anymore to the pros. That was evidenced by major-junior, NCAA and Europe sharing almost exactly a third each of the players selected in the 2019 NHL draft.

Case in point this year, Bozak came out of the Grizzlies and Denver University to lift the Stanley Cup and Newhook is now at Boston College en route to a career with the Avs.

“We’ve always felt the NCAA gives kids an education to fall back on,” said Grizzlies president Lance Black.

So much so that major-junior was pressured to respond several years ago and now offers a year of post-secondary education for every season played in the WHL.

“Our goal has always been to make our players better citizens,” said Black.

Almost every Junior A team in a mid-to-large market — Victoria, Prince George, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg — faces a WHL team in the same market.

Sometimes, the Junior A team manages to steal away a few snatches of glory, such as the Prince George Spruce Kings did last season in winning their first BCHL title while the WHL Cougars missed the playoffs. And like the Grizzlies did with three players selected in the top-four rounds of the 2019 NHL draft.

“We work very hard in the community to keep this going,” said Black.

The proof is in the silver anniversary.