The Regina Pats have a guaranteed spot in the Memorial Cup as hosts this year, but are trying to get there on merit by winning the WHL championship for the first time since 1980.
Unlike the current Pats, who are coming off a 52-12-8 record and a spot in the league final, little was expected from Regina then the season began 38 years ago.
“The Pats were a bit of a bottom feeder the year before,” said then-five-foot-seven, 145-pound rookie defenceman Barry Trotz, now the Washington Capitals coach. “Early in the season, I don’t think anyone knew what to expect.”
The 1978-79 Pats finished second last in the WHL with an 18-47-7 mark. GM Bob Strumm was brought on to turn things around and hired the late Bryan Murray, who had been coaching Junior A in Ontario. Strumm found the players and they listened to their coach – even if they were never quite sure what to make of him.
“Bryan was stern in terms of what he expected,” Trotz said. “He expected you to have some backbone. He expected you to buy into the concept. I thought he was great. Bryan was a good bench coach. He was a good tactician. He was also a good teacher.
“The biggest thing is that he had a sense of humour and he’d keep you on edge with that sense of humour. He had a little bit of sarcasm in there. You never knew if he was joking or if he was serious.”
The Pats rebounded to finish the season 47-24-1, good for top spot in the East Division. Their roster was full of talent and characters, including goaltender Bart Hunter – son of (Wild) Bill Hunter, who helped found the Edmonton Oilers and once tried to move the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon.
They scored 429 goals – most in the league – boasting four of the WHL’s top-10 scorers in Doug Wickenheiser, Ron Flockhart, Darren Veitch and Brian Varga.
Wickenheiser finished with 170 points and won the scoring title by 29. Trotz called him “the best player in the country, bar none” and Wickenheiser was drafted first overall by Montreal after the season.
“Wick was a man among boys,” Trotz said. “He could grab the puck and go end to end.”
The Pats reached the final where they knocked off the Victoria Cougars in five games.
“It clicked in around Christmastime. That’s when we said, ‘We can win this thing.’ We went out and played very, very well,” Trotz said. “To win the Western Hockey League was exceptional. It was a great story from the year before.”
The Pats missed out on playing in the Memorial Cup final after allegations of match fixing by the Peterborough Petes in their round-robin finale loss to the Cornwall Royals. The Pats were subsequently eliminated from contention.
They then lost the 1981 East Division final and the 1982 league championship in Trotz’s last two seasons with the team.
“Frankly, I thought we were the better team,” Trotz said of the final loss in five games to Portland. “We just ran out of gas.”
Current Pats co-owner and president Todd Lumbard joined the team as a goaltender in 1982-83. Regina finished second in the division and lost in its first playoff matchup.
Although the Pats appeared in the Memorial Cup 2001 as hosts, they haven’t won a WHL title since 1980.
“I never would have anticipated that the Pats would have had a drought like this,” Lumbard said. “When I played, we had a really good team. We didn’t have success in the playoffs.
“Last year, with us losing in the final, it’s rarefied air to get that far. It’s really special and not a lot of teams get there. It would mean a lot to us and to Regina to be successful this year.”