The 1980-81 championship series between the Victoria Cougars and the Calgary Wranglers is considered one of the greatest finals in Western Hockey League (WHL) history. It featured a battle between two all-star goaltenders, with Victoria's Grant Fuhr facing off against Mike Vernon of Calgary. Both teams endured a brutal schedule with seven games played over eight days. On May 1, 1981, the legendary series concluded with Game 7 played in front of a sold-out crowd at Victoria Memorial Arena.
In the regular season, the Cougars won 60 games (setting the current WHL record for most wins in a season). They breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs sweeping both Spokane and Portland. Going into the series with Calgary, the Cougars were on a 28 game undefeated streak (also a WHL record that remains to this day).
The Wranglers finished second in the East Division and advanced to the finals by eliminating the Billings Bighorns, Lethbridge Broncos and an upset victory over the defending champion Regina Pats.
The Cougars enjoyed home-ice advantage for the finals, but the Wranglers jumped out to a three games to one lead. Game four was an especially heartbreaking loss for the Cougars. They blew a late lead and Bruno Baseotto scored the winning goal for Calgary in the final minute of the game. It looked like a repeat of the 1979/80 WHL finals when the Cougars were eliminated by the Regina Pats in five games.
Facing elimination in game five, the Cougars bounced back with a 7-4 victory over the Wranglers before 6,527 fans at Calgary’s Stampede Corral. Rich Chernomaz led the Cougars attack with five points (2G and 3A), Torrie Robertson had three points (2G and 1A), and captain Barry Pederson contributed three assists. Defenseman Bob McGill was out with a bad back, but rookies Greg Barber and John Mokosak stepped up with a solid performance in front of Grant Fuhr, who played his best game of the series.
Game six was played on a Thursday at 12:30 pm because the Corral was booked for the Calgary Flames - Minnesota North Stars playoff series that night. The Cougars continued to build momentum from the previous night as Grant Fuhr was named the game's first star with 30 saves in a 4-2 victory over the Wranglers. Grant Rezansoff burst out with two goals and one assist in the second period as the Cougars forced a game seven in Victoria the next night.
It all came down to a final winner take all game at Victoria Memorial Arena in front of a sold-out Friday night crowd of 5,021. The Cougars took a 2-0 lead with goals from Torrie Robertson and Bud McCarthy but the Wranglers came storming back to tie it up 2-2 in the third period. The score remained tied thanks to Grant Fuhr coming up with some huge saves in the third period. Late in the game, rookie Terry Sydoryk scored with less than two minutes remaining to give the Cougars a 3-2 lead. The Wranglers pulled the goalie and put on some late pressure, but Grant Rezansoff scored into an empty net with eleven seconds left to seal a 4-2 victory. Coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to win three in a row, the Cougars captured their first WHL championship. Captain Barry Pederson raised the President's Trophy (later renamed the Ed Chynoweth Cup) over his head and led the team as they skated around the rink saluting the crowd. After the game, coach Jack Shupe commented on Terry Sydoryk’s performance by saying, “He’ll remember that game-winning goal for the rest of his life”. On February 16, 2020, Sydroryk read Shupe’s quote on Twitter and replied, “Absolutely… remember it well:)”
The Cougars had no time to rest as they got on a plane for Windsor, Ontario to face the Kitchener Rangers, the Ontario Hockey League champions, and the Cornwall Royals, the Quebec Junior Hockey League champions, in the 1981 Memorial Cup Championship.