Sunday 5 September 2010

From KC to OKC

It's funny to think that the DeVos family thought they could move the Kansas City Blades five hours down I-35 to Oklahoma City at the turn of the millenium. I mean, essentially all they were going to do was add the letter "O" to the KC Blades' logo, and all was good. However, hockey in Oklahoma City remained strong thanks to the unwillingness of the CHL's Oklahoma City Blazers to pull up their roots, and there will be a higher level of hockey played in OKC with the AHL's Barons opening their season on October 9 in the city. Hockey in Oklahoma City has always been strong as long as it has remained a part of this community, and tonight HBIC will look at the Blazers and the Barons in terms of their success within the state of Oklahoma.

The founding of the new-look Blazers in 1992 coincided with the refounding of the Central Hockey League. However, there was a previous incarnation of the Blazers that played in the CHL, and the older Oklahoma City Blazers is where we'll start.

The Blazers started in 1965 in Oklahoma City as a farm team for the Boston Bruins. They were originally founded in Minneapolis as the Minneapolis Bruins in 1963, but the Bruins shifted them south to Oklahoma City in 1965.

The founding of the Central Hockey League in 1963 was done by the Original Six NHL teams as they needed a replacement for the folded Eastern Professional Hockey League. From that, five teams emerged: the Minneapolis Bruins (Boston), the Indianapolis Capitals (Detroit), the Omaha Knights (Montreal), the St. Louis Braves (Chicago), and the St. Paul Rangers (New York). Only Toronto didn't add a team in 1963, but they joined via the Tulsa Oilers in 1964 to compete with the other teams.

The Blazers were an extremely popular team in the CHL thanks to the Bruins stocking the lineup with up-and-coming stars. Bruins legend Harry Sinden was the first coach of the Blazers, and many well-known players came through the system: Bernie Parent, Reggie Leach, Gerry Cheevers, Doug Favell, Wayne Cashman, and JP Parise to name a few.

The Blazers finished in second-place in 1965-66 with a 31-26-13 record. They played in the 8832-seat Fairgrounds Arena, and routinely had crowds over 8000 fans. They played fairly conservatively in 1965-66, and that style really paid off in the CHL Playoffs. In their first season in Oklahoma City, the Blazers captured the Adams Cup! They were led in scoring by Rudy "Pete" Panagabko who scored 21 goals and added 42 assists in 70 games. Phil "Skip" Krake led the team in goals with 24 that season, and Gerry Cheevers was the starting goaltender.

The following season, the Blazers improved on their standing with a 38-23-9 record, and ended up first overall in the six-team CHL. The Blazers powered through the playoffs to capture their second consecutive Adams Cup, becoming the first team to do so in the CHL! Former NHL head coach Terry Crisp led the team in scoring in 1966-67 with 31 goals and 42 assists in 69 games. Ron Buchanan played in a mere 56 games, but still led the Blazers in goals with 34 on the campaign. Doug Favell and Gerry Cheevers were the starters on most nights, but Oklahoma City hockey fans got their first glimpses of a young Bernie Parent in net that season. Other notable names on the Blazers' roster that season included Wayne Cashman, Jean Provonost, Glen Sather, JP Parise, Dick Cherry (Don Cherry's younger brother), Derek Sanderson, and Ted Irvine. Quite the assembly of talented players there!

While the Blazers woul never capture the Adams Cup again, they did advance to the finals twice more. Their affiliation with the Boston Bruins came to an end in 1971-72, leaving them without a parent team to stock their lineup. However, they returned in 1973-74 after the Toronto Maple Leafs revived the affiliation. Through the Leafs, Oklahoma City fans got to see players such as Mike Palmateer and Dave "Tiger" Williams. The success that they had with the Bruins, however, would not follow in their affiliation with the Leafs, but they did lose in the finals once and got bounced in the semi-finals twice in their three seasons with the Leafs at the helm.

From 1977 through to 1982, the team would be affiliated with the WHA's Houston Aeros, the NHL's Minnesota North Stars, and the NHL's Calgary Flames, but the Blazers would not advance past the CHL quarter-finals. Due to rising salaries and increased costs, the CHL folded in 1982 when three of its teams closed its doors, including the Oklahoma City Blazers.

With the CHL being re-incarnated in 1992, the league quickly founded a franchise in Oklahoma City as a way to capitalize on the history and intrigue that hockey once had in the city. Bill Levins and Ray Miron decided that central ownership would be the best way to guarantee that the league succeeds in the early going, and they founded teams in six cities: the Oklahoma City Blazers, the Tulsa Oilers, the Wichita Thunder, the Memphis RiverKings, the Dallas Freeze, and the Fort Worth Fire. By keeping the league in a relatively small geographical range, they could control costs and keep the teams and league profitable.

Thanks to a very good team, the new Blazers drew 8000 fans regularly to games, and were one of the most successful minor-pro franchises in hockey. In 17 seasons, they missed the CHL Playoffs only three times, and only finished with a losing record once. Head coach Doug Sauter had a nearly "rockstar" following for his coaching record as he did for his facial hair. Twice, the Blazers brought home the CHL Championship, and the Blazers set an unprecedented CHL record of finishing first overall seven consecutive seasons. Not bad, eh?

In 1995-96, it took all seven games, but the Blazers knocked off the San Antonio Iguanas to win the CHL Championship. Goaltender Jean-Ian Filiatrault was spectacular through the season, going 30-7-2 in the regular season before leading his team to the championship. Filiatrault was named CHL MVP in the playoffs. George Dupont led the team in scoring through the regular season, picking up 28 goals and adding an astounding 83 assists while racking up 274 PIMs! Basically, if he wasn't scoring, he was sitting in the penalty box! Joe Burton led the team in goal-scoring with 66 markers, while Doug Lawrence led the team with an amazing 346 PIMs.

The Blazers returned to glory in 2000-01 when they needed just five games to dispose of the Columbus Cottonmouths in the CHL Final. The Blazers went 48-19-0-3 during the season, led by their goaltending once again. Rod Branch started 41 games, and finished with a 26-12-2 record, a 2.50 GAA, a .913 save percentage, and three shutouts. He was named as the Playoff MVP after leading the Blazers back to glory!The video below shows Branch wearing #67 between the pipes:

While the Blazers were certainly a success story on and off the ice for the CHL, there were problems behind the scenes as the Blazers and Oklahoma City were battling over arena lease costs. Oklahoma City, it seems, was interested in upgrading to an AHL franchise while Blazers simply wanted to exist. According to Robert Przybylo of, "[t]he Blazers did not renew their lease with the Ford Center after months of negotiations. According to city documents, the city and SMG were going to grant the Blazers a three-year renewal, but the Blazers have retracted the deal." While it sounds like the team and the city were amicable, you had to wonder how much the lease was going to cost when Blazers assistant general manager Josh Evans stated, "It is not economically feasible for us to go on at this point". With the end of the Blazers' run in Oklahoma City after seventeen years, they leave the CHL with a few records. Joe Burton and Hardy Sauter are the CHL's first and third all-time career leading scorers, respectively, and Burton is the fourth leading goal-scorer in minor-league hockey history. Burton is now managing an ice rink near his home, while Sauter is the head coach for the Idaho Steelheads. Pretty impressive, but a let-down for hockey fans as a team with considerable history is sent into hockey purgatory. On October 9, we'll see a new chapter of Oklahoma City hockey being written as the Edmonton Oilers move their AHL affiliate into town, and the Oklahoma City Barons begin play. While it seems as though the Oilers' cupboards are bare, there is hope that the Barons will be competitive as the Oilers have already signed Alexandre Giroux and could send Jordan Eberle to the team. Here's hoping that the Barons get off to a good start to bring back the hockey enthusiasm in OKC!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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