Every time I walk into the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, the memories wash over me like the waves lapping on Victoria’s Dallas Road Beach. Covering the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Victoria has taught me what “coming full circle” really means.
I don’t have a long personal history with the 2005-built, 7,000-capacity arena that’s hosted Sweden, the United States, Finland, Slovakia and Kazakhstan during the preliminary round.
However, I grew up in the B.C. provincial capital, and I attended dozens of events at the old Memorial Arena – including my very first junior hockey game as a spectator on April 9, 1981. It was a wild one at the “Barn on Blanshard,” which stood from 1949 to 2003 on the site that the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre now occupies.
The Victoria Cougars were peaking under coach Jack Shupe, winning 60 regular season games and capturing their lone WHL championship that year. It was the West Division final and Victoria hammered the Portland Winterhawks 7-0.
Future five-time Stanley Cup champion Grant Fuhr got the shutout. The game, which ended with a full-fledged brawl, included a fight between Rich Chernomaz,Victoria’s second-leading scorer after Barry Pederson, and Jim Benning, Portland’s star defenceman with a whopping 139 points.
Attending at age six with my dad, I was thrilled and a little stunned by the experience. I still recall the smell of cigarettes and stale popcorn, and the working-class moustachioed guys in bomber jackets who frequently leaped up, blocking my view, to cuss out the referees and the hated Winterhawks. It was intense and different from today’s everyone’s-welcome atmosphere.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover 11 World Juniors, three IIHF Women’s World Championships, 19 IIHF World Championships, and five Olympics, among other tournaments. The way my path has overlapped just with the ‘81 WHL stars I highlighted above illustrates how small our hockey world is.
Fuhr backstopped Canada to victory in the dramatic three-game 1987 Canada Cup final – all three games finished 6-5, and they inspired my life-long passion for international hockey. Chernomaz came back on my radar when he coached underdog Hungary at the 2016 Worlds in Russia. And Benning, of course, is now the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, whom I cover regularly.
Memorial Arena is where I came for public skating with my dad before I enrolled in the Novice Hockey League at the Oak Bay Recreation Centre, founded by longtime Hockey Canada CEO and current IIHF Vice-President Bob Nicholson (Edmonton Oilers). I remember asking my dad one night: “If everybody here at Memorial Arena teamed up, could we beat the New Jersey Devils?” It was the early 1980’s and Wayne Gretzky had recently called the floundering Devils a “Mickey Mouse organization.” Kindly, my dad set me straight.
At Memorial Arena, I checked out Gretzky’s first training camp with the Los Angeles Kings after the Edmonton Oilers infamously traded him on August 9, 1988. I can still see the 27-year-old superstar coming out of the back door of the arena, surrounded by eager kids, signing everything, repeating: “Don’t push. Please don’t push.” The only security was the arena manager, who pushed autograph seekers back as Gretzky stepped into his limousine. I reached around the manager to hand Gretzky my copy of his 1984 self-titled autobiography (co-written with Jim Taylor). “The Great One” signed it and handed it back just before the limo pulled away.
After my early teens, I rarely sought autographs. But in those years, it was behind Memorial Arena that Maurice “Rocket” Richard signed my program after an old-timers game he’d refereed. He looked at me and barked, “This pen doesn’t work!”, and someone else got the glory of handing him one that did.
When the Canucks held training camp in Victoria, I watched Pat Quinn drop one of his famous cigars on the ground, which was promptly claimed by another kid as a souvenir. Igor Larionov signed my Canucks team photo, and then 1992 Olympian Adrien Plavsic borrowed it from me to prank Larionov, acting as if he was a fan too.
Memorial Arena belonged to a more informal age. The glare of media coverage was far less blinding. Interactions between players, fans, and journalists weren’t nearly as orchestrated by PR reps, let alone tweeted instantly.
In 1990, my Finnish mother, who wrote for the Turun Sanomat newspaper, was waiting to interview Petri Skriko and Jyrki Lumme when a teenaged Trevor Linden walked into the Memorial Arena media lounge and offered her a muffin and coffee.
When the Finnish national team visited Victoria to face Dave King’s Team Canada and the Russians in the one-off B.C. Cup prior to the 1992 Albertville Olympics, the Times-Colonist newspaper enlisted my mother to translate for a young and nervous pre-NHL Teemu Selanne.
If I have one regret about the Memorial Arena era, it’s missing the kick-off of Van Halen’s world tour for Women and Children on March 19, 1980. I was alive, sentient, and a mature man of five! How could my parents have denied me the chance to party with David Lee Roth?
But let’s get serious. While Memorial Arena gave me a treasure trove of junior hockey memories, like the rise of Cliff Ronning with the New Westminster Bruins and Valeri Bure with the Spokane Chiefs, the 2019 World Juniors have enabled me to start building new memories in the new arena.
Getting to bring my family to Sweden’s thrilling 5-4 overtime win over the Americans was something I’ll never forget. Even if I didn’t hail from Victoria, I’d be overwhelmed by the way this city has packed the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre with crowds of 6,000-plus per game.
Yes, I’ve come full circle.
If you made it to a World Junior game, you’ve come away with your own memories, whether it’s the standing ovations for unheralded Kazakh goalie Demid Yeremeyev, or the chance to see the U.S.’s Jack Hughes, Sweden’s Erik Brannstrom, Slovakia’s Martin Fehervary, and Finland’s Kaapo Kakko before they move on to NHL stardom. The vibe on and off the ice has been stellar.
With Wednesday’s quarter-finals looming, the greatest memories may still be yet to come.