A total of sixty exhibition games with National Hockey League teams have been played on Vancouver Island. The first game in 1959 featured the New York Rangers taking on the Victoria Cougars, and the last one occurred in 2019 with the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames. Only two games have taken place since 1988, but from 1969 to 1988, they were held annually. The Los Angles Kings have played the most (39) and have a record of 11-22-6. The Vancouver Canucks have enjoyed success on the Island with an impressive record of 20-10-5.
In this post, we look back at Vancouver Island’s top 18 NHL preseason games. I planned on this being a Top 10, but with so many Hall of Fame players, different eras, and uncovering historic milestones, the list expanded to 18.
1. September 17, 1988: VANCOUVER CANUCKS 7 - LOS ANGELES KINGS 4 (Victoria)
Wayne Gretzky made his Los Angeles Kings debut in front of a sell-out crowd of 5,448. In August 1988, the Edmonton Oilers traded Gretzky to Los Angeles in one of the biggest trades in NHL history. Large crowds gathered throughout training camp at Memorial Arena and Juan de Fuca Arena to get a glimpse of the Great One.
Playing on a line with Bobby Carpenter and Bernie Nicholls, Gretzky picked up two assists. Gretzky’s first point as a King came on a pass to Bobby Carpenter, who fired a shot past Canuck goalie Steve Weeks in the second period to tie the game at 3-3. Ken Berry and John-Marc Lanthier paced the Canucks with two goals each. It was a rough game with ten fighting majors assessed. Vancouver’s Ron Stern led the way with two fights and 18 penalty minutes.
Los Angeles wore their new black, silver and white uniforms. They replaced their traditional purple and gold colours used since their inaugural season in 1967.
2. September 29, 1953: NEW YORK RANGERS 3 – VICTORIA COUGARS 1 (Victoria)
The first exhibition game at Victoria Memorial Arena featuring a National Hockey League team. The capacity crowd of 5,500 watched the New York Rangers squeak by the Victoria Cougars. It was a tight game until the final minute when Nick Mickoski tipped in Harry Howell’s shot to make it 3-1. Stan Maxwell scored Victoria's lone goal. He tied the game at 1-1 in the second period with a long shot through a maze of players.
At age 29, this was the first NHL season for Rangers’ goaltender Johnny Bower. Cougars forward Andy Hebenton would join the Rangers in 1955 and set an NHL record by playing in 630 consecutive games.
3. September 23, 1978: VANCOUVER CANUCKS 4 - LOS ANGELES KINGS 3 (Victoria)
Playing in their first NHL exhibition game, the rookie line of Thomas Gradin, Stan Smyl and former Victoria Cougars captain Curt Fraser, each pick up two points as the Canucks edged Los Angeles 4-3. This was also the first game for Canucks coach Harry Neale. The Kings jumped out to a quick advantage 2-0 when Marcel Dionne opened the scoring 22 seconds into the game and assisted on Mike Murphy’s goal forty seconds later. The Canucks took the lead when Fraser and Gradin scored late in the second period to make it 3-2. Vancouver started Curt Ridley between the pipes and was replaced in the second period by the reigning Central Hockey League rookie of the year Glen Hanlon.
4. September 26, 1973: Montreal Canadiens 9 - Los Angeles 3 (Victoria)
Yvon Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur scored a pair as the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens trounced the Los Angeles Kings. Chemainus-born rookie Ron Andruff (the Canadiens 2nd round draft selection) had one assist playing on a line with Lafleur and Murray Wilson. Other Canadien goal scorers were Bob Gainey, Henri Richard, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe and Dave Gardner. Gainey, the Canadiens first-round draft pick, had a strong game and scored on a third-period breakaway. Andruff said he enjoyed his return to Memorial arena where he played “a lot of minor hockey … driving from Chemainus every Saturday for about six years”(1)
5. October 2, 1975: VANCOUVER CANUCKS 5 - LOS ANGELES KINGS 6 (Victoria)
The largest crowd to watch a hockey game in Victoria Memorial Arena history - 5,718. Hockey fans were eager to see the Canucks, who made their first playoff appearance in franchise history the previous season. This was also the first year in Los Angeles for All-Star forward Marcel Dionne.
Tom Williams scored the winning goal on the power play late in the third period as the Kings trimmed the Canucks 6-5. Bob Berry, Don Kozak, Butch Goring, Vic Venasky and Naniamo born Gene Carr also scored for Los Angeles. For the Canucks, goals came from Paulin Bordeleau (2), Rick Blight, Dennis Ververgaret and Bob Dailey. Rogie Vachon blocked 35 shots in net for the Kings while Vancouver’s Gary Smith and Ken Lockett combined for 37 saves.
6. September 20, 1981: WINNIPEG JETS 6 – VANCOUVER CANUCKS 3 (Duncan)
Dale Hawerchuk begins his Hall of Fame career by scoring his first NHL goal in Winnipeg’s 6-3 win over Vancouver. The Province described Hawerchuk’s goal as “a beautiful two-on-one with Scott Arniel”. Hawerchuk was the Jets’ 1st overall draft pick in 1981 and would go on to win the 1981/82 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.
The Jets trailed 2-1 after one period, tied 2-2 after the second before Winnipeg exploded with four goals in the third. Other Jet goals came from Paul Maclean, Dave Chartier with two each and Doug Smail. Winnipeg coach Tom Watt said his team is taking the pre-season seriously, “These games may not be the same to the Islanders or Montreal, but we have got to build some confidence. I’m very pleased with the things are going. We’ve got a ways to go in building an attitude” Winnipeg would finish second in the Norris Division “ (2)
The loss was the Canucks 13th consecutive exhibition game without a victory over three seasons. The Canucks would go on to win the 1981/82 Campbell Conference championship before losing to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup final.
7. September 27, 1961 - MONTREAL CANADIENS 4 - SPOKANE COMETS 2 (Victoria)
In 1961, the Montreal Canadiens held their training camp in Victoria for the only time. At the end of camp, a capacity crowd of 5,200 watched Montreal play an exhibition game with the Spokane Comets of the Western Hockey League.
Goals from Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau powered Montreal over Spokane 4-2. Jacques Plante and Cesare Maniago shared netminding duties for Montreal. Ed Johnston was solid between the pipes, making 36 saves for Spokane. The pregame ceremony featured the introduction of both teams by Montreal broadcasters Danny Gallivan and Frank Selke Jr.
This game was the first time the Canadiens played in Victoria since their Stanley Cup finals loss to the Victoria Cougars in 1925.
8. September 15, 2019: CALGARY FLAMES 4 - VANCOUVER CANUCKS 3 (Victoria)
A sold-out crowd of 7,006 watched the Calgary Flames defeat the Canucks in the first NHL exhibition game at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. Dylan Dube scored the opening goal for Calgary, with former Victoria Royals captain Matthew Phillips drawing an assist. Austin Czarnik scored twice as the Flames built a 4-0 advantage. Vancouver would stage a comeback in the third period with goals from Loui Eriksson, Josh Teves and Bo Horvat but would fall 4-3 in the first preseason game for both teams.
This game marked a homecoming for Canucks defenseman Jordie Benn. He played junior for the Victoria Grizzlies and began his pro career at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre with the Victoria Salmon Kings.
9. September 29, 1971: LOS ANGELES KINGS 5 - CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS 2 (Victoria)
Los Angeles scored three times in the third period to break a 2-2 tie, and defeat Chicago 5-2. The Kings top line led the way with Bob Berry (1 goal), Juha Widing (2 assists) and Mike Byers (one goal). Tony Esposito started in goal for Chicago and gave way to Gilles Meloche in the second period. Gary Edwards and Dave DeJordy shared the netminding duties for Los Angeles. Chicago’s Bobby Hull scored once on a booming slapshot to even the game at 2-2 with eight seconds left in the second period. The game also featured future of Hall of Famers Stan Mikita (Chicago) and Harry Howell (Los Angeles)
PART 2 - THE TOP NHL PRESEASON GAMES ON VANCOUVER ISLAND - Gordie Howe, Luc Robitaille, Cam Neely, Gump Worsely wears a mask for the first time, the WHA and the 1984/85 Victoria Cougars take on the St. Louis Blues.
Craig Richardson - Email: CougarsHockeyProject@protonmail.com
(1) “Habs Show Off an Islander” Ernie Fedoruk, September 27, 1973 (Page 12 of 44). Victoria Times (1971-1980)
(2) “Jets like Canucks style” Tony Gallagher, September 21, 1981 (Page 17 of 32). The Province (1956-2010)