Updated: May 27, 2022
I eagerly awaited the digitization of the Nelson Daily News through the 1930s in hopes it would solve two longstanding mysteries around the names of Nelson hockey teams. I’m pleased to report that in one case, it did uncover the smoking gun. But in the other, I’m still searching.
The Nelson Maple Leafs photographed in the then-brand new Civic Centre. This photo appeared in a booklet called the West Kootenay Hockey Review in 1939.
Nelson’s senior men’s hockey team had no nickname until 1927, when a Daily News sportswriter who went by “Jinks” reported the team was hoping to find one. He wrote on Jan. 17:
Rossland has its Miners, Trail is sometimes called the speeding Smoke-Eaters but Nelson is just referred to as the Nelson seniors. After all these years, the management has come to the conclusion that the Nelson seniors should have a pet name too.
All the fans are going to have a say in this. A competition to get a name for the senior team has been started. The competition is open to any fan in the district. The prize for the name chosen by the hockey team itself from those submitted with be season tickets to hockey games for the balance of the season.
After a week, close to 100 suggestions came in, and the players met to pick their favourite. The winning entry was from R.G. Joy, later known as the leading force in the Nelson Old-Timers Association and a regular history columnist in the Daily News.
His inspired suggestion? The Kokanees, from the Sinixt word for the then-abundant salmon in local streams. (It would be more than 30 years before it would also become a brand of beer.)
Jinks got all of his fish-related puns out of the way immediately. A sampling:
It is lucky the Kokanees are not cut-throats … At any rate they are not suckers … Come on fans, be on deck tonight. See the Kokanees swish about, dash hither and thither. Nets will be at either end of the rink, but the Kokanees hope to keep clear of their own nets.
Nelson’s team now had a name just as unique as the Smoke Eaters.
And yet, in 1931 they abandoned it, rebranding themselves the Maple Leafs. How come? I haven’t been able to find out. One obvious possibility is some sort of link to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who adopted that name in 1927 (previously they were known as the Arenas and the St. Patricks).
Yet if there was a connection, I can’t find any sign of it. There was no sudden influx of new players, and no one from Nelson went on to play for Toronto in the NHL until the early 1940s.
First mention I can find of the team doing business by the new name is in the Daily News of Dec. 1, 1931 when the team was involved in an exhibition series:
Decked out in their flashy green and white uniforms the first Nelson team will oppose the second team in an exhibition hockey match commencing at 7:30. The lads will be decked in the maple leaf-trimmed sweaters which has earned for them the title of Nelson Maple Leafs.
Nelson’s teams had worn green and white since 1902, but the intimation seems to be that the new uniforms begat the new team name. While there may be more that I just haven’t found, overall the change seems to have drawn little to no scrutiny.
After a single year of operating as the Maple Leafs and a last-place finish, Nelson dropped out of the league in 1932-33. When they returned the following season, it was with yet another name: the Red Wings. As before, I could find no explanation.
First mention is in the Daily News of Nov. 10, 1933: “Road and gym work constituted the first regular training period of the Nelson Red Wings Thursday night …”
And again, the most obvious inference to be drawn is that Nelson now had some kind of loose affiliation with the Detroit Red Wings, who adopted the name in 1932, having previously been known as the Falcons and Cougars. But again, I can’t point to any new players arriving or anyone from Nelson going on to play for Detroit.
I don’t know what the Nelson Red Wings’ uniforms looked like, but they were definitely something different than before and probably red and white like their NHL counterparts, based on an anonymous letter in the Daily News of Nov. 28, 1934 from someone who did not like them:
The old Green and White colors mean something whereas the mixture we had last year meant nothing to the local fans and they certainly did not show up well on the ice … Let’s get back to the old colors … and if a vote was taken by the fans I think the majority would vote to call the team the Nelson Maple Leafs.
And indeed, that is exactly what the team did: they reverted back to the name Maple Leafs. But how that decision was made, I can’t find a thing.
The team then operated as the Maple Leafs for the rest of its existence, until 1987. So to recapitulate:
Pre-1927: Nelson Hockey Club
1927-31: Nelson Kokanees
1931-32: Nelson Maple Leafs
1932-33: Did not play
1933-34: Nelson Red Wings
1934-87: Nelson Maple Leafs
Only the initial naming of the team received any attention in the Daily News.
While I can’t confirm any formal or informal affiliation between Nelson and the NHL teams in Detroit or Toronto, Nelson did have a loose relationship with the New York Rangers from 1954-56, when former Rangers goalie Chuck Rayner coached Nelson. He enticed several ex-Rangers and Ranger prospects to play for the Maple Leafs, including former NHLers Joe Bell and Vic Howe (Gordie’s brother).
What’s more, an item from the Nelson Daily News of Sept. 2, 1955 (seen below) revealed the Maple Leafs actually considered changing their name to the Rangers. It was intended as a cost-cutting measure, as they hoped New York would send them hand-me-down sweaters and equipment. Didn’t happen. But could that account for the earlier changes to Maple Leafs and Red Wings?
Nelson’s Junior B team also used the name Maple Leafs, from 1965-67. But the league then folded for a couple of years and when it was reborn, Nelson was known as the Plaza Oilers, after their sponsor, Plaza Service of 123 Anderson St. (where the 7-Eleven is now).
Fritz Koehle, who coached the team told me: “They owned a service station. Openshaw was their name. They said we’ll buy all new uniforms, but we want to change the name. I said okay, pick the name and let me know what it is.”
In 1972, the team changed its name again to the Roadrunners. Koehle explained that the Phoenix Roadrunners of the WHL held their training camp in Nelson that year and sold the junior club two full sets of their uniforms.
But in 1974, the team reverted to the Maple Leafs and kept that name until 1994, when it left the KIJHL to join the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League. The KIJHL, however, did not want to let them go. One consequence was that the team abridged its name, from the Maple Leafs to the Leafs in the RMJHL. The Leafs returned to the KIJHL in 1999, but did not revert to the previous name. So to sum up:
1965-67: Nelson Maple Leafs
1967-69: No league
1969-72: Nelson Plaza Oilers
1972-74: Nelson Roadrunners
1974-94: Nelson Maple Leafs
1994-present: Nelson Leafs
While the reasons for the name changes of the senior hockey team defy simple explanation, I had more luck tracking down the meaning of a peculiarly named youth team.
From the 1930s to the ‘50s, the Daily News regularly ran stories about the exploits of four clubs who were involved in hockey, baseball, and other sports: the Dodgers, the Panthers, the FACs and the MRKs (there were others, but these seemed to have the greatest longevity). FAC stood for Fairview Athletic Club, which was no secret.
But the MRKs? I thought maybe it was an initialism for a business, but could not find one that matched. After long puzzling over it, and failing to find anyone who knew the answer, I posted an inquiry on the People of Nelson Facebook site in 2020. Among the imaginative theories presented: Monkeys, Rats, and Kangaroos; and More Rotten Kids.
But Kim Ohs knew the correct answer, or at least part of it. She wrote:
The letters are from the three different last names of the founders of the hockey team around 1930. The M is for McNicol, my great-grandfather, but I can’t remember the other two.
Mr. McNicol had left his seven children in a Saskatchewan orphans home and made his way west landing in Nelson long enough to form the team and marry a woman with two children who he raised. He was only in Nelson for approximately 10 years (give or take) when his oldest children aged out of the home and arrived in Nelson. He then packed up his new family and moved to the coast.
Once the Daily News was digitized for the 1930s, I wasn’t immediately able to figure out who the other namesakes were. But a little poking around found a reference from March 7, 1935 to “Jimmy Kinahan, who has been connected with the MRK Midgets hockey organization since its inception.”
That led me to this item from Feb. 27, 1934 that finally put the matter to rest:
Curiously, I wasn’t familiar with any of the three men. James Aloysious Kinahan was born in Nelson in 1908 and died in Trail in 1970. He worked as a clerk at Cominco. Clifford Ratcliffe was born in Nelson in 1913 and died in Canyon, near Creston, in 1993. He was a truck driver and powerhouse operator, presumably for West Kootenay Power. Donald Alexander McNicol was quite a bit older than the other two, born in 1889 in Lanark, Ont. He worked as a janitor and carpenter and died in Courtenay in 1955, age 65.
Aside from the lone mention above, I can find no instance where the Daily News explained what MRK stood for. Presumably they felt there was no need to, as their readers would know. And maybe they did. But it certainly didn’t make things easy for those of us trying to figure it out nearly 90 years later.