I was among the nearly 8,000 on hand when the puck dropped at the Pacific Coliseum for the Vancouver Giants’ inaugural Western Hockey League (WHL) contest on September 21, 2001. I was an easy sell; I grew up in Kamloops, where junior hockey was religion, and fittingly, my hometown team, the Blazers, provided the opposition that evening. They also provided most of the scoring in a 5–2 win over their newest provincial rival. The result, however, did not dampen the enthusiasm of those in attendance, who were consumed with the novelty of the latest addition to Vancouver’s hockey scene. But one night does not a franchise make, and many across Western Canada were still asking the same question: Can the WHL work in a market dominated by the Canucks?
Ron Toigo admits to wondering that very thing himself. The man who brought the WHL back to the Lower Mainland had his doubts during a tough first season that saw Vancouver win only 13 games. Toigo had been down the ownership road before and had seen his share of setbacks. “I think we made every mistake you could make during my 10 years with Tri-City,” chuckles the former owner of the Americans. “So we had a pretty good idea of how not to do things.”
Fast forward to the 10th season, which the Giants are now entering, and Toigo has seemingly made all the right moves. His instinct to invest $1.5-million into renovating the Pacific Coliseum a decade ago has paid off as the Giants have become as profitable as they are prolific. An average of 7,117 fans watched the local lads each night last season, and more often than not, they went home happy. Winning has become routine for this franchise, which struggled so mightily in that initial campaign. Vancouver has not had a losing season since 2002–03, and has won two of every three games played over the past five years.
Toigo is quick to credit general manager Scott Bonner and head coach Don Hay for the on-ice success. Bonner worked for Toigo as a scout at Tri-City and was installed atop the management team on day one. His decision to deal away top talent midway through that painful first season put the Giants in position to draft the club’s first true superstar, Gilbert Brulé. Now a forward with the Edmonton Oilers, Brulé burst onto the scene as the league’s top rookie in 2003–04, and drew attention to Vancouver when he was selected sixth overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft, and led the Giants to their first Memorial Cup appearance in the spring of 2006.
The Giants would hoist that coveted prize just one year later in storybook fashion, winning the national championship on home ice, as Hay picked up the third Memorial Cup victory of his storied career. The Kamloops native won back-to-back cups with the Blazers in the mid-nineties’s and was named the greatest coach in WHL history while in the employ of Toigo at Tri-City. “Scott and I made the decision that if we ever had the chance to hire Don Hay, we would bring him to Vancouver,” explains Toigo, the son of White Spot owner Peter Toigo Sr. “Getting Don here with Scott took us to the next level.”
Toigo has also been able to attract hockey heavyweights to the ownership group. Former Canucks coach and GM Pat Quinn was the first to commit when the two hatched a plan to bring junior hockey back to the Lower Mainland over lunch in 1997. A fishing boat provided the setting for Toigo’s next big catch, Gordie Howe. Mr. Hockey jumped at the opportunity to partner with pals, and is so proud of his involvement that he’s often spotted in Giants gear while attending NHL games in Detroit. Most recently, Toigo welcomed crooner Michael Bublé to the fold, adding pop culture to an organization that appears to have everything else.
But the Giants’ success is based on the popularity of the product, not that of the ownership. Bonner is adept at acquiring skill, Hay ensures they play with will. Prominent NHL picks like Brulé, Milan Lucic and Evander Kane owe a portion of their success the relentless, hard-hitting style drilled into them during their formative years in Vancouver. This market adores the consistent blue-collar approach of its junior squad coupled with the affordability of the entertainment. With tickets to the NHL’s Canucks and NBA’s Grizzlies escalating in the late nineties, Toigo’s timing was terrific; the Giants became the sensible solution for families that had been priced out of the aforementioned options. “We believe that a family of four should be able to go to a game, park and eat for $100,” explains Toigo, who provides that opportunity with the White Spot Family Pack. “It [the WHL] wouldn’t work if we didn’t have support from the Canucks, but, fortunately, Brian Burke was very supportive of us, and that has continued even though he’s moved on.”
Luckily for Toigo, his two main men have not left town. The Oilers tried to lure Bonner and Hay away during the offseason, but both declined the respective invitations. Instead, the dominant duo will strive to maintain Vancouver’s reputation as one of the model franchises in a puck-crazed country. Junior hockey may not be religion in Vancouver, but it has quickly achieved a cult following in a market that was doubted by many.
Photos: Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants.