You knew it was going to be a strange year when the mayor of Victoria jumped into the Cougars bench to demand a stop to what he described as “mindless animal behaviour” in the first game of the season. 1975-76 was the most controversial year in Cougars franchise history. There was always some incident making headlines such as players walking out on the team, two coaching changes, numerous violent brawls, player suspensions and assault charges.
Coming off a first overall finish in the previous season, the Cougars went into training camp with high expectations. Although many key players graduated, including WCHL leading scorer Mel Bridgman and WCHL top defenseman Rick Lapointe, they still had a stacked roster. Dan Lucas, Gord Roberts and Curt Fraser were among the top pro prospects in all of junior hockey plus they still had proven veterans such as Jim Gustafson, Tim Williams, Al Hill and they acquired Jeff Madill from Flin Flon in the offseason.
The drama began before the season started as Gord Roberts unexpectedly left in the middle of training camp to sign a pro contract with the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. The previous season, Roberts was the only American in the WCHL, scoring 64 points as a 16 year old. In training camp, head coach/GM Pat Ginnell had high hopes for Roberts saying, “there’s no reason why he can’t be one of the best.” Roberts reported to Cougars camp but left after ten days to go back home after claiming there was an illness in his family. A few days later, much to the surprise of the Cougars, Roberts appeared at a press conference in New England announcing his new contract with the Whalers. In response, the Cougars threatened a one million dollar lawsuit against the Whalers and the World Hockey Association but a settlement was eventually reached.
After getting beaten up by the Bruins last season in the playoffs, Ginnell demanded more aggressiveness from the Cougars. In the first game of the year against Calgary, the Cougars started strong in a violent game with a fight breaking out just four seconds after the opening faceoff. The Cougars went on to win the game 9-2 but the game was marred by a second period brawl resulting in six game misconducts. Victoria Mayor Peter Pollen, watching the game among the 3,204 fans in attendance, was appalled by the violence he was seeing on the ice. The mayor jumped out of his seat, climbed on to the Cougars bench to confront Ginnell and demand that he put a stop to the violence. Heated words were exchanged and security had to pull Pollen away from the bench with the mayor leaving the game during the second period intermission. The mayor was still mad a couple of days later as reported in the October 7, 1975 Daily Colonist:
Pollen said Monday he is determined to bring to a halt what he termed “the mindless animal behaviour” he witnessed and he made several recommendations to counter the violence.
The mayor said he will suggest a meeting between Ginnell and Jack Morgan director of community services and arena manager to discuss possible moves.
If that doesn’t work out, Pollen said the Cougars might be denied use of the arena.
Pat Ginnell had an abrasive coaching style which some players did not appreciate. Top NHL prospect Dan Lucas started the year with 44 points in 32 games but left the team in December after being criticized by Ginnell on a post game radio show. Ginnell was furious about Lucas abandoning the team saying, “if he can’t take a little criticism, we don’t need him.” Neither side backed down as Lucas sat out the remainder of the season and subsequently never returned to the Cougars. Lucas eventually resumed his junior career by going to the Ontario Hockey League and playing with Wayne Gretzky and the Soo Greyhounds. (read more about Lucas in this blog post).
There were many controversial incidents throughout the year caused by Ginnell’s temper and the Cougars undisciplined play on the ice:
In October Ginnell become involved in a scuffle with a news photographer attempting to take pictures at the Cougars bench after an on ice brawl.
On November 15, 1975, during a game against the New Westminster Bruins, Ginnell jumped onto the ice to attack the referee after the Cougars received a controversial penalty and had be to be restrained by his players. Consequently Ginnell was kicked out of the game with the Cougars only receiving a bench minor.
Archie Henderson received a three game suspension and was charged with criminal assault causing bodily harm after a fight during a game in Kamloops on January 25, 1976 in which Larry Lestander of the Chiefs was hospitalized with a concussion.
The worst incident of the season happened in Saskatoon on February 20, 1976. Two Saskatoon Blades were hospitalized in the first period after vicious attacks. Bruce Hamilton had to be carried off the ice on a stretcher after a hit by Larry Gloeckner of the Cougars and Bryan Baron suffered a broken jaw and detached retina after Tim Williams hit him in the face with a stick. A total of 144 penalty minutes were amassed by the Cougars in the first period with five players receiving game misconducts. The Saskatoon police provided protection during and after their return to the hotel. In the aftermath, there were numerous suspensions and police charges. A few days later, Pat Ginnell stepped down as coach, but still retained his General Manager duties, saying, “if I am responsible for violence in hockey, I don’t want to be in it” . Former Cougars and Flin Flon Trainer Jim Bryson, was behind the bench for two games before Cliff Lennartz, formerly of the Dauphin Kings, was named the new head coach.
The Cougars plodded through the remainder of the year finishing a disappointing fourth in the west division. At the end of the regular season, Ginnell fired Lennartz and returned to coach the Cougars for the playoffs. Ginnell said he stepped down from coaching in February to take the heat off his players but said, “I didn’t feel that I accomplished anything by leaving. And I didn’t want to go out this way - quitting in mid-season.”
Instead of the usual best of seven game series, the WCHL used a different playoff format in 1976. The first team to reach eight points was declared the series winner and moved on to the next round (two points for a win, one point for a tie and no overtime games.)
In the playoffs, Victoria played their best hockey of the year as they won the first round matchup against the Regina Pats with nine points - 4 wins, 1 loss and 1 tie. The Cougars won the series deciding sixth game 9-3 with Mike Will scoring the first four goals of the game. Will, acquired during the year in a trade from Edmonton, came within a point of tying a WCHL playoff record for points in a playoff series with fourteen points in six games.
The Cougars continued their hot streak in the second round by upsetting the Medicine Hat Tigers 3 games to 0 with 1 tied in a six point series. Mike Will’s scoring pace cooled down in the second round, but the Tigers had difficulty stopping the line of Jeff McDill, Curt Fraser and Jim Gustafson. Murray Bannerman was the MVP of the series providing key saves and solid goaltending that was lacking in the playoffs the previous season. This was the first time in franchise history the Cougars won two playoff rounds.
The WCHL semi finals had the Cougars facing the New Westminster Bruins for the second year in a row. The Bruins were the best team in the regular season and came into the series on an 18 game winning streak. They set a WCHL regular season record scoring 463 goals but proved they can play defense just as well with the Cougars only managing five goals in the first four games. Murray Bannerman kept the games close as he faced 58 shots in game three and 43 shots in game four. The Cougars were not physically intimidated in this series and were able to match the Bruins toughness. Bruins enforcer Harold Philapoff, who broke Mel Bridgman’s jaw in the playoffs last year, was injured in game three after a hard body check from Rick Durston and did not return for the rest of the series.
In game five, the Cougars jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead but the Bruins stormed back and scored six consecutive goals to win the game 9-4 and the series 3-0-1. It was almost a repeat of last year’s playoffs when the Bruins eliminated the Cougars in six games. The Cougars could not find a way to beat the Bruins all year as they only managed one win in fifteen matchups all season. Although it was the Cougars best playoff appearance in club history, it was another disappointing loss to the Bruins.
Overshadowed by all the incidents during this roller coaster season were some strong individual performances on the ice. Captain Jim Gustafson was named the team MVP, finishing seventh in league scoring with 140 points and Jeff Madill led the team in goals with 55. Seventeen year old Curt Fraser broke out in his second year with 107 points. The defense was anchored by Tim Williams (71 points) and Larry Gloekner (55 points) with Murray Bannerman between the pipes picking up 23 wins and emerging as a top NHL draft prospect. In the playoffs, Mike Will led the team in scoring with 20 points and Nanaimo’s Al Hill was a force in the postseason with 15 points and 94 penalty minutes.
Four Cougars were selected in the 1976 NHL amateur draft. Jeff McDill (Chicago) and Larry Gloeckner (Boston) were selected in the second round with Tim Williams (Toronto) picked in the fourth round and Rick Durston (Vancouver) in the fifth round.