A brief history of the U.S. Division

When the Edmonton Oil Kings moved to Portland in 1976, Canadian major junior hockey came to the United States for the first time. Owner Brian Shaw found the new name for his team after seeing the 1975 film Winterhawk. The Winter Hawks, as they were known at the time, started play in the 1976-77 season wearing hand-me-down uniforms from the Chicago Blackhawks. The Winterhawks eventually shortened their name to one word, but continue to use the familiar Blackhawks logo to this day.

The Seattle Breakers and Billings Bighorns joined the WHL in 1977-78. The Kamloops Chiefs relocated to Seattle, and called the intimate and intimidating Mercer Arena home for years. In 1985-86, the Breakers changed their names to the Thunderbirds and eventually started playing more games at the larger Key Arena. The T-Birds moved to the suburban city of Kent and the new ShoWare Center in 2009.

Billings advanced to the WHL finals in its first season, and played five seasons before relocating to Nanaimo and then New Westminster. Another Montana-based team, the Great Falls Americans, folded in 1980-81, 28 games into their first and only season.

In 1988, the New Westminster Bruins moved to Kennewick, Wash., to become the Tri-City Americans. Playing in the new Tri-Cities Coliseum (now the Toyota Center), the Ams kept New Westminster’s black-and-gold color scheme for three seasons before adopting a red, white and blue theme that has endured to this day.

Spokane hosted a short-lived franchise called the Flyers, who won 17 games their debut season in 1980-81 before folding 26 games into the following season. WHL hockey returned to Spokane in 1985, when the Kelowna Wings moved into Spokane Coliseum (The Boone Street Barn) and became the newest incarnation of the Chiefs, a team that had been playing in the semipro WIHL.

The U.S. had four teams in the league until the 2003-04 season, when the expansion Everett Silvertips joined the league and surprisingly won the Western Conference in their first WHL season.

There are only eight U.S.-based teams among the 60 franchises in the major junior Canadian Hockey League. With five in the WHL, the Pacific Northwest has the largest American presence in Canadian junior hockey and no competition from professional or NCAA teams.

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One response to “A brief history of the U.S. Division

  1. Just a tiny, tiny small correction. When the Kelowna team relocated and became the Spokane Chiefs in 1985 they played in the Spokane COLISEUM aka “The Boone Street Barn” for 10 years. The Spokane ARENA didn’t open until 1995.

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