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Thank You Salmon Kings: Seven years of ECHL hockey

A Salmon Kings obituary
Fan support dwindled but the Salmon Kings appreciated those who came out to see them play their final game

Here lived good hockey: 2004-2011 Victoria Salmon Kings

Seven years ago, Ryan Wade scored the first goal in Victoria Salmon Kings history.

On Monday night, Chad Klassen scored the last one.

Klassen’s third period goal gave the Salmon Kings a moment of life against the superior Alaska Aces. It tied the game 2-2 while offering the announced crowd of 3,153 what turned out to be temporary relief from the threat of playoff elimination.

Klassen’s arrival was a great one. He came at the end of the regular season and scored nine huge points in helping to guide the Salmon Kings to the Western finals.

Now it’s all over and no one will get to know Chad Klassen because he’s already gone.

On Tuesday morning the players were packing their bags. And when the season is over, that’s when the oversized AHL training camp bags appear, bearing emblems of the Manitoba Moose, Philadelphia Phantoms and Abbotsford Heat.

“I think, for whatever reason, fans in Victoria just didn’t connect with the ECHL,” said head coach and general manager Mark Morrison. “We’re very grateful to the fans. We had some full houses and those are great memories. The city treated our players well.

“Kiel McLeod, Milan Gajic, Adam Taylor, those guys are popular because they’ve been here for awhile.”

Added Morrison, who came to Victoria in 1979 as a 17-year-old and went on to star for the Victoria Cougars WHL team: “I’m still bitter about losing the Victoria Seals (baseball team). I hope this town gets behind the WHL team for the sake of the kids here.”

Apart from Morrison, whose been behind the Kings bench since 2006, no one’s been a part of the team’s fabric like Ryan Wade. As a player he tallied that first goal in 2004 when the Salmon Kings hosted the Bakersfield Condors. The Kings lost that game 7-2. It was played at Bear Mountain Arena because Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, which the Salmon Kings were acquired for, wasn’t even ready.

Wade went on to score 57 more in four regular seasons as well as seven in 17 playoff games. His 266 games played were surpassed only by Wes Goldie.

When Wade ended his playing career in 2008, he came right back as an associate coach.

Now he has no idea what’s next in terms of a career in hockey, though he’d like it to continue.

“It was easy for me to (join the Salmon Kings organization). It was an opportunity to see if I liked coaching without moving the family and two young kids,” he said.

Wade, whose family is also involved in local motorsports, can still be seen circling the track at Western Speedway on Saturday nights this summer.

“That’s the fun side of it. I’d like to keep hockey going but that’s still to be determined. We’ll have to figure out what works best for the family.”

The times we had

There were plenty of stories over the ECHL’s seven-year foray in Victoria: One time New York Rangers goalie sensation Dan Blackburn tried to resuscitate his career by wearing two blockers after damaging his catching hand. Another former Ranger, Dale Purinton, was suspended twice, including the team’s Slap Shot moment when he returned to the ice after an epic brawl at Bear Mountain Stadium. The 2004-05 NHL lockout also saw elite players like Scott Gomez, a Stanley Cup winner, come to town with the Alaska Aces.

It all gave the ECHL a level of credit that seemed to fade despite the team’s on ice improvement. The players themselves never stopped giving.

“Four years ago we couldn’t recruit a player. We’d call 25 guys and one would phone back. This year, there were players begging to play for us,” Morrison said.

“It’s tough leaving the team the way it is. We built it to this level. The returning players might not be the same but when you take a team to the third round the next group of guys expect to do the same thing. But its all for not.”

Morrison also said he loves hockey enough to stick with it in some capacity but won’t be relocating from Victoria any time soon.

Others, like Jeff Harris, saw their role expand from media relations director to assistant general manager.

“I think some people don’t realize the level of hockey. When we were in Alaska and the league was there, they were saying ‘this is the best hockey’ we’ve seen in the ECHL,” Morrison said. “Wade, Harris and I tried to run this as professionally as we could. The Bakersfield and Alaska teams we played in the playoffs could be AHL teams. We have an AHL defence and AHL goaltending. This league is where many top-end juniors go.”

Kings’ future, WHL timeline still to come

Owners RG Properties have yet to divulge the official fate of the Salmon Kings. ECHL franchises aren’t in high demand with several teams having folded since 2008 because of the economy. In 2007-08 the ECHL had 24 teams. In 2010-11 there were 19.

The timeline for Victoria’s WHL teams name, logo and jersey design as well as other details are to follow.