Vees-Clippers in ’78: It was a Down and Dirty Series

This weekend marks the sixth time the Vees and Clippers will play for the BCHL championship but one of those series didn’t last long-try just three games. In the 1978 BCHL Final, the Vees forfeited after just three games, citing “rough play” from the Clippers.

Ahead of the 2008 Fred Page Cup Final between Nanaimo and Penticton, former Daily News Sports reporter Michael Rhodes (who has since passed away), had this article about the ’78 Fred Page Cup Final.

From the Nanaimo Daily News Archives:

In the long history of the B.C. Hockey League playoffs, the Nanaimo Clippers and Penticton Vees are far from being strangers.

The two storied franchises hook up in this year’s best-of-seven Fred Page Cup final, beginning Friday at Penticton’s Memorial Arena. But it’s been 28 years since they last met for the league title — 1980 when the Penticton Knights beat Nanaimo.

But the most memorable and historic meetings between the two teams happened in 1978 — 30 years ago — and it was historic for all the wrong reasons.

It was the third straight season the two teams faced each other in the B.C. Junior Hockey League final. Nanaimo had won in both 1976 and 1977 and were looking for a three-peat.

What unfolded was something long-time Clipper fans will probably remember but a generation of Clipper fans likely hasn’t heard about.

At three games, it may have been the shortest league championship final ever.

The Clippers were awarded their third straight title after the Vees, claiming goon tactics by the Clippers, decided to head home the day after Game 3 on April 23, 1978.

Two days later, then BCJHL chairman Ernie ‘Punch’ McLean awarded the title to Nanaimo.

I was at Game 3. I was just 12 at the time, but I remember a few key elements to what happened.

A quick look through the archives of the Nanaimo Daily Free Press (the predecessor to the Daily News) confirmed what I remembered — it was mayhem.

First, a little bit on the series. Heading into Game 3, things were tied 1-1. The Vees took the opener and the Clippers took the second game before heading back to Nanaimo for the next three games.

The first two games in Penticton were penalty-filled affairs. And it got ugly very early in Game 3.

Just 23 seconds into the game a fight broke out between Penticton’s Carey Eades and Nanaimo’s Randy Keller. Soon others on the ice joined the festivities, resulting in a line brawl.

One of the combatants in the brawl, Nanaimo’s Brent Denat, left the ice to go down the tunnel by way of the Penticton bench door.

That sparked a major melee between the benches. There was a barrier in the bench area to separate the teams, so the scuffle continued down the corridor between dressing rooms, and into the Vees’ dressing room.

The Free Press showed a picture of twin brothers, Brent and Marc Bourne, of the Vees. While Marc’s face was unblemished, Brent’s face was all scratched and scarred. He also sported a shiner under his right eye. Brent claimed several Clippers attacked him under the stands.

A lot of what happened in the corridor was not seen by the majority of the crowd. Current Clippers’ head coach/GM Bill Bestwick was also at the game. He was standing at the top of Section 4 under the media gondola and had as good a view as anyone across the ice to the tunnel area.

“I remember chaos, I remember being in a little bit of shock at what was taking place,” said Bestwick. “Then realizing that the majority of what took place was something that wasn’t visible to the general public, down the tunnel.

“Then I recall going down to the Tally-Ho (Howard Johnson hotel) the next morning to see the team when they were leaving. I wanted to see what the kid (Brent Bourne) looked like. He was reported to have been beaten up so badly. He was. I saw him.”

After a near hour delay after the incident, the teams resumed play. Nanaimo won Game 3 9-6 to take a 2-1 series lead.

Everyone expected Game 4 to be played the next night — everyone except the Vees.

After a six-hour team meeting at the hotel, Penticton decided they had enough. Vees coach Terry Martin, also manager and part-owner, said his team decided not to continue in the series because of “violent” tactics by the Clippers.

Nanaimo Coun. Larry McNabb, who coached the Clippers during their championship streak in the 1970s, saw things differently.

“The one guy in the newspaper . . was all beat up,” said McNabb. “He was one of the twins that never played. He got hit with a puck in practice . . . My brother Cliff (team general manager) quit advertising in the Daily Free Press. It was a gong show.”

“I think we got a lot of blame and it wasn’t our fault,” said McNabb. “I think we were picked on. I know I had a tough club but they (Vees) started it up in Penticton.”

The Clippers won the championship but were unable to reap the financial benefits of the remaining two home games.

The Clippers of today have an ownership group with much deeper pockets but back then, the team worked on a shoestring budget.

“Ernie awarded the championship but we didn’t get any money,” McNabb said. “We lost two home games. We had no money. It was so bad I was driving the bus and I didn’t have a bus driver’s licence. We always slept on the bus.”

McLean, who served as BCJHL chairman for three seasons, his last was 1978, said the Clippers were in the process of suing the league to recover lost gate revenue.

“There was going to be a lawsuit because they (Nanaimo) didn’t get the last game,” said McLean. “Cliff called me and said that they (Penticton) were not going to play. They were back in Vancouver. Sure enough, the next morning I met all the kids and the owners.”

No amount of reasoning was going to get the Vees back on the ice against the Clippers, he said.

“For all intent and purposes, they had lost all the desire to play any more hockey. I tried to assure the Penticton team that I would personally go over there, we’d have the best referee in the league that we could get our hands on and go from there. But I couldn’t convince any of those kids to play.”

To avoid a lawsuit, McLean awarded the Clippers the championship.

McLean coached the New Westminster Bruins to two Memorial Cup major junior hockey championships, in 1977 and 1978. The Bruins were known for their combative style but even McLean can’t remember a series ever being forfeited because of fighting.

“No, I never have seen that. There’s no way they were going to play. The next year, because of all of that, the Okanagan guys voted me out as the president of the league. It wasn’t a paid position anyway so it was kind of funny.”

It was a violent era in hockey.

The Philadelphia Flyers, also known as the Broad Street Bullies, won two Stanley Cups in the 1970s by using an intimidating style of play. Fighting, which has played a big part of the game over the years, was accepted more readily then.

“It’s a totally different game now,” said McLean. “I don’t know if Larry McNabb or I could coach anymore. Those were the days (70s) that people wanted (fighting), that’s what the National Hockey League wanted . . . It’s different now but hockey is still pretty exciting.”

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About frodgers

Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations for the Penticton Vees
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