Ken Hitchcock. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Thirty years ago, Ken Hitchcock coached a Western League team that would have driven the NHL version of Ken Hitchcock bonkers. And 30 years ago yesterday, Hitchcock coached in one of the craziest games ever.
Ken Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues have given up seven goals in their past seven games. But there was a time, almost 30 years ago to the day, that a team coached by Hitchcock gave up that many goals in just a touch more than a half of one game. Then it scored nine of its own in just over 26 minutes. In one of the more wild games in Western League history, heck in the history of the game at any level, Hitchcock and his Kamloops Blazers went into the Seattle Center Ice Arena leading their best-of-nine – yes,
best-of-nine – playoff series by a 2-0 margin over the Seattle Thunderbirds on the night of April 3, 1986. To give you an idea of what junior hockey was like at that time, the Blazers went into the playoffs with 449 goals in 72 games in the regular season. That’s an average of 6.23 per game, which is more than
both teams in the NHL score in a game these days.
The Blazers scorched their opponents on a regular basis that season, but were in a world of hurt that night in Seattle. The Thunderbirds, inspired by a home crowd of almost 4,000, got out to a quick 1-0 lead on a goal by Craig Endean just 1:37 into the game and were ahead 2-0 before the three-minute mark. Then they really started piling on. The Thunderbirds were ahead 5-0 after the first period and by the time Ray Savard scored at 10:56 of the second, the Thunderbirds were flying with a 7-0 lead and looking to get back into the series on home ice. And this is where things start getting crazy. Rob Brown, who would later go on to become a 100-point man in the NHL, scored what seemed to be a meaningless goal with 2:39 left in the second. The Blazers closed the gap to 7-2 before the period ended, but Seattle was still well in control of the game. That was, until the second intermission. In one of those only-in-junior hockey things, the Thunderbirds held a promotion after the second period where they drove an old beater out to center ice and fans were invited to throw paper airplanes at it. The first one to land a paper airplane into the driver’s seat won a prize. When the promotion was finished, arena staff started up the car to drive it off the ice, only to have the engine explode and the car catch fire.
“There was a big, black stain on the ice that they had to get rid of,” Hitchcock said. “And it took them about 20 minutes to do it. I think what happened was they lost all their energy. We were just going to play it out.” The Blazers didn’t even score their third goal of the game until the 6:15 mark of the third, but then began showing why they were the class of the league. They scored three more after that to narrow the gap to 7-6, only to have to have Endean score into an empty net to make the score 8-6 and seemingly put it out of reach. But wait.
Greg Hawgood, an undersized defenseman who went on to play almost 500 NHL games, scored with 48 seconds left to make it 8-7. “I remember after that, they had a 2-on-1 from center ice with no goalie in our net and the guy missed the net,” Hitchcock said. “And right after that, we came back and scored.” Hawgood completed his hat trick by scoring with one second left to make it 8-8, but Sheldon Ferguson, an amateur scout with the Carolina Hurricanes who was GM of the Thunderbirds, remembers things a little differently 30 years later. “They never won that game, because that goal was about four seconds late,” Ferguson said. “The old Seattle arena was an antique. We had no green light in those days and no video review and that goal was so damn late that we should have been on the bus. It was just incredible.” You can see where this is going, can't you? Brown completed his own hat trick with the overtime winner at 3:34, making the scoresheet a complete dog’s breakfast. But then again, it was the days of old-time hockey – 17 goals, a huge comeback, a team getting outshot 54-23, a couple of fights and six misconducts. And in an age when coaches such as Hitchcock are loathe to see a player take a shift of more than 45 seconds, Ferguson recalls Hitchcock’s rather liberal use of his best players that night. “Robby Brown and
Greg Hawgood never left the ice,” Ferguson said. “Today Hitchcock would go to jail for abusing kids like that. When Brown would get tired, he’d drop back to defense. Thirty years later, I still have visions of Rob Brown and
Greg Hawgood. They were two of the best juniors I ever saw.” Just to put that into perspective, Ferguson has been around the game for 40 years, either managing or scouting prospects, including a successful run with Canada’s junior national team. For him to say those were two of the best junior players he ever saw is a testament to how dominant they were. And so were the Blazers, who went on to win the league, but did not win the Memorial Cup. Stories like that one harken back to a time when the game was a lot less complicated, less impacted by coaching and an awful lot more fun to watch. Ferguson recalls the days fondly. He had just taken over the team after it was sold and the name was changed to Thunderbirds from Breakers. In fact, Ferguson’s wife, Dorie, designed the logo for the Thunderbirds, a logo that was chosen as the fourth best in the history of the game by THN in our Jersey Issue. “Kenny Hitchcock has been a good friend ever since those days and he’s gone on to do great things,” Ferguson said. “And I’m glad to have my name on the Stanley Cup with his.”