Photo: The Daily Colonist
1976-77 was a rebuilding year for the Cougars as first-year rookies made up half the roster. Even though owner/general manager/coach Pat Ginnell never had a losing season in his career, the young Cougars squad was not expected to compete in a strong west division with New Westminster, Portland and Kamloops. In the Brandon Sun's Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL) season preview, Bruce Penton predicted the Cougars would finish last. However, the bigger story throughout the year was Ginnell’s battle with city officials over the arena lease and the rumoured sale of the team.
On opening night, twelve of the nineteen players were rookies while six players were in their second year. Curt Fraser, the only player in his third year and last season’s top scorer, was named team captain. Out of training camp, center Alvin Moore anchored the top line with Greg Anderson and Fraser on the wings. On the back end, veterans Greg Tebbutt, Lorry Glockner and Rick Hendricks returned on defence. Ginnell expected to rely heavily on Bob Jansch, Geordie Robertson, Gary Lupul and Leroy Heck, who were coming off a BCJHL championship the previous year with the Nanaimo Clippers. In goal, Murray Bannerman, the Cougars top NHL draft prospect, was expected to play most of the games with rookie Steve Amiss as the backup.
Archie Henderson was one of the best Cougars in the preseason with five goals in four games but served a suspension during the first month of the regular season. During a January 1976 game against Kamloops, Henderson injured and hospitalized Larry Lestander during a vicious fight. Henderson was charged and eventually received a one-month court-ordered suspension, served at the start of the 1976-77 season.
Off the ice, tensions between the Cougars and the City of Victoria were at an all-time high. The relationship between the two sides continually deteriorated since last year when mayor Peter Pollen jumped into the Cougars bench during a brawl to confront Ginnell and demand that he stop the violence. In the 1976 draft contract to use Memorial Arena, the city put in an “anti-violence clause”. Ginnell refused to sign the contract and said he had league permission to move the team if necessary. Lawyers on both sides were working to come up with a suitable agreement while the Cougars continued to use Memorial Arena on a game-to-game agreement. New mayor Michael Young stated that he intends to have the city take a leading role in controlling violent acts throughout the WCHL. The original contract said the Victoria City Council would be the sole judge as to what was considered “violent”. Pat Ginnell was not happy with the grandstanding by the mayor and refused to comment other than saying the matter was in the hands of his lawyers.
The WCHL gave the Cougars an extremely tough schedule to start the year as they played more games than any other team. One crazy stretch in October had them play 11 games on the road in 12 days. The highlight of the trip was a 9-2 victory over Regina with Greg Anderson, Curt Fraser, Bob Jansch and Gary Lupul each scoring twice. Even with the tough grind, and Curt Fraser missing two weeks with a knee injury, the Cougars managed to stick around the top of the West Division standings for the first couple of months of the season. After seventeen games, the Cougars were tied for first with an 8-8-1 record. Greg Anderson topped the WCHL in scoring with 34 points and Gary Lupul second with 28. Murray Bannerman was steady in goal for the Cougars and played almost every game. Steve Amiss proved to be a solid backup in his first start at Memorial Arena on December 4th when he shutout Regina en route to an 8-0 win.
At the Christmas break, the Cougars were tied with Kamloops for second place in the West Division with thirty-eight points (16-14-6). During the break, Curt Fraser, Murray Bannerman and Greg Anderson joined the WCHL All-Stars for the Labatt Cup, held in Alberta. All-star teams from the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Hockey League and the WCHL were joined by the Russians in a four-team tournament. WCHL won the tournament with a perfect 6-0 record. Organizers were disappointed with low attendance and “the poorest team ever sent here from Russia” as the Soviets had an 0-6 record and outscored 49-12.
Ginnell made a big trade in early January by acquiring forward Paul Enquist along with defencemen Brent Gogol and Glen Cochrane from the Calgary Centennials in exchange for Alvin Szott and one of Victoria’s top prospects Mike Toal. Enquist knew the Cougars well, recently scoring five goals against Victoria on December 17th in an 11-3 Calgary win. Pat Ginnell made the trade because he felt the Cougars were too small to be effective against physical teams like New Westminster and Portland and needed to add more size.
One of the most serious injuries that ever occurred at Memorial Arena happened on January 25, 1977, in a 7-3 Cougars win over Calgary. In the last minute of the game, Lorry Goeckner of the Cougars and Grant Morin of the Centennials battled in the Calgary zone and lifted their sticks. Goeckner jabbed at Morin but missed, striking teammate Ron Trafford in the eye. With blood running from Trafford’s face, he was helped to the dressing room and rushed to the hospital. Unfortunately, the damage was too great and he had surgery a few days later to remove the eye. Miraculously, Trafford returned to the Cougars lineup a month later and finished the season.
On February 22nd, Pat Ginnell confirmed rumours that he was negotiating with a Vancouver group to sell the team. The group included Lorne Williams, owner of the Richmond Sockeyes Junior B team and former part-owner of the Cougars, along with Ray Harmbourne, owner of the Fraser Arms Hotel. Williams said discussions were at the talking stage but if legal matters can be solved, he may purchase the team in the next three weeks. He also stated that he could live with the anti-violence clause and the issue has been blown out of proportion. In mid-March, Ginnell announced that he was still negotiating with the Williams group to sell the team but nothing would be signed until after the season.
At the beginning of February, for the second year in a row, Cliff Lennartz was appointed interim head coach so Ginnell could concentrate on his General Manager duties. Lennartz was a long-time friend of Ginnell and coached the Cougars at the end of the 1975-76 regular season. This arraignment only lasted until mid-March because Lennartz tore ligaments in his ankle and was unable to stand at the bench during games which forced Ginnell to return as coach.
As the season ended, the young Cougars wore down. In three match-ups in March against Portland to determine third place, they lost twice and tied once. In addition, the Cougars stumbled with 0 wins, 5 losses and three ties in their last eight games to finish last in the West Division with a record of 27-32-13. At Memorial Arena, the Cougars had a winning record with only seven losses, but they were a completely different club on the road losing a dismal twenty-six times. Even with their last-place finish, every team in the West Division made the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Cougars had to face the defending champion New Westminster Bruins in the first round.
Although it was a disappointing year, the highlight was the emergence of rookie Gary Lupul. The speedy center was a fan favourite and named Most Valuable Player with a team-leading 101 points. Greg Anderson was second in scoring with 98 points and topped the Cougars with 46 goals. Leroy Heck was the top defenceman with 42 points and led the team with 242 penalty minutes.
Two Cougars were selected at the 1977 NHL entry draft - Murray Bannerman, in the fourth round by the Vancouver Canucks and in the tenth round Archie Henderson was picked by the Washington Capitals.
On May 11, 1977, a group led by Lorne Williams was introduced as the new ownership group of the Victoria Cougars. Pat Ginnell was not at the press conference but the selling price was rumoured to be around $200,000. In his three and half years with the Cougars, controversy always surrounded Ginnell. Crowds increased at Memorial Arena, but so did the violence. He was successful in turning the Cougars into a competitive team that would not back down from anyone. In the two and half years before Ginnell arrived, the Cougars were one of the worst teams in the league and the franchise was likely close to moving out of Victoria. Within one year of Ginnell’s arrival, he was able to guide the Cougars to the best record in the WCHL. In the end, it was time for a change and Ginnell’s sale of the team led to the hiring of Jack Shupe and the start of the most successful period in franchise history.
Craig Richardson - firstname.lastname@example.org
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