Before the Masks and Now

by Manny Brizuela

Randy Kegans has been going to Oklahoma City Blazers games since the mid 1960’s, long before the Western States Hockey League was idealized in Dr. Don Thorne’s mind and before goalies were required to wear masks.   

The Oklahoma City Blazers, of the defunct Central Professional Hockey League, gave Kegans his initial memories of the sport of hockey and set him on a life-long journey supporting the name to this day. When the Blazers hit the ice in Kegans’s town, it was the name of legendary goalie, Gerry Cheevers, who truly captivated him as a sincere fan of the game. The team boasted a wide array of talent as it was formed through the relocation of the Minneapolis Bruins, affiliate to the Boston Bruins, which also included Reggie Leech, J.P. Parise, Wayne Cashman and a host of other, then, NHLers.   

“I remember my dad talking about every time he [Cheevers] took a puck to his mask, once he even started wearing one, he would put a stitch mark on it to then say ‘the mask has saved me that many stitches,’" Kegans said.

(Pictured Gerry Cheevers) 

Needless to say, Cheevers’s mask is covered with stitch marks almost every square inch of the way.

The CPHL Blazers produced cherished moments in Oklahoma City hockey history bringing back-to-back Adams Cups in 1966 and 1967. But a dark moment is always in order when the team you love is stripped away.  

In 1972, the Boston Bruins decided to steer in a different direction and cut their affiliation from Oklahoma City. Hockey went missing in OKC for about a year before the Tulsa Oilers, affiliate to the Toronto Maple Leafs, reformed as a reinvigorated Oklahoma City Blazers. The move brought All-Time NHL Penalty Leader, Dave “Tiger” Williams, to the forefront of Kegans’s vision to further mold his enjoyment on the nature of hockey.

Again Kegans had to deal with the despair of losing your hometown team when the Toronto Maple Leafs decided to cut ties due to budget constraints—The CPHL, later CHL, eventually folded in 1984.

“In the early 90’s they reformed the old CHL,” Kegans said. “It had a lot of the same cities as far as teams went.” 

It must have felt like an eternity before the Oklahoma City Blazers returned. They indeed returned in 1992 when a newly minted CHL formed absorbing a lot of the old names from the former CHL. That lasted until 2009 when team owners ultimately decided to shut the team down in order to make room for an AHL OKC Barons team, and that didn’t last long.

“At the five year mark [2014] of the Barons, that was the year that a lot of NHL teams were moving their AHL affiliates out West. The Barons went away and that was one of the reasons why we started looking around to see what hockey was available to us.”

Lo and behold, Tyler Fleck, former CHL Blazers captain, enters the scene with a team of his own, named the Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers. It didn’t take long for the city to embrace the team carrying a name that resonated deeply with Oklahoma City hockey fans. It didn’t take even one full season of WSHL hockey before the Jr. Blazers set a league-wide attendance record, on Oct. 25, 2014, with 7,109 fans laying witness to their 8-1 triumph over the Dallas Snipers.   

“I missed the first season of the Jr. Blazers but found out about them during their second season and have been a season ticket holder ever since,” Kegans said. “The atmosphere at the games is just amazing as far as fan interaction with the players and just getting to know the guys that will be with the club for one or several years.”

It’s that element of going to a Jr. Blazers game that enticed and lured Kegans into becoming a long-time fan for them. The level of success, talent and accessibility correlated to the perfect environment for the phrase “Blazers Hockey,” to once again reach praise after it had left a void from the old CPHL/CHL days.

(Picture via Randy Kegans, Left, Vitali Mikhaylov, Right)

“One thing that jumps out to me is the rivalries within our division. Just the rivalry that develops between players from different teams in the division, it’s fun to see the grit and determination as enemies on the ice. Also, the excitement when you win a playoff round and even the disappointment when you let one get away.”

The Jr. Blazers are an important aspect to Oklahoma City hockey fans. The team’s dedication to putting a good product on the ice has made it so every moment—win or lose—is worthy of remembering in the mind of people like Kegans. For Kegans, he has seen an upward trend in the level of play and competitiveness. The Jr. Blazers are skating in their second season with a new owner, Gary Gill, and have positioned themselves as the No. 2 team in the league so far. 

Not many WSHL teams have had the chance to host an All-Star Game but the Jr. Blazers hosted it in 2016. So, Kegans was able to see his squad faceoff against the league’s best. 

“It was nice to see all the players from the West and Mountain Divisions come over and play because you don’t usually get that crossover with the West at least.”

“We as fans are excited this year to see how much of a run we can make and hopefully at least go and play in the Thorne Cup Finals. In this league, that’s the goal to go and represent your division and be there.”

Kegans is equipped to cheer on the Jr. Blazers and the expected deep season run this year. He has accumulated quite the collection of jerseys over the years but has his eye on a Vitali Mikhaylov jersey next.