Clark Gillies and Ryan Smyth never crossed paths on the ice, but they're both integral part of the rich hockey history in Moose Jaw.
Both NHL stars were on hand Thursday night as the Moose Jaw Warriors and Regina Pats kicked off the 50th season in the Western Hockey League.
“Playing in the Western Canada Hockey League was a great stepping stone in my career,” said Gillies, who starred for three seasons with the Regina Pats. “This has meant my whole life to me to play in the Western Hockey League, for sure.”
Gillies, a Moose Jaw native, went on to win four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders and was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He grew up cheering for the Moose Jaw Canucks in the Civic Centre and Gillies said it's amazing to see how far junior hockey in Moose Jaw has come.
“Mosaic Place is unbelievable and to think that this little town of Moose Jaw, which played for 100 years in Crushed Can, would get a facility like this, just shows you what hockey means to people out here,” said Gillies.
Ryan Smyth was presented with the Warriors' Alumni Achievement Award (Hockey) by the Western Hockey League before the game. The league will be honouring players from every franchise throughout the season.
“Being a part of (the WHL) was very special for me and my family,” said Smyth. “It means a tremendous amount for me, if it wasn't for the Warriors and the opportunity that I got to play in the WHL to succeed onto my dream, who knows what would have happened then.”
Players in the WHL leave home at 16 years old to chase the dream of playing in the National Hockey League. Only a small percentage of them accomplish that goal, but Smyth said it's about more than that.
“It's the transition from childhood to becoming a man,” he said. “The league has done an excellent job in helping that through not only education, but the competitiveness that's coming out of this league to carry forth into the NHL.”
The WHL has seen a lot of changes over the course of 50 years and even in the last 25 years since Smyth was in the league. The players are coming in more focused and trained to advance to the next level.
“We didn't have the facilities that are here now and they're pretty special with workout facilities, training and off-ice stuff with having access to the rink on a consistent basis,” said Smyth.
WHL co-founder Del Wilson was on hand for Thursday night's game and dropped the puck, along with Gillies and WHL board chairman Bruce Hamilton, on the 50th season.
Canucks Celebrated Before Puck Drop
Moose Jaw was home to the first ever WHL champion.
The Canucks captured the league title in the inaugural season in 1996-67, beating the Regina Pats in five games. That team will now be remembered forever in the rafters of Mosaic Place with the raising of a banner during Thursday's opening ceremonies.
“It's a real honour,” said Jim Currie, a forward with the Canucks that season. “We did build something really special that season and I'm just glad that there's a team that ended up back in Moose Jaw to carry on that tradition.”
Currie was one of four members of the Canucks, joined by Garth Rizzuto, Reg Bechtold and Gerry Miller, that returned for the celebration. Assistant coach John Hunter, who still lives in Moose Jaw, was also a part of the night.
The Western Canada Hockey League was an “outlaw” league that included former members of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and two Alberta teams. The league wasn't eligible to play in the Memorial Cup.
The Canucks went 25-19-12 during the regular season, finishing fourth, and then got hot in the playoffs, beating Edmonton in nine games in the semifinal and then topping Regina in the final.
“It was a great group of guys and it was really well put together by Brian Shaw,” said Currie. “We had a strong defence, we had a great goaltender and our forwards really had a lot of intelligence, so it was really easy to work on some systems that were effective.
“Brian Shaw was ahead of himself in the tactician part of the game.”
Currie added that he hasn't seen many of the players from that year's team over the years as they've lost touch, so it was nice for a few of them to be able to get back together on Thursday.
“Lots of stories are going around and if we can't think of any, we're making some up,” he said.