Going into the 1978/79 season, the Victoria Cougars were seen as a team on the rise. The club had a talented pool of young prospects led by second-year coach Jack Shupe. Fans began returning to Memorial Arena as season tickets reached the 700 mark, up 250 from 1977-78. Although there was optimism, the Cougars had to find a way to defeat the New Westminster Bruins. In the previous four playoffs, they were eliminated by New Westminster, who went on each time to win the Western Canadian Hockey League (WCHL/WHL) championship. Throughout the 1978-79 season, one question remained – could the Cougars stop the Bruins.
The Cougars iced a homegrown squad with 15 of the 21 players from Vancouver Island. The strength of the club was upfront with high-scoring centers Geordie Robertson and Gary Lupul with wingers Bob Jansch, Mike Shields and George Fritz. Shupe pointed to the lack of experience on the blueline as one area of weakness. Only three defensemen returned from the previous season - Scott Lang, Todd Morton and Mark Robinson.
Shupe committed to rebuilding the Cougars through a well-stocked pool of prospects. Scouts Jimmy Dawes of Nanaimo and Lionel L'Heureux of Edmonton had great success in finding talent across Western Canada. Eighty players attended Cougars rookie camp at Pearkes Arena. Thirteen goalies participated, including fifteen-year-old Grant Fuhr. After camp, Fuhr returned to Alberta and joined the Cougars in 1979-80. Standouts from rookie camp included Mark Morrison, Terry Sydoryk (Joined the Cougars in 1980), Larry Oswald (joined the Cougars in 1981) and Dan Willick. One of their top recruits, Sean Lyons, decided to remain in the BCJHL and pursue a college scholarship.
During the main training camp, Shupe was impressed with many rookies from their Nanaimo Clippers affiliate team. The Clippers had the top team in the BCJHL, having just won their third consecutive championship. Barry Pederson, Greg Adams, Bob Smith, who amassed 396 points playing on the same line with Nanaimo the previous season, each enjoyed a strong camp and made the club.
Geordie Robertson, the leading scorer in 1977-78, was named team captain. Joining him on the club was his younger brother, Torrie Robertson, who played the previous season with Nanaimo. Gary Lupul and Mark Robinson were selected as Assistant Captains.
The Cougars played their entire preseason schedule against their arch-rival New Westminster Bruins - the two-time defending Memorial Cup champion and four-time WCHL champion. The two teams faced off seven times throughout Vancouver Island in towns as far north as Gold River. The evenly matched clubs both compiled a 2-2-3 record.
On opening night, Gary Lupul had a huge game with two goals and two assists as the Cougars defeated the Calgary Wranglers 5-4. Lupul is one of the most popular players to ever skate at Memorial Arena. A chorus of “LUUUP” chants erupted from the crowd whenever he touched the puck. Rookie Torrie Robertson scored his first WHL goal in the third period, with older brother Geordie picking up the assist. Paul Fricker started the game in goal, but Steve Amiss replaced him to start the third period. This was the only game Fricker would play. He spent the rest of the season with the Pacific Junior Hockey League’s Richmond Sockeyes.
After taking a year off, Pat Ginnell returned to the WHL as coach of the Lethbridge Broncos. He was the owner/coach/GM of the Cougars for three years and sold the team in 1977. During his sabbatical, Ginnell opened a restaurant in Cordova Bay. In their first game against their old coach in Lethbridge, the Cougars blew a late third-period lead. Earl Ingarfield scored twice in the final minute to give the Broncos a 5-4 win. Geordie Robertson had two goals, and Brad Palmer picked up his first WHL marker in a losing effort.
On the same road trip, the Cougars faced the unbeaten Brandon Wheat Kings and lost 7-3. The game was much closer than the score indicated as they were down 5-0 but dominated the last half of the game. They outshot the Wheat Kings 72-42, including 61 shots in the final two periods, but were continually stymied by Brandon goaltender Rick Knickle.
The Cougars got off to a slow start with a record of 5-9-1. To make matters worse, captain Geordie Robertson and assistant captain Mark Robinson suffered knee injuries and missed the first few months of the season. The Cougars snapped a four-game losing streak on October 31st when Pat Ginnell and the Lethbridge Broncos came to town. The Cougars avenged their bitter loss earlier in the month with a 6-3 win. Gary Lupul, Rob Clavette and Rob Jacobsen each had two points in a rough game that saw eight players ejected after a second-period fight. The victory vaulted the Cougars out of last and into third in the West Division.
Violent brawls were common in the Western Hockey League back in the 1970s. On December 3rd, Barry Pederson had four points, and defenseman Todd Morton had one goal and four assists in a 7-3 victory over Seattle. The game was marked by a third period brawl. The melee lasted ten minutes, with 173 penalty minutes assessed. Six players received game misconducts, including both goaltenders. As Todd Morton was fighting two Breakers, goaltender Kevin Eastman of the Cougars joined the fray as did Seattle netminder Ray Duprius.
The Russians came to town on December 19th as the Cougars hosted an exhibition game against the Moscow Selects. It was the most anticipated game of the season with a standing-room crowd of 5,200. Victoria trailed at the end of the second period but stormed back with third-period tallies by Bob Jansch, Scott Lang and Mike Shields to win 6-4. The Cougars squad had help with the addition of five players from New Westminster, Portland, and Seattle.
After only winning six of their first fifteen games, the Cougars bounced back, losing only four games from October 29th to December 31st. At the Christmas Break, the Cougars were 18-13-4, three points behind first-place Portland.
Gary Lupul was 9th in the WHL scoring race with 60 points and selected to join the New Westminster Bruins at the 1979 World Junior Hockey Tournament in Sweden. Instead of sending a team of the best Canadian junior players, the defending Memorial Cup champion Bruins represented Canada for the 1979 championship. Lupul and a few other WHL players joined the Bruins for the tournament. Canada finished fifth, with Lupul picking up three points in five games. (Read more about Gary Lupul at the 1979 World Juniors)
Throughout the year, the Cougars played inconsistent hockey. They followed up their hot December by going winless on a six-game prairie road trip. The Cougars received good news when Geordie Robertson returned from knee surgery after missing 18 of the first 41 games. He scored 14 goals before the injury but failed to earn a point on the western road swing.
On January 10th, the slumping Cougars acquired Randy Irving from the New Westminster Bruins in exchange for Rob Clavette. Irving was born in Lake Cowichan and won a Memorial Cup with the Bruins in 1978. At the 1979 World Juniors, Irving led Team Canada in scoring
A second international exhibition game occurred on January 11th when the Czechoslovakia Junior Nationals came to town. The Czechoslovakian squad was no match for the Cougars as Victoria won a 10-1 romp in front of 3,530 fans. Mike Shields and Gary Lupul each had four points as the Cougars peppered 55 shots on goal.
The team saw a boost at the end of January when assistant captain Mark Robinson returned after being sidelined with a knee injury for almost three months. He stormed out of the gate, picking up four goals in his first three games. In his best game of the season on January 26th, he scored twice in a 3-3 tie against Seattle.
In February, the streaky Cougars went unbeaten in seven games, moving into second place with a 24-21-10 record. On February 17th, the biggest game of the season took place, with the Brandon Wheat Kings coming to town. The explosive Wheat Kings enjoyed the best record in the WHL with only three losses in fifty-three games (42-3-8). The Cougars set a regular-season attendance record with 5,332 fans packing Memorial Arena for this Saturday night showdown. Brandon continued on their record pace as they won a close contest 4-2 over the Cougars. Brian Propp scored his league-leading 79th goal for Brandon, while Randy Irving and Greg Adams countered for Victoria. Afterwards, Jack Shupe was still not impressed with the first place Wheat Kings:
“I’m sure some of our players were awed by their reputation. That big line (Brian Propp, Laurie Boschman, Ray Allison) is no better than two or three lines in the Western Division. They must get all their points in games against Regina and Edmonton. I wouldn't mind meeting them in the playoffs."
Throughout the history of the Cougars, there was no bigger rival than the New Westminster Bruins. In addition to the seven exhibition games, the two teams faced each other sixteen times during the season. Most games featured numerous fights, but nothing topped the events of February 24th. The Cougars defeated New Westminster 5-4 at Memorial Arena in what the Victoria Colonist called “the scrappiest game that occurred here in the last two seasons, both on and off the ice”. There were 270 penalty minutes, five-game misconducts in a game that three-and-a-half-hours to complete. Police had to be called because of numerous fights taking place in the stands. The violence overshadowed strong performances by Mike Shields, scoring his 18th and 19th, and Barry Pederson's four points. The victory was the sixth straight versus the Bruins, raising the record to 9-4 in the season series.
With three games left in the season, the Cougars secured second place in the West Division with a huge 5-3 victory against the Bruins. Bob Jansch scored three goals, and Steve Amiss had a strong 48 save performance. Randy Irving motivated the Cougars with a big second-period fight with Bruins enforcer Boris Fistric. Since joining the team, Irving was especially aggressive in games against his former Bruin teammates.
In the final game of the regular season, Len Dawes (son of Cougars scout Jim Dawes) scored his first two WHL career goals as the Cougars cruised to an 8-1 romp over the Medicine Hat Tigers. The Cougars ended the year on a roll, but they received some bad news as Barry Pederson came down with mono. The illness forced him to miss the entire playoff run.
Portland finished the season at the top of the West Division with 111 points, Victoria second with 79 points, New Westminster third with 74 points and Seattle in last and out of the playoffs with 53 points.
The first round of the playoffs consisted of a round-robin with Portland, Victoria and New Westminster playing each other four times. At the end of the round-robin, the top two teams would advance to the Western Division Finals.
In-game one, the Cougars got off to a fast start defeating the Bruins 7-4 in front of 3,777 fans at Memorial Arena. Bob Jansch scored three goals, Randy Irving had four points, and Geordie Robertson chipped in with three assists.
The Bruins were missing Boris Fistric, John Paul Kelly and their coach Ernie Maclean who were suspended for their part in a vicious bench-clearing brawl that occurred during the final game of the regular season against Portland.
“With seconds left in a 4-1 New Westminster home loss to the Portland Winter Hawks, Bruins coach Ernie ”Punch” McLean put his goons on the ice to ignite a brawl. The rest of the Bruins jumped over the boards to join in but opposing coach Ken Hodge restrained his bench. So it was 16 Bruins versus five Hawks, and Portland’s Blake Wesley and Jim Dobson were beaten into a pulp by multiple attackers. Seven Bruins were subsequently charged by police and received conditional discharges” (Lucas Ackroyd - Dark Moments in BC Sports History)
After their opening game victory, the Cougars struggled. It looked like another early playoff exit for Victoria. On April 4th, New Westminster, powered by a hat-trick from ex-Cougar Mickey Wilgress, edged Victoria 4-3. A couple of nights later in Portland, Mike Shields and Geordie Robertson scored twice in a losing effort as the Winter Hawks beat Victoria 5-4. The loss left the Cougars with a 2-5 record. It came down to their final game of the round-robin versus New Westminster. A loss would eliminate the Cougars by the hands of New Westminster for a fifth straight year. A victory would keep them alive, but they would still need Portland to defeat the Bruins the next night for the Cougars to advance to the West Division Finals.
SLAYING THE DRAGON
Victoria Memorial Arena had 5,111 fans packed to the rafters for the Saturday night grudge match with New Westminster. The Cougars jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but the Bruins stormed back with three goals in the second period to go ahead 3-2. The Cougars were within 48 seconds of elimination, but Lenny Dawes set up Greg Adams to tie the game at three to send it into sudden-death overtime. The overtime only lasted 27 seconds. Gary Lupul blocked a point shot by Larry Melnyk, streaked down the left side, and fired a slapshot past Bruins goaltender Richard Martens. The crowd went wild, and the Cougars bench emptied, celebrating their 4-3 victory to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The Cougars now had to wait and hope Portland defeats New Westminster to keep their playoff run alive.
The next night the Cougars got their wish. The Portland Winter Hawks won 5-3 to eliminate the Bruins. Portland and Victoria advanced to the next round with a record of 7-1 and 3-5, respectively. At 2-6, the New Westminster Bruin's run as four-time defending Western Hockey League Champions and two-time Memorial Cup champions came to an end.
WESTERN DIVISON FINALS
Portland were heavy favourites to win the best-of-seven Western Division Finals. They finished the regular season in the first place, 32 points ahead of the Cougars.
The series began with the Winter Hawks jumping out to a three-game to one series lead. The wounded Cougars squad had troubled icing a full team. In addition to Barry Pederson, Tony Feltrin and Todd Morton also suffered season ending injuries.
On the brink of elimination in Game 5, Steve Amiss came up with his best game of the playoffs stopping 56 shots as the Cougars won 6-4. The next night, the Cougars returned and took a dominating 7-2 victory in front of 4,632 at Memorial Arena. George Fritz fired home two goals and Gary Lupul picked up three assists to tie the series at three games a piece.
The series deciding Game 7 took place in Portland on April 17th. This was the fifth game in five nights for both teams, with the winner advancing to the WHL finals. Brad Palmer missed the first two periods when he broke his skate in warmup and the team scrambled to find a replacement. The Cougars took an early 2-1 lead on goals by Geordie Robertson and Bob Smith. The game was close until Portland scored twice late in the second period to break a 2-2 tie. The Winter Hawks, led by Perry Turnbull and Tim Tookey, scored six consecutive goals for a 7-2 victory. Portland won the series four games to three for their first Western Division Title.
In the WHL finals, the Brandon Wheat Kings defeated Portland and advanced to the Memorial Cup championship.
At the Cougar’s year-end award ceremony, Gary Lupul was the big winner, taking home most of the trophies.
· Most Valuable Player
· Top Scorer (107 points)
· Most Inspirational Player
· Most Popular Player
· Player best-combining sportsmanship and ability
Lupul also set a team record during the season with a twenty-four-game point streak.
Other award winners were Barry Pederson (Rookie of the Year), Todd Morton (Most Improved) and Scott Lang (Top Defenseman).
Only one Cougar was picked in the 1979 NHL Amateur Draft. The Buffalo Sabres selected Defenseman Mark Robinson in the third round. It was a tough year for Robinson who had to miss 56 games during the season due to a knee injury.
The Cougars took a huge step forward in 1978-79 by finally advancing past the New Westminster Bruins. Under the steady leadership of Jack Shupe, the Cougars made it to the West Division finals for the second straight year. The Cougars were on their way to becoming one of the elite teams in the WHL. They continued building in 1979/80 with the addition of Rich Chernomaz and an impressive rookie class that included Mark Morrison, Bob McGill, Terry Sydoryk, Grant Rezansoff, Bud McCarthy and future Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr.