PENTICTON, Canada - It’s not just the IIHF that’s celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2008. The small British Columbia city of Penticton was founded in 1908, and it enjoys a great hockey legacy.
The biggest moment in civic history occurred on March 6, 1955. That afternoon in Krefeld, West Germany, the Penticton Vees, representing Canada as the defending Allan Cup senior hockey champions, defeated the Soviet Union 5-0 and won the IIHF World Championship. Bill Warwick led the way with two goals for this memorably physical squad, and Ivan McLelland earned the shutout.
Wander through Penticton’s 1951-built, soon-to-be-supplanted Memorial Arena, and the community’s passionate approach toward the Canada-Russia Rivalry can’t help but impress you. All around the wooden-floored concourse, British Columbia Hockey Hall of Fame (BCHHF) exhibits and other other paraphernalia are displayed.
Here’s a montage of black-and-white photos with the 1955 victory parade on Main Street. Here’s a shot of Penticton-trained referee Lloyd Gilmour overseeing the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers’ 4-1 exhibition win over Central Army. What’s this? Oh, a well-worn bubble hockey game, naturally pitting Canada versus Russia. And here’s a photo of McLelland with Canada’s 2006 World Junior goalie, Justin Pogge, a Penticton native who also beat Russia 5-0 for gold.
As a Vees ambassador, McLelland is as much a part of Penticton’s fabric and history as the Tuscany-like wineries and orchards that carpet the hills surrounding Okanagan Lake, the old S.S. Sicamous passenger boat, or the abandoned Kettle Valley Railway trail where mountain bikers snake their way through city and wilderness alike. (See tourismpenticton.com or hellobc.com for more information about visiting Penticton.)
On July 24, the night before this year’s BCHHF inductions, IIHF.com caught up with the talkative local legend at an outdoor reception.
IIHF.com: When you look back at 1955, what stands out?
Ivan McLelland: There are so many things. One of them is that we were not favoured. We were not supposed to win. Russia was considered the new world power. But as it turned out, we were able to handle them fairly easily.
IIHF.com: What was the atmosphere like in Germany?
McLelland: It was a tremendously political climate. At that time, Russia controlled most of Eastern Europe. In the eyes of many, they were hard taskmasters, and very much disliked throughout Europe. They had won the Worlds the previous year by beating Canada 7-2, and they had told the whole world about it all winter long and the next year. They’d also said they were planning to beat the team coming over in 1955. They were actually boasting about their win, and they were now the new champions of the world. The way most of the press in Canada and Europe saw it was, how could a little team from a town of 10,000 at that time go up against a country of 200 million who had all their best players there? How could it possibly work? We were all amateurs, too; we weren’t professionals. A lot of people thought we weren’t suitable to be there.
IIHF.com: But you still ended up beating Russia 5-0 in the big game.
McLelland: We ended up winning eight straight games, and we allowed only six goals in eight games. I was talking to Hockey Canada’s Bob Nicholson about this recently, and he said that while he’s not sure, he thinks that still stands as a record. We came away with a goals-against-average of 0.75 for eight games. We had four shutouts in eight games. We had an outstanding tournament.
IIHF.com: There’s an old interview with Grant Warwick posted in Memorial Arena, it sounds like the keys for Canada to beat the Russians back then were very similar to what they are today: going after them on the forecheck, taking away the stretch pass, not giving them room to dance with the puck.
McLelland: I’ll tell you what happened in that game. They’d won seven and we’d won seven and everything was coming to a head that Sunday afternoon in Krefeld. In the first 10 or 12 minutes of that game, we were pretty tentative, a little tight. Not our usual selves. They got in a half dozen times on us, but couldn’t score. We then came back and got a couple of goals, and now we were in the second period. They had a player named [Vsevolod] Bobrov, who was an outstanding player. He was also a fine soccer player, an all-around athlete. He was a major in the army and the star of the team. They had a play where they brought the puck out of their end, fed him, and sprang him loose. So Hal Tarala, one of our really hard-hitting defensemen, spotted this, and in the second period, he tagged Bobrov with a check. Bobrov must have gone five feet in the air, and he landed on his back. I’m sure it was the first time in his life he’d been hit that hard. Their bench deflated like a balloon after that hit. It was the turning point.
IIHF.com: How often do you talk about the 1955 tournament?
McLelland: It just amazes me how that ’55 team keeps coming up. The team was pretty notorious and colourful. It did a lot of things. But I think what it did most of all was bring back hockey to Canada. The year before, Russia had beaten Canada for the first time, and there was a tremendous amount of pressure for the Vees to win. Nowadays, I speak to kids all of the time on behalf of the Vees, and various groups. It’s a great story, and it just seems to live on. Now they’re going to erect a sculpture in front of Memorial Arena for the Vees. That’ll be a piece of art that’s world-famous. You know, when we were in Berlin before the 1955 tournament, they said: “If you’re going to be world champions, you should have your picture taken in front of the Brandenburg Gate.” We were pretty presumptuous. We went ahead and had our picture taken even though we hadn’t won yet. Fortunately, we did. Apparently, teams from soccer and other sports do the same thing. Well, I believe this new sculpture will serve the same purpose in Penticton. We’ll have teams coming here for tournaments all year long, and the champions will be encouraged to have their pictures taken there.
IIHF.com: What will the sculpture look like?
McLelland: It’s a sculpture of the Vees in the traffic roundabout at Railway Street, 37 feet high, lit at night, all in stainless steel. It’ll have five hockey players holding up a globe with the Hockey Canada insignia on top. It’ll be massive. A local artist is making it. It’s being financed by donations, and it’s about two-thirds done. They’re hoping to have it ready for when our new arena, the South Okanagan Events Centre, opens in September. It will be something very special to honour our hockey team in Penticton’s centennial year. The arts community looked at what was the most amazing story in the last 100 years for this city, and there was no other story that compared to the Vees winning the Worlds. It was the arts community that came to the hockey community, which is quite remarkable.
IIHF.com: Memorial Arena’s been the main hockey arena in this town since 1951. How do you feel about the Events Centre coming in?
McLelland: Oh, it’s time to move on. But I’ll tell you an interesting story. There was a plaque in the shape of a hockey puck that we got from the IIHF when we were in Germany, and the builders were looking for something to put in the floor of the new arena when they were pouring the concrete. So I gave them the plaque, and they put it right under the faceoff dot. Like the loonie at the 2002 Olympics. And they’re also talking about putting more Penticton Vees memorabilia in the Events Centre. Really, how many cities in Canada can do something like this? And from here on, it’s impossible for a city the size of Penticton to win a World Championship, because the players are picked out of pro hockey as an all-star team. When we won, it was like David versus Goliath.
IIHF.com: What’s happening at the opening of the new arena?
McLelland: I understand TSN, CNN, ABC, NBC, CTV, CBC, and other major TV networks will be here, as well as all the major Canadian newspapers and some American ones, including USA Today. It really will be something outstanding. I think four or five fellows from the 1955 team will attend, possibly including myself, Jim Middleton, Ernie Rucks, Jim Fairburn, and Kevin Conway. Some of the sons of the players will be here too. It’s amazing that this would happen.
IIHF.com: When you look at modern-day goalies, who impresses you?
McLelland: I think Martin Brodeur is the best goaltender. I like the way he plays. He plays stand-up more than butterfly, which I like. Miikka Kiprusoff is super too. I’d say those two really stand out.
IIHF.com: Styles have really changed since your day.
McLelland: With no mask, you wouldn’t go down. That’s because if you didn’t get a puck in the face, you’d get a stick. The guys would give it to you. So you had to stand up and make the play with your own health in mind! You would never go down unless you absolutely knew where the puck was. If you ever took one of those pucks in the face, and I did many times, believe me, it’s an awful experience.
IIHF.com: Even though you retired from hockey at age 26 instead of accepting a contract offer from Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Rochester, it seems like things worked out pretty well for you here in Penticton.
McLelland: In Montreal, I would have been stuck behind Jacques Plante and Charlie Hodge. I’d won everything I could as an amateur. I got into business here, became the Western Canada manager for the Neilson chocolate company in Vancouver, and then moved back to Penticton to sell recreational vehicles before retiring at 58. And people are still talking about the Vees. Murray Costello, who’s on the IIHF Council, used to kid me about the 5-0 win over the Russians: “Nobody in the history of hockey ever got more mileage out of one shutout than you have!”