By Anthony Dransfeld
Word spread quickly across the Prairies and Ontario in 1965 that a new Senior AAA hockey team was starting up in Cranbrook, B.C.
Best of all it included jobs for the hockey players. Not only jobs, but $100 per game and wages would be paid for the day of the game.
As well, travel time was limited with no bus trips over four hours. The newly reformed Western International Hockey League (WIHL) included the Spokane Jets in Washington State, Trail Smoke Eaters, Nelson Maple Leafs and the Rossland Warriors. The Kimberley Dynamiters had been World Champions of 1936, and were only 30 minutes up the road from Cranbrook.
A new pulp mill was being constructed at Skookumchuck, 40 minutes north of Cranbrook. With the new mill came good paying jobs.
The Cranbrook Royals Hockey Club was formally accepted into the Western International Hockey League (WIHL) in the autumn of 1965. Here are a few noteworthy highlights of the Royals early days:
The first player to sign with the Royals was a Brandon fellow named ‘Sugar Bear’ who the Wheat Kings said was more than okay. They were not wrong! As an added bonus his linemate was the mercurial Ron Huston. Huston was also from the Wheaties. He came to town, a kid who looked like Bobby Orr and, better yet, he played like Orr, too.
Most of the new players who arrived in Cranbrook came by Greyhound Bus. But Eddie ‘Sugar Bear’ Maher drove his own car into town. After six good years in the WIHL he eventually became an electrician for the City of Cranbrook. He retired from hockey, but stuck around Cranbrook.
Pictured: Jimmy Miller
The new team played out of the old brick barn called the Cranbrook Memorial Arena.
A feisty group of local Cranbrook fans developed an intense rivalry and a strong disliking for the Spokane Jets and their fans. Whenever Spokane was in town the Jets required police presence to get them onto their bus after a Saturday night game. Number 5 Tom Hodges of Spokane was hated by the Royals fans and equally disliked by Kimberley Dynamiter faithful. Strong words, but true (stickman par excellence).
The newcomer Royals were shown no pity by the rest of the WIHL teams. Royals’ goalie Barrie MacKay often faced over 50-60 shots per game. Soon veteran goalie Bill ‘Silver’ DeLuca who here from the Lakehead, at age 30, signed his retirement papers. By then Billy had seen enough rubber in his career. He retired early to become the Cranbrook Royals head trainer, though he still practiced with the team, and was ready to play when called upon, usually on the road.
Hockey historian Richard Neil remembers Cranbrook getting waxed by the Dynamiters in their mid-week games, with the score usually a lopsided 8-3. Most nights Ron ‘Spike’ Huston would score all three goals for Cranbrook. Even for the powerful Dynamiters it was hard to keep ‘Spiker’ off of the score sheet.
Pictured: Ron Huston in action with the California Golden Seals
George Gibson came to Cranbrook from the Eastern Hockey League. Bobby Craig arrived some years later. Both Gibson and Craig were known as very tough hombres. Gibson had roomed with Montreal Canadiens’ John Ferguson in Melville, Saskatchewan, playing Junior, and had learned more than a few fighting tricks from his hard-nosed friend. They stayed close friends until Fergy’s death. George Gibson was off skates for two seasons, building a dam in Kathmandu, Nepal (I have visited that dam).
Gibby came back to the East Kootenay, to his home in Cranbrook,, and then got cut by the Kimberley Dynamiters at the end of their training camp. Unfazed, Gibson called the Royals’ Bill Hryciuk for an audition. This resulted in Gibby making the team.
Bobby Craig feared no man on the ice. He would take six or seven punches to get in his one. His one ‘haymaker’ punch usually ended things quickly.
Larry Bedard came in from Kamloops. Then Wally Chernenko arrived from Nelson and Gringo Garringer just seemed to appear. A bunch of characters looking to play semi-pro hockey and provide after their families.
Leo Ressler proved to be an interesting pickup for the team. Ressler and his wife Joannie, who was the daughter of a medical doctor, came in from Taber, Alberta. Ressler was a very clever center ice man and he got his fair share of points too. I found him enjoyable to watch. He was a real thinker on the ice.
Ray Goss was a good-sized stay-at-home D-man who came to Cranbrook with his friend goalie Barrie MacKay. They arrived directly from the Calgary Cowboys.
The Royals were not without talent — they just had a habit of giving up way too many quality shots to their opponents, which usually led to the Royals coming out on the short end on the scoreboard.
Herbie Grey Eyes and Felix Lavalee were both top notch hockey players.
The Royals really gained respectability when they snagged Billy Martin (428 goals all time in the WIHL). Martin’s line mate was gunner Eddie LeGare. Personally I have never seen two players with as much chemistry on the ice as Martin and LeGare. How the Royals got hold of those two elite players is still a mystery.
Every hockey player who came in the 1960s and 70s got a decent job, and a good home. The bustling town of Cranbrook really supported their hockey team in their regal purple and gold uniforms.
Fiery Lyn Beaton once chased a fan in Kimberley up the concrete stairs and then down Rotary Drive. I would have enjoyed seeing how his skates survived that adventure.
Local Marvin Ferg returned from playing junior hockey with the Kamloops Blazers. He teamed up with his good friend Frank Spring, Jr., who had just returned from a season in the NHL with the Boston Bruins. Marv and Frank Jr. went on to coach the Cranbrook Bantams, who had Scott Niedermayer and some other excellent young players on their roster. The Bantams went a long ways that year. Neidermayer, of course, played his Junior WHL hockey in Kamloops as a Blazer.
None of the teams in the Western International Hockey League (WIHL) had any compassion whatsoever for the first year Cranbrook Royals team.
Pictured: Brian Dickie with the Flint Generals
Eventually, after four MVP trophies while playing for the Royals Ron ‘Spike’ Huston was wooed to Spokane. From there he went onto Salt Lake City where he was Rookie of the Year with 42 goals. He eventually made it to the NHL with the expansion Golden Seals.
The Cranbrook Royals were to get one more superstar-caliber player in the person of Jimmy Miller. Miller scored a record 56 goals in one season. Twenty seasons ago, Jimmy Miller was voted into the NCAA’s Hockey Hall of Fame in Minnesota for his collegiate career. I happened to see Jimmy and Sophie Pierre on their way to Minneapolis for the induction ceremony.
Goaltender Wayne Doll impressed me from the very first time I saw him in the net. Wayne wasalways square to the shooter and pretty athletic. In fact, Carey Price reminds me of ‘Dolly’ and his calm and collected approach to goaltending. Doll had been first string on the Estevan Bruins in the WHL. A healthy Wayne Doll was second only to the great Seth Martin of the Trail Smoke Eaters. Sadly injuries derailed Dolly’s career somewhat. Leo Karchie came in when Doll went down.
Brian Dickie came to Cranbrook with a good pedigree from the league leading Swift Current Broncos and the always exciting Calgary Stampeders. The Stampeders were really a pro-club masquerading as an amateur Allan Cup contender. By this time Ron Huston was up in Calgary, as well, playing with the great George Hill, a similar hockey player to Alex Delvecchio (Gordie Howe’s favourite centerman) of Detroit Red Wings.
Brian Dickie played like Brendan Gallagher of the current Montreal Canadiens. His style was clean, but always in your face. The fact that Brian Dickie even made it to Cranbrook is a story in itself. Dickie was in the second year of a two-year deal in Michigan with the Flint Generals of the International League. He and his wife Donna had visited Cranbrook in the summer of 1964 and really enjoyed their time in the city. To sign with the Cranbrook Royals, Brian had to be in Cranbrook by January 10, 1965, to appear before WIHL President Milo Fabro to sign his contract.
So Brian and Donna packed up quickly and left Michigan in -40 F degree temperature. They drove all that day and night, and were further delayed when the border crossing they were hoping to use was closed. They finally arrived in Cranbrook with three hours to spare, only to find out that the Royals were scheduled to play the Trail Smoke Eaters that night in Trail. Throwing his frozen hockey equipment bag in the front of the bus to warm up, Brian was told by the coach that he would be slotted onto the second line as three of the Royals had “Fergie Flu” and couldn’t play. The Royals, in their snazzy purple and gold uniforms which were the hit of the League, won that night in Trail 5-2.
Brian and Donna had the pleasure of living in Salzburg Austria when Dickie played one season with the Austrian club, before signing with Flint.
Pictured: Bernie Lukowich
One of the better hockey players to make it to Cranbrook would certainly be Bernie Lukowich, who was drafted in the 2nd round by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and played almost 100 games in the NHL and 10 years in the pro rank before joining the Cranbrook Royals for a few seasons. ‘Luke’ bought a business (the Dairyland milk distributorship) after retiring from hockey. Luke and Perry Anne’s son Brad, of course, who won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999.
Cranbrook native Derek Spring certainly had game, along with a beautiful effortless skating style. Derek and Judy’s daughter Jenna was exceptional in Women’s Hockey at Yale University Jenna almost made the Canadian Olympic team that season. Her skating style is very similar to her Dad’s – very fluid. Jenna is now an emergency room doctor at Sunny Brook Hospital inToronto. Be safe, stay safe, Jenna Spring.
The Cranbrook Royals, like any good hockey team, had great lineup of nicknames — Sammy, Spook, Sugar Bear, Spiker, Gringo, Moose, Marty, Mex, Dickie Bird, Silver, Fergie, Luke, Gibby, Suddsie, Gator, Dolly, Jay Y, Whitey (Ken White), Riceroni, Moose M, Sully U, and Barney. You may remember some of these boys. Many are still in Cranbrook, long retired.
Cranbrook won the Allan Cup in 1982. The Allan Cup, which has been presented annually since 1907, has proven as elusive to win as its sister cup, the Stanley Cup. I am researching to see if any player has ever won both Cups in their career. Theo Fleury came close with the Calgary Flames and the Horse Lake Thunder.
These hockey players gave us lots of entertainment down at the ‘Barn’. The Cranbrook Royals went from being not a very good hockey team to winning the Allan Cup (Amateur Hockey supremacy of Canada) in 1982. The team and its players paved the way for many local NHL players, who cut their teeth down at the Cranbrook Memorial Arena, watching the skills and grit of the senior Royals.
In fact, the Stanley Cup seemed to be in Cranbrook every summer in the 1990s. First with Scott Niedermayer, then Jon Klemm, Jason Marshall, Bradley Lukowich. and in 2007 with Robbie and Scott Niedermayer with the Anaheim Ducks.
Sadly these Cranbrook Royals hockey players have passed on: they are (1) Gordie Rice, (2) Wally Chernenko and (3) Ray Martyniuk. Goalie Martyniuk played his last game for the Royals in Spokane which proved to be a losing effort. Ray asked the Royals bus driver to pull over at Moyie Lake on their way home. This was around 2 am. Legend has it that Marty then grabbed all of his goalie equipment out of the bus, and tossed it into deep, cold waters of Moyie Lake (Brian Dickie saw the stuff disappear into the Lake – such is the life of a goaltender), (4) Bob Mayer, (5) Jeff Powis, (6) Bob McIvor, (7) Nels Venerus, (8) Billy Hycriuk, (9) Phil Headley (Goalie), (10) Eric Sutcliffe (Playing Coach).
The Western International Hockey League (WIHL) ceased operations in 1987. The Cranbrook Royals were in the WIHL for 22 Seasons, winning the Allan Cup in 1982.
Summing Up: The Cranbrook Royals really lit the flame of hockey in their 22 years in town. This paved the way for a new rink to be built (The Rec Plex) A Western Hockey League (WHL) franchise to be awarded to the Kootenay Ice and this culminating in a Memorial Cup win in 2001.
Last, but certainly not least, the Cranbrook Royals formed an Alumni Hockey Club called The Colonels. The Royals’ alumni play every Thursday night at the old rink. The Colonels’ president is Greg Pascuzzo. This team has given generous financial support to many, many local charities over the years in Cranbrook, and always graciously and behind the scenes. When there is a Cranbrook charity in need the likes of Kenny Bridge, Rocky, Kenny Manson, Strouder, Greg and the board of the Colonels get their check books out quickly to help out. I refereed for the Colonels in the mid ‘90’s, and saw this generously first hand. Thank you to the boys in purple and gold.
Cranbrook’s contribution to the National Hockey League is great by players born and raised in Cranbrook.
My trusty friend Google informs me of the following:
• 5,101 NHL games were played by our local Cranbrook boys;
• 1,714 goals scored;
• 1,729 assists;
• 3,443 total points scored by Cranbrook-born players who played in the NHL from a town of 17,000 in the Rockies. Pretty cool!
Please note: Scott and Robbie Niedermayer are not included in this total as Scottie was born in Edmonton, and Rob in Cassiar B.C.
Many thanks to Michael Selby at our Cranbrook Public Library, Johnny Hudak, Richard ‘98’, Keith Powell, Carolyn Grant, Marla Smith (Townsman) and Barry Coulter (Townsman) for their help in researching, preparing, editing and publishing this installment on local hockey heritage. This truly has been a team effort.