Sixty years ago, the Montreal Canadiens came to Victoria for their preseason training camp at Memorial Arena. Since then, Vancouver Island has been home to thirty-three National Hockey League (NHL) camps. The Vancouver Canucks have been here eighteen times, most recently in 2019 at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. For thirteen years, the Los Angeles Kings began their preseason in Victoria. The Kings' last training camp took place in 1988 - Wayne Gretzky's first year in Los Angeles.
Many players made their NHL debuts on Island rinks, including Cam Neely, Trevor Linden, Luc Robitaille, and Steven Stamkos. In this post, we look back over the past sixty years and the four teams that have called Vancouver Island their preseason home.
The Canadiens traditionally held their preseason workouts at the Montreal Forum, but that changed in 1961 when head coach Toe Blake moved their training camp to Victoria Memorial Arena. This was a big event for Victoria as a large contingent of fans, including the mayor and Miss Victoria, met the team as they arrived at the airport. The Canadiens were treated like celebrities and enjoyed tourist activities like tea at the Empress.
Henri Richard appreciated his time in Victoria, “It is a quiet town and good for training, even better than Montreal. You have nice weather, not so humid as Montreal”. The same Victoria Times article described the Montreal players as, “Meticulous dressers, careful in deportment and courteous of speech, the Canadiens mixed well and made a lot of friends.” (1)
Victoria was also the first NHL camp for Bill Masterton. He failed to make the team and was assigned to the Canadiens farm team in Hull-Ottawa. Seven years later, he died after an on-ice hit caused a massive head injury during a game in 1968. That year, the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy was created and is still presented annually to the "National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey"
At the end of training camp, Montreal played an exhibition game at Memorial Arena against the Spokane Comets of the Western Hockey League. The Canadiens won 4-2 in front of a sell-out crowd of 5,220. Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau each scored, with Jacques Plante and Cesear Maniago sharing the goaltending duties for the Canadiens.
Although the team enjoyed their time on Vancouver Island, 1961 was the only year the Canadiens held their training camp in Victoria. Montreal would finish the 1961/62 season first overall but lost to Chicago in the first round of the playoffs.
Hall of Famers who attended the Victoria training camp: Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Henri Richard, Jacques Plante, Dickie Moore, Tom Johnson
After four years in Alberta, the Canucks held their first British Columbia training camp in 1974 at Victoria Memorial Arena. For sixteen of the next nineteen years, the Canucks would begin their preseason workouts on Vancouver Island.
The Canucks have held a total of twenty-one training camps in five communities throughout Vancouver Island:
1974 - Victoria: Canucks held their rookie camp at Juan de Fuca Arena with the main camp at Memorial Arena. Unlike previous Victoria training camps with the Los Angeles Kings (1970-73), Canucks practices were open to the public. Harold Snepsts made his pro debut at the Juan de Fuca sessions and would play his first NHL exhibition game as a Canuck at Memorial Arena against the Oakland Seals. Vancouver would go on to win the Smythe Division that season and make their first playoff appearance in franchise history.
1978 - Courtenay: The first training camp for Curt Fraser (Victoria Cougars 1975-78), Stan Smyl, Thomas Gradin and coach Harry Neale. Playing in their first NHL exhibition game, Fraser and Gradin each scored as the Canucks defeated the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 at Victoria Memorial Arena.
1980 – Duncan: Three Victoria Cougars alumni – Curt Fraser, Bob Smith, and Gary Lupul attended the first training camp held at the Cowichan Community Centre. The Canucks would train in Duncan eight of the next nine years.
1983 - Duncan: The initial NHL camp for Hall of Fame forward and Canucks first-round pick Cam Neely. He scored a goal for the Canucks in a 6-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings in Victoria on September 24, 1983.
1984 - Duncan: New head coach Bill LaForge made the losing team of each day’s scrimmage run one mile in full hockey gear outside the Cowichan arena. After starting the regular season with only four wins in twenty games, the Canucks fired LaForge.
1988 - Duncan: The final Canucks training camp in Duncan featured the first appearance of rookie Trevor Linden.
1989 - Parksville: Igor Larionov made his North American debut. An all-star with Central Red Army, he was one of the first Russians permitted by the Soviet Union to play in the NHL.
1990 - Victoria: General manager Pat Quinn brought the Canucks back to Victoria for a three-year run. The 1990 camp was the start of the 13th and final season for Stan Smyl. Vladimir Krutov, a teammate of Larionov in Russia, came to Victoria out of shape and demoted to Vancouver’s rookie camp. As described in the Times-Colonist, “Canuck management steamed over his (Krutov’s) portly appearance.” (2)
1991 - Victoria: The first North American training camp for the Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure, and a homecoming for Cougars alumni Geoff Courtnall.
2007 - Victoria: After a fifteen-year absence, the Canucks returned to Vancouver Island. Training took place at the Q Centre, with Save on Foods Memorial Centre hosting an intrasquad game. 2007 marked the final Canucks training camp for Marcus Naslund and Trevor Lind
2019 -Victoria:the Canucks set up their preseason workouts at Save on Foods Memorial Centre for the first time. It marked the return of Jordie Benn, who played junior with the Victoria Grizzlies and as a pro with the Victoria Salmon Kings. The Canucks opened their preseason in Victoria with a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames.
The Canucks have played thirty-five preseason games on Vancouver Island with a record of twenty wins, ten losses and five ties.
Cougars alumni who attended Vancouver Island training camps: Murray Bannerman, Curt Fraser, Gary Lupul, Bob Smith, Rick Durston, Jack McIlhargey, Mike Will, Dale Cook, Stu Kulak, Shawn Green, Barry Pederson, Greg Adams, Glen Cochrane, Bill Gregoire, Brent Thurston, Geoff Courtnall, Jason Phillips, Mark Cipriano
Hall of Famers: Pavel Bure, Igor Larionov, Cam Neely
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Victoria was a second home to the Los Angeles Kings for thirteen years. Their first run at Memorial Arena was from 1970-1973 and later from 1980 to 1988.
During this time, Los Angles played annual exhibition games in Victoria with the Canucks for eighteen straight years (1970-1988). The Kings participated in 39 preseason games on Vancouver Island (more than any other team) with 11 wins, 22 losses and 6 ties.
At their 1970 training camp, a youth fired a gun at goaltender Dennis DeJordy and broadcasters Gary Morell and Ron Racette as they were walking to their hotel. The police arrested the youth and discovered it was a replica gun firing blanks.
Hall of Famers Billy Smith, Larry Murphy and Luc Robitaille made their first NHL appearances as rookies at Memorial Arena. (Smith 1970, Murphy 1980, and Robitaille 1986) Another Hall of Famer, Marcel Dionne, had six 50-goal seasons during his tenure in Los Angeles (1976-1987) and participated in seven Victoria training camps.
Siberian-born Victor Nechaev made his North American debut with the Kings in 1982 at Memorial Arena. That season, the twenty-seven-year-old became the first player from the Soviet Union to appear in an NHL game. In three games with Los Angeles that season, he picked up one goal. This was his only year playing in North America as he went to Switzerland in 1983. Read more about Victor Nechaev and his historic journey in this NHL.com article.
One local player who attended Kings training camp was Victoria-born goaltender Dave Ross. A 1982 4th round draft pick of the Kings, he played in the Western Hockey League for Seattle, Kamloops, and Regina. Ross backstopped Seattle to a shocking four-game sweep of the Victoria Cougars (the defending WHL champions) in the first round of the 1981/82 playoffs.
In 1986, former Victoria Cougar All-Star Rick Lapointe signed a free-agent contract with Los Angeles. He spent the final two years of his NHL career with the Kings. Back in 1974/75, his final season with the Cougars, Lapointe was named the WCHL Top Defenseman and drafted in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings.
Wayne Gretzky stepped on the ice for the first time as a Los Angeles King in Victoria at their September 1988 training camp. In one of the biggest trades in NHL history, Edmonton sent Gretzky to Los Angeles just one month prior on August 9th. The Kings had their first on-ice sessions at Juan de Fuca Arena and had over 1,100 fans pay to watch Gretzky practice. He would play in his first preseason game at Memorial Arena on September 17, 1988, versus the Vancouver Canucks. The sold-out crowd of 5,448 watched Gretzky pick up two assists as Vancouver beat the Kings 7-4. 1988 was the final time the Kings held their training camp in Victoria.
Cougars’ alumni who attended Victoria training camps: Micah Aivazoff, Greg Batters, Dan Sexton, Rick Lapointe, Derek Haas, Archie Henderson, Darryl Williams, Dan Brennan (Hired as a Cougars Assistant Coach in 1989), Ron Grahame (BCJHL Cougars), Aaron Rucks (Nanaimo Clippers), Al Loring (Esquimalt Buccaneers)
Hall of Famers: Bob Pulford, Billy Smith, Dick Duff, Harry Howell, Rogie Vachon, Butch Goring, Marcel Dionne, Larry Murphy, Luc Robitaille, Wayne Gretzky
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
When Victoria Cougars alumni Len Barrie purchased the Tampa Bay Lightning, he brought their 2008 rookie camp to Juan de Fuca Arena. This was the first training camp for Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay's first overall draft pick in 2008. Len’s son, Tyson Barrie, also participated but was not associated with the Lightning since it was one year before his draft eligibility.
Victoria Grizzlies who attended training camp: Justin Courtnall, Tyson Barrie
Craig Richardson - CougarsHockeyProject@protonmail.com
Follow us on Twitter - @VictoriaCougars
(1) “Sideline Slants” Doug Pedan, September 29, 1961 (Page 10 of 36). Victoria Daily Times (1884-1971)
(2) “Pampering over for Soviets” Grant Kerr September 11, 1990 (Page 11 of 32). Times Colonist (1980-2010)