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.

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