Fairy tale on ice
- Jason Vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Sports
• Reunion provides a glimpse into city's hockey past • For 14 years, the Buckaroos were Portland's team
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the Portland Tribune on April 27, 2004.
A 14-year fairy tale came to an end 30 years ago Wednesday.
On April 28, 1974, the Phoenix Roadrunners beat the Portland Buckaroos in Game 5 of the Western Hockey League finals, clinching the 1973-74 championship.
From 1960 to 1971, the Buckaroos finished first in the WHL regular season eight times; the other three years, they were second. The Bucks also won three Lester Patrick Cup playoff titles, the last coming on April 27, 1971.
It was quite the love affair, Portland and the Bucks, who rocked Memorial Coliseum long before the Trail Blazers had the opportunity. The WHL was a strong pro league, especially with only six teams in the NHL until 1967.
Oh, and the players the Buckaroos had: Art Jones, Connie Madigan, Jim 'Red Eye' Hay, Andy Hebenton, Don Head. They were Drexler and Walton before Drexler and Walton.
Bob Vroman joined the club for that final season, then joined many ex-Bucks once more last week for an evening of beer and storytelling with the Tribune at Sinnott's Tavern at Northeast 58th Avenue and Halsey Street.
'I think I have a pretty good perspective on the Buckaroos,' says the former goalie, 56.
'I played in the Eastern, Central and American leagues, and I got to the NHL,' Vroman says. 'And the hockey here was as good as anywhere.
'I mean, these are legends here. As good as anybody playing hockey at the time.'
Vroman pauses. He points to his arms.
Here's just part of the story.
The first year …
One Canadian sports writer called the expansion Buckaroos, operated by Harry Glickman and coached by Hal Laycoe, the worst WHL team ever assembled. So the Bucks simply went out and beat Seattle for the 1960-61 WHL title.
'After the first five games, it seemed like the rink was sold out every time,' Barney Krake, a forward on that team, remembers. 'It was amazing, and it stayed like that for 10 years, until the Blazers came in and Harry Glickman kind of let the hockey team go.'
'Hockey built Memorial Coliseum,' says George Rickles, the Bucks' longtime business manager under Glickman. 'The biggest complaint we got the first year was that the city was charging 25 cents to park. The next year, they raised it to 50 cents, and people really went crazy.'
The Bucks set WHL attendance records for a game (10,417) and season (272,000) in the first year - despite a rough beginning. 'When we finally got home for the opening game, they forgot to put whitewash in the water and the ice wasn't white,' says Jones, the star center. 'The goalies had a terrible time seeing the puck. We didn't draw many people.'
The Bucks started slowly. 'Then Don Head - who played for Canada in the 1960 Olympics - started playing good in goal,' Jones says. 'We started winning, and we just kept going.'
The town …
'I was 21 when I came here,' says winger Bill Saunders, who joined the team in the fall of 1961. 'I drove from Winnipeg, and when I passed the big Paul Bunyan (in North Portland) and saw all the shipyard stuff on the river, I said to myself, 'Who in the hell would ever live in Portland.' Well I'm still here.
'If you didn't play in the NHL, Portland was the best place to play. You made money, and they treated you with class. You couldn't go anywhere without being recognized. You'd be in a grocery store and little kids would be peeking around the corner at you.
'The people who remember us always have a smile on their face.'
The money …
'No money to be made,' says Head, who recalls early salaries in the $3,500 to $4,000 range. 'But we had a lot of fun.'
'Minimum wage in the NHL then was $7,500. The most I ever made was $25,000,' Jones says. 'They won't even go onto the ice for that much today.'
Center Norm Johnson asked for a bump in pay one year.
'I demanded a $500 raise,' he says. 'I went into Harry's office and told him I wasn't going to play if I didn't get it. He wasn't budging. I started to leave. He says, 'Hey, come back here and sit down, and he pulled a contract that already had the $500 raise written into it.
'I signed it, and then he asked if I could make it to training camp in Spokane the next day. I said sure. 'Good,' he says, 'and, oh, by the way, training camp started yesterday, so I'm going to fine you $500.' '
'We went first class,' says Madigan, a rough-and-rowdy defenseman. 'We didn't get a lot of money, but it was a first-class operation. With Portland, you knew you were going to be in the playoffs. That was money in the bank. We had a lot of fun together.'
'The travel in the Western League was great,' goalie Dave Kelly says. 'The travel and hotels we stayed at were first class. We'd go on the road sometimes and play three games in a row in San Diego or Phoenix, and we'd have three days off in between. And usually the teams there would have an arrangement set up where we could play golf every morning and not have to pay.'
The goalies …
Head played when equipment would get waterlogged and feel like cement. 'Now it's like they're wearing underwear - superlight,' he says.
Head started when goalies did not wear masks. He only took a puck to the noggin once; nothing serious. 'My problem was my knees,' he says now.
Recalls Kelly, who came along later: 'I wore a mask, which was something new back then. At training camp, we'd go back to the hotel after practice and get the golf clubs. One day, (winger Tommy) McVie was asking people, 'Who's that little guy who's always hanging around?' Without the mask on, he didn't know who the hell I was.'
The coach …
Laycoe coached from 1960 to 1969. The Bucks won their second WHL title in 1965 with a team Madigan calls the best he played on.
'If you played hard for Laycoe, he'd take care of you,' winger Len Ronson says. 'He had a good system and was real honest.'
Says Kelly: 'Laycoe commanded a lot of respect. Some of that was lost when Gordon Fashoway took over. It was no fault of his; it was like taking over for Vince Lombardi.'
Says Madigan: 'I'd play with a broken hand - (Laycoe) demanded it. He may have seemed mild-mannered, but when it came to winning, he'd do anything.'
Laycoe has been credited with instituting the breakout plays teams use from behind the net.
'He made plays up coming out of the zone that they still use in the NHL,' Jones says. 'That's the reason we were good the first year - good coaching and a good goalie.'
The brawl …
One night in Phoenix, the Bucks went into the stands to confront some fans. Defenseman Hay recalls:
'They'd taken a shot that hit the post, but the goal judge turned the light on. Laycoe - this was out of his character - went all the way around the rink to talk to the goal judge.
'This was back when they didn't have glass, and only had wire screens up behind the nets. Laycoe went back there just to tell the goal judge he didn't think he was doing a very good job. Well, some fans started sticking up for the goal judge, and pretty soon Laycoe was down on the ground.
'So we went over the boards. Madigan actually climbed up over that high screen behind the net. I looked at Andy Hebenton and said, 'Hell, we're not dummies; we're old guys.' So we just went over the side boards.
'There was a wire photo taken that ran in papers all over the next day. Laycoe was on the ground, and it kind of looked like I was laughing at him. It was just the expression I had. We got to San Diego the next day, and they ran the picture in the paper there. I was in the hotel, and Laycoe called me up and said, 'What the hell were you laughing at?' '
The captain …
Jones, a center, played all 14 years of the Buckaroos - 977 games - and is the all-time WHL scoring leader with 1,357 points (492 goals, 865 assists). For most of that time, he served as the team's captain. The Montreal Canadiens drafted him in 1962 - 'out of spite,' he says, because Laycoe had a notorious stick fight once with Montreal great Maurice 'Rocket' Richard. But Jones never left Portland.
Says Ronson: 'Every winger wanted to play with Art Jones. He was so good at getting you the puck. If you couldn't score 40 or 50 goals with Art, something was wrong.'
Jones had a house full of trophies at one time.
'Threw 'em all away,' he says. 'Big ones, little ones, tall ones … 125 trophies to the garbage when we sold our house in Gresham and got a condo near Sunnyside Road.
'My wife said she wasn't going to dust all those trophies anymore, so I took all the labels off and put them on some plaques.'
The defensemen …
Hay, who played for eight WHL teams, got the nickname 'Red Eye' after getting pinkeye as a child. 'Had a million fights,' he says. 'I won half of them.'
At one point, he held the WHL career mark for penalty minutes. 'And mine were legit, too,' he says. 'I got a lot of two-minutes, a lot of five-minute majors. But I didn't get any misconducts.'
There was also steady Mike Donaldson, now a scout with NHL Central Scouting, and big Jack Bionda, the best lacrosse player in Canada. 'Always skated with his tongue out,' Fashoway says.
And the '70-71 team had Jerry Korab and Rick Foley, two of the biggest and toughest guys the league had seen. Foley had 306 penalty minutes that season.
The tough guy …
Still, the pre-eminent defenseman was Madigan. 'Mad Dog' played in Portland from 1964-74, became the oldest NHL rookie (at age 38) in 1973 with St. Louis, had a bit part in the 1977 movie 'Slap Shot' and had a reputation that stretched from Vancouver to San Diego.
'He'd go after anybody, and he wouldn't back down from anybody,' Ronson says. 'When he was on the ice, he had everybody looking out for him.'
Madigan was suspended for the 1971 Patrick Cup playoffs after punching an official.
'If he would have behaved himself,' Fashoway says, 'he would have been great.'
Madigan says Larry McNabb and Ted McCaskill were his toughest opponents.
'In those days, you were as tough as you wanted to be,' he says. 'You got in a fight, they let you fight. Drop your gloves, fight. Now, they break them up. I don't know why they don't just let them fight.'
A cartoon of Madigan on the 1965-66 WHL yearbook cover shows him knocking an opponent silly: 'Give an Irishman a bent shillelagh and stand back,' it reads.
Now 69, still tough and surly - he retired from his job of working on natural gas pipelines in 2000 - Madigan tells a story:
'I played on a broken leg in Quebec. I knew it was hurt, but I didn't know how bad. Their doctor said it looked all right, and Laycoe said to just tape it. The guy was going to roll down the sock and look at it, but Laycoe told him to just tape it. So I kept playing. When we got down to Baltimore, I tried skating on it and I couldn't turn. I flew home and got it X-rayed. When I was in the doctor's office, the phone rang, and it was Laycoe calling from Buffalo. I said, 'I don't want to talk to him; I've got a broken leg.' '
The storyteller …
McVie, who's 70 but looks 55, still scouts for the Boston Bruins. He watched more than 100 NHL games and many minor and junior games last year. He played in Portland from 1961-66, and again in '72-73. He once had five goals, tying the WHL record for a game.
'Is this a great country or what?' he says. 'This is my 49th year in hockey. I was traded five times and fired seven times. That's more years right there than many guys get in hockey. I was fired by the Bruins three times, and I'm still working for them.'
He also does a hockey radio show, 'Tuesdays with Tommy,' which is broadcast in Canada. 'I have a lot of really good stories, and by the time I embellish them 10 times over, they're really, really good stories.'
Like the one from his youth: 'The scouts would come into your house when you were very young and try to sign you with a small bonus. A Ranger scout came to my house in Trail, B.C., to meet my parents. The scout said, 'What we'd like to do is turn Tommy pro, for $500.' My mom said, 'You seem like a nice man, but really - we don't have $500.' '
The last title …
On April, 27, 1971, shortly after the Blazers' first season ended and on the same day Hank Aaron hit his 600th career home run, the Bucks beat Phoenix 5-0 for the WHL title before 10,607 in Memorial Coliseum.
It was Fashoway's second year as coach. Ken Campbell had two goals. Donaldson was a stalwart on defense, and Jimmy McLeod recorded his record ninth shutout.
It was the third WHL title for ironman winger Hebenton, who broke into pro hockey in 1949-50, and the next year played for the Victoria Cougars against the Portland Eagles, who skated at Marshall Street Arena in Northwest Portland. He played 630 consecutive WHL games from 1955 to 1965.
'This one is the best of all,' Glickman said then.
'That club could have played in the NHL,' says Fashoway.
'Just a powerhouse,' Jones says. 'It was no contest in the finals.'
The end …
The WHL folded after the NHL began expanding into Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia., and the World Hockey Association started operations. In 1965, Laycoe suggested the WHL try to lure NHL players and become the major league's rival.
'There could still be a (pro) WHL right now,' Jones says.
The Buckaroos played before just 1,874 on Oct. 17, 1973, the smallest WHL crowd ever. They finished third in 1971-72, sixth (last) in 1972-73, when they become property of the NHL's L.A. Kings, and fourth in 1973-74.
But, oh, the glory years.
'We didn't realize what we had,' says Doug LaMear, longtime KGW (8) sportscaster who was the Buckaroos' public address announcer. 'If you were to take that team, say, from 1966, and put it in a time capsule and drop it in the NHL now, it would win. It would be as good as the Philadelphia Flyers or whoever.'
For years, the Buckaroos would reunite at Christmas parties.
'Our conversations always go back to the same thing: hockey,' says Hebenton, 74. 'Get a few more beers in us and then it was how great we were.'
Roger Anthony, Steve Brandon and Dwight Jaynes contributed to this report.