1977 marked a new beginning for the Victoria Cougars franchise. Pat Ginnell, Owner/Coach/GM, left the Cougars and sold his majority interest to Vancouver businessman Ray Harambourne. One of the first moves of the new ownership group was the hiring of Bob Briscoe as General Manager. Briscoe was a former Cougars scout and interim coach during the 1972-73 season. At the introductory press conference, Briscoe said Andy Hebenton, who played 26 seasons of pro hockey including five years with the Victoria Cougars in the 1950’s, was his first choice for head coach. In the end, the Cougars went in a different direction and hired Jack Shupe, who spent the last seven years with the Medicine Hat Tigers.
Going into training camp, the Cougars had the main core of their team returning from the previous season. The biggest loss was goaltender Murray Bannerman, who was now playing in the International Hockey League for the Vancouver Canucks farm team. Victoria born Steve Amiss, who only appeared in 13 games last year, became the new starting goalie with Robin Frost and Steve Hanna battling for the backup job. Other returning players included captain Curt Fraser, leading scorer Gary Lupul, second year players Geordie Robertson, Glen Cochrane , Mark Robinson and veterans Dennis Fenske and Leroy Heck.
The Cougars enjoyed a successful training camp and preseason with record of 7-2 but started the regular season with only four wins in eleven games. Enforcer Brent Gogol was traded after six games to the Billings Bighorns for defenceman Todd Morton. In 67 games with Victoria and Billings, Gogol picked up 511 penalty minutes, a WHL record that still stands today.
On October 8th, the Cougars handed the defending Memorial Cup champion, New Westminster Bruins their first loss of the season with a 5-1 victory at Queens Park Arena. Bob Jansch scored three goals for the Cougars but a wild bench clearing brawl was ignited at the end of the game when Boris Fistric of the Bruins attacked Paul Enquist.
One of the early season highlights was the emergence of Bob Jansch, who stepped up while Gary Lupul was sidelined the first month with a knee injury. Jansch followed up the hat trick in New Westminster with three more goals versus Flin Flon and continued on a hot streak scoring nine times in his first seven games. Another bright spot was Mickey Willgress who scored 6 goals in his first 8 games but cooled off and finished the year with 12 goals.
Overage forward Paul Enquist scored 35 points in 24 games but left the Cougars in November because he felt that he was not contributing enough. With an overage spot now open, 20 year old Bill Jobson returned to the team. Jobson tallied 53 points with the Cougars in 1976-77, but was not selected in the NHL Amateur Draft. When the Cougars approached Jobson, he had a full time job and was playing for the Esquimalt Maple Leafs of the South Island Big Six League.
For the first half of the year, the Cougars were inconsistent and not helped by a brutal travel schedule which included one stretch of four games in four nights. At Christmas, the Cougars found themselves in last place of the Western Division. But the new year sparked new life into Cougars as they started showing more confidence and aggression. Steve Amiss blossomed into one of their best goalies in the WHL, highlighted by a 58 save performance on February 21st in a 7-2 victory over Saskatoon. Offensively, they started clicking led by center Geordie Robertson, finishing the season with 64 goals in 61 games, Gary Lupul, returning to full speed after his knee injury and captain Curt Fraser, providing scoring and toughness with 48 goals and a team leading 256 penalty minutes.
The last few months of the season was a tight three way battle between the Cougars, New Westminster Bruins and Seattle Breakers fighting for two playoff spots. (This was first year of the Breakers franchise after relocating from Kamloops). The Cougars made the playoffs by winning their final two games, 6-2 over Seattle and a thrilling 10-8 victory against Medicine Hat in the last game of the season. The final standings had the Portland Winter Hawks in first place of the Western Division with 93 points, Victoria second with 77 points and New Westminster third with 77 points (Even though Victoria and New Westminster both had 77 points, the Cougars were second because they had more wins). Seattle was fourth with 76 points, missing the playoffs by just one point.
The playoffs began with a three team round robin between Portland, New Westminster and Portland. Teams faced each other four times with the top two advancing to the Division Finals. The tone for the playoffs was set in the first game as Kim Spencer of the Cougars and Boris Fistric of the Bruins fought during the pre-game warmup at Queens Park Arena. New Westminster won the game 7-3 as the defending champion Bruins went on to win seven games in a row completing the round robin with a 7-1 record. The Bruins were motivated by the return of head coach Ernie “Punch” Maclean, who was reinstated for the playoffs after serving a 25 game suspension for punching an official. Although the Cougars completed the round robin with a mediocre 4-4 record, they advanced to the next round as the division champion Portland Winter Hawks shockingly only managed one victory in eight games. There were many complaints about the playoff format, as Portland was eliminated with a couple of games left, which meant two meaningless games had to be played to complete the round robin.
The best of seven West Division Final began with Dennis Fenske scoring the winner in the last minute of the third period to give the Cougars a 4-3 victory over the Bruins. Cougars rookie goaltender Kevin Eastman was the first star of the game with 47 saves. Eastman replaced Amiss in the round robin and picked up four straight wins. In game two, the Cougars jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead, but the Bruins rebounded to win 7-4 and tie the series at one a piece.
Playoff fever swept over Victoria as a huge crowd of 5,332 packed Memorial Arena for Game 3 - the highest recorded attendance for a Cougars game. After two periods the Cougars held a 4-3 lead but fell apart in the third period with the Bruins storming back with five straight goals to win 8-4. It was a similar story in Game 4 with the Bruins collecting four unanswered goals in the third period as they cruised to an 8-3 triumph. Captain Stan Smyl (two goals and one assist) led the Bruins attack with 10,888 fans in attendance at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum. Game 5 shifted back to Victoria with the Bruins scoring twice at the beginning of the third period to break a 4-4 tie en route to a 6-5 victory and eliminate the Cougars four games to one.
Even though the Cougars and the Bruins were tied with 77 points in the regular season, New Westminster was in total control during the West Division Final. In the series, the Bruins outscored Victoria 14-4 in the third period and averaged 51 shots per game as they bounced the Cougars from the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Afterwards, coach Jack Shupe said, “I feel some of our players were in awe of the Bruins at times and believed they were unbeatable”. To add insult, the Cougars team bus was stolen from their Vancouver hotel after Game 4 during the night but recovered the next morning.
The Bruins went on capture their fourth straight WHL championship, sweeping the Billings Bighorns in the final. At the Memorial Cup, held in Sudbury, Ontario, the Bruins defeated the Peterborough Petes to win their second consecutive championship as the top junior team in Canada.
Cougars co-owner Paul Panchyshyn said the team averaged 2,200 paid admission in the regular season and drew 28,445 fans for seven playoff dates, including the record breaking crowd of 5,332 against New Westminster. Panchyshyn disclosed that the team didn’t lose money but there would have been a considerable deficit had the Cougars finished out of the playoffs.
Jack Shupe was recognized for his work in turning around the Cougars as he and Dave King of Billings were both selected as WHL Coach of the Year. This was the second time a Cougars coach was picked as Pat Ginnell won the award in 1975.
The team awards had Geordie Robertson winning Top Scorer (136 points) and Most Valuable Player. Leroy Heck was named Best defenceman (53 points), Rookie of the Year was George Fritz (55 points) and Dennis Fenske (43 points) was selected as the Most Popular and Inspirational player. After four years with the Cougars, captain Curt Fraser graduated setting franchise records for career goals (142), assists (181), points (323) and penalty minutes (610).
At the 1978 NHL amateur draft, Curt Fraser was selected in the second round by the Vancouver Canucks, Glen Cochrane chosen in the third round by the Philadelphia Flyers and the Minnesota North Stars picked up Kim Spencer in the seventh round.
Although disappointed in the playoff loss, Jack Shupe was excited about their chances next season. He was especially looking forward to seeing young prospects Barry Pederson, Torrie Robertson, Brad Palmer and Shawn Lyons join the team. Shupe was building a foundation that would lead to the most successful teams in Cougars history.