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Golden goal: Spokane bonded around Jets hockey team during 1970 Allan Cup run

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The old-timers, as they call themselves, have a room carved out for them at Eagles Ice Arena.

Some of them still gather at the rink to play once or twice a week, though that number has dwindled. They are, after all – even by hockey standards – getting older.

For a while, Gordon Turlik, 80, and Charlie Goodwin, 81, still skated with the rest of the men, many of whom they have been playing hockey with since they were in their 20s.

But not anymore.

“They were wanting me to practice with them, but I said I can’t do that,” said Goodwin. “I’ve had my knees replaced. … playing hockey has taken its toll.”

Turlik also has retired recently from the group.

“I set an aim that I was gonna play with the old-timers until I was 80, and I did,” Turlik said. “No matter what age you are, it’s always a thrill to score a goal or help a guy score a goal.”

Turlik and Goodwin scored or assisted on plenty of goals over their careers, much of which overlapped during their time with the Spokane Jets, who played in the Western International Hockey League.

In 1970, the Jets won the Allan Cup, becoming the first U.S.-based team to win the Canadian senior amateur hockey championship. They went on to win three more Allan Cups: in 1972 as the Jets, then again in 1976 and 1980 as the Flyers. Only one other U.S.-based club has claimed the Cup since.

On the 50th anniversary of that original achievement, the Jets will be recognized for it before the Spokane Chiefs’ 5 p.m. game against Everett on Sunday at the Arena. The Allan Cup trophy will make an appearance as well, Scherza said.

Turlik won’t be able to attend: Recently he missed the last two stairs descending into his basement, and the injuries he sustained in the fall are keeping him at his Spokane home. But seven of his teammates – many of whom still live in Spokane – are expected to make it.

Drawn to Spokane in the 1960s by the opportunity to play professional hockey, young men like Don Scherza, Dave Cox and Gail Holden arrived in a city whose citizens, they said, embraced them.

They found other jobs to help pay the bills, played hockey on the weekends and in doing so became part of the community. They got married, had kids, and seeing no compelling reason to leave, many stayed.

“Most of the guys have all done very well,” said Vince Collins, a defenseman on the team who was introduced to his future wife at a Spokane Indians baseball game. “The town was really good to us. The people were really great. … That was the main thing why the guys stayed.”

A long time coming

Their experience as athletes in Spokane in the 1960s – as young men in their mid-20s – was quite different from that of the city’s current top athletes, many of whom have yet to reach their 20s at all.

Back then, Spokane had the hockey franchise known at different times as the Jets or Flyers, and the Triple-A affiliate for baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers, the Indians.

Those Jets players were all Canadians originally. Many came because the pay as a hockey player was better than in most cities, and there were better job prospects outside of the sport.

“You could make a living wage, which was the nice thing. It was why a lot of players wanted to come here,” Scherza said.

On top of paying him around $600 a month to play hockey, the Jets paid for Scherza to attend college, he said. And then, after he graduated, he made $650 a month working for Goodyear.

Holden was another player who benefited from the Jets’ offer. He attended law school at Gonzaga and kept playing hockey after he graduated.

Holden said he had chances to turn pro, but the financials didn’t add up. The National Hockey League had just six teams until it expanded to 12 in 1967, so the senior leagues were about the next-best option for men in their 20s and 30s.

“(Spokane) just had a whole lot going for it,” said Holden, who grew up in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and then played junior hockey in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

“The team here in the senior days, they paid more money than any of the clubs in Canada, so you could come down here, and I was fortunate that I had my way paid through college, and I was also getting a salary,” Holden said. “That’s pretty hard to beat.”

The hockey was good, too, and the Jets were usually pretty competitive. But winning the Allan Cup was a grueling exercise.

After a regular season schedule of about 45 games, the Jets first had to win the British Columbia league to claim the Savage Cup (a trophy that, like the Allan Cup, lives on), which they did eight times in 10 seasons from 1968 to 1977.

In 1970, they beat Cranbrook and then Nelson in best-of-7 series to get that far. Then they played the Alberta champions in a best-of-5 – that year it was the Calgary Stampeders – before playing whichever team advanced from the Saskatchewan or Manitoba leagues, which held their own series first.

The Jets swept the St. Boniface Mohawks in three games that year, claiming the Patton Cup as the Western Canada Senior champions.

“We had just beat St. Boniface in Winnipeg, and we were flying back to Spokane. We passed over the (Spokane) Coliseum and we could see down below there were people going entirely around the Coliseum,” Holden said. “At first we looked down and wondered if there was a rock concert going on.”

But then, Holden said, he realized fans were there to buy hockey tickets for the Allan Cup, which rotated between eastern and western champions for hosting rights. In 1970, it was the western champion’s year to host, and so the Allan Cup was held in Spokane between the Jets and the Orillia (Ontario) Terriers.

Orillia's George Vale and Spokane's Tom Rendall battle during a face-off in Allan Cup playoffs in the Spokane Coliseum on May 1, 1970. (SR)
Orillia's George Vale and Spokane's Tom Rendall battle during a face-off in Allan Cup playoffs in the Spokane Coliseum on May 1, 1970. (SR)

“We had people that camped outside the arena so they’d be first in line to get tickets,” said Ken Gustafson, a forward for the Jets. “It was a pretty popular time for hockey in that respect.”

Filling up the old Spokane Coliseum – which had a hockey capacity of about 6,000 – wasn’t uncommon, Gustafson said. But the crowds during the Allan Cup were something else.

Scherza said one of the biggest thrills for him was that when the Jets took the ice for the first game, former Jets players stood in tuxedos and held their sticks high to form a tunnel that the players could skate through.

As they marched onto the ice, the fans sang “When the Jets Go Marching In,” Scherza said. “It was quite an atmosphere.”

In front of a home crowd, the Jets won the series four games to two claiming the first Allan Cup for Spokane and for a U.S.-based club. Only one other U.S. franchise – from Warroad, Minnesota – has done it since.

‘The community knew us’

Winning the Cup might have changed their level of celebrity as a team, but locally the players were already known by the fans.

By then most had been around for at least a few years. Games were well attended and with no helmets on their heads and no glass around the boards, it was easier to see who was out there on the ice.

“We were all guys that knew the community, and the community knew us,” Scherza said.

Don Scherza played on the 1970 Spokane Jets team that won the Allan Cup. (SR)
Don Scherza played on the 1970 Spokane Jets team that won the Allan Cup. (SR)

They drank in taverns, and they shopped in grocery stores, Scherza said. Many had families by then.

Gustafson was an elementary school teacher. Cox, the goalie, was a plumber. A couple of guys worked as salesmen, and a few, like Larry Palanio and George Talotti, were on their way to becoming business owners.

“Our jobs, for the most of us, would be No. 1, and hockey was just kind of a sideline (gig) because we loved to play the game,” said Gustafson, who winters in Mexico now and doesn’t plan to attend Sunday. “You had a chance to play some hockey and get a good career going in something.”

Gustafson taught in Spokane for 28 years and then retired. He devotes plenty of time now to golfing, he said.

The Jets changed their name back to the Flyers in 1974 and played five of the next six years in the WIHL around one season in the Pacific Hockey League. But the team disbanded for two seasons from 1980 to 1982 when the junior Western Hockey League planted a franchise in Spokane.

That team, however, only lasted those two seasons before folding. And so the senior team, rostered with local players, was brought back for three more seasons from 1982 to 1985 under the Chiefs name.

The WHL moved the Kelowna Wings franchise to town in 1985, and the junior-league Chiefs have been the city’s primary hockey team ever since.

The Chiefs have twice won the Memorial Cup – given to the champion of the Canadian junior leagues – in 1991 and 2008.

Even after the Jets franchise folded, many players from the 1970 team are still involved with the Chiefs and other local hockey organizations.

Holden is the president of the Nels Venerus Hockey Scholarship Foundation, named after the former Flyers player who died in 2011.

Cox still serves as the goal judge for Chiefs games, something he has done for 30 years. Goodwin kept stats for 25 years before he started wintering in Arizona, though now he lives in Spokane year-round again.

“We’ve sort of all bonded here,” Goodwin said. “The older you get, the more you appreciate it. … We were proud of ourselves, what we accomplished.”

The 1970 Spokane Jets were the first American team to bring home the Allan Cup. (SR)
The 1970 Spokane Jets were the first American team to bring home the Allan Cup. (SR)

Holden said he sees one or more of the guys almost every week, and during the summer they will get in some rounds of golf. Gustafson is probably the best of the golfers, Holden said, though Goodwin’s a single-digit handicap.

“Then you get guys like Palanio, who fudge,” Holden said with a laugh.

For Cox and Scherza, the reunion Sunday will be just the latest moment in their long, parallel lives. They have been friends since they were 6 years old, growing up in Selkirk, Manitoba, just north of Winnipeg.

Scherza visited Spokane from North Dakota, where he was living at the time, to be the best man in Cox’s wedding in 1965. Cox was already playing for the Jets, and Scherza asked if the following fall he might return for a tryout.

Coaches told Scherza that was fine, so a few months later he tried out, made the team and then became the first of many players to get a college degree as a member of the Jets.

And for nearly every year for the rest of their lives, Spokane was home for Scherza and for Cox.

“Here he is,” Cox said, “and here I am.”

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