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The WIHL on EK Radio 1970-1987: The inside Story

FJ Hurtak talks hockey and broadcasting history from the Golden Years of Senior Hockey
Radio promo for the CKEK duo of Burt Decaire and F.J Hurtak, Cranbrook, early 1980s.

Barry Coulter in conversation with EK Radio’s FJ Hurtak

Some of the best hockey ever played in the Kootenays was played in the Western International Hockey League, a Senior A level league, which operated from 1946 to 1987/88, and which has a long and storied history in these parts. The WIHL had morphed from the old West Kootenay League, extant in the 1920s.

Over the years the league had teams — not all at one time— from Cranbrook, Kimberley, Nelson, Trail, Rossland, Fernie, Portland, Spokane, Los Angeles, and Calgary. There were fewer NHL teams in those early years, so the WIHL was touted as being one of the best amateur hockey leagues in North America to play in. Players were offered apprenticeships or other jobs to come to various cities and play hockey, and the calibre of play was top notch. Many pro level players competed for WIHL teams; university and junior A players were also in the mix.

Each year, the WIHL league champions were presented with the Montgomery-Shore trophy, first donated in 1946 by Hollywood stars Dinah Shore and George Montgomery. The Kimberley Dynamiters were the first team to have their name etched on this trophy. The Savage Cup was awarded to the BC Senior A ice hockey champions after successfully winning the semi-finals and the league finals. The Cranbrook Royals won the Savage Cup in 73/74 and in the 81/82 season and the Kimberly Dynamiters won it in 77/78.

The winners from B.C. or the U.S. went on the trail to compete for the National Championship most years. The Allan Cup was the Holy Grail for senior hockey in Canada, a trophy that was as difficult to win as the Stanley Cup, since there were many other competitive Senior Leagues in Canada. Just getting to the Allan Cup was a significant achievement.

In the Kootenays, radio broadcasts played a major role in promoting and bringing the excitement of the game to the general public. The product on the ice made that an easy task. Most of the teams had a radio media partner and each year the stations would broadcast selected games, both home and away for their respective teams. In the 1970s and onward, these were some of the most recognizable voices that provided the commentary.

Don Freer and Burt Decaire with CJAT, covering the Trail Smoke Eaters;

Earl Seitz with CKKC, for the Nelson Maple Leafs;

Dave Rodgers with KHQ Spokane, covering the Spokane Flyers/ Jets/ Chiefs;

Howard Ashmore with CFEK, for the Elk Valley Blazers

Cornel Sawchuk, Lloyd Hoole, Ken White, FJ Hurtak, and Burt Decaire with CKEK, covering the Kimberley Dynamiters, and Cranbrook Royals.

Question: Burt Decaire and you (F.J. Hurtak) became one the longest term broadcast teams in WIHL history during the broadcast era. How did both of you arrive in Cranbrook and when?

Answer: I came to Cranbrook about six months after I graduated from College in Calgary where I had obtained my business administration certificate. While I was getting it I also took a radio course at the same time with the Columbia School of Broadcasting which had an office in Calgary. That helped me get some part time work on Calgary radio on weekends and I helped out on Campus radio as well. Before I even graduated from my business course I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so after a few months passed, I sent out some audition tapes to a few places. Within a week I had a call from CKEK in Cranbrook. Owners Cornel Sawchuk and Lloyd Hoole offered me a DJ job which involved doing some news, sports, remote broadcasts, commercials, and a radio DJ show. I wanted to learn the business from the ground up and I figured Cranbrook was a good place to start and I loved the area, and I was familiar with it because I was born and raised in the adjacent Crows Nest Pass in Bellevue, Alberta.

So I began my full time broadcasting career on EK Radio in the Spring of 1971. The Cranbrook Royals had entered the WIHL in 65/66 and … the station started broadcasting games a couple of years later.

The Sports Director at the station then was Ken White. It was a very unique situation because Ken was an excellent hockey player and at times he suited up for the Royals for several years and may have played some games for the Nitros as well. Needless to say, when he was on the ice playing he couldn’t do any play by play. So Cornel Sawchuk asked me one day if I wanted to help him do a game they were broadcasting on the weekend and I got my very first look at WIHL action by doing the colour commentary for a Dynamiters-Royals game.

I realized what kind of intense rivalry already existed between the two cities and the quality of hockey was so good I got involved in as many games as I could after that.

Later in 1971, Ken White accepted a job at a station in the North Country and CKEK hired Burt Decaire to be our new Sports Director, Burt had already been doing some games over in Trail on CJAT with Don Freer for the Trail Smoke Eaters so he was a natural fit. Decaire was born and raised in the West Kootenay and was a hockey and sports fanatic.

Hoole and Sawchuk were both quite capable of calling games and were as professional as they come when it came to broadcasting in general. We learned a lot from them. But they also had a business to run and there was plenty of travel involved in our hockey broadcasts so other than on special occasions they pretty much left the broadcasts up to us after awhile.

They did make it clear though that both local news and sports had to be current. Three day old newscasts or sportscasts were not acceptable nor should they be. They were also very serious about having quality hockey broadcasts. Their rationale, always, was that hockey in general in most towns and cities across this country is, and always will be, a very important part of the cultural fabric of the community itself. They also recognized that hockey fans, particularly in the Kootenays, were very knowledgeable and passionate about the game. Burt and I accepted the challenge willingly. We worked hard on our craft working many seven-day weeks and travelling at times in some pretty severe winter driving conditions. We never travelled on the buses with the teams because their travel schedule never seemed to align with ours.

Our objective on broadcasts was always to provide an entertaining and informative game for the listener, plus a broadcast that would be acceptable in any other market in the country. Did we succeed? Only our radio listeners can honestly answer that question, but we at the very least knew that we were on the right track when 15 years later we were still on the air calling games.

Question: How many games would EK Radio broadcast each season?

Answer: We had roughly a 35 game broadcast schedule most years, plus playoffs, and there most always was playoff hockey because we covered both the Royals and Dynamiters. If neither of them were in, we broadcast Cranbrook Colts games, especially when they were competing for the Cyclone Taylor Cup.

Question: What were some of the highlights in your careers as hockey broadcasters?

Answer: The ones that come to mind first were the three local Allan Cup runs we broadcast. The first one was in 1974 when the Cranbrook Royals locked horns with the Barrie Flyers in a series all played at the Cranbrook Memorial arena. The Flyers won Game I by a score of 4-1, but the next two went to the Royals 4-2 and 9-5 so the Royals went into a pivotal game 4 against a squad of Flyers that included several ex pros.

Game 4 was a particularly hard fought affair and at the end of regular time the score was 4-4. The first OT period produced no tallies from either club. The game then went into double OT. It is difficult to put into words what the tension and electricity was like in the Cranbrook arena. You could feel it in the building and see it on the faces of both the players and the fans. What happened next will be remembered for a long while. Just a few minutes into the extra frame one of Cranbrook’s leading scorers that year, Jimmy Miller got a breakaway on the Barrie goalie, Ernie Miller. As Jimmy got close to making a move Ernie threw his stick (or lost control of it while trying to accomplish a poke-check) on the speedy winger, and Jimmy went crashing into the corner. He also had a Barrie Flyer right on his tail when he went in for the shot. The fans expected a penalty shot or at the very least a minor penalty BUT there was no whistle blown by the Kimberley referee Buzz Mellor.

The crowd was in an uproar and as so often happens, shortly afterwards, Barrie scored the winning goal on Cranbrook netminder Ed Babiuk on what looked like a missed offside call. Ron Robinson of the Flyers got credit for the winning OT goal.

I have never seen to this day a more hostile environment at a hockey game. The playing Coach of the Royals, Eric Sutcliffe and fellow players like Billy Martin, Hugh Christians, Marv Ferg, Felix Lavallee, Geoff Powis, John Price, and all their other teammates were in complete shock and fit to be tied.

The Royals never recovered from that heartbreaking OT loss, and went on to lose the next two games 4-3 and 4-1. The Allan Cup was headed East.

Fortunately, I had our studio tape [that game]. I was doing the play by play while Lloyd Hoole and Burt Decaire provided the colour commentary. It was common for Burt and I to trade roles from time to time so that in case of illness of one or the other on any given night we could easily slide into each other’s positions. I should tell you also, that years later I chatted with Jimmy Miller and presented him with an audio CD from the game. I asked him if he ever ran into Buzz Mellor and discussed one of the most controversial non-calls ever in the league. To his credit, he said he did, but he also told Mellor he didn’t hold it against him.

That was a very classy thing for Miller to do because Mellor took a lot of heat for quite awhile after that incident and I’m certain it had to weigh heavy on his mind.

Naturally, back in those days there were no video replays and no coaches challenges such as we have today in major league sports and the play happened in what seemed like the blink of an eyelash. So the officials right or wrong are forced to make an instant decision which cannot be changed.

We didn’t have to wait too long for another East Kootenay team to get to the Allan cup final. The Kimberley Dynamiters had won their last Allan Cup in 1935-36 so the Nitros were in the midst of a 40-year drought. In the league semi-finals in the 77-78 season they beat the Cranbrook Royals 4 games to 2, and in the league final they knocked off the Spokane Flyers in six games as well.

Burt Decaire and I broadcast all of those games and two games against Cranbrook went into OT to decide the outcome. It was a very exciting time for all East Kootenay hockey fans.

Then the Nitros dispatched the Alberta champion Drumheller Miners and followed that series by doing the same thing to the Manitoba champs, the Brandon Olympics.

The next opponents for Kimberley were the Eastern Champions, the Brantford Alexanders, for the coveted Allan Cup at the Kimberley Civic Centre. I remember when I interviewed Brantford’s coach the day of the game and how cocky and confident he seemed when I asked him why they hadn’t been out on the ice much to get a feel for the building. He said his team were polished veterans, many of whom had pro experience and they would rise to the occasion when called upon. That’s fair enough, but I got the feeling that he was vastly underestimating the Nitros, who had much momentum after just beating two of their arch rivals in the league playoffs, plus sweeping the Alberta and Manitoba teams in both those series. If the Brantford coach thought it was going to be easy, he knew after the first game that this Dynamiter team would not be a pushover.

The final score at the end of Game 1, was 6-2 Kimberley. When the Nitros won game 2, 4-2, any lingering doubts they might have had were gone. Brantford came out totally prepared for Game 3 and won it 5-3.

So game 4 turned out to be a crucial game in the series. Winning would put a stranglehold on the series for Kimberley but losing meant the series would be deadlocked at 2 games apiece and could possibly go either way.

After seeing what happened to Cranbrook just a few years before, the Dynamiters found another gear in that game and bounced the Alexanders 5-2. In game 5 Brantford played like they knew they could not overcome a 3 game to 1 lead in the series and the Nitro’s smelled blood and kept the pressure on the whole game.

Final score was 7-3 Kimberley. The drought was over and the Kimberley Dynamiters were recipients of the Allan Cup, the 70th time the cherished trophy had been awarded.

A black cloud seemed to lift over the City of Kimberley and the sun was shining again. People were so happy! Team members included playing coach Jim McCrimmon, Darwin Mott, Keith Goodwin, Jeff Ablett, Alan Fleck, Jimmy Cruise, Len Hicks, Glen Walton, Darwin Mott, Mickey Wilson, Frenchy Beaudin, Murray Myers, Dale Booth, Chris Becker, Gene Strate, Barry Cummins, Dallas Ellerby, Wayne Bell and Barrie Mackay.

The Cranbrook Royals turn came again in the 1981-82 season. In the semi-finals of league play the Royals defeated the Nelson Leafs and in the final series they turned the table on the Dynamiters this time around, and beat Kimberley 4 games to one to advance to the Western Canada Allan Cup playoffs. These playoffs determined the Western representative for the Allan Cup in 1982.

Their first opponent was the Innisfail Eagles in a best of 5 series. The Royals scored 31 goals in 3 games to the Eagles 9 and moved on to tangle with the Saint Boniface Mohawks in the Patton Cup final and bested them 3 games to 1 and they were on the way to the Allan Cup Final which was slated for the Cranbrook arena.

Their opponent this time was the Petrolia Squires, the Eastern senior hockey champions and reigning Allan Cup champions from 1981. They had also won the cup in 1979. A team to be reckoned with by anyone’s standards. Anticipation was high and again Cranbrook and area had hockey fever. “Go Royals Go“ signs seemed to be everywhere you looked in town. It was really something to see and be part of and everyone knew that the atmosphere in the old Cranbrook Arena would be electric and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It was indeed very special.

Petrolia had some very good players, such as Bill Abercrombie, Bill Fairburn, Ron Wilson, Dale Wilson, Len Fontaine, Dave Osborne and captain Barry Edgar. All had significant hockey experience and of course some of it for a select few, was in the pro or semi-pro leagues. Steve Degurse was the Coach of the team.

Playing coach for the Royals, Kelly Ferner had his squad well prepared for this series and the Royals came out flying with convincing 7-2, 7-3 and 2-1 wins. It really looked like the series would be 4 straight for the Royals but Petrolia showed a lot of pride and came back and hammered the Royals in Game 4 and beat them 6-1. That one game served as a wake-up call for the purple and gold and in game 5 they regained their form and out scored their Eastern opponents 7-3 and the 74th Allan Cup was in Cranbrook for the first time.

Players on the team included Bernie Lukowich, Frank Spring Jr., Danny Spring, Mike Korney, Gerry Klinkhammer, Dwane Pentland, R. Goulet, Ken Stroud, Rod Guimont, Bob Murdock, Terry Kirkham, Dale McMullin, Bob Craig, R. Sander, Kelly Ferner, R. Maillott, Peter Morris, Leo Karchie and Randy Amatto.

The Allan Cup has been won only 11 times by teams from BC in its long history. So yes, being able to provide our listeners with up to the minute information and coverage of those three historic Allan Cup runs was definitely a highlight for Burt Decaire and me. We talked about that many times. Sadly though, Burt passed away just a few years ago in 2017, as have some of the players and management executives. Lloyd Hoole from EK radio has also passed on. A group of partners and myself purchased CKEK from the Hoole family in 1980 and Lloyd was instrumental in making sure we got the stations, as there were other bidders. We are forever grateful to him for him wanting to keep the ownership local.

Question: What kind of support did you get from listeners during the EK radio hockey broadcast era?

Answer: First, let me say that the ‘70s and ‘80s were the “golden years” in radio. We had the only local stations in the area, there were no cellphones, iPads, iPhones, computers, video games, satellite radio, and just a few TV stations to occupy people’s time. The Key City theatre or a larger arena had not been even considered by many at that point. Therefore the support and feedback from our listeners and sponsors was tremendous. Overwhelming actually. I can’t thank them enough for that. It was a constant source of inspiration and encouragement for us. It also helped us get EK Radio 570 AM, from 1000 watts, to 10,000 watts. By 1973 we were 10,000 watts.

Earlier, hockey fans would be listening to games and the signal at 1000 watts would fade in and out in some areas at times. Many people complained and so management made it a point to apply for a 10,000 watt transmitter. It helped immensely and increased our daytime coverage area a great deal for everything we broadcast on the air, including hockey. At night we were supposed to drop back to 1000 watts so we would not interfere with other signals near us on the dial but during hockey broadcasts which went well into the night, well, sometimes we did forget to turn the power back down during evening hours if you know what I mean.

To give you another example of the support we had, we even had a contingent of people in the CNP that listened all the time including both my Dad and my Uncle Rossi Amatto whose son Randy played goal for the Dynamiters and was a pickup for the Royals Allan Cup team. They bought special antenna’s for their radios so they could pick up the games well out of our authorized coverage area which ended at the BC Alberta border. Both my uncle and my father and other CNP residents attended many games in person as well.

It was not only the fans that were supportive. The team and league executives, and many businesses were great to work with and they too deserve much credit for their dedication to the league. People such as Frank Spring Sr, Milo Fabro, Al Flick, Gerry Bond, Bob James, Dr. Gerry Wiebe, Jay Nelson, Bob Strachan at the ticket office in the Cranbrook Mall, Tiny Spooner and many more.

The coaches and players of both the Dynamiters and Royals never once turned us down for a pre-game, post-game or intermission interview. They were always happy to promote the game they loved win or lose. EK radio’s most consistent sponsor for WIHL action on the air was the Apollo Restaurant and Steak House in Cranbrook who sponsored the 3 star selection for every game we broadcast. Owner George Georgopoulos loved hockey and was one of Cranbrook’s most beloved citizens for his work supporting the Royals, local hockey in general, and his outstanding work with the senior citizens of our community.

Question: Since you were broadcasting games for both Cranbrook and Kimberley and sometimes for the Elk Valley Blazers on certain nights after they joined the league, did you find it difficult to be objective some of the time since both you and Decaire lived in Cranbrook?

Answer: We were always conscious of that so we tried extremely hard to remain neutral all the time. What also helped, was that we kept a very professional relationship with all the players so we were not real friends with any of them.

The other thing was that we would also broadcast games for Nelson and Trail at times. Cornel Sawchuk sold his shares in CKEK to Lloyd Hoole and his son David in the mid ‘70s and the Hooles bought CJAT in Trail not long after that, so it made sense that we send the Smoke-Eater games played in the East Kootenay back to them to save on travel expenses.

We took great pride in not being homers. I can honestly say we didn’t care who won when we had local teams playing. We just always hoped we would get good competitive games to broadcast. Once our teams got out of the province in competition then we were not compelled to be so balanced and people didn’t expect us to be either.

Question: Who were your favorite players in the league?

Answer: This might surprise people but we didn’t really have any favourite players per say. The WIHL had so many great players. Who they were is well documented for every single team but although the players on the ice were not close personal friends we would see them on the road a lot after games were over. It was customary after the games to go for a bite to eat or a drink at one of the favorite haunts and when some of the players saw us, there was usually a lot of good natured kidding back and forth.

Some of the Royals and Dynamiters had some pretty off the wall personalities and we loved that because we were of the same ilk I think.

One player in particular was “Frenchy” Beaudin of the Nitros. He could be a little bit mischievous. We found out the hard way one night in Spokane after the game was over. At a local restaurant he invited Decaire and I to a team party for drinks at the Sheraton Hotel. He said drop by to room 537 in about an hour for a nightcap. Since we were staying there anyway Burt and I complied. It was late and well past 1 a.m. We knocked on the door several times and again and again. I can tell you that the people in that room were not pleased that we were disturbing them in the wee hours of the morning and I can’t print what they asked us to do.

Now, there was a team get-together, yes, but it was in room 735. One of the other players on the team told me Beaudin could be a bit dyslexic but only if he wanted to be … He got us good on that one.

I won’t leave the Royals out of this either. Bob Craig of the Cranbrook Royals had an infectious personality. One night after an important playoff game I was in the Royals dressing room doing a post game interview with one of the team members. Craig walked out of the showers with nothing but a small towel wrapped around him. He approached the bench where I was conducting the interview, stood in front of us and proceeded to do his version of what a Chippendale dancer would do when they were doing a show. Needless to say it was difficult for us to keep a straight face and I had to cut the interview a bit short but once the microphone was off we burst out laughing hysterically.

Those are just a couple of different funny incidents we encountered with the players. There were plenty more but no, we were not really friends, but on occasion there was nothing preventing us from having some good old fashioned fun every now and then with team members.

Question: The WIHL was known for being a very good league but also a very physical league at times. From the hundreds of games you broadcast over the years who was the toughest player you ever saw?

Answer: That’s an arguable point of course. But back then every team had an enforcer on the squad because if you didn’t, your best players got bullied a lot. I mentioned Bob Craig was a prankster but on the ice he was all business and was a very rugged defense man. If you went in the corners with him you could expect that if you were lucky enough to come out with the puck you would have some serious bumps and bruises to show for it. Kimberley had the “Grizz,”Jim McCrimmon, Dallas Ellerby etc. and Spokane had a bunch of tough guys like Tom Hodges, Larry Palanio, George Talloti and a few more. It was no secret why they were the most hated team in the league. Their style of play at times was similar to “the Broadstreet Bullies “ of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. Trail had Leroy Huestis. He was not only tough but he was also a gifted scorer. Very hard to move him from the front of the net and a goalie’s nightmare.

But, so not to avoid your question, the toughest player I ever saw was Cranbrook Royals’ player Lloyd Harvey. He knew his role on the team and when the coach put him out there on the ice you instantly knew there was probably going to be trouble.

There were nights down in the Lilac City, where both the Royals and Dynamiters would get manhandled by Spokane. Many games were penalty-filled affairs and one night the Royals’ coach put Harvey out on the ice early, so it did not take long for the Spokane enforcers to take runs at him and other Royals players including their goalie. There were plenty of cheap shots and lots of stick work. This pretty much went on for the whole game and Spokane ran up the score because the Royals spent half the game in the sin bin.

We were broadcasting the game back to Cranbrook and every listener knew that when Spokane showed up the following weekend for a scheduled game at the Cranbrook Memorial arena that there would likely be fireworks.

During the week pretty much everyone I ran into was talking about it. When I got to the arena the anticipation of what was going to happen was pretty intense and the Cranbrook arena was jammed to capacity.

The Royals, it appeared, had a game plan in mind though. Let Spokane take the penalties, stay disciplined and then try to get a lead with the man advantage. If that was the case it worked. I can’t recall whether it was near the end of the first frame or the second and the Spokane tough guy started wrecking havoc on the ice. Enter Lloyd Harvey!

What happened next would likely never happen in today’s game. Harvey went into the corner at the south end of the arena and the fight everyone knew was coming, broke out between Harvey and either Larry Palanio or George Talotti. Well, the two combatants exchanged a few blows and Lloyd who I never saw lose a hockey fight, saw an opening and landed a hard punch to the jaw. The Spokane tough guy crumbled to the ice like a sack of wet cement and was pretty much out cold. Then Harvey, in gladiator-like fashion grabbed him by the hair and dragged him from the corner to near centre ice and deposited him there.

The crowd was in a frenzy and I had visions of what the Roman Coliseum must have been like in ancient times. Naturally the benches emptied and it took awhile for things to calm down. The rest of the game after that was fairly tame as I recall.

I certainly don’t condone such extreme measures, but if you were a Royals’ fan you recognized that there was some “six gun justic,e” so to speak, that took place at that game, and the message from the Royals was loud and clear, If you want to get real tough and dirty with our star players then you will have to deal with “Uncle Lloyd.”

Another thing of note was that there were more than a few occasions where the Spokane Club needed a police escort out of town.That is how bitter the rivalry was at times. To add to the rivalry intensity, Spokane also paid their players fairly well and could afford to pay much more than our B.C. teams could because they had 6,000 seats available in the Spokane Coliseum. Many times it was sold out. So they managed to woo several top players from other teams which of course fostered even more resentments around the league. They won the Allan Cup 4 times and in the WIHL they were the team every other team really loved to beat.

Like them or not they provided some great hockey drama for the league and were a top box office draw whenever they came to town.

Final Question: So, if you had to do it all over again considering the extra work load, the 7 day weeks, and all the travel, would you do it again?

Answer: Absolutely. I’ve always said that the best job one could have, is one you didn’t consider a job at all. What a fun ride! It was an honour and a privilege to be part of that exciting era and play a small role in the history of hockey in our region.

My thanks to Dennis Walker from 2 Day FM and to Wayne Kelly from CJAT in Trail (the Bounce) for providing the classic program photo from years gone by.

About the Author: Black Press Media Staff

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