A blaze of glory: the 1970s Bellingham Blazers


Here in British Columbia, we are fortunate to have many great things. A quality of life that is almost unmatched across the world, universal health care, natural beauty, and so much more. Before pandemic times, another advantage of being a BC inhabitant was the proximity we have to the United States border (especially in the southern part of the province). You could travel from Vancouver to Bellingham in under 90 minutes to get gas, groceries, or a fast food meal you couldn’t get back home.

However, from 1972-1980, making the trip down to Bellingham took on a whole new meaning. Back then, fans headed south to watch the BCHL’s Coastal Conference unfold in an ice rink beside the Bellingham International Airport.

The home team, you might ask? The Bellingham Blazers – one of the most storied BCHL franchises of the 1970s.

Humble beginnings

The Blazers’ inaugural season took place in the 1972-73 season. The Blazers, playing in what Whatcom County has labelled the Sportsplex today, got the expansion treatment.

The team was led by former New York Rangers forward Winston Juckes. Then, the Blazers were thumped in the regular season, losing 43 games out of 60 in the league’s Coastal Conference. Then, come playoff time, the last seeded Blazers travelled to Langley to “host” playoff games, only to be defeated by the conference-leading Nanaimo Clippers in five games.

In their sophomore season, the team was comprised of many new faces and a new coach. Led by future Vancouver Canucks captain Stan Smyl, the Blazers outperformed everyone’s thoughts but still finished with a losing record of 29-35-0, which was still good enough for second in the conference.

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However, in the playoffs, the Blazers managed to sweep the Chilliwack Bruins before getting bested by the Langley Lords in five games. Thus, this season was ultimately a turning point for the Blazers franchise. 

Catching fire

Keeping much of the same look from the previous season, Bellingham set forth on the 1974-75 campaign. Being led by the same coach, Lawrence Gingras wanted to be the man who coached Bellingham to its first championship, and help build upon the previous season.

He did just that.

This time the Blazers finished third in the conference but with their first winning season at 33-32-0. Led by defenceman Kevin Krook, who put up 70 points, and Stan Smyl, who had 62, the Blazers rolled through the Chilliwack Bruins in five games.

Then in the semifinals, Bellingham was matched up against its familiar foe from Nanaimo, which had shockingly beat the Langley Lords in the quarters. It was the first time the Blazers played a series that went six games, but they prevailed.

Now for the first time, the Bellingham Blazers were in the Nat Bailey Cup final. Bellingham played the reigning Mowat Cup champion Kelowna Buckaroos. Entering the final, Kelowna was again the number one seed and many expected the Bucks to batter the .508 Blazers, but in a shocking upset, Bellingham won the series in six games to claim its first league championship.

After defeating the Coquitlam Comets in the 1975 Mowat Cup, the Blazers fell short in the BC-Alberta Championship against the Spruce Grove Mets.

Not long after, the league moved the franchise to Maple Ridge for the 1975-76 season.

After one season in Maple Ridge, it was announced the Blazers were returning to play in Bellingham for the 1976-77 season and beyond. No doubt, the return was great news for the league as the community was likely still gleaming over its championship team from 1974.

The grand return

Although the 1976-77 season was again disappointing for the Blazers with a Coastal Conference-worse 27-38-0 record, the team had brought in Finnish players to help bolster its roster – a bold move at the time.

Erkki Lehtonen and Jari Viitala each broke 100 points and ended up among the top five in all-time franchise points. 

The Blazers brought in a whole new crop of players for 1977-78, which led to the most remarkable regular season the club had to that point. Recognizable names on that team include future NHL great Glenn Anderson, who put up 131 points that season.

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Also on the roster was the son of NHL legend Bobby Hull. Unfortunately Bobby Hull Jr. didn’t live up to his father’s scoring pedigree or compare to his younger brother Brett’s playing career, but he did have 30 points in his lone season with Bellingham.

The team finished 41-25-0 and won its first round playoff series against the Langley Thunder before bowing out to the future Mowat Cup champion Nanaimo Clippers.

Going out with a bang

The franchise’s last return to prominence came the season after, in 1978-79. After most of the notable names left the club, the Blazers brought in a crop of fresh faces, and boy, did it pay off.

They finished the regular season with a franchise-best 51-10-0 record, and was the best team in the league to boot. Bellingham beat the Chilliwack Colts and Nanaimo Clippers to steamroll its way to the championship final for the second time in franchise history.

It was matched up against the less superior Kamloops Rockets in the finals. The Blazers went up 2-1 in the series and were deemed champions. Due to the Blazers being based in the United States, they were not eligible to advance in the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association regional playdowns.

Nevertheless, Kamloops advanced, and the Blazers ended the season as Nat Bailey Cup champions for a second time. The team’s final season in the league was 1979-80.

They finished atop the Coastal Conference with a record of 49-16-1. However, in a shocking upset, the fourth seeded Richmond Sockeyes upset the Blazers in the first round of the playoffs. The franchise moved to Vancouver for the following season.

A lasting legacy in Whatcom County

Bellingham was the stomping grounds for some of Western Canada’s most extraordinary hockey talents in the BCHL’s early days, even though many alumni only went as far as the NCAA. Its two most significant, though, proved that this club was a rare breed.

First, Stan Smyl played 13 seasons in the NHL, eight of which as captain of the Vancouver Canucks. Smyl finished his NHL career with 262 goals and his 673 points is fifth in franchise history. He is one of only six players in Canucks history to have their jersey number retired.

Then there’s Glenn Anderson, who is the most prominent name to play for the Blazers. Anderson played 19 seasons in the NHL for four different teams. He scored 406 goals and 1099 points and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008.

In its seven years of activity in the city with the “A Refreshing Change” motto, the Bellingham Blazers played in 452 regular-season games with a 245-199-8 record. It’s a feather in the Blazers cap, many franchises can’t say they have an all-time record over the .500 mark.