Tri-City Americans celebrate 25 years

September 21, 2012 

In the spring of 1987, smooth-talking Canadian businessman Ron Dixon rolled into the Tri-Cities with a proposition.

If 2,000 people would plunk down $20 each, Dixon promised to build a 6,000-seat arena and bring in a hockey team.

In less than a month, more than 3,000 people pledged their money “to watch a team that did not exist play a sport they knew next to nothing about in a coliseum that had not been built,” the Herald reported.

Dixon was true to his word.

The Tri-Cities Coliseum was built by the next winter — surrounded by more drama than a daytime soap opera — and Dixon moved his Western Hockey League club, the New Westminster Bruins, from British Columbia to Kennewick.

They were renamed the Tri-City Americans.

The team wore the gold and black of the Bruins the first two seasons in the Tri-Cities — with a different logo, of course — before Dixon dug into his tightly sealed wallet for the red, white and blue that still is worn today.

On that first Tri-City team were two of Canada’s top young players — forward Stu Barnes and goaltender Olaf Kolzig. They flourished in the WHL and went on to star in the National Hockey League.

In 2005, Barnes and Kolzig came full circle, purchasing their former junior team and preventing it from returning to Canada.

During the years, the Americans have had their ups and downs with multiple owners and more than a dozen coaches. But as the team approaches its 25th year in the WHL, they have been one of the most successful and respected teams in the league during the past seven seasons.

The Americans have won more regular- season and playoff games than any other team in the WHL during the last five years, hoisting four U.S. Division banners, a Scotty Munro trophy as the league’s winningest team and a Western Conference title.

In the beginning

After training camp in Chilliwack, British Columbia, the Americans arrived in Kennewick for the 1988-89 season, but the rink was not finished. With no ice to practice on, the team traveled to Walla Walla, where they practiced at the Ice Chalet. The ice surface was half the size of a normal hockey rink, but they made do.

“Quite honestly, it may have been a hassle, but it was fun,” Barnes said. “It was something new — to drive an hour to get some ice. We were playing hockey and making the most of it.”

But the fond memories came with a price.

“It wasn’t so much the drive there, as it was the drive back in our sweaty equipment,” Kolzig recalled. “The sweat would soak into the fabric of the seats. We drove the same bus all year. It was nasty. We had to prop the windows open with Coke cans. It’s a far cry from what they have now, but when you are 16-17 years old, and you’re with your buddies, it was fantastic. You look back at it now, and it was gross. At the time, you wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”

The Americans would play their first 17 games on the road, opening Oct. 1 in Spokane — a 4-2 loss.

Former Americans beat writer Eric Degerman reported in advance of the game: “Promotion people for the Chiefs and TV sportscasters began to exhort their fans earlier this week by asking them to wear red, white and blue — the colors that real Americans wear.”

Tri-City picked up its first win Oct. 9, a 4-2 victory over the Victoria Cougars. The Americans then embarked on an eight-game, 10-day road trip through the Eastern Conference.

The Americans held their first home practice on Nov. 15, 1988, and played their first home game Nov. 20 at Tri-Cities Coliseum — a 4-3 overtime win over Seattle before a soldout crowd of 6,004.

After the game, Herald columnist Jim Riley wrote: “The Tri-Cities appears ready to adopt a bunch of kids from Canada with open arms.”

The team finished its first season with a 33-34-5 record and qualified for the playoffs.

“It was a new experience for everyone,” Barnes said. “The first 17 games were on the road. We had an exciting bunch of guys who were pretty talented. The building was sold out every night the first year and the next. We went from getting about 1,000 a night in New Westminster to a full house. The fans were loud, and the building was wonderful to play in. It was a lot of fun.”

Olie the Goalie’s goal

Kolzig was the first goaltender in WHL history to score a goal. The first-round pick of the Washington Capitals notched it Nov. 29, 1989 — during the Americans’ second season. The goal, with 44 seconds left in the game, capped a 5-2 win over Seattle.

“That was the coolest thing, for sure,” Kolzig said. “Ron Hextall was my idol. He was the first to score. Up to that point, I hadn’t been having a good season. I got back from Washington (Capitals training camp) with a bad attitude. My save percentage and goals against weren’t worth anything at that point.

“They had pulled their goalie, and we were up 4-2. The puck went behind the net. I went back to get it, and I want to say I lifted it 20 feet in the air, but it was about three feet. By the time it was halfway down the ice, it started to curl, and it just went inside the post.”

Seattle coach Peter Anholt wasn’t pleased with the move, and neither were the Capitals.

“I got a call from Washington’s director of player personnel, Jack Button,” Kolzig said. “I thought he was calling to congratulate me. He said, ‘I heard you scored a goal. We pay you to stop pucks, not score goals.’ ”

Kolzig’s goal remains one of the highlights of Barnes’ time with the Americans.

“That was pretty neat,” Barnes said. “I was on the ice when it happened and was one of the first to congratulate him. It was special to be a part of that.”

The walkout

A month after Kolzig scored his goal, the Americans staged a walkout, refusing to play for Bill LaForge.

Tri-City was to have hosted Portland on Dec. 30, but the day before, LaForge, a controversial yet successful coach in Canada hired by Dixon to turn things around, showed up at practice. It didn’t take long for the players to realize they didn’t want to be a part of his plan.

“That whole thing with Bill LaForge was the end of the Ron Dixon era in Tri-City,” Kolzig said. “He was so beside himself with that. After that season, he sold the team.”

When Dixon brought in LaForge, the Americans had been struggling and under achieving.

“We had a great coach (in Rick Kozuback), who was a good motivator,” Kolzig said. “We felt we were letting him down. One day at practice, this guy came out on the ice with Hush Puppies on and blew the whistle. He told Rick to gather the pucks and told us he was there to change things. He took over practice, and some of the tactics he wanted us to do we didn’t agree with. He was so intent on injuring the opposition. No one felt comfortable playing for him.”

So they didn’t. The Winterhawks arrived in Kennewick for the game, but only two Tri-City players showed up at the rink.

“As bizarre as it sounds, we didn’t want to play for (LaForge),” Kolzig said. “(Commissioner) Ed Chynoweth called and said, ‘What in the tarnation is going on?’ He flew down. Dixon flew down. Me, Greg Spenrath, Sean LeBrun, Chynoweth and Dixon met in a hotel room. Ron never took his eyes off us. If looks could kill. Up until then, Ron had treated us well. I think he felt we were disappointing him. In the end, it was agreed Bill wouldn’t coach, and Rick came back.

“Looking back, I’m not proud of what we did, but you have to play within the rules of the game. For the integrity of the game, we thought it was right.”

The incident received international attention and earned a mention in the Jan. 15, 1990, edition of Sports Illustrated.

The brawl in Seattle

Seattle seemed to be at the center of several of the Americans’ major moments their first two seasons. Tri-City rallied to beat the Thunderbirds in its first home game. Kolzig scored his goal against Seattle, and the Thunderbirds were the Americans’ first-round playoff foe in 1990.

Game 1 was March 24 at Seattle Center Coliseum, before a packed house of 12,075 — at the time the largest crowd to attend a WHL playoff game.

From the start of the game, the Seattle fans behind the Tri-City bench were spouting verbal abuse and pouring beer on Kozuback and his players.

By the third period, Kozuback had reached his limit. An ugly stick-swinging brawl between Kozuback, the Tri-City players and Seattle fans ensued at 4:08 of the period.

“It got out of hand,” Kozuback said at the time. “It was like pouring rain. Part of the problem was greed. They wanted to get as many people in the rink as possible. There was a lot of verbal harassment from the very beginning.”

The ramifications were unprecedented in WHL history. Kozuback was suspended two games, prohibited from coaching any road playoff games and placed on probation by the league for the next season. Tri-City players Jeff Fancy (five games) and Steve Jaques (one game) were suspended, and Seattle was fined $1,000 for lack of crowd control.

“I remember that quite well,” said Rick Doerksen, WHL vice president of hockey, who handed out the punishment. “We had to wait for the VHS tape to be mailed to us. Those were the days. Back then, that was a big fine and big suspensions. The climate has changed tremendously.”

Coaching carousel

Of the 17 head coaches who were on the bench during the team’s history, a few were the result of suspensions, firings or family emergencies.

When it comes to those drawing a regular paycheck, the Americans have had 12 coaches who spent more than one game on the bench — starting with John Olver in 1988-89.

But during the first 15 seasons, there were 14 different head coaches.

The list doesn’t include Gordie Lane, who was introduced by Dixon as the first Tri-City Americans head coach. Lane, a former NHL standout defenseman, resigned before the season started.

Coaching stability didn’t come until general manager Bob Tory hired Don Nachbaur in 2003. Nachbaur coached the Americans for six seasons before leaving for the American Hockey League.

Jim Hiller, a former Tri-City assistant coach under Nachbaur who later coached at Chilliwack, was hired in 2009 to replace Nachbaur. He is entering his fourth season.

“In my 11 years, I’ve been blessed with just two coaches — Don and Jim,” Tory said. “They have different personalities, but they are similar in work ethic. Both have played a strong role in what we have accomplished. It was a seamless transition between the two.”

Players such as Clayton Stoner appreciated what Nachbaur brought to the team in 2003 after suffering through a 20-win season the year before.

“As soon as Don came in, it was a big change for the club,” said Stoner, now a defenseman for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. “He made players be more accountable as players and human beings. It was good for me as a player and a person. I’m a big fan of his as a coach and a person.”

Stoner continues to follow his former club, and he’s pleased to see its success.

“I’m a little bit jealous not being able to say we had a good team in juniors,” Stoner said. “It makes it much more enjoyable when you win. Now, any player would be proud to be a Tri-City American. Ten or 12 years ago, we didn’t have the respect they do now. But we bought into the program, and that breeds the culture. It’s not done overnight. Guys like Logan Stephenson and Carey Price carried it forward and passed it on. I’m happy to see the team having success.”

The lean years

Every team goes through cycles and has years when things don’t go as planned. The Americans have made the playoffs 20 of 24 years, but 11 of their playoff appearances ended in the first round.

The only time the team missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons was 1996-97 (22 wins) and 1997-98 (17 wins).

“It was extremely hard playing on such a young team that had just had a good season the year before,” said former Tri-City forward Dylan Gyori, who plays professionally in Germany. “It wasn’t hard being motivated to play games. It was hard playing on such poor teams and hoping the other team wouldn’t show up that night. The West Division was so good back then with the teams in Seattle, Portland and Spokane — it was an almost automatic 30 losses right there. Throw in Kamloops, Kelowna and Prince George, and it was definitely an uphill battle.”

After that dismal 17-win season, the Americans bounced back to go 43-2-6 and reached the conference finals, losing to Kamloops in four games.

“The biggest difference was we finally had depth in the organization and Don Hay guiding the ship,” Gyori said. “We had the proper mix of older players and young guys, which you need to be successful in the WHL.”

The Americans won just 20 games in 2002-03, the last time they missed the playoffs. Since then, they have won at least 40 games in each of the past six seasons.

Todd Klassen, 1974-1993

A defenseman for the Americans from 1990-93, Klassen died in a car accident July 22, 1993, near Ritzville.

Klassen, 19, was a passenger in a car driven by Tri-City teammate Adam Rettschlag. The car flipped after swerving to avoid an object in the road, according to a report by the Washington State Patrol.

Klassen died of massive head injuries at the scene. A native of Sherwood Park, Alberta, Klassen was a 1992 fourth-round NHL draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In three seasons with the Americans, he played in 208 games with 41 goals and 104 assists. He captained the 1992-93 team.

His No. 14 was retired by the Americans on Oct. 2, 1993. The club has honored him each year by handing out the Todd Klassen Humanitarian of the Year Award. Last season, it was won by Adam Hughesman.

True Americans

Tri-City has had its share of U.S.-born players over the years, with Scott Gomez (Anchorage, Alaska) being the most heralded, winning two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils — in 2000 and 2003. He is the only former Tri-City player with his named engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Brent Ascroft (Rochester, N.Y.) played five seasons with the Americans and is the all-time leader in games played with 355 — out of a possible 360. He was team captain for the 1996-97 season.

Goaltender Brian Boucher (Woonsocket, R.I.) played three seasons with the Americans, and has had a lengthy career in the NHL and AHL. Last season, he played for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Scott Levins of Spokane was the first U.S-born player to suit up for the Americans, wearing the black and gold in 1989 while playing with Barnes and Kolzig.

Other U.S. players to take the ice for Tri-City are Bill Lindsay (Montana, 1989-92), Gordie Frantti (Michigan, 1990-91), Tony Prpic (Iowa, 1992-93), Eric Skaug (Oregon, 1996-97), Mike Lee (Alaska, 1998-2001), Andrew Downing (Michigan, 1999-00), Adam Johnson (Minnesota, 1999-01), Sean Curry (Minnesota, 2002-02), Jason Beeman (California, 2001-06), Justin Togiai (Kennewick, 2001-02), Jake Riddle (Minnesota, 2002-03), Eric Felde (Alaska, 2006-08), Kyle Peters (Oregon, 2005-06), Jason Reese (Oregon, 2007-09), Brian Williams (California, 2011-present), Eric Comrie (California, 2011-present).

Land of Opportunity

Tory is a GM willing to give a player an opportunity to play. Not all pan out, but he has discovered diamonds in the rough such as Taylor Procyshen, Kruise Reddick and Brendan Shinnimin. They were not selected by any club in the WHL bantam draft, but all three were listed players.

Procyshen and Reddick went on to serve as team captains. Shinnimin developed into the most decorated player in franchise history.

During the 2011-12 season, Shinnimin earned the Bob Clarke Trophy as the league’s top scorer with 134 points and won the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as the WHL Player of the Year. He also was the top scorer in the Canadian Hockey League and was voted CHL Player of the Year.

Shinnimin was just the second Tri-City player to win the Bob Clarke Trophy (Daymond Langkow, 1994-95) and the second to win the Four Broncos (Stu Barnes, 1988-89).

In 2002, Tory made history by breaking the WHL gender barrier when he invited goalie Shannon Szabados to training camp.

She played in four preseason games, then played one minute of a regular-season game Sept. 22, 2002 against Vancouver.

Szabados remains the only female to have played in the WHL.

With Carey Price a year behind her, Szabados never earned a regular roster spot, but she said her time with Tri-City was priceless.

“It was one of the highlights of my career I will never forget,” said Szabados, who backed Canada to the gold medal in women’s hockey at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. “It’s something that is brought up in the hockey world quite a bit. It had a huge impact on my career.”

Aside from the Olympics, Szabados, 26, always has played on boys teams. She plays goalie for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology men’s hockey team.

“I have had great coaches who have given me an opportunity, and they have taken flak for putting me on their teams,” Szabados said. “I’m sure Bob Tory took a lot of flak for it, too. There are a lot of great people in the game of hockey, and I have been fortunate enough to cross paths with a lot of them who have given me those opportunities.”

Tory also has opened doors to players needing a second chance. That includes Colton Yellow Horn, acquired in a 2006 trade with Lethbridge.

“He needed a change, and he came in and provided excitement for our hockey club,” Tory said. “He was small, but entertaining and dynamic. He’d score goals that were unexpected. He was proud to play here.”

In his second season with the team, Yellow Horn led the WHL in goals (48) and helped the Americans to their first U.S. Division banner.

Ownership carousel

In 1991, Dixon sold the Americans to another Canadian businessman — Ron Toigo and his father, Peter, for a reported $3 million. Ron Toigo said if he had to do it again, he would not have bought the team from Dixon.

“Actually, it was a disappointment,” said Toigo, who now owns the Vancouver Giants. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into with all the bad blood with what Ron Dixon had done to the community. I thought I was hiring the best people of the day, but it didn’t really have stability until (general manager) Bob Brown came. And to some extent, with (coach) Don Hay. Those were better years.”

At the time, Dixon still owned the coliseum, which he built for a reported $12 million and operated under a business called Continental Sports. Dixon and Toigo had their battles.

Dixon reportedly died Sept. 15, 2000, as a result of a car accident in Mexico.

“There were times he’d lock us out and we couldn’t practice,” Toigo said. “We would drive to Walla Walla, Yakima, and once we even went to Wenatchee just to get ice.”

Toigo owned the team for nine years before he sold to another Canadian businessman, Mark Wagstaff, in 2000, but not before he and the city of Kennewick purchased the coliseum from Dixon for $9.2 million on May 11, 1994.

“I was happy to get out of there,” said Toigo, who also takes responsibility for the construction of the smaller rink. “Every year I lost a lot of money there. The guy after me wasn’t prepared for that, either. They have a better way of doing things now. We didn’t have the community support back then.”

Wagstaff owned the team for two years before selling to another Canadian businessman, Darryl Porter. The Porter group included famed NHL coach Glen Sather and NHL executive Brian Burke. They paid a reported $2.2 million for the Americans.

Porter’s ownership group lasted three seasons. Attendance fell, revenue declined and Porter wanted the WHL board of governors to allow him to move the Tri-City franchise to Chilliwack.

“We hope, with the board of governors approval, to move to a pure hockey atmosphere where we can turn a profit,” Porter said in a March 2005 interview. “The crappy part of this is the people this hurts who don’t deserve this. How can you not be torn when you have 2,500 fans that have been so loyal, a great staff and corporate sponsors? The problem is the people who don’t care. We just can’t seem to grow this.”

Porter was wrong.

Barnes, Kolzig, Tory and Dennis Loman emerged to buy the team and keep it in the Tri-Cities.

“Not many people know this,” Kolzig said. “I was a silent partner in the Porter group. I had invested, but I didn’t have a whole lot of input as a minority owner. It was disappointing to see how things were run, and my name was attached with it. In hindsight, it was a blessing. I had first right of refusal.”

Tory and Loman approached Kolzig and Barnes with the idea of purchasing the team, and they made it happen.

“Olie and I always said if we could get involved, we wanted to do it right,” Barnes said. “It came up at the right time, and we had time to put it together. We were fortunate to get it done. We are very proud of the product we have. We aren’t resting on our laurels. There is still room to improve.”

Those two original Tri-City Americans also sought to keep the club’s history intact.

“We didn’t want our names going to Chilliwack,” Kolzig said. “Stu and I, our philosophy is we wanted to do it the right way with a professional atmosphere. We wanted to make them feel proud in putting on the Americans jersey.

“Bob’s eye for talent is second to none. We are owners, but we don’t really need to worry. Dennis is a great numbers guy, and everything is done right. It shows by the results on the ice. The players are proud to play here. That is the highest compliment.”

Dylan Stanley, who played 339 games for the Americans, was one of the players caught up in the Chilliwack turmoil.

“When you look back at it overall, it wasn’t a negative experience,” Stanley said. “I played for multiple coaches and owners. There was the trying year with the team maybe moving. I grew up learning to deal with a lot of different personalities over the years, and I learned a lot of things that have helped in my career.

“One thing I am proud of is seeing the turnaround of the team. I’m proud to say that’s the team I played for.”

w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; afowler@tricityherald.com

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