While researching my previous “Forgotten Franchises” post about the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers, I ran across some very interesting stuff about the Stingers’ expansion partner, the Denver Spurs. After a while I ran across enough interesting bits about the Spurs that I knew I had to make it the next post in the series.
It’s one thing to say “The WHA expanded in 1975 and one of the teams did poorly, moved to another city and folded”… but it’s entirely another thing to say that this all happened over the course of a couple of months, and the expansion team in question would play just 41 games before going under.
The story begins three years earlier in 1972, when Ivan Mullenix bought the Western Hockey League’s Denver Spurs with the promise that he would get the city an NHL team. Two years later he was awarded an NHL expansion team for Denver; the Spurs and a group in Seattle would join the league for the 1976-77 season.
Unfortunately for Denver, it was not a good time for the NHL to expand. Aside from the issues caused by the rival WHA, there were already struggling teams in the NHL, most notably the Kansas City Scouts, the California Golden Seals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The expansion started to look questionable, and the league gave the prospective owners permission to buy an existing team and relocate them. At one point Mullinex tried to buy the Seals and move them to Denver, but negotiations fell through. Similarly, attempts to move the Penguins to Seattle also did not come to fruition.
Around the same time, the Seattle group missed a deadline for a $1M deposit on the expansion team, and were eliminated from the expansion process. In March, 1975, it appeared that the NHL was prepared to admit just Denver as a lone expansion franchise, putting them in the Adams Division with Boston, Toronto, Buffalo and California.
I couldn’t find any specific reference to what subsequently happened to the NHL expansion team, but it clearly fell through in short order. I would guess that the league decided that expansion wasn’t a good idea when several teams were a very real threat to relocate or fold. At the last minute, the Spurs accepted an offer to become a WHA expansion team that would play in the brand new McNichols Arena.
Denver hockey fans and season ticket holders did not take this well… They were promised the NHL and instead got the WHA, which many of them regarded as being another minor league. Other issue dogged the team, such as not having a liquor license in time for opening night.
As a result, attendance was poor. In a brand new arena in a new market, attendance averaged around 3,500 per game, and many of those were promotional tickets. Attempts were made to increase attendance, but they did not help.
In December, it became clear that the NHL was working on moving an existing team to Denver starting in 1976, so the Spurs began to work on an escape plan. Late in December, negotiations began to move the Spurs to Ottawa and sell the team to a local group.
Early in January, 1976, the team was officially moved to Ottawa, without the players being aware when it happened. Their first game as the Ottawa Civics took place in Cincinnati; the players found out they were no longer the Denver Spurs when the Canadian National Anthem was played before the game and they were announced to the crowd as the Civics.
Meanwhile, back in Denver the city seized gear and furniture left behind by the team, in an effort to collect money owed to the city. Those goods were later auctioned off.
The Ottawa group couldn’t get their financing together, and the sale of the team fell through. Even though the Civics drew good, enthusiastic crowds in their two home games – averaging over 8,500 for the two nights – Mullinex had no interest in operating a team based in Ottawa, and so several players were traded or sold and the plug was pulled on the Ottawa Civics in the middle of January. The team ended up playing just 41 of its scheduled 80 games.
…Which brings us to an interesting angle involving the O-Pee-Chee WHA cards.
Just prior to the expansion that created the Spurs and Stingers, the Chicago Cougars and Baltimore Blades folded. As it worked out, many of the players on the Spurs roster came from the Cougars. You can spot these guys on their OPC cards because, like Ralph Backstrom, they were shown in airbrushed Cougars uniforms. I chose this Backstrom card to illustrate this because this photo shows the distinctive numbers on the left shoulder that was unique to the Cougars. Many of the card backs also mention what the players had done with the Cougars in the previous season, so perhaps these players were originally intended to be in the set as Chicago Cougars.
Also, the front of the card says “CIVICS” and the back has a little note at the bottom: “NOW OTTAWA CIVICS”. Looks like OPC did a last minute change to reflect the franchise moving.
What I find interesting is the timing. The franchise moved in early January, just a little more than 2 months into the season… but since OPC was able to change the cards, that means the cards could not have been printed until January. I guess I’d assumed that hockey cards like these would be released at the beginning of the season, but these cards couldn’t have come out until after the league’s midway point. I don’t suppose anybody has a handle on when these WHA sets got released?
At any rate, the Denver Spurs proved to be a bad idea for all involved, and the 41 games of their existence is the shortest timeframe for any WHA team.