Ted Balderson might be going through the longest rookie initiation in hockey history.
It began in 1982 with the old Kelowna Wings of the Western Hockey League.
When talk turned just recently to a 40-year reunion for the expansion club, some of his former teammates tasked him with organizing the event.
“They fancy me as the historian on the team because I spent most of my time on the bench watching everyone play,” he said, laughing.
Balderson, 55, lives in Victoria and works as a financial advisor. He’s still connected to his teammates on that Wings team for many reasons, but mostly because the club was so bad.
Balderson admits it, but he’s quick to point out what the players, coaches and fans went through in 1982 will never be forgotten, and it’s because they went through hell together.
“I’ll never forget it. I know it was 40 years ago, but the people I met, the guys I played with, the billet families, the people in Kelowna — everyone was so kind. ... It was just a good experience, and I remember it like it was yesterday.”
The players are hoping to reunite in Kelowna soon — details are being ironed out — so in the meantime he’s hoping to spread the word and also seek out old photos and memorabilia.
Already about a dozen players have said they are coming. What’s harder to find are the mementos.
Balderson is hoping fans will be able to help the Wings make their return to Kelowna a colourful one.
“Anything we can track down, photo wise, old tickets. Any kind of stuff to put into a presentation.”
You might think such enthusiasm would be reserved for championship teams, but Balderson said playing for those Wings was just as memorable because of their 12-57-3 record.
They were an expansion team and worst in the WHL that season. They finished 73 points worse than the West Division-winning Portland Winter Hawks.
But, with that tribulation comes many stories. You can bet when they do gather, those will be in abundance.
Like that night in Winnipeg.
It was Oct. 19, 1982 at the old Winnipeg Arena against the Warriors.
“All my relatives from Manitoba were at the game: Brandon, Dauphin, Winnipeg, northern Manitoba,” Balderson said. “My aunt Martha brought fresh-baked cinnamon buns for the whole team.”
Kelowna lost 18-6.
It’s actually not a WHL record. Both the Tri-City Americans (19-3 vs. Seattle in 1990) and Medicine Hat Tigers (19-2 vs. Winnipeg, 1984) scored more goals in one game. Regardless, Balderson remembers that trip clearly.
Winnipeg had one of the only “JumboTrons” in the WHL because Winnipeg Arena was also home to the NHL’s Jets. The arena played a PacMan-style game that “chomped” Wings logos on the big screen.
“We were in tough,” Balderson said of the entire campaign. “We were an expansion team, so they had to cobble together guys who weren’t protected on other team’s lists, university players, kind of longshot guys they hoped could be competitive, but competitive being a relative term.”
Kelowna was 1-26-2 at Christmas.
“You’ve got to be committed to stay playing the game at that level, and for the fans to keep supporting us there at the old Kelowna Memorial Arena, they were wonderful. And we were a horrible, horrible team on the ice.”
That only win of the first half? Lo and behold, it was against those Winter Hawks. Balderson savours that memory because the old Spaghetti Factory restaurant offered up a promotion that if Kelowna beat Portland, everyone in attendance would get a free meal.
“The Spaghetti Factory probably shut down the next week,” he said.
The Winter Hawks figured prominently in Balderson’s memories of that season. He remembers the Wings travelling to Oregon midway through a bitterly cold winter of 1982 — the days of few helmets, flowing locks of hair and Cooperalls.
“We were the first team to get aluminum sticks from Christian Bros. in the States,” he related. “We were headed off on a road trip in Portland, and we stopped in Osoyoos on the way down to practise — it’s minus-10,000 degrees. We get out on the ice, and we’re firing pucks and all the shafts break — every aluminum stick we had.
“We show up in Portland, and we’ve got to buy sticks for our game that night against the Winter Hawks. We had no sticks.”
Kelowna only lasted three seasons before the franchise packed up and headed for Spokane to become the Chiefs. Kelowna’s most famous alumni is Mike Babcock, who didn’t play much pro hockey, but went on to coach the Detroit Red Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup and Canada to both a world championship and an Olympic gold medal.
Their leading scorer was a player named Doug Kyle, who managed 39 goals and 83 points in 49 games before being traded to the old Lethbridge Broncos (and winning a WHL title).
The Wings could actually boast three players who scored at least 30 goals, but Balderson says the most prolific scoring performance he saw came from second-line centre Dwaine Hutton.
It was Hutton who bet coach Mark Pezzin he could score five goals in one game, and he did it, too, just not the way you might guess.
It came down to the last few minutes of a game in which Hutton had four goals through two periods. He took the puck off the stick of his defenceman for the rush, turned and fired the puck into his own net.
“Pezzin had smoke coming out of his ears, but Hutton won the bet.”
You can see now why Balderson and his teammates might be eager to relive old times.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he said. “I think of the friendships I made. Being in Kelowna, it was such a great hockey town. The people just embraced us as horrible as we were.”
If you have photos, mementos, or memorabilia to share with the Kelowna Wings, email us here at The Daily Courier: email@example.com, or call 250-470-0741.