- This article discusses the ice hockey personality Bill Hunter. For the Australian actor see Bill Hunter.
William Dickenson (Bill) Hunter (May 5, 1920 _ December 16, 2002) was a Canadian hockey owner, general manager and coach. Hunter was involved in hockey, football, baseball, softball and curling but he is best known for founding the Western Hockey League, being a key player in the upstart World Hockey Association and for his efforts to bring professional hockey to previously overlooked Western Canadian cities, especially in Edmonton and (unsuccessfully) in Saskatoon.
Hunter was born in Saskatoon and founded his first competitive sports team when he was 18. Hunter's Saskatoon Dukes football club would eventually become the Saskatoon Hilltops who as of 2004 had won 12 national junior titles. Hunter then attended Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan from 1938 to 1940, where he managed the college baseball team.
Following the outbreak of World War II Hunter left school to join the Royal Canadian Air Force and served for about four years as a pilot based in England. Hunter flew Beauforts, Spitfires and Hurricanes before returning to Saskatoon in 1944 where he worked briefly for CFQC Radio before opening Hunter's Sporting Goods in North Battleford the following year.
Between 1945 and 1949 Hunter coached and managed hockey teams in North Battleford, Regina, Moose Jaw and Yorkton. It was during these years that Hunter would be nicknamed "Wild Bill" following a dispute with a referee. Hunter did not like the nickname especially at first but it would stick with him for the rest of his life.
In 1950 Hunter founded the first curling bonspiel to be held on artificial ice, the Quaker Car Curling Bonspiel. He also managed and coached the Saskatoon Quakers hockey club until 1952. From 1953 to 1955 he owned, managed and coached the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The Birth of the WHL
By 1965 Hunter was owner, general manager and coach of the Edmonton Oil Kings. The Oil Kings won the Memorial Cup in 1966, but by then Hunter was arguing that the competitive structure of the game in Western Canada was putting the region at a disadvantage to stronger leagues in Ontario and Quebec. Each Western province still had its own junior league while Hunter believed the West needed a single elite junior league to compete effectively.
Following a dispute with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League president and with the support of several other owners, Hunter would form the Western Canadian Hockey League (now the Western Hockey League) in 1967 with Hunter becoming the first chairman of the WCHL board. The new "Outlaw League" was not welcomed by everyone with open arms and it would be a few years before the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association allowed its champion to compete for the Memorial Cup, but it soon proved too strong for the provincial leagues to ignore and they soon stopped competing for the trophy. By 1972 the Memorial Cup's modern round-robin format was established - since then the WHL has won the Memorial Cup more times than any other league.
The Birth of the Edmonton Oilers and the WHA
Following the establishment of what would become the WHL Hunter turned his efforts toward professional hockey. The NHL was expanding but it was not interested in Hunter's proposal for an expansion franchise to play in Edmonton. Hunter offered to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins but this proposal was also rebuffed. In 1971, Hunter was introduced to Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy, two American promoters who were interested in establishing a rival league. The World Hockey Association started play the following year with Hunter as owner, general manager and coach of the Alberta Oilers, who would soon be known as the Edmonton Oilers.
Although the Oilers were a mediocre team on the ice, they were among the fledgling league's most financially stable franchises, especially after the completion of Northlands Coliseum in 1975. By the time the Oilers had joined the NHL in 1979, Hunter had sold the team to Nelson Skalbania, who in turn sold the franchise to Peter Pocklington.
The "Saskatchewan Blues"
Hunter would make one more serious attempt to bring a professional team to Western Canada when in 1982 he offered to purchase the financially struggling St. Louis Blues and move the team to his hometown. The offer raised many eyebrows even in Canada as few thought an NHL team could survive in a relatively small, economically depressed city. Nonetheless, Hunter was able to obtain commitments for 18,000 season tickets as well as for an 18,000 seat arena. This did not prove sufficient for the NHL Board of Governors, who blocked the transaction even though doing so forced the league to take over the team itself.
Hunter's efforts would not prove completely fruitless, however as the city eventually built Saskatchewan Place in 1988.
Following his attempt to bring the Blues to Saskatoon, Hunter organized softball tournaments in Saskatoon before investing in the San Diego Gulls hockey club in 1990. He remained somewhat active in the 1990's, helping to organize the Flexi-coil curling cashspiel in his hometown before his health began to fail. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2000 and was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.
Hunter died of cancer in Edmonton on December 16, 2002.