That 5-3 victory over the Sharks at this point last season meant that the Flames won their first division title in 13 seasons (2005-06) and clinched the Western Conference title for the first time since 1989-90. Overall, it was the team’s seventh division title in franchise history and fourth conference regular-season title. With the win, the Flames had locked in their position in the standings and all that was left to do was play out the string.
“It feels a lot better when you win your way into these positions. We’ve had a good year, a good regular season, but we know the work lies ahead in the playoffs. But we won’t take this for granted. It’s an accomplishment by our team to finish first in the West and obviously not an easy thing to do. We’ll enjoy it, but we’ll get geared up here now for the playoffs.”
Back on Dec. 8, the Flames took over the top spot in the Western Conference. It was a delight that they made it there at all, and that late in the season at that; a fun little blip as we got to look forward to the start of the Flames’ window opening. But then they kept pace with the top teams in the Central. And in January, took it back over. And aside from a day here and there, just never really gave it up.
This was both the most inevitable and unexpected conclusion to the regular season. They’re really the best in the West. Over the course of a 79-game season, they’re really that good.
What we wouldn’t give to go back to the feeling we all had after beating the Sharks to lock down the top spot in the West. At the same time, this win and conference title feels like it happened a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? So much has changed since that night and it’s almost unbelievable that this news happened only 12 months ago. Be safe, everyone.
After a pretty stellar junior career with the Kamloops Blazers in which he helped his team head to two-straight Memorial Cup tournaments, winning it the second time, Corey Hirsch then made his way to the pros where he would eventually become a reliable backup goaltender for the Vancouver Canucks.
Of course, the Canucks weren’t the only net that Corey protected, but after his playing days were over he came back to contribute to the team’s broadcasts as the Canucks’ colour man on Sportsnet 650. His insight as a former player is invaluable to broadcasts, giving a perspective that the listener just couldn’t imagine unless they were in the same position.
Corey Hirsch had a colourful collection of masks during his tenure in Vancouver and thankfully he was willing to have a chat with me to talk about the stories behind them. It was interesting to hear how so many goaltenders use the same designer for their masks considering how many teams in the league there were. It’s surprising that half the league didn’t play with a black mask for a season at a time.
Anyway, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Corey Hirsch:
Ryan Hank: You were one of the more famous Canucks backups but before that, you were a backstop for one of the most famous WHL/CHL teams of all time: the 90’s Blazers. You were a WHL and CHL goalie of the year which is pretty impressive considering that everyone knows how hard that league is. When you had your Blazers mask, did you have any input to what was going on there or did they have a template for you?
Corey Hirsch: No, with the Blazers, goalies wore mostly cage and helmets back then, but I got a mask call from a guy, from Krubunco, was his name. So I had a mask from him when I was 16 and 17. I got a mask from him and I had that done on my own, so there was no theory behind that. My shop teacher in high school painted that one.
My last year in Junior, Itech was one of the first ones that came out with a form-fitting kind of small, medium, large size of mask. I was one of the first ones to wear it, it didn’t have any paint on it, it was white. They didn’t offer any paint jobs, really. They were cookie-cutter but they were really good masks. Frank Zipper was my painter on those. A really good mask, though.
That’s what I wore pretty much right through until I made the Canucks and then Greg Harrison made me a mask.
RH: That name comes up a lot. I guess there are only a handful of guys in the world that really do this. Greg Harrison comes up almost every time. Eddie Lack had Dave Gunnarsson in Sweden but that seemed like a good fit for him being so close. I’m looking at your first mask, actually, your second Canucks mask if I’ve done the math correctly.
Your second one was the Haunted Mansion, one of my favourites, it’s just kind of a badass look. You had the brick wall on the chin there and it seemed like goalies were doing that a bit back then. Jim Carey (Captials rookie at the time) had that on his too, I believe? It just felt like there was the right amount of detail and it wasn’t overdone.
CH: Frank Zipper, one of my favourite painters. We were looking at Vancouver’s colours and the scheme and they had the skate logo. Everyone kinda wondered, well what the hell is that? I didn’t know it was the skate until about two years ago.
RH: I didn’t know until about 10 or so years ago and I’m 36 so it’s ok. (I may take some heat for this)
CH: What did stand out though was that the colours were kind of Halloween-ish: black, red, gold. I talked to Frank and asked “what’s something kind of Halloween-ish, something kinda scary?” I always found that my generation growing up was the 70s masks and they had a spooky feel to them. When guys would put a mask on they became a different person.
With Bromley’s mask, he had a skull, and the scary look was kind of the way of the 70s.
RH: Like an intimidation factor?
CH: Yeah, so that’s how we came up with the Halloween idea. And then the Psycho house parlayed into the Halloween theme. We were thinking of scary movies, classic scary movies and what was the scariest Halloween movie of all time? I don’t know if it was myself or Frank that talked about doing the Psycho house.
It also parlayed into my mental health issues that I had, so it was kind of fitting.
RH: I was wondering about that. You’ve been pretty vocal about the things that you’ve struggled with mentally and I wondered if the two connected together?
CH: Yes, it definitely played into it. It was kind of perfect. It was exactly how I felt that it was going in my brain. So it all just came together like that.
I was having issues but it was having a good painter that put it together. You can give a guy an idea and if he’s not a really creative person… Frank is really a forward-thinking painter. You can give him an idea and he’d run with it. He’d give you what you wanted. He wouldn’t do what HE wanted. Some painters are like “well that’s a great idea, but I’m going to do it the way I want to do it”. Frank would take my vision and he was awesome with it.
So that’s how that all came together on that one.
RH: What did you have on the backplate of that one, I don’t think I’ve seen it?
CH: I had a Hershey’s kiss, I think that was it. (Clearly a typo on my part)
CH: I vaguely remember that one, I didn’t wear it very long. I don’t remember who made that one. I don’t think I ever wore it in a game. I could have been screwing around and someone sent me a mask and I tried to see if I liked it.
One of my favourite masks that no one really got to see because I got traded after I got it. I only wore it for a month. It was a New York Rangers mask. It had King Kong climbing up the side of the Empire State Building. I only had for maybe a month and then I got traded to Vancouver. That was one of my favourites that I didn’t get to wear and nobody got to see. I don’t know if there are any photos out there of it. I’ll have to see if I have one.
(Corey delivered, check this out)
RH: Your third one, I think was kind of the most original of all of them. You introduced the aboriginal design, I think there was an eagle on there or a fish?
CH: That was when I got a Harrison. Greg Harrison at the time, it would take him a year and a half to make you a mask. He was coming out of the business and it was painful trying to get a mask from him. I finally got one from him and he went with a west coast look. Greg didn’t give you much input on a mask. He talked to you about it and then he did his own thing.
There were simple, classic designs.
RH: He crushed it though.
CH: Yeah, he was great. He never got real busy on his masks. I find a lot of the masks today, they’re too busy, you can’t even tell what’s on them, there’s too much s**t. I’m into more of a classic look.
RH: When you went to the aboriginal one, right before the team went to the orca. You and Mclean both got those, you were kind of in the know almost, after they went to the orca that’s on the jersey now and you had that design before. Did they tell you?
CH: There was one prior to that that went with the old Canucks logo. I had two Harrison’s. The one you’re talking about is the second one he made for me, so that logo may have already come out. I have one in my apartment, wait, maybe that IS the one your talking about. The eagle? The second one has the blue, is that the one?
RH: Yeah, you had the skate coloured look and then the orca one.
CH: Those were the two Harrisons? Ok, so the first one you’re talking about with the eagle I wore with the old Canucks logo which kind of blended. The second one I got when they changed to the Orca. I got sent to Syracuse one year and I wore one of those in Syracuse.
RH: You have one that looks like a Bromley knock off as well? That might not be you.
CH: No, I never had that one. The Team Canada one I had the Itech one, that was a Frank Zipper one as well.
RH: OK, I have one more for you: Do you have a favourite mask from a current or past goalie?
CH: Gary Bromley was my favourite of all time. The skull one. I liked the old school masks without the cages on them. Those were my favourite, you know like Mike Liut. If I had to pick one with the cage on it, I like the classic design that Kirk had. I think that was probably one of my favourites as well.
RH: It’s interesting to see the evolution of all these. There’s so much going on them now. I think Luongo perfected if you wanted something on there, he knew how to keep them simple. He had one thing on there but it was impactful.
CH: Yeah, actually my Dallas Stars mask probably isn’t on there, that was cool. That one was a wizard and some stars. That was Frank Zipper as well. (The wizard one is pictured above)
RH: So do you keep all those masks or do you donate them?
CH: No, I have them all. The one is in the Hall of Fame.
RH: the Canada one?
CH: No, the Psycho house. That’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The mask display they have, I donated that one. I think rather than sitting in a basement somewhere with me, it’s there for everyone to see. It’s neat to have it there. They take care of your stuff.
My Olympic pads are there as well.
RH: No kidding! Well Corey, thank you so much. I appreciate it. This is something I’ve always loved to look at and now I can pick everyone’s brain on it.
CH: No problem, let me know when it comes out.
RH: Will do.
CH: Thanks, man.
RH: Thank you.
It was such a pleasure to get further insight into yet another Canucks’ goalie’s brain. Corey Hirsch has a special story and I’m glad he was able to share that with me. He has been quite vocal with his mental health issues and the fact that he had a bit of a story with arguably his most famous mask showed that Corey was able to get the better of some of his demons.
On March 30th, 1979 the NHL announced it would be adding four teams from the World Hockey Association (WHA) and expand from 17 teams to 21. The Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers and Edmonton Oilers became expansion teams. They paid a $6 million expansion fee.
The WHA’s two remaining teams, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, were each given $1.5 million and ceased operations.
The final bit of business for the WHA was a dispersal draft. The Oilers’ most notable pick was goalie Mike Luit from Cincinnati.
The NHL announced they would hold a reclamation draft and an expansion draft in June.
On June 9th, NHL teams announced their list of reclaimed players. Players who had previously played for them or been drafted by them could be reclaimed. Thirty players were reclaimed, including 14 from the WHA Oilers, easily the most of the four teams.
Forwards: Doug Berry, Steve Carlson (from the movie Slapshot), Wes George, Jim Mayer, Dave Semenko, Dennis Sobchuk and Stan Weir.
D-men: Kelly Davis, Dave Langevin, John Hughes, Carl Sandbeck, Paul Shmyr and Risto Siltanen.
Goalie: Mike Liut.
Prior to this, the WHA announced each team was allowed to keep two skaters and two goalies. But the list must not have been given to the NHL teams, as some of them put in a claim, only to get rebuffed. If a player was on the protected list of the WHA team, then the WHA team would retain his rights. For instance, had the Oilers protected Liut, then St. Louis, who had drafted him in 1976, would not have been able to reclaim him.
Edmonton kept Wayne Gretzky, Dave Dryden, Eddie Mio and Bengt-Ake Gustafsson.
The Oilers protected Gretzky, even though no NHL team had any rights to him, but they did it so he wouldn’t go into the NHL entry draft. Players who were young enough to be draft eligible into the NHL were not allowed to be protected, but Edmonton protected Gretzky.
Oddly, Gretzky didn’t have a contract with the Oilers. In fact, he had a personal services contract with Peter Pocklington. The league decided he could stay with the Oilers, but Edmonton would move down the draft and pick last in every round. This turned out to be a great deal for the Oilers. Obviously keeping Gretzky was a huge reason for their future success. And they selected Kevin Lowe with the final pick in the first round, 21st overall,
During the merger negotiations, the NHL had sent a directive to the WHA that the WHA was to cease contract negotiations with players effective December 31st, 1978. According to then-Oilers GM, Larry Gordon, the WHA hadn’t sent this directive to the respective teams until March, and he had signed Gustafsson in early 1979. Gustafsson joined the WHA Oilers for two playoff games in 1979.
He never played for the Oilers, because the Washington Capitals, who had originally drafted Gustafsson in the fifth round, in 1978, challenged it and the league awarded Gustafsson property of the Capitals. But they made that decision on September 15th, well after the expansion draft, so the Oilers just lost Gustafsson and didn’t have the chance to protect another forward prior to the June expansion draft.
I haven’t been able to figure out why the NHL didn’t make a decision on Gustafsson between June 9th and 13th when the league held the expansion draft. But my guess is they gave them the Gretzky ruling and this was a way to even it out a few months later.
On June 11th, the protected lists were announced. NHL teams were allowed to protect 15 skaters and two goalies. They would lose four players.
On June 13th, 1979, the expansion draft took place.
Just like any expansion draft, there were deals made prior to the expansion draft, so teams wouldn’t reclaim a player or an expansion team would draft a certain player and get an additional player for making the pick.
The Oilers made 16 selections. It was a reverse snake draft. Winnipeg selected first, then Edmonton, Hartford and Quebec. Then in the second round, it went Quebec, Hartford, Edmonton and Winnipeg. And then Winnipeg had the first pick in the third round and so on.
The Oilers selections were, in order:
*By choosing Connor the Oilers also received Dave Hunter from the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens had reclaimed him, but if the Oilers agreed to take Connor and not Rod Langway or Rick Chartraw, for instance, then they’d get him and Connor. Hunter was a top-rated young player and this moved turned out to be very good for the Oilers as Hunter was a solid role player, penalty killer and agitator during their Stanley Cup years.
The Oilers opted not to protect Paul Shymr, so Minnesota could reclaim him. The Oilers got a fourth round pick from Minnesota and they used that pick to select Glenn Anderson.
The North Stars did reclaim Dave Semenko, but in August of 1979 the Oilers acquired him and a third round pick in exchange for the Oilers second and third round picks. The Oilers selected Mark Messier with their pick, while Minnesota took Neal Broten and Kevin Maxwell.
The Oilers also reacquired Risto Siltanen in a trade with the Blues. They acquired Siltanen and Tom Roulston in exchange for Joe Micheletti.
(The Maple Leafs did reclaim Stan Weir, but he ended up playing for the Oilers in 1979/1980. I just couldn’t find the transaction that got him back to the Oilers. If you know please let me know in the comment section.)
So 41 years ago today, the wheels for the current Oilers organization were put in motion. After that announcement, in a span of six months, the Oilers had Gretzky, Messier, Anderson, Lowe, Semenko, Hunter, Fogolin, Hicks, Connor, Mio and Dryden and more.
Another big event happened today in 1996. Former Oilers D-man, and my current TSN 1260 co-host, Jason Strudwick, played his first NHL game. He finished even with seven PIMS, and was the only D-man who wasn’t a minus. Atta boy, Struds.