It’s all about the hometown heroes

In Joe Pelletier's last column of the year he tells that it's not completely nuts to think a player from the northwest could make the NHL

The Terrace River Kings CIHL season may be over, but what a season it was. The young team battled hard and improved as the season went along. The Kings provided great entertainment in a hockey season best known for the National Hockey League lockout. Local fans could cheer on the likes of Derek Jurista, Craig Vienneau and Mark Dhami. Hometown heroes, literally. Who needs the NHL?

The 2012-13 hockey season has been a tough one for hockey fans thanks to NHL labour dispute. I took up the River Kings beat as part of a campaign to get fans in the local rink. Be it the River Kings or some of the peewee or midget tourneys in town, the hockey has been fantastic. For the most part the feedback has been amazing. I have talked to fans who had not been to the rink in years, who told me how much they enjoyed it again. And it’s been great meeting the oldtimers who shared their stories of local hockey lore going back before I was even born.

For me personally this has been one of my favorite hockey seasons in years. Getting down to the rink more often played a big role in that. There are some fantastic youth players here. And Terrace River Kings fans are already looking forward to their team and new found heroes returning next season and maybe, just maybe, an appearance at the Coy Cup in Kitimat in March.

That is assuming none of these guys move up to the National Hockey League.

Okay, so that is highly unlikely. Can you imagine your favorite local senior hockey star playing in the NHL? Don’t think it can happen? It already has. And it happened right here in Northwestern British Columbia.

Back track about 40 years. The Kitimat Eagles are a senior league team playing the likes of the Prince George Mohawks in the now long defunct British Columbia Senior Hockey League. That team is from so long ago that they played in Kitimat’s original arena. It may seem old now, but it was only a few years old then. Beautiful Tamitik Arena was not completed until 1973.

There is a new star player in town. A fellow named Bill Riley has moved from Nova Scotia to work as a welder at the Alcan aluminium smelter. He was a junior hockey star in Amherst, but he had no interest from the NHL.

In 1971 Riley quickly suited up for the Eagles. Details are so sparse about this mysterious BCSHL, but Riley’s dominance was never in doubt. He led the league in scoring all three years he lived in Kitimat. In 1972-73 he scored 56 goals and 88 points in 40 games. In 1973-74 he scored a ridiculous 76 goals and 118 points, also in 40 games.

Riley caught the eye of Tom McVie. At that point McVie was already a minor league coaching legend and soon to be National Hockey League coach. In 1974 he was coaching a minor league team called the Dayton Gems, a farm team of the Washington Capitals. He convinces Riley to leave a nice future at Alcan in beautiful northwestern B.C. to pursue a professional hockey career. The Caps bring him to training camp.

Riley was destined to play in Dayton that season, but he would soon get called up to the National Hockey League. He would go on to play 139 NHL games over five seasons with Washington and Winnipeg. He scored 31 goals and 61 points.

That’s the story of how a welder from Kitimat went on to become the third black player in NHL history. It’s also a great story of never letting your dreams die.

I end my River Kings coverage with the same message that I started with – keep heading out to the local rink. Support the local players and teams, be it the peewees in a tourney or the seniors in the latest clash against Kitimat. Treat yourself to some Timbits hockey for lots of smiles.

Everyday hockey dreams are being played out in small town rinks. That is where hockey’s heart beat is found, not the big leagues.

Joe Pelletier is a hockey writer living in Terrace. You can read his work at http://www.greatesthockeylegends.com and on Twitter @HockeyLegends.

 

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