On this day, the AJHL's The Pass Red Devils lost a game. And they didn't stop losing for a while.
What's the worst hockey team you know? Was it the famous 1974-75 Washington Capitals, who went 8-67-5 and allowed 265 more goals than they scored? Or maybe the 1980-81 Winnipeg Jets, who went 9-57-14 in the Smythe Division of the post-merger NHL? Hell, you may be thinking bitterly, how about the last five seasons of Edmonton Oilers hockey?
Today, we look back at a team which made those storied sides look like Stanley Cup champions. On this day, 38 years ago, The Pass Red Devils of the Alberta Junior Hockey League lost 8-6 to the Drumheller Falcons. They also lost their next game, 10-2 to the Calgary Canucks at Foothills Arena. And the game after. And the game after. They lost 28 games consecutively; not the longest streak in the history of hockey but certainly one of the most spectacular. And even when the losing stopped, briefly, the misery continued en route to the worst full season in the history of the AJHL. What had once been a promising if undistinguished young team was transformed in one winter into a laughing-stock, a horrible, tasteless joke that ended only with the team's destruction.
Right now, all NHL fans champ at the lockout bit, desperate for hockey. The Pass Red Devils are living proof that sometimes hockey is worse than no hockey at all.
Connoisseurs of awful hockey teams must surely take The Pass as one of, if not the, very worst. A professional team which dropped 28 games in a row would be at risk of a Molotov cocktail through the team office, and while plenty of junior teams have been caught in off-years for talent with complacent or unlucky management, it's one thing to win a single-digit number of games and another to pull off what The Pass managed. If the Red Devils aren't the worst serious Canadian hockey team of all time, the nearest contenders must come from the junior ranks.
The record losing streak in Canadian junior "A" hockey or higher is shared by the 1989-90 Victoria Cougars of the WHL and the NOJHL's 2002-03 Espanola Eagles, who lost 32 in a row*. Both teams were impressively bad, but the Eagles were weird: they lost 32 in a row but with a record of 5-43-0 were merely "extraordinarily terrible" rather than historically awful. The Cougars were worse, and their 5-65-2 record that year adds up to 0.167 points per game. They scored 221 goals and allowed 565, meaning their average goal differential per game was -4.78. Those are extraordinary figures, but The Pass can beat that.
That fabled 1974-75 season, the Red Devils wound up with a record of 3-56-1. They had seven points in sixty games, or 0.117 points per game. They scored 169 goals and allowed 467, meaning their average goal differential per game was -4.97. Let me repeat that so it's clear. On average, every night, the 1972-73 the Red Devils lost by five.
Based in Crowsnest Pass's Blairmore Arena, far from anywhere, the Red Devils boasted some of the league's most passionate fans but were short on players: a fairly good 1973-74 team made the playoffs and snuck to the AJHL final, but those fairly good players moved on. The club ran as a farm team for the WCHL's Calgary Centennials, but the Centennials themselves had an awful season with no decent depth to spare. The Pass had an average age of 16 in a league where top players were 19- or 20-year-old university students.
There was no doubt the Red Devils were going to struggle but the degree of incompetence stunned everyone. After hammering The Pass 11-1 on November 21, Calgary Canucks coach John Bachynski was beside himself. "Gosh," he said, "what a terrible club."
The staff was unstable. Head coach Toby Collins ran for the hills at the beginning of the year, replaced on an interim basis by Centennials director of player development Bill Ramsden. John Chapman, the Red Devils' first ever coach, was lured back December 10 after loss 24 and a failed run coaching the Centennials WCHL team. Chapman was a colourful one: he was repeatedly fined for abuse of officials and was once dinged for instigating a bench-clearing brawl with Doug Messier's Edmonton Mets. Chapman and Scotty Munro, the famously eccentric Calgary Centennials boss, deserved each other, but for all his foibles Chapman was smart. He won the 1983 President's Cup with the Lethbridge Broncos. In The Pass's 29th game of the season, on December 19, Chapman did the impossible and led the Red Devils to their first win of the season and the end of the longest losing slide in AJHL history.
It was not, however, a turning point.
Calgary Herald staff writer Keith Sharp memorably called The Pass "the biggest disaster to hit southern Alberta since the Frank Slide". Another double-digit loss came January 11, 14-3 to the Spruce Grove Mets. At the end of January, the Red Devils managed to beat the eventual third-place Calgary Canucks 7-2 for their second win of the season. But on February 27 the Canucks avenged themselves ferociously by setting the AJHL record for most shots in a game at Blairmore by bombarding the Red Devils with 77, scoring nine times. On March 9, Ron Rose of the Drumheller Falcons set what remains the Alberta Junior Hockey League record for points in a game, recording three goals and six assists as his team defeated The Pass 15-3 in Drumheller. And defenseman Neal Wagner set what was then the AJHL record for penalty minutes in a season, with 387. At the end of the season the Red Devils were 3-56-1, 47 points behind the second-last-place Red Deer Rustlers and 50 points out of a playoff spot.
It would be nice to be able to say that, after a nightmare of a season, some Red Devils went on to great things. In fact none did, though there were a surprising number of big leaguers for a three-win tier II team. Left winger Perry Turnbull was the best of the bunch: he played 69 games for The Pass that year despite being only 15 years old and was even tossed for fighting in a desperate attempt to prevent yet another loss to the Calgary Canucks. His results were predictably terrible but as he matured he became a force, being called to the WCHL's Centennials as a 16-year-old in February 1976, becoming the second overall pick in the 1979 NHL draft, and playing 608 NHL games as a decent role player. Turnbull also played and coached a couple years of roller hockey, and his son Travis made his NHL debut last year with the Buffalo Sabres.
Defenseman Glen Cochrane, a 16-year-old that awful year, enjoyed a journeyman's NHL career with 411 games and finished with a cup of coffee on the 1988-89 Edmonton Oilers. After scoring in The Pass's season opener Howard Walker went on to 83 games in the NHL. Defenseman Jeff Bandura was a future Edmonton Oil King and even-further-future long-time minor pro and player of two NHL games with the 1980-81 New York Rangers. The team's leading scorer, right winger George Buat, actually had quite a good season with 30 goals and 48 points in 54 games at 16 years old with one of the worst teams of all time. But despite becoming a Boston Bruins draft pick he never rose higher than the International Hockey League.
The closest AJHL competition for The Pass in sheer misery were the 1982-83 Drumheller Falcons. The Falcons were supposed heir to the 1930s Drumheller Miners which produced two Hockey Hall of Famers, but while the old Miners were known for their success the Falcons had anything but. They stumbled into one AJHL final, lost, and were undistinguished until they were dead. Drumheller very nearly folded before the 1980-81 season before new owners saved the day at the last minute. The 1981-82 Falcons were 10-50-0, which was plenty bad; last in the league by 20 points. 1982-83 was somehow much worse. In their first 24 games, they had zero wins, zero ties, and 24 losses before ownership decided enough was enough. The team forfeited their next two games before the schedule was rejigged to account for their absence, leaving them with an official 1982-83 record of 0-26-0. They didn't have time to catch The Pass's losing streak but, with an average goal differential of -6.12 goals per game they certainly had the right stuff.
Unlike Drumheller, The Pass lived on after failure. They spent one more year in Crowsnest Pass, improving to a 15-45-0 record that was still dead last though by "only" nine points. The next year they upped stakes and moved to nearby Pincher Creek, changing their name to the Panthers. But they remained affiliated to the WCHL's Centennials and remained lousy; they finished ahead of the first-year Edmonton Crusaders in 1976-77 but still second-last. The team's only mark in hockey history as the Panthers was when winger Brent Gogol pressed charges against Spruce Grove's Tony Lecuyer after Lecuyer allegedly kicked Gogol in the thigh with his skate (Lecuyer was initially fined $200 but got off on appeal).
When the Centennials moved to Billings for 1977-78 the Pincher Creek Panthers changed too; the Centennials sold the team to a local consortium which renamed the side to the Chinooks and changed major junior affiliations to the new Calgary Wranglers. It didn't help. They still finished ahead of only the Taber Golden Suns, and the Pincher Creek locals sold out to Calgary, who changed names to the Spurs.
They remain in Calgary, and today the linear descendant of the Red Devils is the Calgary Mustangs, also known as "the other Calgary team" in comparison to the fabled Canucks. Last year wasn't bad for the Mustangs, finishing with a decent record and winning a playoff round before losing, as all Calgary teams must, to the (Okotoks) Oilers. They can claim one AJHL championship, beating the Fort Saskatchewan Traders in the 1991 final but losing the Doyle Cup. Through over 40 seasons of junior hockey, three cities, and seven names, that is their only silverware.
As a habit, losing is hard to break. But unlike so many more successful teams the Red Devils are still alive, after a fashion. And at least they know exactly how bad hockey can get.
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* — Probably. Record-keeping below major junior is nightmarish. For example, we know the losingest teams in BCHL history were the 1977-78 Vernon Vikings and the 1994-95 Royal City Outlaws, both of whom lost 55 times. The 1980-81 Chilliwack Bruins went 1-34-0. The best contender I found was the 1974-75 Regina Foxes of the SJHL, who went 1-54-0. Any of those teams could have lost more than 32 straight times, but we just don't know; the BCHL guide admits its unreliability and doesn't even attempt to list the longest losing streak. The CJHL record book lists the longest losing streak in association history at 28 games with the 2009-10 Kanata Stallions, but that's inaccurate (Espanola was a CJAHL, as it was then, member). Of the leagues I could find records for, Victoria and Espanola's streaks are the longest, and I couldn't find any team in any league that must have beaten that mark. Most of the really uncompetitive junior "A" teams come from the '60s and '70s, when schedules were shorter, meaning they just didn't have enough time to plausibly lose 33 straight.
For the curious, there are longer losing streaks in junior "B" hockey: the Westshore Stingers lost all 48 games in the 2008-09 Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League season. They shared an arena in Colwood with the Victoria Grizzlies, who finished first in their BCHL division and played excellent hockey hosting the RBC Cup. I lived in Victoria and went to quite a few Grizzlies games. There were some very bitter Westshore parents in the stands that season.
 — Sharp, Keith. "Devils feel the heat." Calgary Herald, November 22, 1974. Accessed September 16, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=NG9kAAAAIBAJ&sjid=dn0NAAAAIBAJ&pg=866,1325948.
 — Scott, Dunc. "Munro is dealing already." Calgary Herald, September 5, 1974. Accessed September 14, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=h25kAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Y30NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1211,1054433.
 — "Chapman back in fold." Calgary Herald, December 10, 1974. Accessed September 14, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=QG5kAAAAIBAJ&sjid=VX0NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1909,4287129.
 — Sharp, Keith. "Disaster Strikes The Pass." Calgary Herald, December 6, 1974. Accessed September 19, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=PW5kAAAAIBAJ&sjid=VX0NAAAAIBAJ&pg=2036,2371163.
 — Journal News Services. "Mets win easy." Edmonton Journal, January 13, 1975. Accessed September 17, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=pCJlAAAAIBAJ&sjid=O4gNAAAAIBAJ&pg=3399,718618.
 — All records from: Alberta Junior Hockey League. Guidebook 2012-13. Accessed September 12, 2012. http://ajhl.ca/media/files/upload/2012_Record_Book_-_August_2012_9z6.pdf.
 — All standings from: Alberta Junior Hockey League. 2010-11 Guidebook. Accessed September 13, 2012. http://ajhl.impello.com/media/files/upload/League_Standings_kpw.pdf.
 — Sharp, Keith. "Foothills special for insomniacs." Calgary Herald, March 8, 1975. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=1G5kAAAAIBAJ&sjid=an0NAAAAIBAJ&pg=5449,3233680.
 — "Cents change faces." Calgary Herald, February 19, 1976. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=-HJkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=FH4NAAAAIBAJ&pg=968,4422165.
 — The Hockey Hall of Fame. "Legends of Hockey -- NHL Player Search -- Players by Team -- Drumheller Miners." Legends of Hockey. Accessed September 23, 2012. http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayersByTeam.jsp?team=Drumheller+Miners. (The two Hall of Famers are Doug and Max Bentley.)
 — Calgary Herald/The Canadian Press. "Falcons fall to earth after league meeting." Calgary Herald, July 22, 1980. Accessed September 23, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=YXNkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=RH4NAAAAIBAJ&pg=2220,718201.
 — "Falcons busy." Calgary Herald, August 26, 1980. Accessed September 23, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=oXNkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=T34NAAAAIBAJ&pg=4701,4198429.
 — "Lecuyer in court." The [Regina] Leader-Post, May 31, 1977. Accessed September 21, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=U2lVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=yT4NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1413,4554351.
 — "Lecuyer found guilty." The [Regina] Leader-Post, February 23, 1977. Accessed September 21, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=EDhVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=JT4NAAAAIBAJ&pg=2988,2186719.
 — "Ex-hockey player cleared of charges." Edmonton Journal, September 23, 1978. Accessed September 21, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=_SJlAAAAIBAJ&sjid=RIgNAAAAIBAJ&pg=879,1545081.
 — Sharp, Keith. "Chinooks seeking a fresh image." Calgary Herald, September 13, 1978. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=8HFkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5n0NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1128,1712845.
 — Slade, Daryl. "There is a new brand in town." Calgary Herald, June 22, 1979. Accessed September 24, 2012. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=x3VkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=L34NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1037,729169.