Clippers have much more than 40 years of history

The first Nanaimo Clippers junior hockey team took the ice 68 years ago, for the 1944-45 season.

Les Mitchell

Les Mitchell

The Nanaimo Clippers junior A hockey club is celebrating its 40th anniversary season. It’s a special milestone. It encompasses a heap of hockey, a million memories. And it doesn’t come close to counting all the years of Clippers history in this city.

This past autumn, Jack Prestley, a Clippers alumnus from way back, cut out a newspaper article to add to his scrapbook file, a story about the team’s 40th anniversary.

“What I wanted to point out, was that wasn’t the beginning of junior hockey in Nanaimo,” he said.

He’s right – the first Clippers junior hockey team took the ice 68 years ago, for the inaugural 1944-45 season of the Pacific Coast Junior Hockey League. Nanaimo won the championship that year, and the next, too.

The league was formed to fill an appetite for hockey during the war years, when some senior loops were on hiatus. The PCJHL consisted of just three teams – the Clippers, the Vancouver Arrows and the New Westminster Cubs, because those were the only three cities in the region with arenas.Victoria’s Willows rink – known for its post right in the middle of the ice surface – had burned down earlier that year.

“Somebody probably burned it down – a player who ran into the post,” joked Prestley.

The league was technically junior B, but it was the top level in the province at the time.

“Junior was junior,” said Les Mitchell, a Clippers defenceman of that era. “The best players played on the team and they played on the circuit for the Memorial Cup.”

Mitchell lived near the Civic Arena as it was being built, and was one of the first ever to skate on the ice surface. He was in the lineup Nov. 18, 1944, when the Clippers played their first home opener at the Civic, a 5-0 shutout of the Arrows in front of 1,400 fans.

Known for his skating, Mitchell piled up plenty of points and penalty minutes as the Clippers won the regular-season title. He also scored what would stand up as the championship-winning goal that winter in the fifth and deciding game of the finals, a 6-4 win at New Westminster’s Queen’s Park Arena.

The defending-champion Clippers added Prestley the following season, bringing the defenceman over from Nelson. He had been making 45 cents an hour as a mechanic in his hometown, so the lure of $1 an hour as a mechanic in Nanaimo, while playing hockey, made his move an easy decision.

“It was such a wonderful game and I enjoyed it so much,” he said.

The Clippers packed in the fans back then, he recalled.

“It was standing room only at a lot of the games,” Prestley said. “Between periods, half the crowd would go over to the Newcastle Hotel for a beer and the other half would stay and smoke. We’d come out on the ice after the break and you couldn’t see your partner’s head.”

A few laps around the ice would clear the air, though, and the Clippers would entertain and win with a high-scoring, smooth-skating style.

Norm Kirk and Red Koehle were two of the team’s offensive leaders, Lou De More was the coach and Buster (Bus) Matthews was manager.

Road games were challenging, as the team crossed the Strait of Georgia on the CPR steamships. The voyages were particularly hard on the Clippers’ import players from the Prairies, recalled Prestley.

“We’d see fans on the street after, and they’d say, ‘How come you guys didn’t win?’ I’d say, ‘Well, we only had five players – the rest of them were seasick.’”

Camaraderie wasn’t a team strength. The Clippers were all supposed to be paid equal shares of the gate at season’s end, but Prestley said certain players were favoured. It led to some hard feelings, and not all of the guys were great friends in the locker room.

“If you didn’t get in there early, someone would steal your stockings,” he said.

The socks were full of holes anyway; the red-and-white sweaters, only a little better. Prestley wore a leather helmet, “a funny-looking thing, but it was some protection.”

The Clippers might not have been the best-dressed team that year,  but that hardly mattered as they swept the Trail Smoke Eaters in the B.C. final and advanced to the Memorial Cup playoffs. Though they lost in the quarter-finals to the Edmonton Canadians, three games to one, Nanaimo won Game 1 of that series, 4-3, in front of 2,600 fans at Civic Arena.

The Clippers’ speed allowed them to have success against the Canadians, Prestley remembered.

“So the next game they came out and knocked us, took penalties and knocked guys out of it,” he said. “We had the speed but they had the size.”

Nanaimo’s provincial championship reign came to an end in the winter of 1947, when the team was swept in the semifinals by Vancouver. The day of that decisive Game 2, the Clippers left their equipment on the dock in Nanaimo and were forced to borrow gear from the New West team. A 9-5 loss eliminated the Clips.

At the end of his junior career, Prestley hung up his skates for good. He was offered a spot on a semi-professional team in Rochester, but he’d had enough of hockey.

Les Mitchell, meanwhile, earned himself a tryout with the New York Rangers. Though he never made it to the NHL, he taught his grandson Willie Mitchell everything he knew and got to lift the Stanley Cup this year when the Los Angeles Kings’ defenceman brought the prize over to Vancouver Island.

Les is also proud to note that he was the last person ever to skate on the Civic Arena ice surface.

“Before they pulled the lever on the compressors, I put my skates on and I skated around a half dozen times,” he said. “I wanted to be the last. I can’t swear I was the first, but I can swear I was the last.”

The neon sign from the front of the old Civic is still lit. It hangs at the Nanaimo Ice Centre, next to a giant blown-up photo of Prestley, Mitchell and their teammates. It’s the hockey of yesterday, overlooking the hockey of today.

Maybe the Nanaimo Clippers are 40 years old. Maybe they’re older. Or maybe all those games, and all those goals, are timeless.

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