1983/84 was one of the craziest seasons in Victoria Cougars' history. On February 1st, they were the ninth-best team in Canada and held firm control of second place in the West Division. Over the next fifty days later, they plummeted to fifth place. For the first time in ten years, the Cougars failed to make the playoffs. In this post, we look at key games, a coaching change and all the drama surrounding the 1983/84 season.
Dave Andrews returned for his second full year behind the bench. He became head coach during the 1981/82 playoffs when Jack Shupe was fired in the middle of the Cougars first-round matchup against Seattle. Andrews, an assistant, took over for the remainder of their playoff run. Many fans were upset at this sudden firing since Shupe was just one year removed from leading the Cougars to the best record in the history of the Western Hockey League (WHL). After the playoffs, Andrews signed a two-year contract with owner Fraser McColl taking over as General Manager.
In his first year, Andrews brought a stabilizing influence to the team. The 1982/83 Cougars finished second in the West Division - five points behind the first-place Portland Winter Hawks. In the playoffs, Portland defeated Victoria in the semi-finals as the Winter Hawks went on to win the Memorial Cup.
In a preseason interview with the Times-Colonist, Andrews distanced himself from the previous regime by pointing out most of the current roster was recruited by him and not Shupe.
Andrews takes exception to any inference that he was left a contender, and that all he had to do was open and close the doors to the players' box. “I don’t want to knock Shupe…” Andrews begins. In the next breath, he wonders how a talent like (Russ) Courtnall, a hometown boy whose brother Geoff was a stickboy and then a player with the Cougars, wound up on Medicine Hat’s list… (1) (2)
In addition to Andrews, Grant Erickson returned for his second year as an assistant coach. This was Erickson’s first coaching position after a playing career that included 266 WHA games and 6 NHL games.
Going into the season, the Cougars had one of the strongest forward lines in the WHL with Russ Courtnall, Fabian Joseph and Jack Mackeigan.
In his rookie year, Courtnall had 97 points for the Cougars playing alongside his brother Geoff. At the 1983 NHL draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Courtnall in the first round (ninth overall). Just before opening night, Courtnall was named team captain, replacing the graduating Mark Morrison.
Joseph and Mackeigan entered their second year with the Cougars. They were both recruited by Andrews out of Nova Scotia. When the pair joined the Cougars in 1982, the Canadian Junior Hockey League ruled them ineligible to play in the WHL. This was based on regulations forbidding players drafted by Ontario or Quebec Leagues from joining a WHL team. The Cougars had to obtain a court injunction to allow Joseph and Mackeigan to play. (3)
Other forwards included overage Steve Bayliss, Paul Bifano (7th round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs), and Dave Mackey.
Eric Thurston returned as the team’s second overage player. In 1982/83, he led all Cougars defensemen with 68 points.
Andrews also looked forward to a full year with Rob Kivell. He started the previous season in the BCHL with the Esquimalt Buccaneers and received many scholarship offers from U.S. universities. In January 1983, Victoria convinced Kivell to leave Esquimalt, and join the Cougars.
Also returning were steady defenders Brenn Leach and Dean Drozdiak.
The Cougars hoped that highly touted prospect Craig Redmond would join the team later in the year. Redmond was projected to be a 1st round selection at the 1984 NHL draft. He currently skated with the Canadian National team in preparation for the Olympics in February. The Cougars held Redmond’s WHL rights, and there was a strong possibility he would come to Victoria after the Olympics.
Randy Hansch and Darren Moren provided a solid tandem between the pipes. Andrews said, “Goaltending is going to be better. Before Moren surfaced at Christmas last year, we had problems. Then Hansch came to Victoria. We’re starting out with as good a 1-2 act as there is in the league.” (4)
The biggest addition to the team was forward Tom Martin. The Winnipeg Jet draft pick grew up in Victoria and played the previous season at the Denver University. The Seattle Breakers held his WHL rights, but he had no desire to play for them. Victoria obtained Martin in one of the most memorable trades in hockey history.
When the Spokane Flyers folded in 1982, Victoria purchased their team bus. The Cougars were unaware of the high taxes and duties to bring it into Canada, so it remained parked in the United States. In January 1983, Seattle needed a bus, so the two sides made a swap. Victoria received Martin and $35,000 from Seattle in exchange for the bus. After the trade, Martin earned the nickname “Bussy”
Another key acquisition was Duncan’s, Richard Hajdu. He was coming off a 58 point campaign with the Kamloops Junior Oilers and was drafted in the second-round pick by Buffalo. To obtain Hajdu, the Cougars traded defenseman Ron Viglassi to Kamloops. Andrews was excited about the potential of Hajdu - “he’ll be 50 points better than last year.” (4)
In another trade with Seattle, the Cougars received sixteen-year-old Adam Morrison. The high-scoring forward had 195 points the previous season with his Junior B team in Dawson Creek.
Other first-year players included Misko Antisin, Matt Hervey, Jim Gunn, Simon Wheeldon, Dan Sexton, Randy Siska and Greg Davies.
REGULAR SEASON BEGINS
"The Cougars have the potential and talent, but success will depend if we work and play as a team. Talent doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t work” - Dave Andrews (4)
The Cougars opened the season with a heartbreaking loss to the New Westminster Bruins. With the goalie pulled, Russ Courtnall tied the game with only nineteen seconds remaining. The comeback was spoiled by New West's Roger Mulvenna, who then scored with just three seconds left as the Bruins won 5-4. Tom Martin made an immediate impact in his Cougar debut with a “Gordie Howe Hat trick” (2 goals, 1 assist and 1 fight).
The next night in New Westminster, the Cougars rallied from a 5-1 deficit to win 6-5. Ed Jones, replacing the injured Darren Moren, picked up the victory in relief of Randy Hansch.
1983/84 was the first year of the New Westminster Bruins – previously known as the Nanaimo Islanders. For the 1982/83 season, the Billings Bighorns moved to Nanaimo and renamed the Islanders. The Vancouver Island rivalry only lasted one season. The Islanders were sold in the summer of 1983 and relocated to New Westminster.
Russ Courtnall got off to a roaring start with eleven points in his first four games. On October 8th, he had all three Cougar goals in a 7-3 loss to the Portland Winter Hawks. In that game, 16-year-old goaltender Peter Fry picked up to win. Fry grew up in Victoria and played for Juan de Fuca before joining Portland. In 1986, he was traded to the Cougars.
Seattle Breakers provided the Cougars with their most heated rivalry throughout 1983/84. In their first of many penalty-filled battles, Fabian Joseph notched two goals in a 4-1 victory. Tom Martin, Jim Gunn, Dean Drozdiak, Rob Kivell, and three Breakers were all assessed game misconducts.
On October 22nd, the Brandon Wheat Kings came to Memorial Arena for their only visit. Ray Ferraro, the WHL’s leading scorer, put on a show with six points as Brandon won 8-5.
After the Brandon game, the Cougars won six of their next eight. November 1st saw Victoria throttle New Westminster 9-1. Courtnall and Mackeigan led the scoring parade with three goals each. Another win during this streak was a 7-4 victory on Remembrance Day, with Courtnall sniping his third hat trick of the season, and Eric Thurston picking up five points.
Injuries forced the Cougars to recall sixteen-year-old Ken Priestlay from the Nanaimo Clippers. He scored in his WHL debut in a November 20th loss to the Kamloops Junior Oilers. In 1986/87, Priestlay would go on to set the Cougars single-season scoring record with 73 goals.
In November, Jack Mackeigan went on an wild hot streak. He scored 38 points (12 goals and 16 assists) in twelve games. He was quickly establishing himself as one of the top forwards in the WHL.
At the Christmas break, the Cougars sat in second place with a 17-14 record. During the fourteen-day layoff, Russ Courtnall joined Team Canada at the World Juniors. The Cougars captain was leading the team in scoring with 64 points. He would miss a few WHL games and return to Victoria in January.
Courtnall had an outstanding World Junior tournament. He was named team captain and led the Canadians with thirteen points in seven games. Canada finished the tournament with a 4-2-1 record and a disappointing fourth-place finish.
THE NEW YEAR
The Cougars came out of the break with a 6-4 loss to New Westminster. The bright spot was the return of Richard Hajdu and Adam Morrison, who each missed a month because of injuries. To make room on the roster, Dan Sexton and Jim Gunn were reassigned to Nanaimo.
On New Year’s eve, Paul Bifano had four points as Victoria snapped a four-game losing streak with a 6-5 win in Portland.
With Courtnall at the World Juniors, there was a glaring need for more secondary scoring. The top line of MacKeigan (28), Courtnall (29) and Joseph (20) had accounted for 77 of 166 goals.
Richard Hajdu picked up the slack in Courtnall’s absence. He had seven goals in his first four games since returning from injury. Hajdu had only five goals in his previous nineteen games. The Cougars named Hajdu their team captain while Courtnall participated in the World Juniors.
On January 3rd, The Cougars lost 7-6 to the Saskatoon Blades for their sixth straight loss at home. Their overall home record was eight wins and thirteen losses. This was a shocking turnaround from last year when they only lost six home games all season. Around this time, rumours began swirling that McColl was thinking of making a coaching change.
Russ Courtnall rejoined the Cougars, but it was for only one game. His strong play at the World Juniors earned an invitation to the Canadian Olympic team. He would train with the national team and return to Victoria after the Olympics. This was a huge blow for the Cougars to lose their best player for a month and a half. McColl remained optimistic that Courtnall and Craig Redmond would join the Cougars when the Olympics concluded.
To improve the offense, McColl wanted to acquire former Kamloops Junior Oiler Doug Kostynski. He currently played for the Boston Bruins AHL team in Hershey. The Cougars tried to convince Boston he would receive more playing time in Victoria. In the end, the Bruins declined to release Kostynski.
The Cougars broke their six-game home losing streak on January 7th with a 5-1 win over New West. The top line of Joseph, Mackeigan and Bifano accounted for all the scoring.
January 10, 1984, was a big week for Cougars alumni.
Geoff Courtnall made his NHL debut with Boston.
Mel Bridgman was named captain of the New Jersey Devils.
Chicago’s Murray Bannerman earned runner-up NHL player of the week honours.
Russ Courtnall scored for Team Canada in an exhibition against Team USA.
A few weeks later, Bannerman and Grant Fuhr were the two goaltenders named to represent the Campbell Conference at the NHL All-Star Game.
After struggling at the end of December, the Cougars looked like a different team in January.
On January 14th, Jack Mackeigan deflected the puck into the net as time expired for a 5-4 victory over Portland. A few days later, Dean Drozdiak scored his first WHL goal in an 8-2 trouncing of Seattle. Their sixth win in eight games moved them into sole possession of second. Victoria sat eight points behind first-place Kamloops but had two games in hand. The Cougars were comfortably in a playoff position, twenty points ahead of 5th place Seattle.
The most violent game of the year took place on January 19th when the Cougars visited Seattle. Victoria won 4-1 with a pair of goals from defenseman Matt Hervey and Dean Drozdiak (they each had only one goal coming into the game). The night saw multiple fights, cheap shots and a total of 227 penalty minutes issued. Afterwards, Dave Andrews was disgusted with Seattle’s antics.
"they were vicious, I’ve never been involved in a game in which one team went all 60 minutes in a deliberate attempt to injure. I'm really proud of the way my players stood up to the hammering"
HIGH POINT OF THE SEASON
On January 28th, Tom Martin led the charge with a hat trick in a convincing 8-4 win over Portland. The win moved Victoria within six points of Kamloops. They sat eight points ahead of Portland and New Westminster in third place.
Victoria ended January with an impressive 4-3 victory over Prince Albert. Adam Morrison snapped a 3-3 deadlock with a highlight goal in the 3rd period. Simon Wheeldon, Fabian Joseph with his 30th and Jack MacKeigan with his team-leading 35th provided the other Cougar goals.
The Cougars entered February in second place with a 27-19 record. The CHL rated Victoria the ninth-best junior team in Canada. They were ten points out of first place but had three games in hand on Kamloops. They firmly held a playoff spot with 12 more wins and 23 more points than fifth place Seattle.
The Cougars were playing their best hockey of the season. Nobody could have imagined the collapse that happened over the next fifty days.
On February 4th, Cliff Ronning scored twice as the Bruins won 5-4. The only bright spot was the return of Rob Kivell, who missed 12 games because of a knee injury.
This loss was the Cougars' third in a row. The Times-Colonist reported a possible coaching change was in the works. After the game, Fraser McColl addressed the report by emphatically denying that Andrew's job was in jeopardy.
ANDREWS LAST GAME
On February 7th, the Cougars showed lackadaisical effort in an 8-2 loss to the Kelowna Wings. This was just the 14th victory in 55 games for the last place Wings. After the game, Fraser McColl once again shot down the possibility of a coaching change.
“This team has good talent, that Dave and Grant Erickson give them in the morning is as good as there is. I just can’t understand why the players don’t respond in the evening. I was very disappointed in the players tonight” (5)
LES IS MORE: A NEW COACH
Less than 24 hours after McColl’s vote of confidence, Andrews resigned as head coach of the Victoria Cougars.
McColl said Andrews wanted to quit immediately after the Kelowna loss. The Cougars owner asked him to reconsider and think about it overnight. The next morning, Andrews confirmed his resignation. “Dave was very upset,” McColl explained. "He felt some players were not producing to the best of their ability” (6)
Although coaching rumours began in December, McColl was adamant that he did not influence Andrews. “I want to make it very clear that it was his decision. I want to make it perfectly clear that I had not talked to anyone before today and I defy anyone to contradict me.” (6)
McColl said he had a replacement in mind but hadn’t been able to contact him.
The next day there were rumours of several high-profile coaching candidates. Times-Colonist named Larry McNab, Wayne Bianchin and former New Westminster Bruins coach Punch McLean. McNabb, who won three BCJHL titles with Nanaimo, seemed like the top candidate, but he told the Nanaimo Times that he was not interested in the job.
McColl made the announcement just before the Cougars took the ice on February 12th against Seattle. Les Calder was named the eighth head coach in Cougars history. He previously coached in the WHL with Billings, Seattle and Nanaimo. Calder described himself as a coach “from the old school.”
Calder addressed the difficult schedule with the Cougars playing 17 of their final 22 games on the road. “Any schedule is a joke after three years I spent in Billings. It was a ten hour ride to the nearest game. But there also will and a benefit. There’s nothing like a long road trip to get to know your players.” (7)
“The team is set (with the trading deadline passed) but that doesn’t mean the guys are assured of playing every game. Those who don’t want to play will find themselves sitting on the edge of the bench watching the guys who want to play.” (7)
The change did not inspire the Cougars as they fell 4-1 to Seattle in Calder’s debut. Two days later, he picked up his first victory with a 6-3 win in Portland.
In addition to the new coach, the Cougars added forward Leroy Remple. He started the season with Northern Michigan University. To make room for Remple, overage forward Steve Bayliss was released.
The Cougars lost another key player on February 17th when captain Richard Hajdu suffered a season-ending knee injury.
On Feb 19th, Cliff Ronning scored his 55th in a 3-2 Bruins win over Victoria. Rempel notched his first WHL goal in a losing cause. The new coach was not producing any positive results. Victoria fell to 1-5 under Calder and just one win in ten games.
A few days later, the Cougars won a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Seattle, but it came at a cost. Tom Martin scored the winner but fractured his foot late in the game blocking a shot.
THE OLYMPIANS: COURTNALL and REDMOND
The Canadian team finished fourth at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Yugoslavia. Courtnall was sixth in scoring for Team Canada with four points in seven games.
With the Olympics completed, the Cougars were excited to have Courtnall back. Unfortunately, it was for only one game. On Feb 25th, he had two assists in an 11-7 loss to Kamloops. The next day, the Toronto Maple Leafs recalled Courtnall. He made his NHL debut that night in Vancouver against the Canucks. Courtnall remained with Toronto for the rest of the season.
Although Courtnall was now in the NHL, for a while it looked like fellow Olympian Craig Redmond would be coming to Victoria:
“Defenseman Craig Redmond is coming to Victoria Cougars… That’s the buzz in the East," a high-ranking National Hockey League scout informed the Times-Colonist on Tuesday. (8)
The report by the Times-Colonist did not come to fruition as Redmond declined Victoria's offer. He remained with the Canadian National team in preparation for the NHL draft.
THE ROAD TRIP TO HELL
The loss of Courtnall and Redmond was devastating to the Cougars who embarked on their longest road trip of the season. Memorial Arena hosted the 1984 Labatt Brier (Canadian Curling Championship), so Victoria had to play their next eight games on the road.
The road trip was a total disaster. Victoria lost seven of eight. They played a strong game against first-place Regina, with Darren Moren making 45 saves and Fabian Joseph picking up his 39th and 40th in a 5-4 loss. In Brandon, they were trounced 7-2, with Ray Ferraro scoring his 91st and 92nd. Their only win on the trip came against the last place Winnipeg Warriors. A small crowd of just 533 people saw the Cougars win 8-2. Fabian Joseph led the attack with a hat trick, and Greg Davies scored twice.
In addition to the losses, injuries started to pile up. Rob Kivell (knee) and Misko Antisin (ankle) were added to the disabled list that already had Gunn, Drozkiak, Martin, Morrison and Siska. In addition, the Cougars were unable to call up replacements. Nanaimo, or any of their other affiliates, refused to release players since those teams were also fighting for a playoff spot. Victoria played without a full bench for most of the games on the road trip. The lowest point came on March 11th. They only dressed 13 players (11 skaters and 2 goalies) in a 9-2 loss to Lethbridge.
To make matters worse, the Seattle Breakers became one of the hottest teams in the WHL. They managed to make up a 23 point deficit and move past the Cougars into fourth place.
With three games left, the Cougars sat in fifth place - out of the playoffs. The last month and a half was a total debacle. Since hiring Les Calder, the Cougars only managed 3 wins and 16 losses.
Just when everybody wrote the Cougars off and thought the playoffs were out of reach, the Cougars sprang back to life.
On March 18th, Leroy Remple scored the winning goal with 44 seconds remaining as Victoria overcame a 4-1 deficit to defeat Portland 8-7. The line of Remple (5 points), Joseph (six points) and MacKeigan (5 points) combined for sixteen points.
The Cougars followed that with a thrilling 9-6 victory in Kelowna to vault over Seattle into fourth place.
With one game left, the standings had Portland holding 3rd place (66 points), Victoria in fourth (64 points) and Seattle in fifth (63 points). The Cougars controlled their destiny. A victory would clinch a playoff spot and they would finish in third ahead of Portland and Seattle. Victoria would still make the playoffs if the Breakers lost. The only way the Cougars would be eliminated is if they lost their final game to Kamloops, and Seattle won in New Westminster.
THE FINAL GAME
The playoff dream turned into a nightmare. Doug Bodger had six assists as Kamloops cruised to a 7-2 victory. The only highlight for Victoria was Jack Mackeigan scoring his 55th on a penalty shot.
As this was happening, Seattle defeated New West 7-3 to move ahead of Victoria for the fourth and final playoff spot.
For the first time in ten years, the Victoria Cougars missed the playoffs. On February 1st, the Cougars were in second place. When the season ended, Seattle made up 23 points in 50 days as the Cougars fell to fifth place.
COUGARS YEAR-END AWARD CEREMONY
Fabian Joseph was the Cougars' leading scorer (9th in WHL) with 127 points. Joseph and Jack MacKeigan (118 points) shared the C.R. Paterson Memorial Trophy (Cougars Most Valuable Player). MacKeigan was also chosen the Most Popular player by the fans.
Eric Thurston took home the Best Defenseman Trophy and was named a Second Team WHL West Division All-Star.
Ken Priestlay was the Rookie of the Year with 29 points in 55 games.
Randy Hansch won the most improved player award. He lowered his Goals-Against Average from 6.12 last season to 4.55.
Tom Martin led the WHL with 261 penalty minutes. He finished two ahead of Brandon’s Brad Wells and three more than Saskatoon’s Joey Kocur.
Four Cougars were selected at the 1984 NHL entry draft. Fabian Joseph (6th Round - Toronto), Randy Hansch (6th round - Detroit), Dave Mackey (11th round - Chicago), Simon Wheeldon (11th round - Edmonton).
Los Angeles Kings made Craig Redmond their first-round pick (6th overall). Although he never joined the Cougars, his first training camp with the Kings took place in 1984 at Victoria Memorial Arena.
To the surprise of many, Les Calder returned for the 1984/85 season as the Cougars head coach. He also took over as General Manager when Fraser McColl stepped down from the day-to-day hockey operations.
The Cougars suffered a big loss when Jack MacKegian and Fabian Joseph left the team when the season ended. They both decided to play their final year of junior for the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey League. The Cougars also lost Tom Martin, Eric Thurston, Dean Drozdiak and Leroy Rempel to graduation.
You can point to many things that went wrong during the season:
They were not able to replace Russ Courtnall. He was one of the best players in junior hockey. The team severely missed his scoring and leadership. Courtnall and fellow Olympian Craig Redmond would have made a difference. The top players did their part on offence, but secondary scoring was lacking.
They were hit hard with injuries late in the season. They played with less than a full roster for many games down the stretch.
Their affiliate teams did not work out. The Cougars had five teams that were supposed to supply them with players. At the end of the season, these teams refused to release anybody.
It was a poorly planned schedule. The Cougars only played four of their last twenty-one at home. Memorial Arena was not available due to the Canadian Curling Championships, but that only accounted for two weeks in March.
Coach Les Calder did not provide a spark when he replaced Dave Andrews. He only had five wins in twenty-two games as the team dropped from second to fifth place.
Ernie Fedoruk of the Times-Colonist held nothing back in his season-ending review.
"Morale was not a big plus with this year’s team, but that was one of the many problems that led to Victoria’s decay."
"Andrews assembled a superb skating team, but it was a squad that was over-assessed, lacked scoring depth and after the injuries took their toll could be intimidated. "
" Under normal circumstance, the just-missed failure might have been classified as a hard- luck thing … to play 72 games, then miss fourth place by one point and third by two. It wasn’t hard luck. It was a disaster." (9)
In September 1984, Les Calder put out an open letter in the Times-Colonist and buried his players without taking any responsibility for the collapse.
"Last season we often played lackadaisically. We had a group of young men of who only 50% really wanted to win while it appeared the other 50% couldn’t have cared one way or the other." (10)
To go deeper, the franchise never recovered from firing Jack Shupe. In 1980/81, he built the best team in WHL history. Two years after his departure, the Cougars failed to make the playoffs. Andrews and McColl could not replicate Shupe’s success. To fire the best coach/GM in team history in the middle of a playoff series was not thought out. There had to be some kind of personality clash between McColl and Shupe which caused the abrupt dismissal. The bottom line is that the Cougars were never the same. From 1984 to 1994, the Cougars only made the playoffs twice and never advanced past the first round.
(1) Ernie Fedoruk ,Times-Colonist (1980-2010) 1983 Sep 30(246):15.
(2) In 1982, The Cougars traded Stu Zimmer to Medicine Hat for Russ Courtnall
(3) “Maritime pair cleared to stay with Cougars” Times-Colonist (1980-2010) 1982 Sep 30(248):10.
(4) “Cougars solve concerns of July” Ernie Fedoruk, Times-Colonist (1980-2010) 1983 Sep 29(245):14.
(5) “Wings’ improvement leaves Cougars flat” Ernie Fedoruk, Times-Colonist (1980-2010) 1984 Feb 08(48):16.
(6) “Disappointed Andrews Quits” Ernie Fedoruk Times-Colonist (1980-2010) 1984 Feb 09(49):12.
(7) “Cougars spoil Calder debut” Ernie Fedoruk Times-Colonist (1980-2010) 1984 Feb 12(52):13.
(8) “Redmond on way to Victoria?” Ernie Fedoruk Times-Colonist (1980-2010) 22 Feb 1984: 16.
(9) “The bottom line is that not enough really came to play” Ernie Fedoruk Times-Colonist 24 Mar 1984: 21.
(10) “The Cougars - Victoria’s Team” Times-Colonist (1980-2010). 25 Sep 1984: 16.