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Hockey has deep roots in Crowsnest Pass

Wednesday, 09 February 2022. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Hockey has deep roots in Crowsnest Pass
In this circa-1920s photo, an unknown Bellevue hockey team proudly poses for a photo with a recently won trophy.     Photo courtesy of Crowsnest Museum and Archives — 00448 GUSH-NEG

Hockey has deep roots in Crowsnest Pass

By Jenaya Launstein
Community Reporter

I was inspired by Farley Wuth’s historical Pincher Creek hockey articles — published in the Jan. 12 and 19 issues of the Breeze — and decided to do some research on the sport’s history in neighbouring Crowsnest Pass.

As soon as I began researching, I realized that I had perhaps jumped off the deep end, for the Pass has had many, many teams between the 1920s and now. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as there are many hockey-crazed residents in the community, including myself.

With Crowsnest’s deep-rooted hockey history, it should come as no surprise that several athletes made it to the NHL, which I’ll get into later in this article.

One thing I found interesting was the lack of information regarding any Hillcrest-based teams. I found only one reference to a team there, but no name was given — it was simply referred to as “Hillcrest.”

The teams I did find included the Canadians, All Stars, Bruins, Elks, Legion, Tuxis and Bearcats, all of which were Blairmore-based. In Bellevue, there were the Bulldogs and Lions, and in Coleman were the Crystals, Maple Leafs, Tigers, Canadians and Grands.

There were also several teams that weren’t associated with one particular town. They were the Crows Nest Pass Lions, Crows Nest Pass Coalers, Pass Red Devils and Crowsnest Pass Timberwolves.

Many of the teams saw great success on the ice. In the 1922-23 hockey season, the Blairmore Canadians were crowned champions of the Crows Nest League, then went on to win the Alberta senior playoffs. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their hot streak going in the Western Canada Allan Cup, as they lost in the quarter-finals to the Vancouver Young Liberals.

The following season, it was the Bellevue Bulldogs who won the Alberta senior playoffs and punched their ticket to the Western Canada Allan Cup. They made it past the quarter-finals by defeating the Rossland Miners, and advanced to the finals by handing out losses to the Melville Millionaires. It was in the Western Canada finals that they met their demise, losing both of their games against a very strong Selkirk team.

Carrying the Bulldogs to the finals was none other than goaltender Tiny Thompson, who would go on to play 12 seasons in the NHL with the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings. Thompson won the Stanley Cup once and the Vezina Trophy four times and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959.

The Coleman Tigers had both a junior and senior team, and in the 1924-25 season it was the senior team winning the Crows Nest Pass League and earning a spot in the Alberta senior playoffs. There, they defeated the Edmonton Victorias 7-4 for a spot in the Western Canada Allan Cup Playoffs.

The Tigers were victorious over the Rossland Miners in the semifinals, but could not make it past Port Arthur in the final round. Port Arthur would go on to win the Allan Cup against the University of Toronto.

During the 1926-27 hockey season, Blairmore’s junior team, the Tuxis, secured a spot in the Alberta junior playoffs. Though they were narrowly defeated by Nanton in the quarter-finals, they ended up moving up in the competition due to the discovery of one of Nanton’s players being ineligible to compete. Nanton was subsequently disqualified from the tournament.

The Tuxis took full advantage of the opportunity, eliminating the Calgary Falcons in the semifinals and claiming victory over the Edmonton Navy in the finals by a score of 4-3. The Blairmore team was now headed to the Western Canada Memorial Cup Playoffs, where they would be eliminated in the quarter-finals by the Regina Pats.

The following season, another junior team from Blairmore, the Legion, followed a similar path as the Tuxis. They too were destined to win the Alberta junior playoffs and head to the Western Canada Memorial Cup playoffs.

In the quarter-finals, the Legion laid a pounding on the Fernie Rotarians, winning the first game 12-2 and the second 10-1. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep the momentum going and were eliminated in the semifinals by the Regina Monarchs. Blairmore recorded only one goal over the two games against Regina, who would go on to win the Memorial Cup.

Come 1929, the Blairmore Bearcats found themselves the victors of the Alberta senior playoffs, having narrowly defeated the Edmonton Superiors in a nail-biter of a game. The first two games of the series ended tied 1-1 and 4-4, with Blairmore taking the final match 1-0.

The Bearcats were eliminated from Allan Cup contention after losing to the Trail Smoke Eaters in the quarter-finals of the Western Canada Allan Cup playoffs.

In their first season, 1934-35, the Coleman Canadians made it to the finals in the Alberta senior playoffs, but were eliminated by the Edmonton Superiors. They would face the same fate for the next two seasons, registering finals defeats by the Luscar Indians and the Edmonton Dominions.

Though they would never make the playoffs again, two Canadians players — goaltender Dave Kemp and defenceman James Joyce — made the second all-star team during the 1938-39 season.

The Coleman Grands saw great success in their 1946-47 season, beating the Notre Dame Hounds in the Western Canada intermediate playoffs and taking home the Edmonton Journal Trophy.

The history of the Bellevue Lions is an interesting one. They didn’t see much success in the 1947-48 and 1948-49 seasons and ended up changing their name to the Crows Nest Pass Lions in 1949.

Though they didn’t make it to the playoffs in the 1949-50 season, Lions centre Vern Pachal was the leading scorer in the six-team Western Canada Junior Hockey League and was named to the second all-star team. Crows Nest Pass also had a player on the first all-star team, defenceman Bill Schitz.

The club’s best season was 1950-51, when they made it all the way to the Western Canada Junior Hockey League finals. There, they played the Regina Pats in a best-of-seven series. It was a back-and-forth match-up and the teams had to go to Game 7 to determine the winner.

In this game, the Lions’ hopes of heading to the Western Canada Memorial Cup Playoffs were dashed, as they lost 4-3. The next year, the team again changed their name, this time to the Crows Nest Pass Coalers. The Coalers missed the playoffs for the next two years before the team ultimately folded. One bright spot to come out of the organization was the fact that two players went on to play in the NHL.

Gene Achtymichuk played for the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings. He scored three goals and had five assists over 32 games between 1951 and 1959.

Forward John MacMillan was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1960 and won two Stanley Cups with the team — one in the 1961-62 season and the other in the 1962-63 season. During his NHL career, he recorded five goals and 10 assists over 104 games between 1960 and 1965.

As you may have surmised, Crowsnest Pass hockey teams were quite competitive when it came to provincial play. That said, there have also been some less-than-stellar seasons for local clubs.

Perhaps the worst statistic I found in my historical deep dive was that of the Pass Red Devils’ 1974-75 season. It was a doozy to say the least, but more on that in a moment.

The Red Devils’ first two seasons were less than adequate, but they still managed to make it into the Alberta Junior Hockey League playoffs. In the 1972-73 season, they lost to the Red Deer Rustlers in the semifinals. The following year, they eliminated the Calgary Canucks for a spot in the finals, only to be met by their nemesis, the Rustlers, and defeated once again.

And then came the 1974-75 season. Out of 60 games played, the Pass Red Devils won only three games. Fifty-six games were lost that season, and one ended tied. During this season, the team went on a 28-game losing streak, setting a league record for consecutive losses.

This record was broken only recently when, in 2015, the Calgary Mustangs recorded a 29-game losing streak. The Pass Red Devils still hold the Alberta Junior Hockey League record for most losses in a season, a statistic no team is keen to match.

The team played one more season in the Pass before relocating to Pincher Creek and becoming the Panthers.

Two players from the Pass Red Devils that made it to the NHL are Glen Cochrane and Perry Turnbull. Cochrane played 76 games with the Red Devils, amassing 18 goals and 46 assists, while Turnbull played 114 games and gathered 33 goals and 27 assists.

In the NHL, Cochrane played for the Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers. The defenceman recorded 17 goals and 72 assists over 411 regular season games, and one goal and one assist over 18 playoff games.

Turnbull played for the St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets. In 608 regular season games, he picked up 188 goals and 163 assists, and in 34 playoff games he recorded six goals and seven assists.

It would be another 20 years before Crowsnest Pass had another AJHL hockey team, this one coming in the form of the Crowsnest Pass Timberwolves.

The team lasted from 1998 to 2004, at which point they were relocated and became the Okotoks Oilers. The Timberwolves never recorded more wins than losses. They made it to the quarter-finals in the 2000-01 season, but were defeated by the Olds Grizzlys four games to none.

Despite their losing record, the Timberwolves did see several of their players head to the NHL, most notably Rick Rypien. The Blairmore native was on the team for the 2001-02 season, recording 12 goals and 10 assists over 57 games.

The rough-and-tumble Rypien would later sign with the Vancouver Canucks in 2005. On Dec. 19 of the same year, Rypien scored his first goal on his first shot in the first period of his first game. He would go on to register nine goals and seven assists over 119 regular season games, and three assists over 17 playoff games.

In 2011, Rypien signed with the Winnipeg Jets before tragically taking his own life on Aug. 15 of the same year.

Jeremy Colliton was another Timberwolves player to make it to the big leagues. Colliton was part of the 2000-01 roster and recorded 18 goals and 30 assists in 63 games. He was drafted by the New York Islanders in 2003, where he remained for his entire NHL career.

Colliton recorded three goals and three assists over his 57 games in the league. From the beginning of the 2018-19 season to the beginning of the 2021-22 season, he served as head coach for the Chicago Blackhawks. Colliton is currently the head coach of Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team in Beijing.

National Hockey League superstar Devin Setoguchi was part of the 2002-03 Timberwolves team. He finished the season with 21 goals and 18 assists. Setoguchi was drafted eighth overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft by the San Jose Sharks.

The Albertan went on to play 516 games in the NHL and amassed 131 goals and 130 assists. Besides the Sharks, Setoguchi also played for the Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings over his career.

The Timberwolves could have had another future NHL star on their team in the form of Kris Versteeg. However, after trying out for the team, Versteeg was told he was too small.

Though he didn’t play junior hockey in the Pass, Doug Houda is a Blairmore-born athlete who enjoyed a long NHL career. Between the 1985-86 and 2002-03 seasons, Houda played for the Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers (now Carolina Hurricanes), Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and Anaheim Mighty Ducks (now Anaheim Ducks).

In 561 regular season games, the defenceman recorded 19 goals and 63 assists. Over 18 playoff games, Houda had three assists. In 2006 he became the assistant coach of the Boston Bruins, where he would spend the next 10 seasons. Currently, Houda serves as the assistant coach for his former team, the Detroit Red Wings.

Pincher Creek-born and Crowsnest Pass-raised Darcy Wakaluk is another athlete from the area that had a succesful NHL career. Prior to making the big leagues, Wakaluk was the goaltender for the Pincher Creek Oilers.

He was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1984 and, while playing for the team's American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans, Wakaluk won the Calder Cup Championship in his rookie year.

On Dec. 6, 1987, he became the first AHL goaltender to score a goal after he shot the puck into the opposing team's empty net.

During his NHL career, Wakaluk played for the Buffalo Sabres, Minnesota North Stars, Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes. His career was cut short in January of 1997 after he sustained a knee injury, forcing him to retire.

Over his 191 regular season games in the NHL, Wakaluk recorded 67 wins, 75 regulation losses and 21 overtime losses, posting a .889 save percentage, 3.22 goals against average and nine shutouts. In eight playoff games, he had four wins and two losses (he did not finish the other two games), posting a .910 save percentage and 2.96 goals against average.

Wakaluk was later the assistant coach of the Vancouver Giants and the goaltending coach for the Kamloops Blazers, Crowsnest Pass Timberwolves, Calgary Hitmen and Lethbridge Hurricanes.

Nowadays, Crowsnest Pass doesn’t have a junior hockey team, but kids have the opportunity for a great start in their career through the Crowsnest Pass Minor Hockey Association’s U7, U9 and U11 programs.