Thankfully, the itch for live junior hockey over the holiday season was scratched to some extent while observing a resoundingly entertaining IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship from the Edmonton bubble.
But, while so many eyes were glued to the adventures of Team Canada, DUBNetwork was able to connect with a few hockey veterans to turn back the clock. We took a stroll into the past, almost 30 years in fact, to reminisce about another major junior tournament – the 1992 Memorial Cup.
Perhaps it’s poignant of late, with reports percolating that a second consecutive Memorial Cup might be cancelled.
Behind the scenes, there is significant planning in advance required by host committees to ensure it all runs smoothly come tournament time. But, like it or not, things don’t always come off without a hitch or two.
Hang on tight as we take you back to the 1992 Memorial Cup in Seattle.
The Memorial Cup on United States soil
When the Seattle Thunderbirds were awarded host team status for the 1992 Memorial Cup, it became the third of four national championship tournaments played in one of the Western Hockey League’s USA-based markets.
Portland hosted and won the 1983 edition.
In 1986, the New Westminster Bruins were originally the host team, but it didn’t pan out. As the tournament approached, the organizers began to realize that costs were bordering on astronomical. In particular, hotel room availability and rates were raising eyebrows.
You see, the city of Vancouver was in pedal-to-the-metal mode hosting Expo 86 – the World Exposition on Transportation and Communication. (Coincidentally, Seattle was the host city for this major, global event in 1962.) The economic impact from this flurry of activity became a legitimate consideration by the powers-that-be.
However, it may also have served as a convenient diversion in making the decision to relocate the event. Also of note, the on-ice edition of the Bruins was, in a word, terrible. By the end of the regular season, the Bruins had compiled a 25-45-2 record and did not qualify for the WHL playoffs.
It was the city of Portland and the Winterhawks who answered the call and ultimately played host to the Memorial Cup once again.
After Seattle in 1992, Spokane was the host city for the 1998 tournament. Since then, the Memorial Cup has only been awarded on Canadian soil.
The cast of characters
The event in Seattle was orchestrated by a number of people who have been involved with hockey at both the junior and professional levels. The list reads like a Western Hockey League “Who’s Who”.
The team was owned by Bill Yuill of Medicine Hat. Today, his organization owns and operates the Everett Silvertips.
Peter Anholt was the T-Birds head coach and general manager, with Bob Lowes along as his assistant coach.
Dennis Beyak handled play-by-play duties for Seattle in addition to playing a key marketing role in making the Memorial Cup the success it was.
Jake Goertzen, who won a Stanley Cup as director of scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning, played an important role in building much of the Seattle roster before heading to the NHL.
“We hired Dennis specifically to oversee the Cup bid and then run the tournament,” Anholt said. “He was experienced at it and he also did our play-by-play. That was such a nice fit to have him come over as our assistant general manager.”
Beyak had played a leadership role three years prior in Saskatoon, as the assistant general manager with the Blades. The 1989 Memorial Cup was tremendously successful. It was the first significant hockey event held at the brand-new Saskatchewan Place, which had opened for use by the Blades in early February. Beyak knew his stuff.
It was a timely hire for Seattle.
Setting the stage
“We didn’t have to work too hard to sell tickets in 1989,” Beyak said of the tournament in Saskatoon. “We had a new building and with the added capacity, we were able to offer our season ticket holders a neat opportunity.
“If they had two season tickets, we offered them four Memorial Cup packages. If they had four season tickets, it was eight packages. I think we actually had to cut things off after a while, to make sure we could accommodate all the other requests from the eastern teams.”
Three years later, the host team had to make more of a concerted effort in Seattle.
“During my three years in Seattle, there was an education process for our team, for our fans,” Anholt said. “But you know what, we had some pretty good teams, so I think the exposure we got in Seattle leading up to the Cup was pretty good.
“I think for the most part back in those days, the fans would just come to watch their team. They weren’t as knowledgeable about the league and the Memorial Cup. But still, they appreciated it and it was exciting.”
It was the Thunderbirds’ first-ever appearance in the Memorial Cup. The team almost arrived through the front door, losing the WHL western conference final to the Kamloops Blazers in six games.
The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the Verdun College Francais represented the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, respectively.
Selling the Memorial Cup
The Seattle region at the time, as it is today, was a vibrant professional sports market. The SuperSonics were the NBA team and a fellow tenant with the Thunderbirds at the Seattle Coliseum.
The 1993 season would be the Seahawks’ 18th NFL campaign. For the Mariners, it was the organization’s 17th MLB season in Seattle. In addition to the pro sports franchises, Seattle was and is a huge college sports market as well. The University of Washington Huskies has always been prominent.
“We were on the front page of the sports section as much as anybody through those years,” Anholt recalled. “It was hard for them to overlook us because we sold out in the old Mercer Arena all the time. When we went over to the Coliseum we had some sellouts over there.
“The Seattle Times followed us closely. And Ian Furness with KOMO sports at the time, we got lots of attention from them. I think it was pretty good. At no time did we really feel that we were only back page news.”
Furness, who many suggest is in the running for a broadcasting role with the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, remembers events surrounding that Memorial Cup.
“At the time, the Thunderbirds were kind of the talk of the town in the sense that they were playing at the Coliseum,” Furness said. “They played a handful of games there and they were selling out.
“They were doing well while the Mariners were having ownership issues and trying to figure out their stadium situation. The Seahawks were okay, but they were about five years away from that same stadium issue.
“I think the biggest issue for the Thunderbirds was moving games around because of the SuperSonics and their playoff games.”
More on that later.
A curveball from the Mariners
While the Thunderbirds would give a terrific account on the ice during the post-season in 1992, it was Beyak and his support staff who were charged with Memorial Cup sales and marketing responsibilities prior to the event. According to Beyak, the group was successful creating awareness, generating sponsorship, and advertising revenue leading up to the tournament.
When Jeff Smulyan sold the baseball team for $100 million in 1992, the buyers were adamant the Mariners needed a stadium upgrade. The Kingdome had begun to show signs of aging and new ownership was said to be losing its patience with King County council. Threats from the Mariners about leaving Seattle began to surface frequently.
Beyak suggests the rumblings and discontent had an impact on financial support as the Memorial Cup approached.
“We felt it on the sales and marketing side,” Beyak said. “We had commitments from sponsors ahead of the tournament.
“I remember taking a couple of calls from sponsors telling us they were pulling back their level of commitment to ensure they had resources to support efforts to keep the Mariners in Seattle. When $40K turns into $10K, you certainly notice.”
There was also plenty of activity on the Seattle sports scene as the Memorial Cup approached, scheduled for May 9-17.
That was about six weeks into the MLB season and a couple of weeks into the NBA playoffs. These were not unknowns ahead of the tournament, but for Beyak and his group, things were getting just a little more complicated.
The impact of social unrest
Shortly after March 3, 1992, video of a man being beaten by Los Angeles police began making the rounds. The intolerable lengths taken to subdue a black man, Rodney King, after a high-speed chase, led to significant civil unrest. The excessive force led to charges against four white police officers.
On April 29, after a jury acquitted the officers, a series of riots in the Los Angeles area took place over the course of six days.
“Don’t forget, that was shortly after the Gulf War, too,” Anholt said. “So yeh, there was lots going on around that time. But I was really pleased with how our marketing group handled things. We always seemed to be in the news in some way, shape or form.”
Many, many miles away from the disenchantment in southern California, the Thunderbirds were waiting for the Kamloops Blazers and Saskatoon Blades to settle things in the WHL championship series. The winner would represent the league at the Memorial Cup.
At the same time, basketball fans in Seattle were dialed into the NBA playoffs.
On April 30 at the Coliseum, the SuperSonics knocked off Golden State 119-116, eliminating the Warriors from the post-season. Die-hard supporters may not have seen the result as an upset, but, of the eight first-round series, the Supersonics were the only team to dispatch a higher seed.
The result would prolong the Sonics season.
The scheduling conflict
A number of NBA playoff games in the Los Angeles region were postponed due to the rioting. This forced the SuperSonics to wait for its second-round opponent, the winner of the series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz, who ultimately went the distance in their best-of-five.
The delay would eventually create a headache for the Memorial Cup host committee in Seattle.
When the Jazz finally ousted the Clippers and the second-round playoff schedule was announced, the SuperSonics had a home date set for Game 4 on the night of May 12. Problem was, Verdun and Sault Ste. Marie were already penciled in for a round-robin tilt that same night at the Coliseum.
“It was our team president, Russ Williams, who got wind of it,” Beyak said. “He had gone to Ticketmaster to check on sales, which he always did, and he couldn’t find information for the round-robin game. He phoned Ticketmaster to ask about it and they told him there was an NBA game scheduled for the venue that night.”
Basically, the hockey game had been bumped in favour of the basketball game.
“We had no choice,” Beyak said. “We didn’t have much time and we had to move the game to Mercer Arena.
“Somehow, we had to figure out how to allocate seating from the Coliseum to the smaller building. We weren’t doing this with computers. We were lucky it was the Ontario-Quebec game!”
The ticketing adventure was solved by a handful of the host committee personnel, led by Rick Ronish, who quickly reached out to ticketholders with information about the venue change.
At the time, TSN held the Canadian broadcasting rights. Along with the production crew, the tandem in the booth was Paul Romaniuk and Bob McKenzie.
“Suffice to say, TSN was not happy,” Beyak said. “They had to move their equipment from the Coliseum to Mercer Arena on the Seattle Centre grounds, then back to the Coliseum.”
Furness, the sports producer for the Seattle ABC television network affiliate at the time, remembers it well.
“I know it was tough for Rick and Dennis on the ticketing,” Furness said. “It caught us off guard on the media side, too.
“But you know, the Mercer Arena had less capacity. So, the building wound up looking pretty full for the one game in the tournament that probably wouldn’t have been too well attended. It looked good. It sounded good.”
The ticketing adventure
Rick Ronish is the Seattle Thunderbirds’ current director of operations. He was heavily involved with dialing in the venue switch in 1992.
“It was like a freight train coming at us,” said Ronish of the potential scheduling conflict. “The Sonics were the anchor tenant in the Coliseum and we had to work around their schedule. But then the riots in Los Angeles broke out and some NBA playoff games were delayed.
“Who would have thought that would affect the Memorial Cup?”
With seating capacity at Mercer Arena about 4,100, Ronish says they were below that threshold as far as event ticket packages sold. But that didn’t make it any easier to deal with mapping out the seats for the ticketholders. Much of that work fell to Ronish and a group of volunteers, including Beyak and his wife, Bev.
“Some of this was happening in the middle of the night before the game,” Ronish laughed, who at the time was 28 years old. “I think I had a mini nervous breakdown.”
If the ticketing adventures and venue switch weren’t already enough to keep Ronish slightly off-balance, consider that his wife was nine months pregnant at the time.
“Yeh, pregnant with our first, our son,” said Ronish, who also has three daughters now. “And there was more than just ticketing. When the Sonics came back in, we had to move our merchandising over to Mercer Arena, too. Then, back to the Coliseum.
“I had a van and we would load it up. My wife was helping me and she’s nine months pregnant! Thank goodness our son decided to arrive two weeks later than expected. My sister-in-law was helping us, too. And she was four months pregnant.”
The game’s the thing
For the record, the Greyhounds doubled up on Verdun 4-2 that night at the Mercer Arena. It was Verdun’s third straight loss, eliminating the team from Quebec.
On that same night at the Coliseum, the SuperSonics lost 89-83 to the Jazz. Two nights later in Salt Lake City, the Jazz won game five to eliminate Seattle.
“If Utah hadn’t eliminated the Sonics, game six back in Seattle would have conflicted with the Memorial Cup semi-final between the Blazers and T-Birds,” Ronish said. “That would have caused a much bigger problem.”
In Seattle the night after the OHL / QMJHL round-robin game, the action shifted back to the Coliseum where Sault Ste. Marie edged the Thunderbirds by a 4-3 count. The win capped an undefeated round-robin for the Greyhounds, who advanced directly to the tournament finale.
The final round-robin game pitted the WHL champion Blazers against the host Thunderbirds at the Coliseum. Kamloops beat Seattle 3-1, setting up a rematch two nights later in the semi-final.
The Blazers hammered the Thunderbirds, 8-3.
In the championship game, Kamloops led 4-3 late in the final frame. The Greyhounds tied the affair with less than five minutes to play, setting the stage for one of the most dramatic game-winning goals in Memorial Cup history.
Scott Niedermayer picked up a loose puck inside his own blueline and fired a long pass up ice, sending Zac Boyer in on a clear-cut breakaway. Boyer, who led the Blazers in scoring with 109 points during the regular season and 29 more in the WHL playoffs, avoided a poke check from Greyhounds netminder Kevin Hodson and buried a backhander with 14.6 seconds remaining in regulation time to seal the Kamloops victory.
— Kamloops Blazers (@blazerhockey) May 17, 2017
Those involved in the dramatic championship game described the experience in a nifty article penned last February by Michael Potestio for Kamloops This Week.
The semi-final loss to Kamloops was Anholt’s final game with the Thunderbirds. He pulled the pin a few days later, in part amid issues with Williams in the front office.
Ronish recalls, with some clarity, the two men had strong personalities.
“Russ will be the first one to tell you, “I don’t get headaches; I cause them”,” Ronish laughed, adding he has remained friends with both Anholt and Williams to this day. “Russ did not diminish stress. And I’ve never met a more competitive person than Pete.”
When the lights dimmed on the final day of the 1992 Memorial Cup, a bunch of the Thunderbirds staff and volunteers got together to “reflect”.
“When the tournament was over, our staff, we kind of had a bare-bones staff,” Ronish said. “We all went to the hospitality suite downtown in Seattle and then out for dinner. We might have had an all-nighter, I had a designated driver.
“We sure celebrated those eight days being done, that’s for sure!”
The tale of the tape
How it all played out on the ice in Seattle:
May 9: Seattle 5-3 Verdun
May 9: Sault Ste. Marie 6-3 Kamloops
May 10: Kamloops 4-0 Verdun
May 12: Sault Ste. Marie 4-2 Verdun
May 13: Sault Ste. Marie 4-3 Seattle
May 14: Kamloops 3-1 Seattle
May 16: Kamloops 8-3 Seattle
May 17: Kamloops 5-4 Sault Ste. Marie