Forgotten Franchises: The WHA’s Ottawa Nationals / Toronto Toros

This original WHA franchise lasted through the entire run of the WHA and played in three different cities; I’m going to address the “early years” in this post, and then get to the final chapter in “Part Two”, which I’ll post next Friday.

The franchise which was to become the Ottawa Nationals was originally given the WHA rights to all of Ontario. The original plans were to put the team in Hamilton, which is at the westernmost part of Lake Ontario, and between Toronto and Buffalo if one is driving rather than sailing across the lake. Because there wasn’t a suitable arena in Hamilton, the team was instead put in the Canadian capital of Ottawa.

The first game in WHA history was played in Ottawa on October 11, 1972. The Nationals were host to the Alberta (later Edmonton) Oilers. The Oilers won that game 7-4.

The team was not a success in Ottawa, and I read (but could not verify) that within the first months of the season there were rumors of the team moving to Milwaukee. The Nationals finished with a 35-39-4, 4th in the East division and good enough to make the playoffs. However, they didn’t have access to their home ice for the playoffs, so the postseason home games were held in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Ottawa lost in the semis to the eventual league champion New England Whalers.

Before the following season, the team was sold and became the Toronto Toros.

They played their first season in the University of Toronto’s arena while working on alternate venues within the Toronto area. None of those panned out for the short term, and the University’s arena had a small capacity and no broadcast facilities, so the team became the tenants of their NHL rival and moved to Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Toros marketed themselves aggressively and courted a younger fanbase than the Maple Leafs. They also signed a number of former Maple Leafs, and made an attempt to lure Leafs’ star Darryl Sittler. They did well at the gate but suffering from leasing the Garden from the Maple Leafs’ owner, who was generally not a fan (to say the least) of the WHA and the Toros.

After three seasons in Toronto and no feasible alternative available within Toronto, the Toros reluctantly moved south to Alabama, keeping the logo and the alliteration by becoming the Birmingham Bulls… which is where Part 2 of this Forgotten Franchises entry will pick up.

Among the Toronto Toros who put significant time in with NHL teams were…

…Hall Of Famer Frank Mahovolich, who capped off his Hall Of Fame career with the Toros and the Bulls.

Paul Henderson was a former Maple Leaf and Red Wing, but most importantly to Canadian hockey fans, he was a national hero for scoring three game-winning goals in the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union.

Vaclav Nedomansky was the first player to defect from behind the Iron Curtain, defecting from Czechoslovakia and signing with the Toros.

After playing with the Toros and Bulls, he put in four seasons with the Red Wings

Wayne Dillon, who played with the Toros, Bulls, Rangers and Jets.

Dillon’s 1975-76 Topps card shows him with the Rangers, but I’m pretty sure that’s a Toros jersey.

Gilles Gratton only played 47 NHL games with the Blues and Rangers, but was possibly best known for his goalie mask which had a tiger’s face painted on it.

Pat Hickey played for the Rangers, Maple Leafs and Blues, with brief stops with the Colorado Rockies and Quebec Nordiques

Mark Napier turned pro as a 19 year old, was the WHA rookie of the year, and would win Stanley Cups with the Canadiens and Oilers.  He also played for the North Stars and Sabres.

Why Am I Intrigued By The Expansion Of A League I Don’t Follow?

Chalk it up to my being a “franchise nerd”.

I used to be a big hockey fan, specifically the Washington Capitals. I collected hockey cards, bought yearbooks and apparel and followed my team and the league as best I could given that my team was close to 300 miles away. My enthusiasm started to take a nosedive in the 1990’s for a variety of reasons, and when the league shut down for an entire season, that was it for the NHL. I still enjoy hockey, but I’d just as soon watch NCAA hockey as much as the pro ranks.

So with that in mind, why am I so caught up in the NHL expansion draft to stock the roster of the Vegas Golden Knights?

It’s not because I have any ties to Las Vegas or love their logo… although it is a pretty good logo.

Part of it is the relatively small number of players who will be protected from the draft. Chances are it will still result in only one player I’ve heard of being selected in the draft:  Marc-Andre Fleury (And I wouldn’t even count on him being a Knight come the opening puck drop).

So why do I care? I’ve asked myself that question several times.

Part of it is probably that I was caught up in this type of thing from an early age. My first three years of being a baseball fan was with 24 teams divided into four divisions, and when you’re a kid, three years is a long time. Just after I turned 11, there was this expansion draft to create the Blue Jays and Mariners, two brand new teams created seemingly from nothing. This blew my 11-year-old mind. New cities, new team names, new logos and colors, new uniforms… I even had to rearrange the stacks of cards in my dresser drawer to make room for two new team stacks!

And now, it’s been quite a while since any of the four major sports has expanded…. I believe the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats in 2004 was the last of the top 4 sports. Before that it was the NFL’s Houston Texans in 2002 and before that it was the NHL’s addition of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild in 2000. For MLB, it was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998.

When the NHL announced that they would be expanding, that the new team would cost a half-billion dollars and, in compensation, would be better stocked than prior teams, it caught my attention… even though I’d be hard-pressed to name two dozen current players in the NHL.

Unfortunately the Capitals protected the biggest obstacle to my becoming a Caps fan again – Alex Ovechkin, who got into the “Shlabotnik Hall Of Disdain” on the first ballot.  I knew the Caps wouldn’t allow Ovechkin to get selected for no compensation, but a guy can dream, can’t he?

A Cheap Lot Of 1972-73 O-Pee-Chee Hockey

It all comes down to this:  Well-loved, cheap 1970’s O-Pee-Chee hockey.  So what’s not to like?  Yes, they’ve got more than their share of creases, but that’s what you get for a buck.

I didn’t know anything about Roger Crozier before getting this card, but he has a few accomplishments on his C.V.
1972-73 OPC Roger Crozier
With the Red Wings in 1964-65, his first full season in the NHL, he played in all 70 regular season games, lead the league with 40 wins and 6 shutouts, was an All-Star and won the Calder Cup (awarded to the league’s most outstanding rookie). The following year he lead the league in losses, but won the Conn Smythe (MVP of the playoffs) as the Red Wings lost to the Habs 4-2 in the Stanley Cup finals.

Jude Drouin played over 300 games with the North Stars, but to me he’ll always be an Islander (pause while I spit on the ground at the mention of the Islanders).
1972-73 OPC Jude Drouin
I didn’t know that Drouin finished 2nd to Gilbert Perrault in the 1970-71 Calder voting. It was a distant second, but he still got a respectable percentage of the vote.

When I was a kid, I somehow latched on to the idea of Keith Magnuson as a superstar.
1972-73 OPC Keith Magnuson
Not that Magnuson wasn’t an excellent defenseman, but he wasn’t quite as good as I somehow thought he was.

This last card was easily the most interesting card for me, because 1972-73 was the first year for the Islanders and Atlanta Flames, and every Islander or Flame card I’d seen from this set had featured some other team’s uniform (they didn’t even bother airbrushing for early 1970’s hockey).  This card of Phil Myre was the first 1972-73 I’d seen that showed either team’s actual uniform.
1972-73 OPC Phil Myre
I went and looked up the Phil Myre card from the same year’s Topps set, and that card says “ATLANTA FLAMES”, but features a portrait of him in his Montreal Canadiens uniform.

While I’m not really collecting this set and it predates my Capitals team collection along with most of the players I have in mind to collect, I’m still happy with what I got and I learned a little something something about 1970’s O-Pee-Chee in the process.  Ain’t nothing wrong with that.