The Chilliwack Sports Hall of Fame celebrates the Class of 2018 Nov. 22 at the Chilliwack Sports Dinner presented by CBI Health Group at Tzeachten Hall.
Today, a look at a pioneering team who helped put Chilliwack on the hockey map.
Fifty five years after they made local hockey history, the Fraser Vale Chiefs will be inducted into the Chilliwack Sports Hall of Fame.
The first ever Chilliwack team to win a provincial hockey title, the junior B Chiefs captured the crown in the spring of 1963, defeating Quesnel in a four-game final.
It was a breakthrough moment for Chilliwack, which didn’t even have a hockey arena until 1958. Without a minor hockey program, the boys honed their skills playing on frozen ponds in the winter months.
“They were trying to build an arena here after the war and the slogan was ‘Skate in ‘48,’ said one of the team’s members, Kevin McDowell. “That was their cry to raise money, but they didn’t actually get the Chilliwack Coliseum built until a decade later.
“Our team didn’t have a lot of years of organized hockey in an actual rink, and Chilliwack didn’t have nearly as big a pool of players to draw from, so to go as far as we did was pretty cool.
“It was our time.”
The Chiefs battled through their league, losing only a handful of games along the way, and landed in the provincial final against Quesnel.
It was a fascinating David vs Goliath scenario.
Not so much that Chilliwack was an overwhelming underdog, although the population back then was a fraction of what it is now and the city had never won anything before.
No, this was a size thing.
Quesnel’s Goliaths were big, really big, and not shy about roughing up opponents.
Chilliwack’s Davids were the opposite, a small squad that relied on speed and skill to get things done.
“We had a couple guys who were outstanding and the rest of us were all good,” McDowell said. “If we had any one real star, it might have been Johnny Engbrecht because of his scoring ability.
“No matter how many muckers you have, you need someone to put the puck in the net and he could score from just about anywhere on the ice.”
Members of the Chiefs were McDowell, Engbrecht, Chester Stachara (captain), Gary Shaw, Frank Henry, Cary Weiss, Ron Abrams, Bob Davies, Gary Jennings, Kurt Kuiper, Gary Dixon, Art Klassen, Doug Ewing, Rob Dillabough, Jack Nelson, Blair Kellington and Billy Hannah.
The legendary Orv Litchfield was their coach. Ralph Dixon was the manager and Johnny Bolko the trainer.
“The one thing Orv said that always stuck with me was, ‘We’re not the biggest and maybe not the most skilled, but no one’s ever going to beat us from lack of trying,” McDowell said. “He taught us how to skate and forecheck and make up for size with speed and no one was going to beat us because we were out of shape.”
The team traveled to Quesnel for the first two games of the series, splitting them by scores of 5-3 (loss) and 8-3 (win). But their gigantic opponents exacted a heavy price.
The Chiefs were a beaten up bunch coming home, but the response from their hometown supporters energized them for games three and four.
The games in Quesnel had been broadcast on radio back home (McDowell believes that may have been a first), and the Coliseum was full of boisterous fans when the series resumed in Chilliwack.
The Chiefs thanked them when they obliterated Quesnel by an 11-2 count and then claimed the Morrow Trophy with a 7-1 victory.
“It was more than a little intimidating,” McDowell laughed. “But once you got out there and started playing and having success, the crowd was behind us all the way. We even had 25 members of the Royal Canadian Engineers Band up in the stands.”
Surviving members of the team have gathered together from time to time over the years. The Chiefs had a reunion in September 2016 at the Royal Hotel and a few came together earlier this year for the funeral of Weiss, the team’s goaltender.
Though decades have passed since they were a team, get them in one room together and it’s like they’re all teenagers again.
“It took us a second to recognize each other, but once we got straightened out and just sat there and talked, it was amazing,” McDowell said with a smile. “There’s a bond that’s still there, even now. I phone some of these guys up and we just chit-chat like we’re sitting at the A&W drive-in having a hamburger.
“Once you belong to a team like that that achieves something great, it’s hard to put it into words but there seems to be a special kind of comraderie.”