Forgotten Franchises: The NHL’s Cleveland Barons

Aside for providing me with a fun project, one thing my Dead Parrot Frankenset has done for me is make me realize how many of the teams I’m collecting have not been the subject of one of my “Forgotten Franchises” posts… so it’s time to rectify that, one team at a time.

The Cleveland Barons lasted just two seasons from 1976 to 1978 and was the only NHL team to ever call Cleveland home (although there had been a couple of prior attempts to being the NHL to Cleveland).

The Barons’ story in begins in Oakland with the California Seals; if you read my Forgotten Franchises post on the Seals, you’ll know that the 1967 expansion team struggled for wins and attendance throughout their existence and had been rumored, at various times, to be moving to Vancouver, Buffalo, Washington DC, Indianapolis, Denver and Seattle. Minority owners George and Gordon Gund were able to convince the rest of ownership to move the team to Cleveland in 1976, just a couple of months before the season began. The team adopted the name of a successful former American Hockey League team.

Given the timing of the move, the Barons didn’t have time to do much marketing before taking the ice, and the attendance suffered for that. Although they had a new arena in the Richfield Coliseum, it wasn’t located in Cleveland but rather between Cleveland and Akron. This non-urban location also caused attendance problems for the team.

On the ice, the team was awful, going 47-87-26 over two seasons and missing the playoffs both years. During the second season, the financial situation became so dire that players went unpaid for weeks, and there had been talk of the team folding mid-season.

After that second season, it was determined that the team would cease operations in some form. The Minnesota North Stars were also close to insolvency so the idea was pitched of having the Barons and Minnesota North Stars combine their organizations, making the argument to the league that one team folding might look bad, but it was better than two teams going under. The combined team would be under the ownership of the Gund brothers, who had already taken majority ownership of the Barons, and would maintain the North Stars identity and home ice. To maintain divisional balance, the team would assume the Barons’ spot in the Adams division.

In case you were curious, the combined teams were still terrible in 1978-79, finishing 4th and missing the playoffs. The North Stars had more success in 1979-80, finishing with a 36-28-16 record which was good for 3rd place in the now-five-team Adams division (the Nordiques were added after the WHA merger). The North Stars beat the Maple Leafs and Canadiens before losing to the Flyers in the semi-finals.

Cleveland Barons in Topps and O-Pee-Chee sets
Although the Barons existed for two years, they appeared on Topps cards only for their second season. This was because the move to Cleveland happened too late for Topps to make the appropriate changes for the 1976-77 set. O-Pee-Chee was able to handle it better – somewhat – due to their later release date.

To illustrate, I’ll use the cards for Dennis Maruk, the Baron’s representative at the 1978 All-Star Game and the team’s leading scorer for both seasons.

When Topps created the 1976-77 hockey set, the team in question was still the California Golden Seals.

O-Pee-Chee had time to change the team name and update the logo; I don’t have an OPC Maruk, but to give you the general idea, here’s the top of another OPC Barons card.

For those players who are still shown wearing a Seals uniform (as opposed to being airbrushed from some other team’s uniform), there’s the typical OPC “Team transferred to Cleveland” text. OPC left the Seals team card alone, so it’s the only Seals card in that set.

This is the one Topps set where you get to see the Barons’ uniforms… well, not so much on Dennis Maruk’s card, but there are others in this post.

It’s also only set with a Barons team card.

Because the merging of the Barons into the North Stars came early enough for the 1978 set, Topps Airbrushed several Barons into North Stars uniforms.  Maruk played just 2 games for the North Stars in 1978 before being traded to the Capitals, but he would get traded back to Minnesota in 1983.

A number of players where weren’t in Topps but were in O-Pee-Chee are shown in their Barons uniforms (Al MacAdam and John Baby, both listed with the North Stars; Dave Gardner with the Kings).

O-Pee-Chee, known for using older photos with a superimposed “NOW WITH…” text to make it all better, would use continue to use Barons photos after the team was just a memory, like in the 1979/80 set.

Key Players (other than Dennis Maruk):

Al MacAdam was second in team scoring and was the Baron’s representative at the 1977 All-Star game; he would go on to win the Masterson Trophy (Perseverance and Sportsmanship) with the North Stars in 1979/80.

Wikipedia lists Bob Stewart and former Rangers All-Star Jim Neilsen as the team’s co-captains; indeed, the above team card shows two different players wearing the captains’ “C”.

Defenseman Mike Christie was, by far, the teams’s plus/minus leader in 1976 with a +19 rating. By comparison, the following season saw four players tie for the best plus/minus with a 0 rating – the team as a whole gave up 95 more goals than it scored. Christie was, on paper, the first player born in Texas to play in the NHL, but it was a technicality – he was raised in Canada.

Gilles Meloche was the starting goalie for both seasons in Cleveland, and would have a long career with the Seals, Barons, North Stars, Penguins and Black Hawks.

Rick Hampton was the 3rd overall draft pick in 1974 (after Greg Joly and Wilf Paiement) and was in the NHL at the age of 18.

Update:  Charlie Simmer played 24 games for the Barons in the 1976/77 season.  With the Kings in 1979/80 he would lead the league in goals (56) and power-play goals (21).  Thanks to Mike Matson of Not Another Baseball Card Blog for pointing out my oversight.

Others of note: Dave Gardner, Wayne Merrick, J.P. Parise, Jean Potvin

Forgotten Franchises: The ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors / Sails

Going into the 1972-73 season the ABA had two teams fold, so to keep the league with 10 teams the league expanded for the first and only time.  The expansion team was granted to San Diego (which had lost the Rockets to Houston), and that team was called the Conquistadors, or “Q’s” for short.

For the first season the team was coached by K.C. Jones, who would go on to lead the Celtics to two championships and also make the Hall Of Fame as a player.  The team was expected to be horrible, but surprised by being on the low side of mediocre, finishing with a 30-54 record and squeaking into the playoffs.  They got swept by the Utah Stars in the first round.

For their second season, the ownership made a big splash by signing Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain to be their player/coach.  However, a Lakers lawsuit prevented Chamberlain from suiting up, so he remained solely the coach of the Q’s.

1974-75 Topps - [Base] #250 - Wilt Chamberlain - Courtesy of

1974-75 Topps – [Base] #250 – Wilt Chamberlain – Courtesy of

Wilt’s heart didn’t seem to be in it as solely a coach, so he was one-and-done with the Q’s.  The team did make their second and final playoff appearance, and once again lost to Utah in the first round, but this time they took it to 6 games.

The third season saw two new coaches come and go and ended with a 31-53 record.

After the third season, the team was sold and the name was changed to the San Diego Sails, complete with new colors, new uniforms and mostly new players.

The team made a go of it, but struggled out of the gate, and it also became apparent that the team would never be allowed to join the NBA to compete against the Lakers in southern California.  On 11/12/75 the plug was pulled and the San Diego Sails folded, the second of three ABA teams to fold during that final ABA season.

The NBA’s Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego in 1978 and became the San Diego Clippers. That Clippers team lasted just six seasons before moving north in 1984 to become the Los Angeles Clippers. San Diego has not had an NBA team since.

Featured Cards

Red Robbins was a career ABA guy, having played in 8 seasons with 5 teams, being named All-ABA twice, and winning a league championship with the 1970-71 Utah Stars.

Travis Grant was a 1st round (13th overall) draft pick of the Lakers in 1972.  Early in his second season he was dropped by the Lakers and jumped over to the Q’s.  He’d also play in the ABA for the Kentucky Colonels and Indiana Pacers.

George Adams played in all three seasons that the team was the Conquistadors, but despite what the card says, he didn’t play for the San Diego Sails.

Other notable players
Billy Shepherd – dangerous 3-point shot guy
Chuck Williams – 2nd in the ABA in 1972/73 in Assists
Caldwell Jones – 3rd in the ABA in 1973/74 in Rebounds
Dwight “Bo” Lamar – All-Rookie for the Q’s in 1973/74, would play a season with the Lakers

Forgotten Franchises: The WHA’s Birmingham Bulls

This is Part 2 to follow my prior “Forgotten Franchises” post. That post covered the Ottawa Nationals and Toronto Toros, the first and second stops of the franchise whose third stop was in Birmingham Alabama. Because the team went from the Toros to the Birmingham Bulls, they were able to keep the same logo.

The Bulls played three years in the WHA, never had a winning record and only made the playoffs once, but were nevertheless pretty successful in bringing hockey to Alabama. The team was not included in the WHA’s merger with the NHL and the franchise shifted to the minor league Central Hockey League.

There are two primary stories when it comes to the Bulls. The first is that, to appeal to the Alabama fans, many of whom didn’t know the finer points of hockey, the team went with a strategy very much in the vein of the movie “Slap Shot”.  Indeed, the Paul Newman character (Reggie Dunlop) was based at least in part on Bulls coach John Brophy.  Bulls player Dave Hanson appeared in the movie as one of the Hanson brothers, and was also said to be the inspiration for the Killer Carlson character in the same movie.

…But I’m not going to focus on that storyline.

The part of the Bulls story that I find most interesting is a youth movement it undertook. At the time, players could not be drafted by the NHL until they were 21 years old, but the WHA had no such restriction. The Bulls made a push to take advantage of this situation.

One of the players that the Bulls made a run at was Wayne Gretzky, but The Great One would sign with the Indianapolis Racers. However, the Bulls did sign a number of players, referred to collectively as the “Baby Bulls”, and had they been able to stay together could’ve been the basis to a very good team. Of course, even if the Bulls had been part of the merger, the terms of the merger stripped most of the WHA team’s players away in a “re-entry draft”, so this is all academic.

All of these players started their professional careers with the Bulls most were rookies in the 1978-79 season.

Craig Hartsburg played for the Bulls as a 19-year-old before going on to play 10 years for the North Stars.

In 77 games with the Bulls, he scored 9 goals with 40 assists.

Gaston Gingras was also 19, and would play for the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Blues through the 1988/89 season.

In 60 games with the Bulls, he scored 13 goals with 21 assists.

Rob Ramage was a older “Baby Bull”, he was 20 when he made the WHA 1st All Star Team.  He’d go on to play for a number of teams and hoisted the Stanley Cup twice.

In 80 games with the Bulls, he’d score 12 goals with 36 assists.

Rick Vaive played for the Maple Leafs, Sabres, Black Hawks and Canucks through the 1991/92 season.

In 75 games as a 19-year-old Bull, he would lead the WHA with 248 penalty minutes, score 26 goals with 33 assists.

Pat Riggin would play through the 1987-88 season with the Flames, Capitals, Bruins and Penguins. In 1983-84 with the Caps, Riggin would leading the league with a 2.66 Goals Against Average and 4 shutouts.

As a 19-year-old with the Bulls, he had a 3.78 GAA and a shutout.

Hall-Of-Famer Michel Goulet was 18 when he played for the Bulls. He’d go on to play for the Nordiques and Black Hawks.

In 78 games with the Bulls, he’d score 28 goals with 30 assists.

As I was finishing up this post, I realized that this last player actually played for the Bulls the year before the others, in 1977/78.  HOFer and two-time Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman) winner Rod Langway started with the Bulls as a 20-year-old before going on to win a Cup with the Canadians and later play a major role in keeping the struggling Capitals in Washington.

In 52 games with Birmingham, he’d score 3 goals with 18 assists.

Throw these guys on top of the players from the Toronto years – Frank Mahovolich, Paul Henderson and Vaclav Nedomansky – and you’ve got quite an assortment of talent for any team, much less a WHA team.

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.

Forgotten Franchises: The WHA’s Philadelphia/Vancouver Blazers

The Philadelphia Blazers were one of the 12 teams which played in the WHA’s first season… but was not, technically, an original franchise.

That’s because the original plan was to have a team in south Florida called the Miami Screaming Eagles, but due to arena and money issues, that team never took the ice. Instead, the franchise was transferred to Philadelphia to compete for fans with the then-6-year-old Flyers team.

While the franchise was still in Miami, they signed two prominent NHL players; goalie Bernie Parent…

…And center Derek Sanderson.

Both Sanderson and the Blazers realized a mistake had been made, and after 8 games, the Blazers paid Sanderson off to void his contract.  Sanderson went back to the Boston Bruins.

Bernie Parent, meanwhile, had a contract dispute one game into the playoffs and would declared himself a free agent.  The Blazers would trade his WHA rights to the New York Golden Blades, while his NHL rights belonged to the Maple Leafs, the team he left when he jumped to the WHA.   Parent said that he’d only jump back to the NHL if he could play in Philly, so the Leafs traded his rights to the Flyers and he signed for less money than he could’ve gotten from the Golden Blades.

Getting back to the Blazers… In 1972/73, the team went 38-40-0, finished third in the East Division and got swept in the first round by the Cleveland Crusaders.

After that inaugural season, the team was sold to a new owner who moved the team to Vancouver; On the plus side, the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks were even less established than the Flyers, having been in place since the 1970-71 season. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they would share an arena with their NHL counterpart.

In order to compete with the Canucks, the Blazers owner tried – and failed – to lure Phil Esposito away from the Bruins.

Without Espo, the Vancouver Blazers finished 5th in West Division with a 27-50-1 record and did not make the playoffs.

In the third season, the Blazers again missed the playoffs by finishing 4th in the new Canadian Division with a 37-39-2 record. After two seasons in Vancouver, the team moved to Alberta and become the Calgary Cowboys. Two years after that, the franchise folded.

Other notable Blazers included Butch Deadmarsh, Andre Lacroix, who lead the league in points that first year before being traded, and most surprisingly to me, Hockey Hall-of-famer and Hart Trophy winner Andy Bathgate. Bathgate coached the team during part of the 1973/74 season, and would briefly come out of retirement at age 42 and play 11 games for the Vancouver Blazers in 1974/75

Forgotten Franchises: The ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals

The Dallas Chaparrals were a charter member of the ABA, starting with the 1967-68 season.  During their first few seasons, the team regularly had a winning record and repeatedly made the playoffs, but they ran into poor attendance and general disinterest in Dallas.


Before  the 1970/71 season, the team announced that they would become a regional franchise called the Texas Chaparrals, and would also play games in Fort Worth and Lubbock.  This was such a failed experiment that the plug was pulled on Fort Worth after two months, and Lubbock did not fair much better.  After one season, the experiment was over and they returned to being the Dallas Chaparrals.

In early 1973, the rumors were flying that groups from New Jersey and New Mexico were eyeing the Chaps.  That February, the ABA announced that the team would move to New Jersey, and eventually move to the Meadowlands upon completion.  The league signed off on this move, pending approval of the New York Nets, as the Meadowlands fell in their their territory.  The Chaparrals did not move to New Jersey, so it seems safe to assume that the Nets did not give their approval.

Before the 1973/74 season, in an unusual move, the team was leased to a San Antonio group with an option to buy after three years.  At the time, San Antonio was the largest city in the country without a major sports franchise.  The team was such an overwhelming success in San Antonio – it took them only 16 games to pass the previous season’s attendance in Dallas – that the lease was torn up and the group bought the team.  That team is, as you might have guessed, the San Antonio Spurs.

As for Dallas, they would not have another major league basketball team until the expansion Dallas Mavericks arrived for the 1980/81 season.

Among those who have played for the Chaparrals include Cincy Powell (an All-Star in 1970), John Beasley (three-time All-Star and the 1969 ABA All-Star Game MVP), and Joe Hamilton.

1971-72 Topps Basketball Joe Hamilton

This is Joe Hamilton’s rookie card.  He was named to the ABA’s All-Rookie  team, and once finished 5th in the league in free throw percentage.

About the team name…

“Chaparral” makes me think of this (pardon the crappy photo of a Hot Wheels car I keep on my desk at work):


…or rather, the Chaparral Racing team which had been dominant in the 1960’s and got immortalized for me via Hot Wheels and A/FX slot cars.

So I was puzzled when I looked chaparral up in the dictionary and found references to thickets of shrubs, or sometimes the land in which such thickets of shrubs grew.  Huh?

Some of the newspaper articles I saw said that the ABA team’s owners couldn’t decide on a name, so they just named it after the Chaparral Club restaurant where they’d met.  This may be apocryphal, I don’t know.

THEN… I found out that there’s a bird called the Chaparral Bird or Chaparral Cock… it’s a member of the cuckoo family and is also known as a Roadrunner (Meep!  Meep!).  The team’s logo features a bird like that, so it seems that this is what they were going for.  Maybe this would’ve been more obvious to me if I’d ever been in the southwest.

Regardless of the origin of the name, shortening it to “Chaps” for the uniform wasn’t the greatest idea, in my eyes.  It brings to mind a team of posh players saying things like “I say, Chaps!  Spiffing takeaway!  Jolly good!”

Black Friday COMC Sale!

It’s Black Friday, and all that entails!

COMC is having a promotion.  Check out my cards!  Check out other people’s cards! If you’re running a promotion, feel free to leave a link in the comments, and I promise to look at your wares.

Forgotten Franchises: The WHA’s Los Angeles Sharks

It’s Shark Week!

…And because it’s Shark Week, we gotta have Sharks!
Los Angeles Sharks logo

Long before there was NHL hockey in San Jose, the Los Angeles Sharks took the ice as one of the 12 original WHA franchises.

Actually, at the very beginning of the WHA, before any teams took the ice, there was a San Francisco Sharks franchise…   This was meant to be one of the original WHA franchises, but financial difficulties forced the league to sell the franchise to a group from Quebec, and the Quebec Nordiques were instead the flagship franchise in this spot.

The original name of the L.A. team was Los Angeles Aces, and the teams colors were red and black so it would seem like they were going for the playing card definition of “aces”.  I thought this was kind of an odd name for a franchise in Los Angeles (as opposed to, say, Las Vegas).

…Then I found a quote from Harry Howell (then of the L.A. Kings) in early 1972.  Harry, in talking about the “other” L.A. team, said “…they were going to call them the Aces, because Aces always beats Kings”.  Ohhhhhhh!!!!  I get it.  It’s not exactly the pinnacle of wit, but I get it.

Anyway, when the San Francisco team essentially moved to Quebec before the season started, the Los Angeles franchise took on the Sharks name.

The Sharks finished their first season with a 37-35-6 record, finished 3rd in the West Division and made the playoffs.  They would lose to the Houston Aeros in six games during the first round.

The second season wasn’t as successful, even though they lured Marc Tardif away from the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.
1977-78 OPC WHA Marc Tardif
The Sharks finished in last with the league’s worst record (25-53-0).  At the same time, the L.A. Kings were fielding a competitive team, so that also had an effect on the Sharks’ attendance.

According to Wikipedia, the Sharks were the first team in the NHL or WHA to play a full season without a tie.

In February of 1974, the Sharks were sold, and after the season they moved to Detroit to try to wrest the hearts and minds of Michigan hockey fans away from the less-than-dominant (at the time) Red Wings.  The team was renamed the Michigan Stags, but poor attendance and the lack of a TV deal caused financial issues that resulted in the Stags folding that January.  The league created a Baltimore Blades franchise to fill the Stags’ spot, but attendance was just as poor in Baltimore as in Detroit, and the league terminated the franchise.

As for notable L.A. Sharks players…

The biggest name to have played with the Sharks was the aforementioned Marc Tardif. By the end of the WHA, Tardif was the league’s top career goal scorer, second in career assists and third in career points.  He was also a two-time winner of the Gordie Howe Trophy, awarded to the league’s MVP.

When I was reviewing the Sharks’ all-time roster, one of the names which jumped out at me was player/coach Ted McCaskill… and the reason his name jumped out at me is because I collect his son.
1994 Fleer Ultra Kirk McCaskill
Kirk McCaskill pitched for the Angels and White Sox, but he was also the captain of his University of Vermont hockey team, and had been drafted by the original Winnipeg Jets in 1981.

Ted McCaskill played in the UK, played in the Eastern Hockey League and Western Hockey League, had 4 games with the Minnesota North Stars and 91 games over two seasons with the Sharks.

Normally with one of these Forgotten Franchises posts, I’ll talk about how long it took for a city to get another team… but in this case, Los Angeles already had the Kings, and I don’t think there were many people who missed the Sharks after they left.  I’m sure there were some… the few, the proud, the L.A. Sharks fans.


Forgotten Franchises: The ABA’s Spirits Of St. Louis

It’s been a while since my last “Forgotten Franchises” post, but this one took a while to get all my notes organized, because there was a lot of stuff going on off the hardwood for this former ABA franchise.

Spirits Of St Louis logo

The Spirits Of St. Louis was (or maybe wasn’t) the final incarnation of a franchise that spanned the entire history of the ABA. The team started as the Houston Mavericks, spent a few years as the Carolina Cougars (a regional franchise that was based out of Greensboro, NC) and then became the Spirits… At least technically. As Cougars coach Larry Brown and most of the roster went elsewhere, there are some who regard the Spirits as an expansion team.

However you want to regard the Spirits, they brought basketball to St. Louis for the first time since 1968, when the St. Louis Hawks moved to Atlanta.  The team name comes from “The Spirit Of St. Louis”, the airplane that Charles Lindbergh used to make the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. That original airplane is preserved in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

In their first season, the Spirits went 32-52 but finished third and made the playoffs.  After upsetting the 58-26 New York Nets in the Semis, they lost in 5 games to the Kentucky Colonels in the Eastern Division Finals.  In their second and final season, they improved to 35-49 but missed the playoffs.

Notable players included Marvin Barnes, M.L. Carr, Caldwell Jones, Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone (who was purchased from the Utah Stars after that franchise folded) and Steve “Snapper” Jones.
1975-76 Topps Basketball Steve Jones
Steve Jones played 8 years in 7 cities during his ABA career, and capped it off with a year with the Portland Trail Blazers. He was a three-time ABA All-Star and has worked as a broadcaster on Blazer’s games and on NBA TV.

There’s another notable name associated with the Spirits, one who never set foot on the court or touched the ball.  For the team’s first season, the play-by-play announcer was a 22-year-old who dropped out of Syracuse University to take the job.  That college dropout was Bob Costas.

After the Spirits’ second season, the ABA merged with the NBA.  When the merger came, the Nets, Spurs, Pacers and Nuggets went to the NBA and the other two remaining ABA teams, the Spirits and Kentucky Colonels, were bought out.  However, the way that the Spirits were bought out would have a long-lasting effect on the NBA and especially on Spirits owners Daniel and Ozzie Silna.

Instead of getting a $3 Million buyout like the Colonels did, they negotiated a $2 Million sum, plus a percentage of the TV revenue for the four teams that did go to the NBA… In perpetuity.  As TV revenue grew in importance for the NBA and all sports, this became a tremendously valuable buyout.  The resulting revenue stream amounted to $300 Million as of 2014, and then they got another $500 Million from the NBA to buy them out of the contract.  Talk about having a long-lasting impact on the sport…



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

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

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.

Forgotten Franchises: The WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers

The Cincinnati Stingers were a World Hockey Association (WHA) team that was relatively successful in that they were a stable WHA franchise, lasting four years without any rumors of moving or folding. Much of that stability likely had to do with the fact that they had a new arena to play in, the Riverfront Coliseum (now US Bank Arena).  Unfortunately for the hockey fans in Cincy, they ended up getting the short straw when the WHA merged with the NHL.

The Stingers had been a WHA expansion franchise in 1975-76, joining the league along with the Denver Spurs… The Spurs are an interesting-enough story that I’ve started researching them as the next “Forgotten Franchise”.

1976-77 OPC WHA Rick Dudley

The Stingers’ best season was 1976-77 when they went 39-37-5 and finished 2nd in the east to the Quebec Nordiques, but got swept in 4 games by the Indianapolis Racers in the first round of the playoffs.

Although some of the NHL/WHA merger proposals included the Stingers, it became apparent that the NHL wasn’t all that interested in absorbing the Stingers, as their attendance was below NHL standards. When the merger was completed, the Stingers and Birmingham Bulls were paid to disband.

The Stingers remain the only major league hockey team that Cincinnati has had.

The Stingers had a fair number of notable players, including two HOFers:  Mike Gartner and Mark Messier were teenagers during their brief time as Stingers.

Other players of note include Dennis Sobczuk, Robbie Ftorek (who lead the WHA in Assists in 78/79), Rick Dudley, Blaine Stoughton, Gilles Marrotte, Barry Melrose and Mike Liut:
2007-08 ITG Between The Pipes Mike Liut

Ron Plumb was another notable Stinger, and the only Stinger to win a league award, getting the Dennis A. Murphy Trophy (awarded to the WHA’s top defenseman) in 1976/77.
1977-78 OPC WHA Ron Plumb

When I was a kid in the 1970’s, I picked the Stingers as my favorite WHA team… despite the fact that I’d never seen a WHA game, not even on TV. I was just intrigued as could be about a rival hockey league, I was at an age where I *had* to have a favorite team in any league in any sport, and I loved the Stingers’ logo and colors. Because of that early “fandom”, I have a minor goal of collecting all of the Stingers cards from their 4 years of existence, plus any additional cards that might pop up, like the above 2007-08 In The Game card of Mike Liut.  I’d tell you about  my progress towards that goal, but I honestly have no idea of where I stand.