Western Canada Hockey League

The Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL), founded in 1921, was a major professional ice hockey league originally based in the prairies of Canada. It was renamed the Western Hockey League (WHL) in 1925 and disbanded in 1926.

History

Background

The Stanley Cup was donated in 1893 to serve as a trophy to be awarded to the national champion of Canadian amateur ice hockey. Initially a challenge cup, the trophy eventually became open to professional teams in 1906 and a new trophy, the Allan Cup was donated to serve as the national amateur trophy. By this time, the prairie provinces were being rapidly settled and in 1914 a team based in Saskatchewan (the Regina Victorias) would capture the Allan Cup for the first time. By this time, the Stanley Cup, although still technically a challenge cup, had evolved into a World Series-inspired "East vs. West" affair to be contested between the winners of the two professional hockey leagues then in business, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association based in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon and the National Hockey Association based in Ontario and Quebec. Although the PCHA won two of the first three Finals contested under this format, the National Hockey League came to dominate Stanley Cup play after it replaced the NHA as the premier Eastern competition in 1917.

Early years

In 1921, the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Tigers of the Big Four League saw their league collapse on allegations of pay for amateurs. Together with the Regina Capitals and Saskatoon Sheiks the teams organized the openly-professional Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL). The league was organized under the presidency of E. L. Richardson of Calgary, with Wesley Champ of Regina, Robert Pinder of Saskatoon, K. C. MacKenzie of Edmonton, and J. Lloyd Turner of Calgary, becoming the directors. The league, like the National Hockey League (NHL), played six-man hockey, without the old 'rover' position.[1] At the time, there was not yet a clear distinction between "major" and "minor" professional leagues in any North American sport other than baseball and the new league was recognized as a comparable league to the existing Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). The winner of a series between the champions of the two leagues would go on to face the winner of the NHL for the coveted Stanley Cup.

The league started with high hopes in a general climate of optimism that followed the end of the First World War. Like another then-fledgling professional league in a different sport (the American Professional Football Association, forerunners to today's National Football League) the WCHL was centered in smaller cities with populations of under 100,000 people. In an era where professional sport was considered to be a seasonal occupation to be supplemented by off-season work, salaries even at the major professional level were relatively small and thought to be within the means of clubs located in markets as small as Saskatoon and Moose Jaw.

The WCHL's first season, 1921-22, saw the Saskatoon Sheiks have money problems and relocate to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to become the Moose Jaw Sheiks. The Edmonton Eskimos won the regular season standings, but were upset in the playoffs by the second place Regina Capitals. The Capitals then faced the Vancouver Millionaires of the PCHA to determine who would go on to face the Toronto St. Patricks of the NHL for the Stanley Cup. Vancouver won the series against Regina, but lost to Toronto in the Stanley Cup finals.

In the next season, the Moose Jaw team folded, but the WCHL returned to Saskatoon with a new franchise, the Saskatoon Crescents, led by Newsy Lalonde. The WCHL and PCHA started playing inter-league games, but kept separate standings. The Edmonton Eskimos won the regular season, but lost to the PCHA's Vancouver Maroons in the Stanley Cup playoff.

In the 1923-24 WCHL season, the Calgary Tigers finished in first place while Edmonton finished at the bottom of the standings. The playoffs were changed this year, too, despite a protest from the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL. Instead of the two western leagues playing off to see who would play the NHL champion for the Stanley Cup, the president of the PCHA, Frank Patrick, insisted that the NHL champion had to play the PCHA winner first. This change ended up not making any difference for Montreal, as the team swept Vancouver and then Calgary for the Stanley Cup.

For the 1924-25 WCHL season, the PCHA folded and two of its teams, the Vancouver Maroons and Victoria Cougars joined the WCHL, giving the league six teams. The Saskatoon franchise became the Saskatoon Sheiks. The league had some top-level talent on its rosters, with stars such as Bun Cook and Bill Cook and rookie Eddie Shore. The Victoria Cougars, coached and managed by PCHA founder Lester Patrick, won the league championship and went on to face the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup. Victoria easily beat the Canadiens three games to one, out scoring them 16 to 8. This would be the shining moment for the WCHL as Victoria became the first non-NHL team to win the Stanley Cup since the formation of the NHL in 1917. Since then, no non-NHL team has won the Cup. In fact, the next season, 1925-26, would be the last time a team from outside the NHL would even challenge for it.

Collapse

The WCHL was never particularly stable. A major factor weakening the league's long term prospects for success was the lack of any teams in Winnipeg, then by far the largest city in the Prairies. Due to the city's relatively large size, the league hoped to ice multiple teams in the Manitoban capital (similar to how Montreal, then the largest city in Canada, then hosted both the Canadiens and Maroons in the NHL). The rationale was both a desire to boost the total number of teams and a fear that a single Winnipeg team would dominate the league. However, no potential ownership group was willing to ice a team in Winnipeg without being granted the sort of territorial exclusivity that was by then common practice in North American professional sports leagues.

The beginning of the end came in 1924 when the NHL first expanded into the United States. With the NHL rapidly expanding, salaries were on the rise and the WCHL was finding it difficult to keep its star players. In 1925, the Regina Capitals relocated to Portland, Oregon, and rekindled the old name of Portland Rosebuds, which had been out of use since 1918. With the move into the U.S. came a name change for the WCHL - "Canada" was dropped and the league was renamed the Western Hockey League (WHL). In the eastern half of the continent, the NHL eventually achieved relative stability through large scale expansion to the U.S. and the NFL achieved prosperity by abandoning most of its smaller cities in favour of large markets. Such a path to success was not a viable option for the WHL because few U.S. cities west of the Mississippi River had large arenas with ice plants in the 1920s.

The Edmonton Eskimos won the regular season for the third time in five seasons, but it was the Victoria Cougars who won the league championship and moved on to play for the Stanley Cup. Expectations were high for the defending Stanley Cup champions, but Montreal's other NHL team, the Montreal Maroons, were too strong for Victoria handily beating them three games to one and out scoring them 10 to 3.

By the 1925-26 season, WHL teams were openly selling players to their richer NHL rivals to stay afloat. Nevertheless, financial problems were too great to overcome, the NHL board of governors intervened by purchasing the contracts of every player in the WHL for $258,000 and the league formally disbanded. While the remnants of five former WHL teams immediately formed the professional Prairie Hockey League, the western teams had been stripped of their best players while the NHL and the Stanley Cup's trustees regarded the PrHL as a new minor league and not a continuation of the major professional WHL. The new league would contract to just three Saskatchewan-based teams by 1927 and disappear altogether in 1928.

Although rival leagues were not formally barred from challenging for the Cup until 1947, the WHL's collapse left the NHL as the only top-level professional league in North America. In the meantime, the Cup trustees refused to accept challenges from any rival league. In what was the most significant expansion of its early era, the NHL added three teams for its 1926-27 season, all of which survived the Great Depression to form half of the so-called Original Six in later years. Separate deals were made in stocking the new teams. The rights to the Victoria Cougars' players were bought by the Detroit franchise (which would eventually become the Detroit Red Wings) causing the team to be named the Detroit Cougars in their honor, and the Portland Rosebuds' players' rights were purchased by Frederic McLaughlin for his new Black Hawks team. The New York Rangers did not come to any similar agreement, but nevertheless were the most dominant team of the three in its early years, winning a Stanley Cup in only its second season.

Epilogue

Although the PrHL lasted only two seasons, minor-pro and junior league hockey thrived in the west for many years thereafter, eventually coalescing into the major junior Western Hockey League in 1966. Top-level professional hockey did not return to western Canada until 1970, when the Vancouver Canucks joined the NHL. By that time, the void left by the sudden disappearance of major professional sport in Western Canada had been long filled by Canadian football. Prior to the WHL's demise, football in Western Canada was a strictly amateur sport played only in the Prairie provinces and organized at the provincial level, with teams far below the caliber of the top Eastern Canadian clubs. Within a few months of the WHL's collapse, senior football arrived in British Columbia with the formation of the British Columbia Rugby Football Union. The top Western teams eventually achieved sufficient support to form a fledgling interprovincial circuit, the Western Interprovincial Football Union. Due to a number of factors, including the fact the WIFU played a brand of football that was distinct from the U.S. game, the fact that unlike the case with U.S. hockey teams which at the time were almost exclusively stocked with Canadian players, Canadian football players were usually ignored by clubs in the National Football League and its rivals south of the border, and finally due to the enforcement of strict limits on the number of American football players allowed to play for Canadian teams, unlike the WCHL the WIFU did not have to directly compete for talent with teams in large U.S. markets. By the 1950s, the WIFU had become a fully professional league equal in caliber to the most powerful Eastern Canadian league (the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union) with which it merged in 1958 to form the Canadian Football League.

Major professional hockey would return to Edmonton and Winnipeg in 1972 with the formation of the World Hockey Association, which would later add teams in Vancouver and Calgary. Although the latter two franchises both failed, Edmonton and Winnipeg would both join the NHL after it agreed to merge its rival in 1979 while Calgary would also receive an NHL team (via a relocation from Atlanta) one year later. However, the NHL later rejected attempts to place a franchise in Saskatoon. Although the original Winnipeg Jets would move to Phoenix after sixteen NHL seasons, the city later received a replacement team (also, coincidentally, via a relocation from Atlanta) in 2011.

The eventual prosperity of football in Western Canada played a major role in the survival of the "East vs. West" championship format in North American professional sports, a concept originally conceived for the Stanley Cup but which was abandoned for decades in ice hockey following the demise of the WHL. The format was carried on for the championship trophy of Canadian football, the Grey Cup, where it had been first introduced in 1921 (although it was not formally entrenched until the mid-1950s). The NFL adopted an East-West alignment in 1933, although in its latter pre-merger years its divisions and conferences were not strictly defined by geography (the NFL abandoned its East-West format after merging with the rival American Football League). It was used by the National Basketball Association from its founding in 1946, and by the American and National Leagues of Major League Baseball from 1969 until 1993. The NHL would first bring the East-West format back to hockey when it expanded in 1967, although like the NFL of the time it was not an East-West alignment in a strict geographical sense (instead, the expansion teams were all placed in the "West"). Following three non-competitive Stanley Cup Finals, the NHL abandoned the East-West playoff format and eventually dropped the "East" and "West" monikers in favor of non-geographical names. Eventually, in 1981 the NHL realigned into geographically-based divisions with a de facto East vs. West championship, although it retained the non-geographical names for over another decade (the Western teams formed the Clarence Campbell Conference while Eastern teams formed the Prince of Wales Conference). The Finals would finally return to a de jure East vs. West format in 1993, when the NHL changed its division and conference names to reflect geography.

Major professional hockey has yet to return to the U.S. Pacific Northwest. As of 2017, the region hosts five teams in the WHL, one team in each of the other three "Big Four" major professional leagues (two in Seattle and one in Portland) and two teams (one each in Seattle and Portland) in Major League Soccer. The NHL (which will expand to 31 teams in 2017) is believed to be actively seeking an owner for an expansion franchise in Seattle, provided a new arena is built. A team in Seattle would allow the league to establish two balanced conferences of sixteen teams each. As of early 2017, a serious bidder for a team in Seattle has yet to emerge and the arena issue has yet to be resolved.

Franchises

Seasons

Season Regular season winner Playoff champion
1921-22 Edmonton Eskimos Regina Capitals
1922-23 Edmonton Eskimos Edmonton Eskimos
1923-24 Calgary Tigers Calgary Tigers
1924-25 Calgary Tigers Victoria Cougars
1925-26 Edmonton Eskimos Victoria Cougars

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Coleman, pp. 401-402

References

  • Coleman, Charles (1964). The Trail of the Stanley Cup, vol. 1, 1893-1926 inc. National Hockey League. 

External links


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