Thank goodness the little village of Masset had no ice.
If it had, Ken Shields could very well have ended up at Maple Leaf Gardens as the next Frank Mahovlich or Punch Imlach just like his heroes as a boy and who knows where Canadian basketball would be.
Before they moved to Haida Gwaii, Saturday nights in the Shields family home in Beaverlodge, Alberta revolved around a battery radio listening to Foster Hewitt call the action from the Gardens. Young Ken dreamed of making it there too—the pinnacle of hockey.
Yet it was basketball that would get him there, learned in the Haida village league in Old Masset’s Hall with two red-hot 45-gallon drums that served as a furnace blasting you with hot air as you ran by the sideline. Worlds away in 1994, Shields coached Canada’s national men’s basketball team to a seventh-place world championship finish in front of sold-out Maple Leaf Gardens crowds. It was a special moment being there amongst the ghosts of great Leafs teams. Reality had finally caught up to his childhood dream.
Shields took a most unlikely road to the top. His family moved to Prince Rupert in his Grade Eleven year. He worked his way up from manager of the ‘B’ squad to make the Prince Rupert Rainmakers high school team in 1963-64. In front of 6000 fans, literally swinging from the rafters in War Memorial Gym, the Norm Vickery-coached Rainmakers, from a school of 300 students, won their first and only BC high school provincial basketball title in Hoosiers-like fashion.
From that launching pad, Shields played at Mount Royal College, the University of Calgary and UBC, and later was on the radar of Jack Donohue’s national team. But by his mid-twenties Shields knew that coaching was his true calling. While completing his Masters at UBC, he co-coached the UBC women to the 1969-70 Canadian senior women’s title. It was there that Ken met Kathy, future wife of 38 years, and they’d later form a venerable coaching duo. Between them, over twenty of their players went on to represent Canada on the national team.
After six years coaching Laurentian University’s men’s team in Sudbury, he took over the University of Victoria men’s program in 1978-79 for a run that became the most successful in the history of Canadian university basketball. His Vikings made the CIAU finals in nine of his last eleven years at UVic, winning a CIS-record seven straight national titles. By 1989, he accumulated more coaching victories than any man in Canadian inter-university sport and was honoured with four CIAU Coach of the Year awards.
After coaching the junior national team at major events through the 1980s including two world championships, Canada Basketball asked Shields to command the senior men’s national team, serving as head coach from 1990-94. He later coached or assisted with four other national teams—Japan, Australia, Georgia, and Britain—and went to two Olympics.
Beyond basketball, in the 1990s Shields sought to rectify the fact an individual couldn’t study coaching at a university, a problem he encountered himself while at UBC. Thus he initiated the establishment of the UVic National Coaching Institute. He also served as the founding president of the Commonwealth Centre for Sport Development.
In 1998, Shields was honoured with the Order of Canada and, in 2008, the Order of BC. He was inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.