Wally Bzdell may not have been the highest-scoring forward ever to play for the Nanaimo Clippers, his leadership qualities and character on and off the ice are still talked about to this day.
After a nine-game audition in the 1986-87 BC Junior Hockey League season, Bzdell made the jump full-time the following season and registered 13 points in 32 games on a Clippers squad that went 24-27-1, good enough for a fourth-place finish in the Coastal Division.
Even with the team still in the midst of a rebuilding process, the thrill of putting on the orange and black was a dream come true for Bzdell.
“What I remember is some of the players who were more experienced were trying to mentor us young guys along the way and there was quite a bit of pride. There is a lot of history with the franchise and I was glad to be a part of it,” said Bzdell.
Bzdell is quick to credit renowned Clippers bench boss Bill Bestwick as one who emphasized character and development.
“What stood out for Bill is that he had tremendous pride for the organization and a tremendous investment in the individuals. He wanted all of us to do well and I thought he had our best interests at heart and he was trying to teach us to be good people. The fact that he cared about me as a person and my hockey development as well as every other player and their families, I always wanted to speed through walls for him.”
In 1987-88, Bestwick returned to coach Bzdell and the Clippers who posted a 28-20-4 record in the Coastal Division. In turn, Bzdell’s confidence grew on the ice and he became much more comfortable in his role as a player.
“I wasn’t going to be a huge goal scorer but I needed to be a reliable penalty killer who could grind it out and was consistent. I think I understood those were the things that were going to make me on the ice and I didn’t have to be the same as everybody else. That was big for me.”
After falling to the Abbotsford Flyers in six games during the quarterfinals of the 1988 playoffs, Nanaimo continued its ascension during the 1988-89 campaign going 32-25-3, while recording over 2,900 penalty minutes in the process.
The high-scoring hockey played back then made for some instant momentum swings for the Clippers and they lit the lamp 309 times but also allowed 312 goals.
According to Bzdell, the sudden swings of offense meant they never felt out of a game completely.
“We were going north in a hurry and there was also a bit of a dump and chase game as well at that time. I always felt we had enough talent and skill level with (Dwaine and Todd) Finner as well as (Mark) Fabbro who had the tendency to score at will and the trust that would happen.”
Unfortunately for Nanaimo, the Clippers fell short in the playoffs once again, getting swept in the quarterfinals against the Powell River Paper Kings.
Life on the road
While winning on the road is never an easy task in junior hockey, it was monumentally tougher back during Bzdell’s playing days because the quality of transportation wasn’t quite what we see today.
He noted heading out on the iron lung was always fun for him and his Clipper teammates. Trips through the Interior, and to Powell River and New Westminster stick out to him to this day.
“The trips through the Interior were always fun because we were riding on the bus and we had an old renovated school bus. So when I say renovated, it was far from (luxurious). “
“In terms of rinks, I loved going to Powell River. I thought their fans were brutal and for me, that was a lot of fun. I have a memory of the RCMP being down at the ferry terminal to make sure nothing happened to us before we got off the next morning after a playoff series. (Powell River) also had fans like we had in Nanaimo, who were really passionate about their team. That was fun,” added Bzdell.
“Going to New West to play was more about their team because they were very good and Merritt is a place that burns in my memory. When we played (in Merritt), there was an elder gentleman who would be in the middle of the stands with a drum getting the crowd going. That was a special moment I appreciate more now than when I was playing.”
The Clippers way
Bzdell, like the rest of his teammates, felt the buzz of the Clippers around town, feeling a sense of celebrity while out in the community.
“I remember being asked for autographs in Nanaimo. That certainly was not my experience when I came to play college hockey. I remember the first Clippers jacket I had when they were given to us in the locker room. The sense of pride being able to put it on and then going into schools and doing reading programs – things like that helped shape some of the work I do today.”
“For me, I found it really special, I think I took for granted that my parents came to every game and it was great to be a part of something that I watched my entire childhood.”
In his final season of junior hockey, the Clippers continued to dominate on the ice, finishing the regular season with a mark of 38-21-1. They lit the lamp 381 times – the franchise’s highest goal scoring output since the 1979-80 campaign.
After blazing through their quarterfinal matchup, Nanaimo embarked on a star-studded affair against the New Westminster Royals – a team that went 52-3-4 and was led by head coach John Oliver.
Like the Clippers, the Royals were knee-deep with talent, which centered around leading scorer Mark Karpen as well Blaine Moore and Kelly Jones.
“We were well aware that we had a heck of a good team and New West had a heck of a good team and I think that there was a sense that we wanted to put everything on the line and see how good we could be and how far we could push it.”
“I think we were too aware we were the underdogs. I believe we knew we could do something. I don’t remember the scores of the games but what I can tell you is how it felt in the locker room after the last game. It was a true sense of loss and we really believed something good could come from it.”
The Clippers fell in a hard-fought seven-game series thus ending the season and Bzdell’s junior career.
To Union College and beyond
With his four-year stint with the Clippers in the rear-view mirror, Bzdell accepted a scholarship from Union College where he played two seasons. Union actually began as a Division III program in 1990-91, where Bzdell posted 15 points in 25 games.
However, the Nanaimo product noticed some subtle differences in regards to the approach to games and practices. “The intensity that was required when going to practice with the Clippers in terms of how physical you could be against your teammate – that was dialed down at the collegiate level. You would not hammer your own player in the midst of a three-on-two drill.”
“I came to a place that has a long tradition. Union was established in 1795 so I think the college is older than the city of Nanaimo. I met people who had a lot of different experiences like kids who grew up in New York City that had never driven a car or traveled the world extensively and that was an eye-opener for me.”
With Union in close proximity to global cities such as Boston and New York, exploring the northeastern portion of the United States was anything but a choir.
Bzdell remembers making the trek to Beantown with a few teammates for a Bruins game.
“My teammates were from the Boston area so we hopped in a car and went to the city. I remember being in awe of Boston and being at the old Garden. I also made the same type of trip to see New York City and to ride a subway and experience things I had only read about or seen on TV and to still be in that area is still fun for me.”
— School Money (@schoolmoneyorg) May 23, 2020
Calling Dr. Wally
Over the last 10 to 15 years, we have increased importance on the mental side of sports at all levels and how crucial it is to young athletes.
Bzdell is now a registered sports psychologist, with a practice that is under his own name, which helps athletes develop habits of excellence for sports and life.
“When I was first starting out, I didn’t even know this existed but we had some students at Union who were involved in Winter Olympic sports and we were only a couple hours away from Lake Placid and it was through them where I got to learn about the field of sports psychology.”
“I was able able to get a grant from the college to live in Lake Placid and do some research at the Olympic Centre and learn from coaches and athletes where I could finish my senior thesis and (it) led to me pursuing this as a profession,”
Bzdell has worked with high-level performers in high school, prep school, NCAA, and the professional ranks.
His clients include the 2014 NCAA Division I national champions at Union College and the 2015 NCAA Division I national champion Providence College. Bzdell believes resources like his are more readily available now than when he was playing over 30 years ago.
“The specialization and over-identification from the age of five where all I do is hockey and my entire family has sacrificed a lot so that I can play hockey, that privilege brings an awful lot of pressure for young men and women.”
“When everything you think you are is centered around how you play on Friday night, you better play well or otherwise you aren’t going to think you are very good. That’s an awful lot of pressure for kids to deal with so I think in the sense people bring with them a load of expectations and quite often may not understand where those are coming from.”