I never planned on writing a blog about the Esquimalt Buccaneers. But I became intrigued as I looked through old papers and archives. Unique characters, wild games and crazy events surrounded a BCJHL team that never completed one season. So, enjoy this deep dive into the history of the 1982/83 Esquimalt Buccaneers.
The Esquimalt Buccaneers made their debut in September 1982. Over the next six months, they attracted small crowds, gave their owner a heart attack and left town before the season was over. The story of the Buccaneers proves the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side of the fence. Or, in this case, the other side of the Malahat.
In April 1982, Chicago businessman Bill Zeitlin, part-owner of the Chicago White Sox, and Real Turcotte purchased the Billings Bighorns of the Western Hockey League (WHL). This set off a chain of events leading to the British Columbia Junior Hockey League (BCJHL/BCHL) coming to Esquimalt. Shortly after acquiring the Bighorns, the new owners transferred the franchise to Nanaimo, British Columbia. This forced the BCJHL’s Nanaimo Clippers, who played out of Frank Crane Arena since it opened in 1975, to find a new home.
The original plan had the Clippers moving to Nanaimo’s Civic Arena. In the end, owners Reg Midgley and Gordon Rendle decided to relocate the franchise 100 kilometres south to Esquimalt. This upset many fans in Nanaimo as the Clippers were very popular and one of the most successful teams in the BCJHL. Ownership cited the failing economy of the Hub City and felt Nanaimo lacked the population to support two junior clubs. With the move to Greater Victoria, they now occupied the same market as the Victoria Cougars of the WHL. The new team played out the 1,700 seat Esquimalt Sports Centre, located five kilometres from the Cougars home at Victoria Memorial Arena.
At a July 1982 press conference, Midgley announced the team would be known as the Esquimalt Buccaneers. It marked the return of the BCJHL to Greater Victoria after an eleven-year absence. The Victoria Cougars entered the BCJHL in 1967, winning the league championship in 1969. In 1971, the Cougars left the BCJHL and joined the WCHL/WHL.
At the same press conference, Wayne Bianchin was introduced as the new head coach. He replaced Larry McNabb, who coached the Clippers for seven years, winning three consecutive championships from 1976-78.
Bianchin is from Nanaimo and played in the WCHL for Victoria, Calgary and Flin Flon. In 1973, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Bianchin in the second round of the NHL entry draft. After a solid rookie season with Pittsburgh, he broke his neck while surfing in Hawaii. Bianchin went through a long rehab but returned to the Penguins lineup one year later. He appeared in 363 career NHL games and retired in 1982 after two seasons with the Italian National Team.
“I’ve had quite a bit of European experience and hope to blend a little bit of European and Canadian styles this year to produce a blend of hockey that is entertaining to watch” - Wayne Bianchin (1)
In addition to Bianchin, the Buccaneers put together a strong hockey operations team. Victoria Cougars scout Jim Dawes assumed the same role with the Buccaneers. He was a key figure responsible for assembling the powerful Victoria Cougars teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ron Opheim, who coached with McNabb, continued as an assistant to Bianchin. Co-owner Gordon Rendle took over as director of player personnel and Shaen McRae, another former Cougar, named team trainer.
Going into training camp, there were only five holdovers from the previous year’s Clippers team: defensemen Rob Kivell, Garry Matson and forwards Len Evans, Dwaine Jurreit and Darrell Pederson. Bianchin had high praise for Rob Kivell, calling him the most impressive player in camp. The Lethbridge Broncos held his WHL rights and tried to persuade Kivell to join their team. The imposing six-foot-two, 205-pound blueliner remained with the Bucs because he was trying to earn a college scholarship. He already received letters of inquiry from seven U.S. universities. The Victoria Cougars also showed strong interest in Kivell and pursued him throughout the season.
“Kivell is the top player outside of the Western Hockey League and potentially a very good draft pick. He would have really helped us, and we tried hard to get him.” Dave Andrews - Victoria Cougars Head Coach (2)
Esquimalt signed an affiliation agreement with the Victoria Cougars. The WHL club provided the Bucs with a few prospects to be called up in case of injuries. One of those players was forward Dale Brisco. He enjoyed a strong training camp with the Bucs and considered one of the Cougars' top prospects. The previous season, Brisco won the Air Canada Cup (held at Victoria Memorial Arena) with the Burnaby Winter Club Travellers. The Burnaby Winter Club is the only midget team from British Columbia to win a national title.
The Buccaneers made their debut at the Esquimalt Sports Centre on September 26th against the Burnaby Bluehawks. The few hundred in attendance witnessed a wild game with Burnaby dropping the Bucs 9-8 in double overtime. Bluehawks forward Paul Bifano was the star of the game with three goals. At the end of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Bifano and he joined the Victoria Cougars for the 1983/84 campaign.
Although Burnaby won, the game ended in controversy. The Times-Colonist describes the events that took place:
The final score was 9-8 for Burnaby after double overtime, but there is some doubt as to the legality of the result. With the score tied 7 after regulation time, referee Jim Bayliss ordered a straight overtime period. Midgley protested that it should be sudden death but was overruled by the official. Esquimalt scored first in extra time, then Burnaby tied it up to force another overtime period. This one, the official ruled, would be sudden-death. Burnaby scored at 6:34 and the game was over. (3)
Afterwards, Reg Midgley filed an appeal with the league. A month later, President Fred Page ruled the official was in error and overturned the result. Page ordered the overtime period to be replayed on January 9th, just before their scheduled game that day.
OCTOBER to DECEMBER
The season got off to a rocky start with three straight losses. The Bucs picked up their first victory with a 5-4 triumph over the Cowichan Valley Capitals in Duncan. The Buccaneers took a 5-2 lead with three goals in the third period - two in the span of six seconds by Len Evans and Darrell Pederson. Rob Kivell followed up with the winner before Cowichan closed out the game with two late tallies.
The Buccaneers' first victory at home came October 3rd in an 8-2 triumph over Merritt. Randy Taylor and Dale Brisco paced Esquimalt with two goals each. Taylor had the most experience on the team with 121 WHL games over the past three years with Seattle and Winnipeg.
Darrel Pederson only managed seven goals in forty-two games the previous season but began the year on a hot steak with five goals in five games. Pederson almost quit hockey during the summer as he agreed to take a full-time job in Prince George. When that position fell through, he returned to the BCJHL for another season. He is the cousin of ex-Victoria Cougars captain Barry Pederson.
Len Evans enjoyed a break-out season in 1982-83, establishing himself as one of the top forwards in the BCJHL. Two years prior, the Powell River native was selected as one of the top four midget players in BC and entered the Olympic development program. After fourteen games, Evans was second in BCJHL scoring with 33 points.
On October 14th, The Buccaneers faced Cliff Ronning and the undefeated New Westminster Royals. In one of the most exciting games of the year, the Bucs fired home three goals in the last three minutes to shock the Royals 9-7. Brisco, Pederson and Kivell led the Esquimalt attack with two goals each.
Even though the Buccaneers had an exciting team, there was a glaring problem with the lack of fans at the Esquimalt Sports Centre. The win over the Royals only drew about 300.
“The crowds here have been disappointing. The public just doesn’t know the calibre of the product. It just hasn’t sunk into the public that this is junior “A”. – Reg Midgley (4)
Esquimalt needed 800 fans per game to break even. (most BCJHL teams averaged around 500-800) To emphasize how poor the turnouts have been, Midgley pointed out the 300 who watched the win over New Westminster was the largest crowd of the season.
The next weekend, the Bucs enjoyed a successful road trip to the interior with back-to-back wins. The trip began in Revelstoke with Len Evans scoring five times in a 9-6 victory. Carey Corey followed with a hat-trick the next day as Esquimalt thumped Merritt 10-6.
On Halloween, Esquimalt hosted the Langley Eagles. The game was promoted as “Welcome Back, Jack!” with former Victoria Cougars coach/GM Jack Shupe now guiding the Eagles. Shupe coached the Cougars the previous five seasons and led them to the 1980/81 WHL Championship. In one of the worst moves in Cougars' history, Shupe was fired in the middle of their 1982 playoff series against Seattle. The Eagles iced a young inexperienced squad that featured Shupe’s son, Jerry Shupe, on defence.
The return of Jack Shupe boosted attendance, with the Buccaneers drawing 784 fans - their largest crowd of the season. Unfortunately for Shupe, his new club suffered an 11-6 beatdown. Rob Kivell led the scoring parade with two goals and three assists. With the win, Esquimalt moved into a second-place tie in the Coastal Division with a record of 10-5.
In spite of the small crowds, the high-scoring Buccaneers went on a tear, reeling off eight straight home victories between October and November. The winning streak ended on Nov 21st when the last place Richmond Sockeyes surprised the Bucs 6-3. Randy Taylor, Alton Davis and Dale Brisco countered for Esquimalt as their record fell to 15 wins and 9 losses.
The Bucs bounced back a few days later in Duncan with Randy Horswell scoring in sudden death overtime to give Esquimalt a 5-4 win over Cowichan Valley.
Shupe’s Langley Eagles returned to Esquimalt in November with similar results to their first meeting. The line of Dale Brisco, Randy Taylor and Darrell Pederson dominated the game as they combined for 13 points. Brisco and Taylor each scored three times while Pederson notched five assists on their way to an 8-6 victory in front of 400 fans.
In early December, Wayne Bianchin shot down rumours that he was going to leave the team to coach the Nanaimo Islanders. Nanaimo got off to a good start, but the first-year WHL franchise was going through major problems on and off the ice. Former Cowichan Valley Capitals coach Doug Harding was eventually hired by the Islanders.
On December 13th, New Westminster defeated Esquimalt 6-2 in a bizarre contest that saw seven players kicked out of the game for standing in the wrong place. Late in the third period, a minor scuffle ensued with the referee ordering players back to their benches. When seven Esquimalt players only moved to the blue line near their bench, the referee issued them all game misconducts. Bianchin was kicked out minutes later when he tried to send his backup goalkeeper, Karl Landry, to serve the bench minor. After the game, the Times-Colonist described Midgley as “steaming mad”. A frustrated Midgley said the referee “did an incompetent job” and asked BCJHL President Fred Page for an official review of the game. (5)
Just before Christmas, the Buccaneers announced two upcoming home games at the end of the month have been shifted to Nanaimo. The Buccaneers said the change had nothing to do with the poor attendance in Esquimalt. The reason for the first change is to allow players time off for Christmas and the second game was moved to avoid a conflict with the Cougars who were playing that night.
After Christmas, the Victoria Cougars called up forwards Dale Brisco, Chris Crossman. and defenseman Rick Hunt. The Cougars needed reinforcements with Mark Morrison and Paul Cyr at the World Juniors and Stu Kulak with the Vancouver Canucks. Brisco and Hunt returned to the Bucs in early January with Brisco coming back in mid-January.
The small crowds continued at the Esquimalt Sports Centre and Reg Midgley openly discussed the team’s financial problems.
“Yeh, we’re taking a bath. We were ready to just throw up our arms and look for alternative sites, but some hockey enthusiasts and close friends had a meeting and decided we’d work hard to promote the team. I think we’ll be back next year. We’re about $100,000 in the hole. People just don’t know about the calibre of our hockey. A lot of these kids have shunned Tier One junior because they want to go on to the NCAA in the US. The top four BCJHL teams could beat half the teams in the Western League” (6)
Next - The History of the Esquimalt Buccaneers - Part 2: The Resurrection of the Clippers - Kivell joins the Cougars, Brett Hull comes to town and the return to Nanaimo
(1) “Bianchin Named Coach” Max Low, July 14, 1982 (Page 12 of 44). Times Colonist (1980-2010) 1982 Jul 14(181):12.
(2) “Bucs’ top pro prospect has sights on College” Cleve Dheensaw, November 26, 1982 (Page 18 of 70) Publication info: Times Colonist (1980-2010); Victoria, British Columbia [Victoria, British Columbia]26 Nov 1982: 18.
(3) “Bucs win; appeal loss to Burnaby” September 29, 1982 (Page 17 of 62) Times Colonist (1980-2010); Victoria, British Columbia [Victoria, British Columbia]29 Sep 1982: 17.
(4) “Tier two calibre great but attendance dismal” Cleve Dheensaw October 15, 1982 (Page 10 of 57). Times Colonist (1980-2010) 1982 Oct 15(261):10.
(5) “Midgley Steaming” December 14, 1982 (Page 18 of 57). Times Colonist (1980-2010) 1982 Dec 14(3):18.
(6) Cleve Dheensaw, December 8, 1982 (Page 13 of 68) Publication info: Times Colonist (1980-2010); Victoria, British Columbia [Victoria, British Columbia]08 Dec 1982: 13.