The 1981-82 Vancouver Canucks stunned the hockey world when they punched their ticket to that season’s Stanley Cup final.
The Canucks, a sub-.500 team during the regular season, featured a roster packed with castoffs from other organizations who conspired with an unconventional coach to shock the NHL that spring. But a deeper dive into that roster reveals a cast of characters who knew well what it takes to win. In yet another example of what a small – and often poetic – world that hockey can be, several of these underdog Canucks met under memorable circumstances a decade earlier in a clash for another of the game’s most revered trophies.
In 1972, the landscape of junior hockey, including the Memorial Cup championship, was in a state of change. Gone were the days of the classic east-versus-west showdown, typically a best-of-seven affair, that had been the hallmark of junior-hockey supremacy in Canada for decades. From the restructuring of the sport at that level came the three recognized top-tier leagues we know today: the QMJHL, OHA (now OHL) and WCHL (now WHL). With this, what was formerly a two-team series to determine a national champ became a three-team tournament and was to be played in a predetermined city. The concept was met with disdain by many. Any chance of home-ice advantage would likely be lost. Not to mention the precarious nature of a single-game elimination format was unappealing to critics.
With these sentiments swirling in the background, that year’s Memorial Cup took place in Ottawa. From the WCHL came the lone holdover from the previous year’s iteration, the Edmonton Oil Kings. Coached by Brian Shaw and managed by the inimitable ‘Wild’ Bill Hunter, the Oil Kings were led by the returning core of captain Tom Bladon and alternates Phil Russell and Darcy Rota. The goaltending tandem of Larry Hendrick and Doug Soetaert helped the Oil Kings dispatch the New Westminster Bruins, Calgary Centennials and Regina Pats en route to an astounding ninth Memorial Cup berth since 1954. The club then took advantage of a since-removed rule that allowed them to pick up another stopper for the tournament. Calgary’s John Davidson received the call.
“It will be a classic, one of the best junior finals ever played, and the Oil Kings will win it,” opined Del Wilson, a scout for the Montreal Canadiens and president of the Pats team that Edmonton had ousted in the WCHL final. That was the common sentiment among pundits, who proclaimed the Oil Kings heavy favorites prior to puck drop.
Out of the OHA came the Peterborough Petes. Guided by the legendary Roger Neilson, the Petes were a squad that won by committee. The team featured eight 20-goal scorers – including leading snipers Doug Gibson and Ron Lalonde – goaltender Mike Veisor and a rock-solid defense corps featuring future Toronto Maple Leaf Bob Neely and a 19-year-old named Colin Campbell. The Petes eliminated the defending league champion St. Catharines Black Hawks, powerhouse Toronto Marlboros and Ottawa 67’s for their first title in 13 years. It was the victory over the Marlies – a group many had pencilled into the tournament at the start of the playoffs – that was a symbolic triumph for Campbell.
“You had to deal with the big cities back then,” Campbell said. “It took some convincing to get players to report to a smaller city like Peterborough. We had to take care of every little aspect to win. We had to be better defensively, had to be in better shape than the other team, and Roger took pride in having the smartest and strongest and most prepared team.”
The Cornwall Royals were a worst-to-first story in the QMJHL. Coached by Orval Tessier, the Royals combined skill and grit, with captain Bob Murray, versatile forwards Blair ‘B.J.’ MacDonald, Gary MacGregor and John Wensink, defenseman Al Sims and rock-solid netminding from Richard Brodeur. Their path to the event involved playoff triumphs over the Verdun Maple Leafs and Shawinigan Bruins before taking out the defending Memorial Cup-champion Quebec Remparts in a seven-game marathon.
They were a solid, well-rounded club, talented at all positions. And hardly anyone paid much attention to them. “We were underrated all the way,” Brodeur said. “The Remparts were supposed to be the team to go all the way, but we snuck in instead.”
As expected, the Petes got things rolling on May 8, riding a two-goal performance from Lalonde and the stellar goaltending of Veisor in a 4-2 victory over Cornwall. Two players from the losing side came away with lasting memories from the opener.
“There was a lot of posturing between the two teams in that first game between Cornwall and Peterborough,” MacDonald said. “We knew it was close, could’ve gone either way. If anything, it gave us a bit of confidence, faring that well against a team from the OHA that was perceived as a favorite.”
Given the proximity of both clubs to Ottawa (the Petes hailed from three hours down the road, the Royals just an hour-and-a-half), sizable fan bases from both cities descended on Canada’s capital. And it was that aspect that led to a snap decision by the fiery Cornwall coach after the opening-game defeat. “Orval was so pissed, he got us all together at the hotel and said, ‘We’re going back to Cornwall. You’re going to go home, go to school and do your thing,’ ” Brodeur said. “The media made a big deal out of it, but there were a lot of distractions when we were staying in Ottawa.”
The Royals wouldn’t require another trip up the highway for four days. In the meantime, the Oil Kings – and chaos – made their first appearance at the event. On the evening of May 10, the Petes took on Edmonton. With the game tied 4-4 after two periods, Neilson went to work.
Before he was ‘Captain Video,’ Neilson was the MacGyver of junior hockey, creating advantages for his team out of seemingly nothing. Some of his tactics, like putting a defenseman between the pipes to rush oncoming shooters on penalty shots or continuously taking too-many-men penalties while already on a two-man disadvantage, forced amendments to the rulebook. But what he did against the Oil Kings would make any fan of gamesmanship – or Jacques Demers – proud, as Edmonton started the final frame down a man, courtesy of an illegal-stick call against Rota. “I was stunned,” Rota said. “I was probably playing with that stick most of the year. I didn’t really do much with it. It was like that from the manufacturer.”
Rota, whom a flustered Hunter visited in the penalty box amid the controversy, may be on to something, as Neilson would successfully call for another stick measurement – this time on Brian Ogilvie – before the contest ended. A pair of Peterborough power-play markers in the period would make the difference, as Peterborough emerged with a 6-4 win, a 2-0 record and a ticket to the tournament final.
A half-century later, Campbell is not surprised at the cunning of his former coach. “With Roger, it was knowing the rule book and knowing what you can and can’t do,” Campbell said.
Hunter was less than impressed by the bold strategy. “We have no complaint against the rule or the officiating,” he told Gord Walker of the Toronto Globe and Mail. “But I am concerned about the chicken philosophy to call upon such a rule. To have a thing like that called in a Memorial Cup game is unthinkable.”
On May 12, the Royals returned from self-imposed exile to finish the round-robin portion of the tournament against Edmonton. By the time they climbed back on the bus to head home, they had earned their spot in the final thanks to a 5-0 drubbing of the Oil Kings. MacGregor and Dave Johnson each scored twice while Brodeur pitched a 40-save shutout.
Again, Hunter, who had previously implied his team would be skating in the final, summed up the loss to Walker. “We didn’t skate and we didn’t hit,” Hunter said. “That’s our game, skating and hitting. When we didn’t do either, we were gone. We were well beaten by Cornwall, and we had no excuses.”
Added Rota: “We just didn’t play as well as we could’ve. We also ran into a great goaltender in Richard Brodeur.”
Rota nonetheless fondly remembers his parents making the trek from Prince George, B.C., to watch the tournament.
The Oil Kings’ decision to pick up Davidson was a topic of conversation among the other teams at the time. And 50 years later, MacDonald was quick to revisit the matter. “We thought at the time that it would be a huge distraction,” he said. “You had two guys that got you to this point only to be discarded. J.D. was a great goaltender, but when you’re taking the goaltender from your hated rival, dropping him into your dressing room and putting the whole season on him, I think it was a really disruptive factor for them, not because of J.D. personally but from a chemistry standpoint.”
May 14 was the final day of the historical event and a drama played out in three acts. First came the war: after the first period, neither the Petes nor Royals had found the back of the net, but they’d become plenty familiar with the penalty boxes.
Campbell and Brodeur both recall Wensink – who eventually became a big, bad Bruin after his time as a rambunctious Royal – playing a central role in the antics. “Wensink was going after Bob Neely and ended up suckering a kid by the name of Bob Smulders (in the round-robin),” Campbell said. “In the final, we had a big kid named Craig Brown who came off the bench and went after Wensink. I think the governor general was at that game, and here we are having a big dustup.”
Added Brodeur: “When John came out of the penalty box, he skated over to the bench and challenged them. I was in my net and could hear all of this. Nobody on the Peterborough bench said a thing. To me, that changed the whole game. Everything settled down.”
Cornwall defenseman Brian Bowles opened the scoring on one of the oddest tallies in tournament history. His high, hard shot ricocheted off the glass behind Veisor, bounced off the bewildered goaltender and slipped into the net. Another rearguard, Mike St. Cyr, knotted the score at 1-1 before the second intermission. All of this led to the deciding final period and MacGregor’s championship clincher, off a forced turnover, early in the final stanza. When the buzzer sounded, the Royals had come out of left field to claim their first of three national titles with a 2-1 victory.
MacGregor was a slight 5-foot-9 but all who recall his play saw the determination of a giant, not to mention an intrepid ability to find the back of the net. Two years later, he became the second player in league history to net 100 goals in a season. Plagued by health issues, including diabetes, throughout his life, MacGregor passed away in 1995 at the age of 40. “Gary was a quiet, genuine guy who worked hard,” Brodeur said. “Just by looking at him, you could tell he could’ve gone far. He could barely speak to me (because of the language barrier), but he always made sure to stop and say hello. He would’ve been a superstar nowadays.”
It was Brodeur who stole the spotlight on this day, however, turning aside 46 shots before earning the first Stafford Smythe Trophy as MVP. “Richard was pretty durable,” MacDonald said. “Back in junior, he was skin and bones. But he was really solid for us and had a lot of confidence. We knew if we scored two or three, we stood a very good chance of winning.”
Brodeur had supreme confidence throughout the event. “After the first game loss, (former QMJHL president) Robert LeBel was right by the door leading out to the ice,” Brodeur said. “I said to him, ‘Mr. LeBel, we’re going to win the next game, then we’re going to win the Memorial Cup.’ I was convinced we could do it.” Give credit to the man; he wasn’t wrong.
For his part, Campbell acknowledged running into a goaltender as hot as Brodeur could sometimes make all the difference. “You look at the Olympics, for example, you can win every game in the round-robin, but once you get to the gold-medal game, you still have to win,” Campbell said. “We outshot Cornwall badly, and Richard Brodeur stood on his head.”
Prior to the 1980-81 season, Campbell was a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Then he headed further west to Vancouver after the Canucks took him in the pre-season waiver draft. “I had to leave for Vancouver that day, and when I got to my hotel, I couldn’t get in my room,” Campbell said. “I knocked on the door, and it was Richard who opened it. They had just picked him up, too.”
They were the first steps toward an improbable run, two seasons in the making. Rota was starting his second season in Vancouver. In March 1981, Campbell’s former Oilers teammate MacDonald was dealt to the Canucks. The following season, another name from the past would guide this foursome to the time of their hockey lives thanks to a mid-season coaching change. But unlike 1972, on this occasion, everyone appreciated what Roger Neilson brought to the room. With their coach infamously waving the white towel from the bench, the Canucks were the talk of hockey in the spring of ’82, reaching the final before losing to the dynastic New York Islanders.
“It was a fun room,” said Brodeur, who, by then, had gone from junior Royal to ‘King Richard.’ “We all had a history there. We picked up a few guys from other teams that were cast off from other teams, and they all put it together.” Added Rota: “The ’82 run was very special. We were united as a group. My motto for us was, ‘All for one and one for all.’ It was a highlight of my hockey life. And to do it with guys like Colie, B.J. and Richard was very special. Then, to have Roger as a coach and see how he prepared us, nothing surprised us.”
It’s almost unfathomable that group of players who were each part of such a pivotal hockey moment in junior regrouped with one of the more notable NHL clubs of its era. But was there much talk about ’72, especially from the Cornwall contingent?
“You bet,” MacDonald said. “Every time the topic came up, Richard and I would remind Darcy, ‘Didn’t we win that one 5-0 or something?’ Then the subject would change. There were a ton of connections from that tournament.”
A half-century after they first gained celebrity within the game and 40 years after their encore, all four remain close. Rota and MacDonald remain active on the Canucks’ alumni scene. Brodeur went from spinning masterpieces between the pipes to painting them on canvases, his 30-year art career gaining momentum to this day. Campbell remained in the hockey world the longest, coaching briefly with Neilson’s New York Rangers in the early 1990s. Campbell won a Cup as an assistant with the Rangers in 1994, after Neilson moved on to Florida. Following his time behind the bench, Campbell joined the NHL’s front-office ranks, and he remains the league’s executive vice-president and director of hockey operations. He also got his revenge for that loss back in ’72 thanks to some rich bloodlines.
“Gregory ended up handling some unfinished family business,” he said, in reference to his son, who won junior-hockey’s top prize while leading the tournament in scoring with the Kitchener Rangers in 2003.
As for the Royals, they would eventually join the Petes as members of the OHL, abandon their bandbox of an arena on Cornwall’s Water Street for a concrete complex across the road and eventually relocate, first to Newmarket in 1992 and, finally, to Sarnia in 1994.
Despite all that has changed since that memorable triumph five decades ago, the connections that bonded those who were there to experience the moments firsthand have only grown stronger.