Expanding the NHL: The Forgotten Dozen

As we continue our look at how the NHL became the league we see today, the next step on our journey takes us to 1979 when the NHL expanded to absorb four World Hockey Association teams. Before we do that, we’ll pause for a moment to take a brief look at the 12 other WHA teams for whom fate was not so kind. We’ll save the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets for another time. ‘Forgotten’ is of course a tough word; some of the teams below will live long in hockey memory, others are just a mere blip in the history of the sport.

In the 1970s the WHA was the NHL’s main competitor, and its legacy still stands with the rule changes it brought about and the current shape of the NHL. It wasn’t plain sailing for the WHA though, its member teams face financial challenges right from the off. Teams relocated before playing their first game and several had to share arenas with their NHL brethren. When the NHL and WHA merged in 1979 a number of teams didn’t make the cut. This is a quick and dirty guide to the forgotten dozen WHA teams. 

 

Chicago Cougars

1972-1975

The Cougars were an original member of the WHA, but lasted only three seasons. Playing out of Chicago’s International Amphitheatre, the team made the Avco Cup Finals (the WHA’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup) just once, in their second season. After seeing off the Whalers and Toronto Toros, the Cougars met the Houston Aeros in the final. Powered by the holy trinity of Gordie Howe, Mark Howe and Marty Howe, Chicago were no match. After failing to qualify for the playoffs in 1974/75 the Cougars’ owners were forced to fold the team for financial reasons.

Cincinnati Stingers

1975-1979

One time home of Mark Messier and Mike Gartner, the Stingers were one of two teams to enter the WHA when the league expanded, and survived until the end. Cincinnati’s only major league hockey team made the playoffs in 1977 and 1979, although couldn’t make it past the first round, losing to the Indianapolis Racers and New England Racers respectively. When the leagues merged, the Stingers were one of two teams paid $1.5 million to disband. A few original players resurrected the name the following season in a minor league, but the team folded shortly after.

Calgary Broncos/Cleveland Crusaders/Minnesota Fighting Saints

1972-1977

The Calgary Broncos  existed in name only, having been formed north of the border but relocated to Ohio before the start of the inaugural season. Those four years in Cleveland turned out to be fairly successful, Bruins legend Gerry Cheevers playing a big part in that. The Crusaders made never failed to make the playoffs, but only progressed past the first stage in 1973. After dwindling attendances, the Crusaders moved to St. Paul, MN, resurrecting the name of a previous WHA team that folded the season prior. In  Nobody was interested in buying the team and the Fighting Saints 2.0 folded before the end of the season.

Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics

1975-1976

The Denver Spurs was a franchise in its own right before the WHA came along, playing six seasons in the Western Hockey League, winning it once. When the WHL folded the team was transferred to Central Hockey League before expanding into the WHA in 1975. With nobody in the stands, the Spurs did a midnight flit to Ottawa. They took the name of their new home, Ottawa’s Civic Centre as their own and folded shortly after. Only 12 of 14 teams finished the the 1975/76 season, the Civics and Minnesota’s original Fighting Saints both folded having played just over half a season.

Dayton Arrows/Houston Aeros

1972 – 1978

One of the WHA’s more successful teams, the Arrows started life in Dayton, Ohio but lack of a large enough arena forced relocation to Houston before a puck could drop. The Arrows became the Aeros and the team to beat in the early years. The Aeros made the playoffs every season, but their first and second Avco Trophy wins came in 1974 and 1975. With Gordie, Mark and Marty Howe on the ice, the Aeros won their division in four consecutive seasons. The team was coached by Bill Dineen, who went on to coach in the AHL and NHL. The Aeros should have been a shoo-in for acceptance into the NHL but despite owner Kenneth Schnitzer’s best efforts, the NHL wasn’t interested and the Aeros folded in 1978

Indianapolis Racers

1974 – 1978

Best remembered as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier’s first professional team, the Racers joined the WHA in 1974. Despite winning the division in 1976, Indianapolis only made the playoffs twice in the their four full seasons and never lifted the cup. During the 1978/79 seasons, despite good attendance figures, the Racers were a financial disaster and and were forced to sell Gretzky to Edmonton. Messier left after just five unimpressive games. Only to be picked up by the Cincinnati Stingers. The Racers folded in December 1978.

Los Angeles Sharks/Michigan Stags/Baltimore Blades

1972 – 1975

Not related to those other Sharks, the Los Angeles Sharks only played two seasons before relocating. Their first season was good, the team made it to the quarter finals of the Avco playoffs before being dumped out by Houston. The balloon burst after the first season and in 173/74 the Sharks lost 50 of their 78 games and finished sixth in the division. Poor attendance led to the team relocating to Michigan. The newly christened Stags were poor and fared worse on the ice than their previous incarnation. The team couldn’t secure a TV deal and nobody turned up to watch games, despite superstar Marc Tardif playing for the team. Tardif was traded to the Nordiques mid-season to try and alleviate some of the Shark’s financial challenges and the team folded in January 1975. A week later, the relocated to Baltimore and became the Blades. The team finished the season but failed to make the playoffs and failed exist ever again.

Minnesota Fighting Saints

1972 – 1976

The first Minnesota Fighting Saints were probably the best team to never win a cup. Granted they folded part way through their fourth season but the first three were fairly successful. The Fighting Saints made the Quarterfinals once and the Semifinals twice. The team based itself in St. Paul MN, 20 miles from the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars in Bloomington. Competing with their NHL rival meant the Saints had to fight for TV coverage and the more established league won out. That lack of money left the Saints struggling to stay afloat. The final season was disastrous, nobody wanted to buy the team and the players were not being paid on time. In February 1976 the team folded.

New York Raiders/Golden Blades/Jersey Knights/San Diego Mariners

1972 – 1977

Having failed to take residence in the new Nassau Coliseum, the Raiders were forced to rent ice from at Madison Square Garden. Home to the NHL’s New York Rangers. This was an immediate slap in the face for the franchise that were supposed to be the WHA’s flagship team. During their first season, the team’s owners went bust and the WHA had to step in to stop the Raiders folding. The following season, the team was bought and renamed the Golden Blades. This arrangement lasted 20 games and the team fell under WHA stewardship again. Clearly failing, the team moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey and became the Jersey Knights. After three names and two arenas in two seasons, the Knights were sold and relocated to San Diego. The newly christened Mariners played three seasons in San Diego and made the playoffs each time, twice progressing past the first round. Unable to sell or relocate the team, the Mariners folded just prior to the 1977/78 season.

Ottawa Nationals/Ontario Nationals/Toronto Toros/Birmingham Bulls

1972 – 1979

The Ottawa Nationals lasted just one season in Canada’s Capital, and after poor home attendance and expensive rink fees, the team relocated to Toronto and played their playoff games at the Varsity Arena under the name Ontario Nationals. The rebranded Toronto Toros made the playoffs again in 1974. The Toros then moved to Maple Leaf Gardens where sharing facilities with the local NHL team proved to be just as awkward as the Raiders/Rangers arrangement. The Toros’ performances dropped and dropped and in 1976 the team relocated to Birmingham, Alabama. The Birmingham Bulls only made the playoffs in one of their three season, but continued to play after the WHA and NHL merged in 1979. The team moved to the Central Hockey League where they would play another season and a half.

Miami Screaming Eagles/Philadelphia Blazers/Vancouver Blazers/Calgary Cowboys

1972 – 1977

The Eagles never were, there was no suitable facilities in Florida so the team was relocated to Philadelphia without a game being played. The team fared little better in Philly, in the team’s first home game trouble struck and the Zamboni cracked the ice. Hall of Famer Bernie Parent played for the Blazers during their sole season before relocating to Vancouver. Meanwhile Parent moved back to the NHL. Like the Toros and Raiders, the Blazers shared a rink with their NHL rivals, but could not compete. Lack of big-name talent hurt the team and despite making the playoffs in Philadelphia, the Vancouver reincarnation could not and missed out in both of its seasons. Sensing a gap in the market after the departure of the Calgary Broncos, the Blazers were moved to Calgary and became the Cowboys. The new team made the second round of the playoffs in its first season in Calgary but could not repeat the feat next time round. With dwindling attendance and no plans to expand the Stampede Corral, the team folded in 1977.

Phoenix Roadrunners

1974 – 1977

While the NHL was expanding in 1967, the Victoria Maple Leafs were purchased and relocated to Arizona, where they would play in the Western Hockey League until its demise in 1974. The now Phoenix Roadrunners only played three seasons in the WHA before financial issues caused the team to fold. The team did make the playoffs twice but couldn’t progress past the first round. Roadrunners’ superstar Robbie Ftorek was the first American to win the league’s MVP trophy and went on to play for the New York Rangers.

Next time we’ll back back on track with the NHL’s continued expansion. Thanks for reading.

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