Forgotten Franchises: The WHA’s Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics

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.

denver spurs logo

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.

1975-76 O-Pee-Chee WHA #23 - Ralph Backstrom [Good to VG‑EX] - Courtesy of COMC.com

1975-76 O-Pee-Chee WHA #23 – Ralph Backstrom [Good to VG‑EX] – Courtesy of COMC.com

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.

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8 thoughts on “Forgotten Franchises: The WHA’s Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics

  1. Great article. I kind of remember reading or hearing about that story a few years ago. Love the early days of these different leagues. I have a history of the WHA book that I will look at to see if there is more info on this team. Do you have an email address that I could send you some scanned stuff from the book?

    So when did the Colorado Rockies hockey team start up? I guess that was the NHL’s attempt at satisfying the Denver crowd after the Spurs left. Funny that the Rockies left and went to New Jersey as the Devils and the Quebec Nordiques later moved to Denver as the Colorado Avalanche to fill the hockey void there.

    • From the start of the 75-76 season, it became increasingly clear the Kansas City Scouts were moving to Denver for 76-77. The 16,000+ McNichols arena being home to 2 lousy hockey teams sharing Denver’s 3-4,000 hockey fans would probably have resulted in 1 million empty hockey seats. That’s why the Spurs owner tried to sell to Ottawa.

      The Colorado Rockies arrived from KC for the 76-77 season. One can certainly understand the utter confusion for the fans. They had teams in 4 different pro-hockey leagues in 4 straight years! (Spurs – WHL, CHL + WHA The Rockies: NHL but in another city last season)

      The Rockies had a few “household names”, but were probably an EVEN WORSE team than the Spurs. (They made Toronto look good.) Although, the Rockies did have mildly better attendance than the Spurs. Ironically, the Rockies franchise’s most dependable forward (especially under coach Cherry) was a Denver Spur!!! Ron Delorme, played all but the final Rockies’ season and was able to chip-in nicely on offence, defence and the rough stuff. It’s as if the Denver altitude sucked the hockey ability out of every player who joined the Colorado Rockies. Only Lanny McDonald really lived up to his billing and he was inexplicably traded.

  2. Even though I was only a fetus, I remember a lot about the Spurs/Civics. In retrospect, it marked the (negative) turning point for the WHA.

    The truth is that the Spurs were probably doomed well BEFORE they joined the WHA. The Spurs had played 6 seasons in the Western Hockey League, a top-level minor league that had big-league aspirations. They won the championship once, but were a mediocre team otherwise. The year they were awarded the conditional NHL franchise, they finished last. Not only that, the WHL folded. The Spurs were forced to join the CHL, a 2nd tier minor league…at best.

    The Spurs owner had long been promising a top team in the almighty NHL. Suddenly, he found himself trying to fill a 16,000+ plus seat arena with a last place team in a 2nd tier minor league. After one season, he knew they wouldn’t last a second. He needed his NHL team right away. He begged to join the NHL a season earlier. Rejected. He tried to buy the Seals and move them to Denver. Rejected. Only then did he turn to the WHA. They probably should have rejected him too.

    The WHA gave him his major-league team. But it wasn’t in the major-league he’d spent the last few years hyping the hell out of. Fans saw it as a bait & switch. He also wound up with a WHA team that was a hybrid of the lowly CHL Spurs and the recently folded cellar-dwellers, the Chicago Cougars & Baltimore Blades. And it showed. It took them 9 home games to win one…a REAL fan-pleasing start! They did get somewhat better, but it was FAR too late to matter.

    After rumours of Kansas City moving to Denver became true, the Spurs saw the prospect of sharing Denver’s 3,500 hockey fans with an (equally lousy) NHL team. Thus the desperate owner agreed to sell to the Ottawa Founders Club during a 70’s New Years Eve party, of all things.

    I’ll skip the already-covered Civic’s history, other than to say that (unlike 72-73) Ottawa was now ready for a WHA team. It would’ve worked. The 2 near sell-outs for a lousy, bankrupt, team that took off from another city mid-season…is a STRONG indication it would’ve worked. Much more promising than the previous season’s Michigan Stags-Baltimore Blades situation. The only problem was the Denver owner expected to sell his last place, bankrupt, homeless, team for exactly what he paid for it! And when The Founders balked, he started selling off players to other teams. Somehow, he actually thought he was going to earn MORE money selling the few decent players he had and some sticks & sweaters than the million bucks The Founders were going to give him! What a moron!

    The WHA had an emergency meeting. Unfortunately, several owners had already bought Ottawa’s best players. So they had incentive to kill what might have been a stable Ottawa franchise. Sadly, from that moment on, the WHA was a shrinking league. Its owners were decreasingly interested in league stability and increasingly interested in ensuring THEIR team would be included in an NHL merger. If Ottawa had made it, the WHA story may have been VERY different.

    This collectors item is part of the hype that was the “NHL expansion” Spurs. I’m pretty sure my dad bought the single at that the time…way the hell up in Eastern Canada! That’s how hyped it was. No wonder Denver hockey fans were confused. by the whole bizarre hockey landscape of the time. Four different pro-leagues in 4 years.

    • Again. apologies for not seeing your comment in my quarantine. I enjoyed both of them, and I feel bad that you put that much work in and got filtered out… I don’t think it likes the email address you’d used.

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