It’s never easy to write about death. Especially when you know the person you’re writing about.
In 2018, we lost Vernon pioneer Larry Kwong, one of the nicest men I’ve ever met, talked to and reported on. Kwong, Vernon born and raised, was the first Chinese Canadian to play in the NHL, a one-minute shift for the New York Rangers, in 1948.
We lost Vernon councillor Bob Spiers, on a council day no less. A very sudden death. I covered his last regular meeting and spoke with him briefly after the meeting. He attended a public hearing and, a few hours later, he was gone.
We lost the unofficial first lady of Armstrong, Anita Pieper, in late October, less than two weeks after her husband, Chris, had won a fourth term as mayor by acclamation. I had seen Anita a few weeks prior to her death and we both had a good laugh as I chastised her for being caught in a Vernon grocery store.
We lost the Vernon Civic Arena, at age 80, due to old age.
And speaking of the Civic…
I can still hear sports editor Kevin Mitchell, at 11:30 a.m. on a production day, shouting “HOLY F—K” as he received a text message: Vernon Vipers owner Duncan Wray had died suddenly.
Wray’s death came on Jan. 11, his 68th birthday, and just five days after he and the Vipers hosted one last hockey game at the old Civic; a retro, counts-in-the-standings contest against the Prince George Spruce Kings, who spoiled the wonderfully memorable evening in front of a standing-room-only crowd with a 3-2 win. The game was played on Jan. 6, exactly 80 years to the day the Civic Arena opened.
I talked to Duncan before and after the game. We reminisced about all the good times we each had in the venerable old building on 37th Avenue. Duncan, of course, was steamed that the Prince George winning goal, in his view, never crossed the goal line, and that was the last thing we talked about. Five days later, he was gone. Not sure the team has gotten over his death still.
Within seconds of Kevin’s announcement, I was on the phone, confirming the death, gathering comments, all the while thinking of our last visit together, leaning on the rail above Section B in the Civic. The deadline was approaching but the story, with Kevin’s help, came out.
Shock waves and heavy hearts were being felt around the Junior A hockey world and City of Vernon Thursday.
Vernon Vipers team owner Duncan Wray died suddenly earlier in the morning on his 68th birthday.
Wray had just been honoured this past Saturday at the Celebrate the Civic game the Vipers played at the old Vernon Civic Arena. He was the first of 13 hockey dignitaries introduced on the red carpet to the sold-out crowd and received a loud ovation.
His family released a statement on his passing Thursday afternoon.
“Duncan was a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend to those that knew him. His loss leaves a huge hole in our hearts and he will be greatly missed.
“The unexpected news has come as a devastating blow and although the family is grateful for all the kind messages of sympathy, we ask that we can be left to grieve in private at this very difficult and sad time for us.”
A 4-1 win over the Nanaimo Clippers on Oct. 13, 2017, was the 900th Vernon victory since Wray took ownership of the team in 1992.
Wray helped make the Vernon Lakers/Vipers the most successful Junior A hockey franchise in the country (changed name from Lakers to Vipers in 1995-96).
Under his ownership, the Vipers have won seven BCHL Fred Page Cups, four Royal Bank Cup national championships, six Doyle Cup B.C.-Alberta titles, three BCHL regular season pennants and 12 Interior Conference championships.
He was awarded the Freedom of the City of Vernon in 2011, the 20th recipient of the honour.
Wray was inducted into the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011. His 1998-99 Canadian champion Vipers were inducted in 2015.
“This is the saddest day of my life,” said Vernon’s Troy Mick. “Part of my heart feels ripped out. I haven’t stopped crying since this morning.”
Mick was the head coach of the Vipers when they won the 1999 Royal Bank championship in Yorkton, Sask. and an assistant under Rob Bremner when Vernon won the national title in Melfort, Sask. in 1996.
Mick was doing business in Salmon Arm, where he is GM of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks when he heard the bad news from Todd Miller of the Vipers.
“I will remember Duncan most for not being my boss; he was always my best friend,” said Mick. “He was one of my family’s best friends. I remember when (Troy’s daughter) Tiffany split her lip badly on the hearth and we phoned Duncan asking him what we should do. He said he’d meet us at his office and it was 10 at night.
“He was an unbelievable owner. He never had a hidden agenda. He wanted the kids to play hockey and get an education. That’s all he wanted. He wasn’t in it for the money and for a guy who never played the game, he had so much love for it.”
Even when rumours were swirling that he would sell the franchise in 2014, Wray just chuckled.
“It’s been so much fun. It’s just something I can’t get rid of. I haven’t figured out how to make an exit,” he told The Morning Star.
Wray would stroll around Kal Tire Place during Viper games, stopping to talk to fans. He would also climb the stairs to the press box where he would talk hockey and life with the media and visiting broadcast crew while drinking his beloved Diet Coke.
A retired oral surgeon, Wray served on the BCHL Board of Governors since 1992 and was chairman of the board at the time of his death. He was an avid photographer and big fan of the Montreal Canadiens.
Further information on funeral services will be shared when available.
The BCHL confirmed every team in the league will hold a moment of silence in memoriam of Wray prior to their next home game.