As the opening game of the Vancouver Canucks’ inaugural season approached in late October 1945, all owner-manager Coley Hall and coach Paul Thompson needed were players.
Twelve of them to be exact.
Two forward lines, four defencemen, one goalie, one spare player. The back-up goaltender wasn’t even dressed for games in those days.
Hall was only half-joking years later when he claimed the twelve-man roster limit was set because any higher and he’d have to buy a third car to drive the players to games up and down the West Coast. That’s right, drive. In a pinch, they might indulge and hop a train. No private jets in those days.
Hall, a notorious tightwad, ferried his players in two beat-up limousines—and the players themselves took turns at the wheel. When the team was at home, Hall often rented the limos out, which sometimes led to some interesting transportation problems. One night on the way to a game in Seattle one broke down and didn’t make it to the rink until halfway through the second period. When the stranded half of the team showed up, they found five players and forty-year-old Coach Thompson—wearing a jersey and skates about three sizes too big—holding a 2-1 lead. They held on and won too.
It was a much different time sixty-five years ago.
It was also much different hockey.
While the front pages of Vancouver newspapers reported the latest developments of the Nuremberg Trials, the sports pages detailed Thompson’s search for twelve good men. It began a mere ten days before the Canucks’ opening game. Within a couple days, he had whittled the forty-seven hopefuls vying for a spot to twenty. Training camp then consisted of twice daily sessions ground out the final week before opening night.
The group of players who made the cut were a mish-mash of veteran pros and rising youngsters. Nearly all had served during the war. Bruising defenceman Chuck Millman was the only local to make the squad, fresh off a tour of duty as a physical training instructor in the army. A bit of trivia: Millman also played for Vancouver’s first professional football team, the Vancouver Grizzlies, during their lone 1941 season.
Team captain Dick Gray, another defenceman, flew bombers in the Himalayas during the war. Right-winger Alex Pringle had also been a bomber pilot. Wingers Mel Neilsen served as a firefighter overseas, while Ab McDougall was in the navy. Goaltender Ed McAneeley, the smallest in the league at 145lbs, had been in the army, so too centerman Bill Carse, likely the best-known player on the team. A decade earlier Carse had played for the Vancouver Lions before moving on to the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks.
‘Handy’ Andy Clovechok, Bernie Bathgate (older brother of Hockey Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate), and Elmer Kreller rounded out the remaining forwards; Lyall Swaney and Jock Smith the other defense pairing. Local junior players Ernie Dougherty, a forward, and Roy Worrall, a goaltender, practiced with the team and were brought up as fill-ins when required.
In the Canucks first NHL season in 1970-71, the lowest paid player made $16,000—more than the entire combined payroll of the 1945-46 team.
“We all got sixty dollars a week,” remembers Clovechok, “and when we were on the road the meal money was $3 a day. Don’t laugh. That was pretty good money in those days.”
After leading the league in scoring that first year, Clovechok was given a raise to $100. Dougherty was paid $35 a week—if he saw the ice. He recalls McDougall occasionally faking an injury so the young rookie could get some ice time. McDougall, the wily veteran, had good reason to give up some playing time. If Dougherty got paid, he would have enough to pay for a round of beer for the boys afterwards at the Waldorf.
The pay was good, not great. A few of the luckier players owned their own car. Most took the streetcar to practices and games. All worked second jobs even during the season. Clovechok lived in a house with several players beside a local brewery. He worked there during the day, which had its perks. “We got our beer for nothing,” he laughs today.
On the same day a black ballplayer signed a professional baseball contract for the first time—October 23, 1945—the very first Vancouver Canucks hockey game took place in Vancouver. For the record, the ballplayer was one Jackie Robinson, who signed with the Montreal Royals, and it was the Canucks defeating the Portland Eagles 5-4 in front of a sold-out crowd of 5100 at the PNE Forum.
Ab McDougall scored the Canucks’ first-ever goal assisted by Chuck Millman, putting a dent into Portland’s 3-0 first period lead. The Canucks fought back to tie the game 3-3 by the end of the second, before Millman scored the game-winner for the club’s first-ever win.
Professional hockey was back in Vancouver. Here to stay.
And while you might be able to draw a direct line from this ragtag team of returning servicemen to the current team operating under a $60 million salary cap and playing out of a packed 18,000-seat arena named after a cell phone provider, obviously certain elements of the game then seem almost foreign today.
Tickets for the first Canucks game went on sale exactly four days prior to opening night. Prices ranged from seventy-five cents along the blue line (bench seating with a wooden backing) to thirty cents for standing room. The only place in town tickets could be purchased was from the Percival Hicks Ticket Bureau in the St. Regis Hotel at Seymour and Dunsmuir. Percy Hicks was a crony of Canucks owner Hall, who owned not only the Regis, but also the York, Devonshire, and Ritz Hotels in town as well.
Hall had a habit of employing his buddies in the hockey operation, not always for the better. The team doctor was Doc Brewster, another Hall crony. The two of them could often be found drinking rye and ginger ale up in a room near the top of the Forum that had a window overlooking the ice to watch the game. It was said in half seriousness by the players that if you were going to get cut for stitches, best do it in the first period because the way Hall and the Doc would drink, his surgical skills weren’t so steady by the third.
If you wanted a cigarette for a quick smoke at a Canucks game in 1945, you didn’t need to head for an exit during intermission. Packs were sold at every concession. It’s been said that by the second period the haze clinging to the Forum rafters took on the consistency of mashed potatoes. In fact, the room Hall and Brewster used to drink in also doubled as a walk-in safe storing the bulk crates of cigarette cartons bought just to satisfy demand.
Still standing at the corner of Hastings and Renfrew, walking into the Forum today feels like being transported back to another era. You can almost envision the four feet of chain link fencing above the endboards. There was no glass on the sideboards whatsoever and fans could lean right over to get a closer look at the action before pulling back when the play came too close. The penalty box sat between the benches, which inevitably led to some scuffles.
Legendary Canucks broadcaster Jim Robson would eventually call hundreds of games from the Forum’s announcing booth until the Canucks moved down the street to the newly constructed Pacific Coliseum in 1968. The chilly booth is still there too.
“By the third period, my feet were often like frozen bricks,” he recalls. “It wasn’t the most comfortable place to call a game. You had to stand and the entrance was out on the Forum roof. You had to go through a plywood tunnel just to get in.”
A few modern improvements have been made over the years, most recently when the Forum served as a volunteer center during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, but some things don’t change.
The 1945-46 season might have been the first opportunity of Robson’s storied broadcasting career to witness a professional hockey game in this city. As a young boy living in Maple Ridge, he recalls going to stay with an aunt in Vancouver, who took him to two games that season, one versus the San Diego Skyhawks, the other against the Tacoma Rockets. Within ten years, that same young boy was sitting a little higher up in the building and being paid to call radio play-by-play for CKWX. He would remain the “Voice of Hockey” in Vancouver for over forty years.
Jason Beck is curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame