The 1980-81 Kingston Canadians set the bar in many aspects for future Kingston teams. From individual franchise records to team stats, they put up many numbers that stood for years, and some that still stand today.
It was also the year that the Kingston radio broadcast took shape. Jim Gilchrist moved from the Oshawa Generals to the Kingston Canadians radio booth.
It was a memorable year in many ways. Jim Gilchrist (JG) spoke with Jordan Jackson (JJ) to talk about his first year in Kingston and the 1980-81 Kingston Canadians.
JJ: This week we are heading back to the early years of the Kingston franchise and looking at the 1980-81 Kingston Canadians. Jim, this was a team that had solid results in the standings, but also had an incredible amount of individual success. Can you give us a quick overview of that season?
JG: It was a great year! It was also my first year in Kingston after doing games in Oshawa for seven years, so it was very memorable in many ways.
Back then there were only two divisions, the Leyden division and the Emms division. Kingston was in the Leyden division with, oddly enough, Sault Ste. Marie as well as Ottawa, Oshawa, Sudbury and Peterborough. Over in the other division there were a couple of teams that could have made more sense in our division, at least travel wise.
It was a great year for the Kingston Canadians. Sault Ste. Marie finished on top of the standings, followed by Ottawa and then Kingston in third. They had 39 wins on the season and finished with 81 points.
When you look at the top 10 scorers in the OHL at that time, which was led by future Frontenacs assistant coach John Goodwin, all the top 10 point getters had over 120 points that year including, of course, Bernie Nicholls who set the franchise record that year of 152 points, which he still holds today. He had 63 goals in 65 games.
Scottie Howson, who is now the President of the American Hockey League, had 140 points which was second on the team.
Rik Wilson, a defenseman, had 100 points on the year including 30 goals.
Two others had over 70 points including another defenseman, Neil Belland with 82 and playing center Justin Hanley had 74. So that was a crazy year for goals. I think it was a goaltender’s nightmare if you look around the league because, as I mentioned, the top point getters were all over 120 points.
JJ: You talked about the divisions and how they played out geographically but let’s look at them statistically. The Emms division winning Kitchener Rangers would have finished in fifth place in the Leyden division that the Canadians were in. Were the Canadians better than their record showed and just suffered from having to play tougher competition throughout the year?
JG: I think it was a lot tougher in the Leyden division. If you look at a team like Oshawa that year, they were a tough team. They were mostly known for their fighting that season. Peterborough was, kind of, rebuilding and Sudbury was a bit of a cellar dweller.
The top 3, however, were the class of the division and the OHL at that time. You could see that with the results in the standings but also by looking at the league’s top scorers with four of the top six coming from that division.
JJ: To give people an idea of how talented that team was, talk a bit about the individual success that players from that roster had after their time in Kingston.
JG: I was just looking back at it today, and twelve players from that team went on to play in the NHL. Some only had a handful of games, but 12 in total played at the NHL level at some point, and some of them played a lot of games.
Bernie Nicholls, of course. Rik Wilson back on the defense along with Neil Belland. Mike Stothers who would eventually come back as a coach in the OHL later on. Kirk Muller only played two games that year, but he came back the next year and was really good for the Canadians. Phil Bourque, a defenseman from Chelmsford, Massachusetts, he had the thick Boston accent. He went on to win a couple of Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Craig Muni and Perry Anderson were also on that team and they went on to play in the NHL as well.
JJ: Some of those players were selected to the OHL All-Star game, or OHL Chrysler Cup as it was called then, which was played at the Kingston Memorial Centre. What were the highlights of that game?
JG: The game was played on February 3, 1981 at the Kingston Memorial Centre. The Canadians had four players selected to the Leyden Division roster. Bernie Nicholls, Rik Wilson, Neil Belland and Mike Moffat all represented the Canadians on home ice.
The Emms Division won the game 4-3. All four goals for the Emms Division were scored by future NHL’ers including Brian Bellows, Steve Larmer, Ernie Godden, and Mike Bullard. Leyden Division goals came from Ron Handy, John Goodwin and Randy Boyd. Rik Wilson of the Canadians recorded an assist in the game.
The night before they held a reception at the old 401 Inn, and I was able to interview Gordie Howe who was a guest speaker. We had a good 15–20-minute interview and once we finished up, we were sitting there chatting. Some guy came along and said “Okay, Mr. Howe, we are all set to go.”. I will never forget, he turned and said, “I’m speaking to Jim here, I’ll be another five minutes or so”. I couldn’t believe Gordie Howe was sitting there, brushing somebody else off to have a talk with me.
JJ: By today’s standard that would have been considered a young team. They had just one 20-year-old and a handful of 19-year-olds. Was that the same in 1980? Was this a young team that had a strong season?
JG: They really surprised a lot of people. I think most thought that it would be Oshawa up there that season, but the Canadians really gelled led by Nicholls and Howson.
They had great goaltending from Mike Moffat, who would end up being a world junior goaltender and won a gold medal in 1982. He also played a bit for Boston in the NHL.
The power play for Kingston was unbelievable. You had Nicholls, Howson and Hanley up front. Belland and Wilson on the point and Moffat in net. It was pretty well automatic. By the end of the year teams knew that you couldn’t take penalties against the Canadians because of their number one power play.
JJ: You briefly mentioned that Kirk Muller played a couple of games that season. That was “exceptional player status” before that was an official title. Kirk played for the Canadians at just 14-years-old. I know it wasn’t a huge sample size, but what was it like to see him play at that level at such a young age?
JG: The news was already out about Kirk. We were just waiting for him to play with the Canadians. Of course, he could only play a couple of games that year because he was only 14 but you still knew he was going to be something special.
He really showed it the next year in 1981-82. You could really tell he was going to be something else.
I remember sitting up in Ottawa with him one time. We were sitting at the Ottawa Civic Centre. At that time, it was the second largest building we played in because when you played Toronto, you played at Maple Leaf Gardens, but I remember sitting at the end of the rink in Ottawa with Kirk and he was in awe of the building and how big it was. I said to him “Hey kid, you better get used to it because you are going to be playing in buildings a lot bigger than this throughout your career.”
You could just tell that he was going to be a good one.
JJ: Maybe you can explain the playoff system to us since it worked differently than it does now.
JG: There was only one series played in the quarter final. Sault Ste. Marie, Ottawa and Kingston all got a bye into the Division Semi-Final. There was also no overtime, so just like in the regular season both teams would get a point in a tie, which I could never figure out why they would do that in the playoffs.
If you look at both of Kingston’s playoff series that year, there was a tie in each series. It seemed weird that you would come out without a winner in a playoff game but those were the rules at the time, so you went by them. Sometimes it would result in one of the teams getting an extra gate at the time so that may have been the reason why.
JJ: The second-round matchup for Kingston was against the Ottawa 67’s. Interestingly enough, that was the last time a Kingston franchise has played against Ottawa in a playoff series. Was the rivalry with Ottawa then similar to what it is now?
JG: I think it was even a bit stronger then than it is now. That was before Belleville came into the league the following season so there was still that bitterness between Kingston and Ottawa, it seemed, from the mid 70’s on when they really had that rivalry going. It’s kind of carried over into that series too, especially with Kingston coming out on top.
It is kind of crazy, as you said, that was the last time they played each other. Especially with them being in the same division for so long but they have not matched up again since.
Kingston came back from a 3-0 deficit after the first period to win game one. They also won the second by a 5-4 count. Bernie Nicholls had a pair of goals in both of those games. Then they came back to Kingston and tied game three 6-6.
Ottawa then won game four 9-1 and I remember that one very well because that came on the night of March 27, 1981. My oldest daughter was born early that morning at 6:45 so I was up all night with that. Then we got beat 9-1 and Jim Morrison, who was coach and GM at that time and was just a great guy, he came to me after the game and said “Jeez, if that’s what happens when you have a kid on a gameday there will be no more kids during the hockey season!” That was a memorable night that night.
JJ: If you look at the results of that series, Kingston jumped out to a 5-1 points lead but Ottawa came back and made it 5-5 before Kingston ultimately won 9-5. Was there some nervousness in Kingston after blowing that early cushion?
JG: Oh yeah, I think right after that 9-1 loss Ottawa came right back with a 5-2 win, so everyone thought “Boy, this is going to be coming right down to the wire and we really have to get our act together.”, and they really did.
They earned a 6-2 win in game six before going back to Ottawa and closing out the series with a 3-2 win. That was a key back then just like it is now, and that is winning on the road, especially in a playoff series like that.
JJ: Not to harp on it too much, but the geography of the divisions didn’t make a lot of sense here because Kingston beat Ottawa on April 3rd, and then had to be in Sault Ste. Marie to open the Division Final on April 7. What was the turnaround like facing that kind of travel in a short window?
JG: For one of these trips, we actually flew up to the Soo in not a huge plane! In fact, a very small plane, especially for that time. So that was okay, it beat going on a 9-hour bus ride.
It did make you ask, “what are they doing?” in our division when you had Toronto and Niagara Falls over in the other division.
Sault Ste. Marie had the strongest team in the OHL at that time and they showed it in that series.
JJ: In that series, it was flip the script. The Soo went up 5-1 on Kingston before the Canadians fought back to make it 5-5. What was it like to feel defeated so early on but to be able to fight back and make it a competitive series?
JG: Especially after the first couple of games up in the Soo because they lost those 6-0 and 5-2 so they had their work really cut out for them.
They came back and tied the third game of that series before winning game four. Scott Howson was good for Kingston in the series. Bernie was beat up by that point. The Soo was all over him for the whole series and it showed because he only had a couple for goals in the series.
The Soo had a great team. When you look at their roster, they had John Vanbiesbrouck in goal. He went on to play in the NHL. Somebody who didn’t really stand out in this series, but a kid by the name of Ron Francis played with the Greyhounds at that time. Ironically enough, another top point getter was Ron Handy who came to Kingston in a trade a couple of years later and had a great career in a Canadians uniform. They were a powerhouse. Of course, they had Goodwin and Gatzos up front. They had a good team and it showed in that series.
JJ: Let’s talk about the goaltender, Mike Moffat. He was an absolute workhorse appearing in 57 of 68 games and setting a franchise record with 33 wins.
JG: You don’t see many goaltenders play that type of schedule anymore! It was a power packed team right from the goaltender on out. Mike Moffat went on to play a bit with Boston in the NHL and he also won a Gold Medal with at the World Juniors.
There were a lot of records set that year. Nicholls set the record for most points at 152 and most goals with 63. Scott Howson had the record for most points in single playoff year with 19 until Gabe Vilardi had 22 during the playoffs in 2018.
It was a great season for Moffat and that was a big reason Kingston was as competitive as they were.
JJ: This was your first season in Kingston. Tell us, whether it be on the ice or something unrelated, what do you take away from your first season in Kingston?
JG: A lot of things really. I think number one was, I came down from the Oshawa/Whitby area which was my hometown, and I took a big step to come down to a strange city where I knew just a handful of people. My wife, as I mentioned, was pregnant with our first child and she came down knowing absolutely no one. I’d be gone on the road for almost a week at times and she would be here all alone! I think moving to Kingston and having our first child was most memorable, especially with it happening during that playoff series.
Also, my color commentator that year was a kid by the name of Chris Cuthbert. He went to Queen’s and was working part-time at CKWS doing the late-night sports, but he was my first color commentator. He went on to a station in Montreal the following season.
Jim Morrison, he was the Coach and GM at the time, we got to know him and his wife Wanda. They lived not too far away from us when we moved to Kingston. Especially as the spring and summers went by and the weather got better, we would take our little one around the block for a walk every so often and they would come out and want to take her away. They had four boys so when Wanda could get her hands on a little girl, she wouldn’t pass it up. She always said, “If you guys want to take of for a night, I’ll take care of her!”