The Western Hockey League (WHL) was created in 1966, originally consisting of seven teams from Alberta and Saskatchewan. Today, the league is a premiere destination for young players to showcase their skills and offers 22 teams in the aforementioned provinces as well as British Columbia, Manitoba, Washington State, and Oregon. Of course, it is one of three leagues that comprise the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) along with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), with all three competing for the Memorial Cup annually. The Calgary Flames, along with many other teams, have a rich history of drafting outstanding talent from the WHL. Currently, some of the team’s top prospects like Dustin Wolf, Connor Zary, and Matt Phillips have roots from the league in addition to roster players Milan Lucic, Dillon Dube, and Juuso Valimaki.
Historically, however, none of these players stack up to the best Flames to ever come from the WHL, though that may change over time. Of the three CHL leagues, the WHL is arguably the Flames’ most dominant in terms of impactful men that have donned the Flaming ‘C’ after graduating from “The ‘Dub”. It is difficult to narrow down such a long list, but the top five should be crystal clear for most Flames and general hockey fans. Nevertheless, we will look at the five best Flames to come from the WHL and their individual impacts on the team’s history.
5. Robyn Regehr
If you could look up “rugged defensemen” in the dictionary, Robyn Regehr’s photo would be right next to the definition. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Regehr played 11 seasons in Calgary, shutting down opposition nightly as one of the league’s premier defensive defenders.
Interestingly, his parents were missionaries and he was born in Brazil, living there for nine months and then in Indonesia for four. His family settled in Saskatchewan and he became adept at hockey, getting drafted by the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL in the 1995 WHL Bantam Draft with their 17th overall pick. He played there for three seasons, dressing in 183 games and scoring 69 points. His play got him drafted in the first round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. His rights were traded to the Flames in 1999 before his debut, and he, unfortunately, found himself in a nasty car accident that broke both of his legs, where many feared he may never play again.
Thankfully, his toughness was on full display as he made a swift and full recovery, making his Flames debut on Oct. 28, 1999, against the Ottawa Senators. He scored his first NHL goal on Nov. 10 that year against the San Jose Sharks. At the end of that 1999-00 season, he was the team’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy at 19 years old and is still the youngest in NHL history to be nominated for the award. Regehr dressed for a total of 826 games as a Flame, putting up 29 goals and 163 points and playing a whopping 17,687 minutes of ice time. He also played all 26 games in the Flames’ memorable run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, where they fell short in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
4. Lanny McDonald
The man, the myth, the moustache. Lanny McDonald‘s grizzled, hairy face is synonymous with the Flames franchise and its success, captaining the team to its lone Stanley Cup win in 1989. The four-time NHL All-Star played eight seasons with the team, tallying 406 points in 492 appearances. In addition to his championship, he was the first-ever winner of the NHL’s King Clancy Award given out to the player who, “best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made a significant humanitarian contribution to his community.” Like Regehr, he was also nominated for the Bill Masterton Trophy but won it at the end of the 1982-83 season. His 66 goals that season is still the Flames’ all-time record, and was second that year to only “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky.
McDonald served as captain of the Flames for six years, and many credit his play and popularity for growing the team as it had just been relocated from Atlanta before the 1980-81 season. His No. 9 was the first number retired in Flames history as a result.
He played for the Calgary Centennials & Medicine Hat Tigers in the Western Canada Hockey League, the precursor to the modern-day WHL, before he starred in the NHL. There, he scored 255 points in 142 games and won the President’s Cup as league champion, which is now the Ed Chynoweth Cup, in 1972-73.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992, the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2017 and now serves as chairman of the board of the Hockey Hall of Fame, a position he has held since 2015.
3. Mike Vernon
One of the greatest Flames goalies to ever play came from the WHL. Calgary native Mike Vernon played 13 seasons for the team; from 1982-94 and then 2000-02. His 262 wins and 527 games both rank second in team history, and he also authored a respectable 3.27 goals against average (GAA) and .883 save percentage (SV%) in a time of hockey where goals were plentiful. The 1988-89 season was his best, going 37-6-5 and placing second in Vezina Trophy voting.
His playoff stats were most impressive, as he won 43 times in 81 appearances including all 16 necessary for the Flames to win the 1989 Stanley Cup alongside McDonald. It almost happened twice as in ’85-86 he took the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final as a 22-year-old, eventually losing to the Montreal Canadiens. His playoff wins and appearances rank him first in team history, where his GAA and SV% increased to 3.02 and .887, proving that he performs best under pressure.
Vernon as mentioned is originally from Calgary, and as one would have it played his junior hockey there as well. He suited up for 151 games as a member of the Calgary Wranglers, a precursor to today’s Hitmen and now shares the mantra of the new American Hockey League farm team for the Flames. There, his play earned him the title of WHL Goaltender of the Year and League MVP twice. He also controversially led the Portland Winterhawks to the 1983 Memorial Cup; teams in that era could add an additional goaltender on loan and the Lethbridge Broncos originally requested Vernon’s services, to which he denied as he would have been stuck behind future NHL goalie Ken Wregget. Back in the NHL, he later went on to play for the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, and Florida Panthers, winning another Stanley Cup in Detroit in 1996-97. His No. 30 has been retired by the Flames, the second in franchise history after McDonald.
2. Theoren Fleury
Listed at 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds, Theo Fleury was one of the smallest players in NHL history but boy, did he pack a punch. In his 11 seasons as a Calgary Flame, he recorded 830 points in 791 games, which puts him in second place in franchise history. That included multiple 100-point seasons and seven 30-goal seasons, and he was a member of that same 1988-89 Cup-winning squad as a 20-year-old rookie. The seven-time NHL All-Star is well-remembered for his dramatic goal celebration after scoring the overtime winner in Game 6 against the rival Edmonton Oilers in the ’91 playoffs, where he slid down the length of the ice and into the boards in jubilation. He served as captain of the team and was loyal to Calgary until the end when the financially struggling Flames knew they could not re-sign him and thus traded him to the Colorado Avalanche in 1999. Ironically, the return package included a young Regehr, amongst other pieces.
Fleury first played in Moose Jaw for the WHL’s Warriors, where he recorded a whopping 472 points in only 274 games over four seasons. His career goals, assists, and points are all still team records. He was a co-recipient of the Bob Clarke Trophy with Joe Sakic in 1987-88 when he erupted for 68 goals and 160 points, and despite his dominant junior performance, few teams wanted to draft him due to his small stature.
The Flames snagged him in the 8th round, 166th overall, making him one of the best draft steals of all time. He now operates as a motivational speaker, opening up to groups about working through past generational trauma.
1. Jarome Iginla
This one was sort of obvious, but the best Flame to come from the WHL is also the best Flame of all time, Jarome Iginla. After all, he is the team’s all-time leader in games played, goals, points, game-winning goals, power-play goals, and shots, among other records. His image is synonymous with the Flames; he played 1,219 games over 16 seasons with the team and is the longest-serving captain in team history, donning the ‘C’ from 2003-13.
The six-time NHL All-Star also led the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year as captain alongside Regehr but took home an impressive amount of individual hardware during his career. He holds some tremendously important and special league records as the highest scoring Black player of all time, the first Black player to win the Art Ross and Ted Lindsay in the same year, the first Black player to win the Maurice Richard trophy, and the first Black player to score 1,000 NHL points.
Iginla’s dominance wasn’t only in the NHL, either. He had an illustrious WHL career with the Kamloops Blazers shortly before the previously mentioned Regehr arrived in town, from 1993-94 to 1995-96. There he won two Memorial Cups in 1994 and 1995, WHL Player of the Year in 1996, and scored a total of 236 points in 183 games. His play got him drafted 11th overall in 1995 by the Dallas Stars, who traded him to Calgary for the rights to Joe Nieuwendyk.
“Iggy” is now a part-owner of the Blazers, along with other ex-Blazers Shane Doan, Mark Recchi and Darryl Sydor, and coaches a U15 prep hockey academy team in Kelowna, BC where he resides. Recently, his children have been getting a multitude of publicity for carrying on in their father’s footsteps; daughter Jade and son Tij are both Team Canada invitees, and Tij was drafted into the WHL in 2021, 9th overall by the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The WHL clearly has a rich history in Flames lore. This is an impressive list of players, to say the least, and there are many others worthy of arguments for making the top five. Instrumental players such as tough guy Tim Hunter, centre Daymond Langkow, and defensemen Cory Sarich and Dion Phaneuf all came from “The ‘Dub” as well.
All in all, this list accounts for 2,533 points scored and 3,855 games played, in addition to a Stanley Cup and many individual awards. But most importantly, these are names that left lasting impressions on the team’s fans, and all will be remembered forever.
Derek Olsen has a Bachelor of General Studies with focuses in History and English, and is now working on a Bachelor of Education. He grew up an avid sports fan and participant, but hockey has and always will be the most important to him. Eat, sleep, and hockey. Blood, sweat, tears, and hockey. He has a relative presence in the ever-expanding sports card industry and claims his collection will “be his retirement”. He is pleased to be able to write for The Hockey Writers and to cover the Calgary Flames.