More than 56 years ago, there were Junior "A" Hockey teams, however, no Junior "A" Hockey League within the province of British Columbia. Not until four men, representing four different Okanagan cities got together one day at a Vernon hotel back in 1961. That's when Vernon Jr. Canadian's owner Bill Brown persuaded three other owners of Junior "B" Clubs to convert their league into B.C.'s first Junior "A" Hockey circuit.
“I did it for one reason," said Brown. "We had the nucleus of the best Junior "A" Hockey League in Canada, but they kept raiding our players."
With his other three counterparts in agreement, the Okanagan (Mainline) Junior "A" Hockey League was born. The Kamloops Rockets, Kelowna Buckaroos, Penticton Jr. Vees and Vernon Junior Canadians made up the fledgling league, which took to the ice to begin the 1961/1962 season.
Brown served as the league's first President, a post he held for two years. Kamloops and Kelowna dominated the first five years of the new O.J.H.L., occupying the first two places in the standings, and meeting in the championship final every season. It wasn't until the Penticton Broncos, in their third year of operation following the demise of the Jr. Vees, that a different champion was born as the Broncos up-ended Kelowna in a six game final to win the 1966/67 title and put an end to the Kamloops/Kelowna dynasty.
At the time, each team was required to fill all but five roster positions with 'home-grown' talent, products of their respective city's minor hockey systems. As is pretty much the case by even today's standards, there wasn't much money to be made minimizing their losses over a 30-game schedule was the owners' greatest financial concern.
Once the league expanded outside of the Okanagan, it could no longer be called the Okanagan Junior "A" Hockey League. The British Columbia Junior Hockey League became the new name of the province's only Junior "A" League, following the addition of the New Westminster Royals and Victoria Cougars.
With new owners came a name change for the Vernon franchise. Now nicknamed the Vernon Essos, co-owner Vern Dye recalls mere existence. "In our first year (1967/1968), our budget was $15,000.00. We traveled by car to road games, and we did pay the players a bit. They got $20.00 to $40.00 a month, and room and board. Back then, skates cost $50.00, sticks were $1.10."
A year after New Westminster and Victoria were admitted, the Vancouver Centennials entered the BCJHL. One year later, the Chilliwack Bruins joined the fold, and league governors opted for a two-division set-up. The four newest clubs were in the Coastal Division, with the original Okanagan teams comprising the Interior Division. With the league having doubled in size, so did the schedule, from 30 to 60 games.
The British Columbia Junior Hockey League's second decade of existence began with the loss of two teams, but finished with league membership at an all-time high of 13. In between, 13 clubs received expansion franchises, six relocated and another seven ceased operations as the league struggled in some communities but thrived in others.
Following the re-designation of - Junior Hockey by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, which created Major Junior and Junior "A" Divisions of competition, the Victoria Cougars jumped ship to join the Western Hockey League as a Major Junior franchise. Meantime, the New Westminster Royals were forced out of their home when the Estevan Bruins of the WCHL moved into the Queen's Park Arena, leaving the BCJHL with just six teams for the 1971/1972 season.
However, the league rebounded a year later, adding the Bellingham Blazers and Nanaimo Clippers, and never operating with fewer than eight teams ever again. Following the designation of Major Junior and Junior "A" Hockey, BCJHL clubs were no longer eligible to compete for the Memorial Cup. Hence, a new trophy, the Centennial Cup, was created for Canada's Junior "A" National Champion.
The Nanaimo Clipper won three straight BCJHL crowns in the mid to late 1970's, but only challenged once for the Centennial Cup, when they were swept in a best-of-five Provincial Championship Series by the Richmond Sockeyes of the upstart P.A.C. (Pacific) "A" Hockey League.
A year earlier, the BCJHL chose not to enter the National Playdowns, conceding the Provincial Championship to the P.A.C. "A" Champions.
The wildest possible finish to the BCJHL season occurred during the 1977/1978 season, a year in which there were two Champions but no Championship Series. Opting to return to the Centennial Cup Playoffs, the BCJHL sent the Regular Season Champion Merrittt Centennials into Inter-Provincial play. Merrittt swept Richmond to win the Provincial Title, and then defeated the Calgary Cowboys, before falling to the eventual Centennial Cup Champion Prince Albert Raiders in the Abbott Cup (Western Canada) Final. Meanwhile, the rest of the BCJHL carried on its post-season without Merrittt.
Coastal Division Champion Nanaimo met the Penticton Vees in the BCJHL, Final. However, the series ended after only three games when the Vees refused to continue, citing Nanaimo's rough play. The Clippers were awarded their third straight Championship, but according to former Nanaimo coach Larry McNabb, his team could have gained more. "It was a disaster," recalled McNabb. "We split two games in Penticton, and then we had a brawl in game three. Penticton's coach pulled his team off the ice, but they started it. We were declared the winner, but the problem was, I was getting 2,000 fans a game. We won a Championship, but lost money. We got robbed!"
Playoff revenue was how many teams balanced the budget in the 1970's. Budgets were in the neighborhood of $70,000.00 a year, with coaches pulling in a few hundred dollars a month.
The BCJHL's second decade ended with the demise of the PAC. "A" League as former members Coquitlam Comets, Nor Wes Caps, Richmond Sockeyes and Vancouver Blue Hawks joined the senior circuit over a two-year span.
With the granting of an expansion franchise to the Cowichan Valley Capitals, the league's presence on Vancouver Island had doubled. While stability was lacking and franchise shuffling became an annual event, now at 13 teams, the BCJHL offered the province's young players two choices, a route to Major Junior or College Hockey
The 1980's saw the B.C. Junior Hockey League shed its image as the 'weak sister' of Canadian Junior "A" Hockey after advancing to the second round of Inter-Provincial play just three times in 12 years since the creation of the Centennial Cup, and never getting to a National Final. BCJHL teams went on to four Centennial Cup appearances over the next five years, winning two Canadian Championships.
The Abbotsford Flyers broke the jinx in 1982/1983, knocking off Alberta's Calgary Canucks and Dauphin Flyers of Manitoba to become the first B.C. team to reach a National Championship Series. They fell in straight games to Ontario's North York Rangers, but not before setting the trend of great things to come for the BCJHL.
Two years later, in 1984/1985, the Penticton Knights got all the way to the Centennial Cup Final only to lose the last game of the four-team tournament to Orillia Travelways of Ontario. However, one year later, Penticton gained a measure of revenge by going three and one in Round Robin play before defeating the host Cole Harbour Colts 7-4 in Nova Scotia to bring the Centennial Cup back to B.C. for the first time ever.
The surge continued with the Richmond Sockeyes capturing B.C.'s second consecutive Centennial Cup Title in 1987.
The BCJHL dominance was never as apparent as in the 1990's. To begin the decade, the Vernon Lakers battled the New Westminster Royals in an all B.C. Centennial Cup Championship final in Vernon. The Royals were simply incredible that year, compiling a 52-3-4 regular season mark, establishing league records for wins, fewest losses and total points. New West went 17-6 in Provincial and Inter-Provincial play to reach the Centennial Cup Tournament and strolled into the National Final with five straight victories. However, win number six would never come. Despite finishing some 37 points back of the Royals during the BCJHL regular season, the host Lakers pulled off what is arguably the most stunning upset in Centennial Cup history, a 6-5 overtime decision. It was the first of back-to-back National Titles for Vernon, which during its late 1980's/early 1990's run amassed a record four straight Centennial Cup appearances.
Penticton, Richmond and Vernon championship teams from what had become Canada's best Junior "A" League helped raise the profile of the BCJHL with college scouts from south of the border. Each sent countless players to N.C.A.A. Hockey, most on full-ride scholarships, which gave players the opportunity to combine hockey development with a university education. And many went on to the National Hockey League as well.
The Kelowna Spartans assumed the BCJHL throne in 1993, eventually going undefeated at the Centennial Cup Tournament in Amherst, Nova Scotia to record B.C.'s third National Championship of the decade. The following year, Kelowna came up a mere one goal short at the Centennial Cup, losing the deciding game in overtime to the host Olds Grizzlies.
Once the Centennial Cup was renamed the Royal Bank Cup in 1996, the now abbreviated BCJHL made four straight National Championship Final Game appearances, winning three, thanks to the newly nicknamed/ Vernon Vipers in '96, South Surrey Eagles in '98 and Vernon Vipers again in 1999.
Amongst the on-ice success of the BCJHL was constantly climbing attendance figures, media coverage was getting stronger and there was increased corporate support. Ron Boileau became the league's first full-time President in the 1990/1991 season.
Fewer clubs were operating on the brink of extinction. Only four franchises had moved in the 90's, compared to 16 the previous decade. As well, one franchise suspended operations, while four others folded in the 1980's.
Today, the BCJHL is fully aware of what it has to offer.
Whether the player is pursuing a pro career or seeking a 'full-ride' scholarship from an American University, that player is a top level performer. The combination of younger players after scholarships or a Major Junior career and older players winding down their Junior Hockey days makes for a higher level of competition. Small, skilled players test their mettle against the older, bigger and more experienced skaters.
One such example is Paul Kariya, a diminutive star with the Penticton Panthers during the 1992/1993 season. The then 5-foot 10-inch, 157 pound forward became the first BCJHL player selected to the National Junior Team. The Vancouver native chose the BCJHL for his Junior Hockey career in order to pursue a College Scholarship, and was promptly recruited by the University of Maine. Says Kariya, "when I was there, the BCJHL was a good league. It was a good stepping stone because I was playing against some players who were 20 years old. I had an advantage. In Junior "A," I was playing against guys three and four years older."
The British Columbia Hockey League has come an awfully long way in its 55+ years of existence
The above article was originally posted on the BCHL website, a number of years ago,(2009).
You can read an updated version on the BCHL website at https://bchl.ca/bchl-history.
April 9, 2021 - The Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) announced that the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) has submitted a notice to withdraw their membership from the CJHL, effective March 24th. Reasons: Modernizing-Junior-Hockey-in-Canada.pdf.
Former and current historical BCHL archived websites via the WayBackMachine
Since the Leagues inception, in 1961 to the present, the OMJHL, OJHL, BCJHL and BCHL amassed many awards, cups and championships, which includes the list below....
The British Columbia Hockey League(since 1996), as the League is know today, has gone by different names in past, they being...
In the past the BCHL played the champions of the following, now defunct, leagues. They are added here because some of the teams from these leagues ended up in the BCHL.
....for the Mowat Cup (British Columbia Junior A Champions). The Mowat Cup winners would go on to play for the Doyle Cup (British Columbia vs Alberta). Then the Doyle Cup winners would play for the now retired Abbott Cup (Western Canadian Championship versus the Saskachewan/Manitoba champions). The Abbott Cup winners would then play for the Memorial Cup (1961-1970) and the Centennial Cup & Royal Bank Cup since 1971.