(This article was originally published on Jun. 17, 2020)
On February 12, 1999, Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League commissioner Bronco Horvath penned a letter to the BCHL Board of Governors. Details of the letter were recounted by Doyle Potenteau during his coverage of the Quesnel Millionaires.
In the letter, Horvath suggested that the BCHL absorb Fernie, Creston Valley, Kimberley, and Nelson as new expansion teams. He also suggested that each team pay $25,000 in franchise fees. “We feel we are not new franchises, we are existing junior franchises of a league.”
His proposals were rejected by the BCHL Board of Governors for several reasons, and one of the reasons was the franchise fees, Horvath suggested.
BCHL President Ron Bolieau stated that it would be unfair to the newest BCHL team, the Burnaby Bulldogs. “You can’t see a franchise for $100,000 and then let somebody in for cheaper,” Boileau said at the time.
Horvath’s letter was written three years after the Trail Smoke Eaters, Quesnel Millionaires, and Prince George Spruce Kings left the RMJHL for the BCHL. The league was unravelling. It would not survive past 1999 after the Kimberley Dynamiters lost the Mowat Cup to the Vernon Vipers.
While they weren’t accepted into the BCHL, the four surviving RMJHL teams live on as members of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League. In 2011, the Quesnel Millionaires relocated to become the newest incarnation of the Chilliwack Chiefs franchise. Only Trail and Prince George survive to this day.
As for how the Spruce Kings entered the BCHL, it had to do with a team from New Westminster.
The Royal City Outlaws were one of three expansion franchises that entered the BCHL in 1994. Their home was Queen’s Park Arena in New Westminster. They joined the BCHL with the Langley Thunder and the Victoria Salsa. Victoria changed its name to the Grizzlies in 2006 and Langley left for West Kelowna that same year.
The Outlaws struggle at Queen’s Park
The Outlaws were the latest attempt to have a junior hockey team operate at Queen’s Park Arena. In past decades, the storied rink had played host to several incarnations of the New Westminster Royals.
It also was home two separate versions of the Western Hockey League’s New Westminster Bruins. After the Bruins left for good in 1988, another version of the Royals set up at Queen’s Park, followed by the Outlaws.
To put it mildly, the Outlaws struggled on the ice. In their first season, the team won four games total. In their second season, the team won sixteen games.
Meanwhile, the Spruce Kings had just won their eleventh RMJHL title against the Fernie Ghostriders. They had joined the league in 1975 when it was junior B. In 21 years, the Spruce Kings were the most dominant team and won the most titles.
However, things were about to change in the RMJHL. In 1995, the Trail Smoke Eaters jumped ship to the BCHL by purchasing the franchise rights to the Bellingham Ice Hawks and relocating them to the Kootenays. This started an exodus of teams that the Spruce Kings would be a part of.
The ownership group purchased the franchise rights of the Royal City Outlaws. They then received approval to operate the team out of Prince George. The Spruce Kings chose to buy an existing franchise rather than pay expansion fees like the Burnaby Bulldogs had to.
Since joining the BCHL, they have become one of the most competitive teams in the league, making it to the playoffs in 19 of the past 24 seasons. In 2019, the Spruce Kings won the Fred Page Cup, Doyle Cup, and were the runners-up at the National Junior A championship.
After 1996, no junior A team has operated out of Queen’s Park Arena since the Outlaws left. The junior B Queen’s Park Pirates played three seasons there from the late 90s to early 2000s before relocating to North Delta.
Adapting to survive
The 1990s were a decade of rapid change for junior hockey in BC. The arrival of the Prince George Cougars had changed things for the Spruce Kings. Most cities don’t have major junior and junior A teams co-existing, with Prince George and Langley (where the Vancouver Giants play) as the only communities in BC to have both levels of hockey located within the same city limits.
After the Smoke Eaters changed leagues, the writing was on the wall for the RMJHL. The BCHL was always able to recruit better players. They always dominated in the Mowat Cup and a BCHL team actually never lost a game to an RMJHL team in the series between 1981 and 1999.
If there are two competing leagues in a single territory, really only one league can survive. Prince George and Quesnel knew this when they exited to the BCHL. Just like the World Hockey Association in the 1970s when faced with the threat of the NHL, the RMJHL didn’t last.
The success that Prince George has had since arriving proves that it deserves to be in the BCHL. The Spruce Kings may be the most isolated team in the league but they are one of the best-run franchises.
As for the Outlaws, they were the last junior A team to play at Queen’s Park. Only the Western Lacrosse Association’s New Westminster Salmonbellies continue to play in that historic arena.