When hockey fans refer to success stories in Junior Hockey, the Prince George Spruce Kings often appear on the same page. The Spruce Kings have been a flagship franchise in every league the club has played in, capturing ten play-off titles in 20 years. The Spruce Kings were formed in 1972, the same year the World Hockey Association was launched. The Prince George Spruce Kings have had a winning tradition since 1972, appearing in the Mowat Cup Provincial Championship nine times. For most of its history the club has operated as a nonprofit society with a volunteer board of directors made up of knowledgeable business and hockey people from throughout the community. The Spruce Kings Junior “A” Hockey Club has been an integral part of the Prince George sports scene since the club’s inception in the early 1970’s.
The original Spruce Kings were formed largely on the effort of Lionel Garand. The idea of forming a Junior team and providing local athletes a place to play was his dream. The determined hockey fan went out and found eight other people willing to invest their time and money. The original investors included Ed Berry, Carl Bueckert, George Halsey, Warren Hicks, Dennis Houg, LJ (Mac) MacDonald, Laurie Pennington, Bill Wright and of course Lionel Garand. As a limited company they had to rely on gate receipts and advertising revenue to keep things going.
Eventually it became too much of a financial challenge and the investors had to walk away. That’s when the Prince George Minor Hockey Association got involved. Association President, Bev Christensen stepped in realizing there was a need to keep the junior club going so as to give young athletes from around the region a place to aspire to without having to leave familiar surroundings. The Spruce Kings found new life and the foundation was laid for a prosperous future both on and off the ice.
The team’s name came as a result of a public contest won by Terry Eastholm who received two season passes by coming up with the name “Spruce Kings”. The first two home games for the Spruce Kings were exhibition games against the Bellingham Blazers of the BCJHL. In the first game, the first ever Spruce Kings goal was scored by Ken Turner on a nice feed from Mark Hasbon. It brought close to a 1,000 fans to their feet although the celebration was short lived as the Spruce Kings fell 7-4. The next night more than 1,000 were on hand to watch the Spruce Kings drop a hard fought 10-9 decision to the Blazers who scored with less than two minutes to go.
That season the Spruce Kings played in the Pacific Northwest Hockey League which included both Junior and Intermediate teams from the northwest. Playing a modest 28 game schedule, the Spruce Kings finished second in the four team east division. Three players finished in the top ten in scoring; Fenton Gale, Glen Johnson and Butch Stewart. In the playoffs the Spruce Kings won their first round series but then lost to the Smithers Junior Nats in the Division Final.
In 1975-76 the Peace Cariboo Junior Hockey League was formed as a Junior “B” circuit and the Prince George Juniors won the inaugural league title. The jump to Junior “A” prior to the 1980-81 season sparked a lot of hockey interest in Prince George and throughout the north. The Spruce Kings once again enjoyed a lot of success winning the league championship and challenging the Penticton Knights in the first ever Mowat Cup. After battling Grande Prairie in a tough seven game series, the Spruce Kings traveled to Penticton and lost both games to the Knights 3-0 and 5-1.
One of the most exciting play-off series Prince George hockey fans remember was in 1982-83 when the Spruce Kings captured the league championship and hosted the Langley Eagles in the Mowat Cup. It was standing room only in game one with more than 2,200 fans treated to a fast, hard hitting contest. Lance Carlson was fantastic between the pipes for Prince George and the contest was tied at 2 after more than 80 minutes of hockey, Then in double overtime Langley found an opening and pulled out the 3-2 win.
The next night it was much the same thing. Another great battle ended with the BCJHL champs prevailing 3-2, winning the series in two straight but despite losing the Spruce Kings earned a great deal of respect.
Perhaps one of the most successful seasons for the Spruce Kings was in 1985 when the team which featured players including Tony Twist who is now with St. Louis Blues, posted a 44-6 record. The impressive record was the second best among Junior A teams in the country. Prince George prevailed in the league championship but once again fell short against the Penticton Knights who eventually won the national championship.
When the PCJHL expanded in 1991-92 and changed to the RMJHL the Spruce Kings led the way initiating expansion talks and even coming up with a new name for the league that fit with the geographic locations of the franchises. In the inaugural year of the RMJHL the Spruce Kings were also once again involved in the league championship. After losing the first two games of the best of five series against the Trail Smoke Eaters, the Spruce Kings returned home to win the next three. All three games in Prince George were played before standing room only crowds of around 2,300. After coming from behind to beat Trail the Spruce Kings hosted Vernon in the Mowat Cup. Prince George lost to the Lakers who went on to win the national championship.
Since then the Spruce Kings have finished first in their division a number of times and captured their second RMJHL Title in 1995-96 beating the Fernie Ghostriders in the Championship. The Spruce Kings lost the Mowat Cup to the Vernon Vipers who went on to win the Canadian Junior “A” title.
1995 was a season of challenge for one of the oldest Junior “A” hockey franchises in British Columbia, but despite being bumped from the front pages and from a building they had called home for almost twenty-five years, the Prince George Spruce Kings turned adversity into success. Despite the emotional setback of the City choosing someone else to operate the major junior franchise and news the Spruce Kings would be relegated to a smaller facility with seating for just over 500, the Spruce Kings organization took the change in stride. The first thing the Spruce Kings did was organize their solid core of volunteers. The club built a new dressing room, new offices, and souvenir booth as well as working with the City of Prince George to expand the seating in the Spruce Kings new home to close to 600.
As September rolled around, the new Prince George Cougars attracted thousands of hockey fans to the Prince George Coliseum and at the same time the Spruce Kings did what many said would not be possible, they maintained their popularity, averaging more than 600 fans in their 600 seat facility. The club’s commitment to family oriented entertainment shone through and in the process the Spruce Kings climbed the ladder of success until they were ranked among the top five Junior “A” clubs in the country.
In 1996 the Spruce Kings purchased the New West Outlaws BCHL franchise and received approval from the league Governors to operate the franchise out of Prince George. The Spruce Kings would compete in the Interior Division of the BCHL. In their first season in the BCHL, the Spruce Kings finished a respectable fourth in the Interior Division but then lost to Merritt two games to one in the first round of the playoffs.
The 1997-98 BCHL Season was a roller coaster ride for the Spruce Kings. They improved their goals for and against record but had trouble hitting the win column finishing fifth in the regular season. The Spruce Kings defeated Merritt in the first round of the playoffs and then lost in six games to Penticton in the Division Semi Final. During the season the Spruce Kings hosted the 28th Annual BCHL All Star Game which attracted more than 3,000 fans to the Prince George Multiplex.
In 2005, a community group submitted their second application to host the RBC Royal Bank Cup in Prince George and were successful. The bid gave the Spruce Kings an automatic entry in the tournament as one of five teams from across Canada that would participate as the host team in the 2007 National Tournament. The Spruce Kings entered the tournament as the decided underdogs after being eliminated from the BCHL post-season by the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the first round; that did not deter the team and they would finish third after round robin play and come away from the tournament with a hard fought silver medal effort.
In the semi-final game against the Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the Spruce Kings defeated the Doyle Cup Champions in an epic battle that started on a Satruday evening and ended just after 1:00am Sunday morning. The game was tied at 2 after regulation time and a full four overtime periods did nothing to settle the outcome with both teams having excellent opportunities. In the early stages of the fifth overtime, a Camrose penalty gave the Spruce Kings their tenth powerplay opportunity of the game and resulted in the eventual game winning goal after 146:01 of playing time.
Tyler Helfrich, who was acquired from the Fort McMurray Oil Barons at the trade deadline, spotted Jason Yuel, another player acquired at the trade deadline from the Winnipeg Saints, skating through the top of the right faceoff circle; with a quick flick of the wrist, Helfrich fed Yuel the puck. 3,800 fans held their breath as Yuel deflected the puck up and over the Camrose netminder to turn on the red light and end the six hour marathon game. The game set the record for the longest game in RBC Royal Bank Cup history, but would ultimately be the demise of the Spruce Kings in the Championship game just 18 hours later.
After failing to get off to an early start with a couple of glorious scoring opportunities, it became evident that the Spruce Kings had run out of gas. The Aurora Tigers would go on to establish a 3-0 lead and would eventually win the game 3-1. At the seconds ticked down in the third people, a very appreciative crowd rose to their feet in the CN Centre and applauded non-stop for the efforts that they witnessed from the 2007 National Silver Medalist Prince George Spruce Kings.