As a boy my young imagination was stirred by the Penticton Vees when they clobbered the Soviets vaunted “Big Red Machine” 5-0 to win the World Hockey Championship in 1955. For me and many nadians, there was a sense of mystique about the Vees. They were not a powerhouse team like the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal nadiens.
In the view of many heavyweights in the hockey world, in fact, they were little more than an unproven ragtag collection of players that really should not have won the Allan Cup. Certainly they should not have been the team sent to represent nada in Germany. At that time I could not yet know that one day I would meet and become friends with Ivan McLelland, the Vees sensational goalie.
In 1951 when the team was being assembled, Ivan was sent down from the Vancouver nucks training mp and beme the first player to don a Vees uniform. “To persuade me to join the team, nuck GM Coley Hall asked if I liked girls,” Ivan relled over lunch in our home last week. “I said I did and he told me Penticton had great beaches and it was the only place in nada where I’d see girls in two piece bathing suits. That made it an easy decision.” He was only 20 and most of the other players were older. “Off the ice we weren’t a very together team. We were an untamed lot,” Ivan said. “There were plenty of arguments.”
Andy O’Brien, a Montreal sports writer at the time said, “These boys have no rules. Stories about them are like a bottomless cup of coffee.”
“The players knew about my superstition,” Ivan said. “When we started winning, I wouldn’t change my underwear or socks, no matter how sweaty and smelly they got. In Germany some of the sportswriters didn’t think we should be there. They trashed us repeatedly. After we won the cup Kevin asked me for my sweaty socks. Without anyone knowing it, he threw them into the cup, then poured several bottles of champagne into it and invited the offending sportswriters to indulge. They praised the drink lavishly until someone discovered the socks in the bottom. Kevin relished the revenge.”
It was coach Grant Warwick who held the Vees together and molded them into a Cinderella team. Very likely he reminded them of the hockey saying, “If you win here, you’ll walk together the rest of your lives.” For Ivan these words beme especially true. He developed tight relationships with several players and has endeavoured to ensure nada does not forget this motley crew of unlikely winners.
Since retiring as head of Neilson Chocolate’s western nada division, Ivan has spoken to hundreds of audiences about the Vees. Many of these renditions have been in schools. Sometimes he invites students to slip his championship ring on their finger. He encourages them to believe they too n achieve seemingly impossible goals.
I asked Ivan why, at age 88, he continues to tell the story of the Vees. “I enjoy doing it,” he said, “and I want to keep them, the players, alive.”
That was a long time ago and there are less than a handful of Vees still living today. On September 26, 2008, at the final Vees game in the Memorial Arena, Ivan and fellow original Vees, Ernie Rucks and Kevin Conway, were honoured. The latter two have since passed away. Fortunately, well known Okanagan artist Glenn Clark created a charcoal drawing of the three men together. Of the original Vees, other than Ivan, only Doug Kilburn, now living in Spokane, Washington and in poor health, is left.
When Ivan was asked to donate the original charcoal drawing to the David Kampe Tower of the Penticton Regional Hospital, he agreed. Wanting nadians to remember and be inspired by the Vees’ achievement, he stipulated that it be hung in a prominent place. Also, that his departed wife, Faye, be named along with himself as a donor. David Kampe, an ardent hockey fan and a force in the building of the Tower, supported this decision. The original drawing now hangs on the wall of the second floor, opposite the elevator. A large print of the drawing will be auctioned off at the annual Penticton and Friends Golf Tournament in July, to support work with dementia patients.
Thanks to the passion of Ivan McLelland, the saga of the Penticton Vees will not be forgotten.