Sunday, July 19, 2015

WHA Ottawa Civics, The Two Week Franchise

Tom Earl, Daryl Maggs, Mark Lomenda, Gary MacGregor, Garry Swain
"Please let the fans make up their own minds," Henry Feller told a press gathering. "Let them decide if they want pro hockey here. We have to average 7,000 or 8,000 in the remaining 19 home games for a break-even point." Feller was a director of the Founders Club who had interest in buying the WHA's Denver Spurs club. Ivan Mullinex, owner of the Spurs had brought his team to Ottawa in an attempt to drum up interest and save his investment. The date was January 2, 1976 and Mullinex was in debt to a Denver bank to the tune of $1 million dollars. This same day, the newly christened Civics lost their first game under the new moniker by a score of 2-1 at Cincinnati.

Star of the team, Ralph Backstrom said after the game, "Our first official notice of the move hit us when we entered the Cincinnati rink and the names on the big scoreboard read: Stingers and Civics. Until that moment we were under the impression the move out of Denver was still only a rumour." After losing the following day (January 3) at Houston by 4-2 the Civics travelled to Minnesota for their third game in three nights. Dan Borgeson scored two goals, both assisted by Backstrom and 33 year-old rookie Lynn Zimmerman made 38 saves for a 5-2 win. Gary MacGregor, Rick Morris and Brian Lavender scored the other goals in the the first ever Civics victory.

By Monday the 5th of January, two days before the Civics home debut, there was a buzz of excitement in the city of Ottawa. Michael Houghton, an executive of the Ottawa based Founders Club said, "We're beginning to get the feeling that people are going to respond." Civics coach Jean-Guy Talbot exclaimed, "Give us support and we'll play well for you. There are a lot of the boys happy about going to Ottawa."
Mike Rogers, Garry Swain, Gary MacGregor, Al Hangsleben
The two photos of the first Civics home game above are from the files of photojournalist Doug Petepiece. The New England Whalers were visitors on that Wednesday "opening" night of January 7 and they spoiled the evening with a 3-2 victory. As seen, the Civics continued wearing the Spurs logo and uniform as there simply was no time for an updated one. A near capacity 8,457 fans showed up at the Ottawa Civic Centre to see the Civics debut, an encouraging number indeed. Still, this wasn't enough to prevent owner Mullinex from panicking. 
The day after the Civics Ottawa debut and despite the public support, Mullinex told the Founders Club that they had ten days to come up with a reported $1.5 million to purchase the team or he would call the whole thing off. In the mean time, at practice the following day, coach Talbot praised the response his team received from the community, "Imagine how young second-year pros like Gary MacGregor and Frank Rochon felt to hear the club get a standing ovation before and after the game! Remember they played in Chicago (the franchise transferred from Chicago Cougars to Denver the previous off-season) when there was no financial support or interest. They they were in Denver this season with an average of about 3,000 or so." The optimistic coach continued, "It's encouraging to get such support and to have many friends willing to wish you well."

After the loss at home to New England, the  Civics ventured out onto the road once again and lost 8-5 to the Phoenix Roadrunners and 6-5 in overtime in Winnipeg. Backstrom scored a pair in Phoenix while Rob Ftorek notched a hat-trick for the Roadrunners. Civics coach Talbot stated after the Winnipeg game, “Nearing the end, I could see we were getting tired. We were on the road all day, travelling from 5am (from Phoenix) to 6pm (to Winnipeg). Our guys really gave it an all-out effort though and Zimmerman really played well.” Phoenix coach Sandy Hucul commented afterward, “In view of their situation, you’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”
Brian Lavender explained how the players were handling their situation, "It's like being on one continuous road trip. You're living in the hotel all the time, and you really don't know where the hell you're at. All we can do is play the best hockey we can, and wait." Lavender finished with a wishful thought, "This team really needs a home, dammit, I hope this can be it."

L to R: Gordie, Marty Howe, Larry Hale, unidentified, Andre Hinse
By this point, a day before their second home match against Gordie Howe and the Houston Aeros, the decision on the Civics future was imminent. The Founders Club had made an offer of purchase to Mullinex although it was rumoured to be $500,000 lower than he was asking for. A spokesman for the Civics wasn't optimistic over the latest developments. It was suggested that unless Mullinex had a change of heart, it was unlikely the club could operate in Ottawa. The final outcome was expected to be known prior to the Aeros game.
Don Larway, Cam Newton

An even larger crowd than the first game was on hand to see Gordie Howe, his sons and the Houston Aeros. 9,355 saw Gord Laboissiere win the game 5-4 in overtime as Houston outshot Ottawa 55-25. Late in the game, an ominous announcement was heard in the Civic Centre advising that there would be an emergency meeting in Toronto in two days to deal with the future of the Ottawa franchise.

Newton, Ted Taylor #14, John Arbour #5, Maggs #4,  Don Borgeson #12

In fact, right after the game it was announced that Ralph Backstrom had been dealt to New England in what would be the first of many chips to fall. Also rumoured to have been dealt were Maggs, Baltimore, Rochon and Lomenda to Indianapolis and MacGregor to Cleveland. WHA vice president Bud Poile stated that, “The whole Denver-Ottawa situation will be thoroughly discussed and decisions will be made Saturday.” in reference to the emergency meeting.
Bryon Baltimore #18, Gordie, Newton
In the end, it was all over swiftly. Ben Hatskin, the league’s board chairman said after the Toronto meeting,  “The World Hockey Association announced today that the Ottawa Civics have formally ceased to operate.” Mullinex rejected the final low-ball offer of $1 million by the Founders Club, and no further interest in running a hockey club. His easiest course of action was to simply walk away. All rumoured transactions were approved and the rest of the squad was declared free agents. Bud Poile was now tasked with the job of revising the schedule, “The important thing is to make sure no one loses any home dates if it’s at all possible.”
 When it was all said and one, Poile was successful, and in fact there were two extra games added to even out the home dates. Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec and Toronto all played 81 total games in 1975/76.
Under the name Civics,  the franchise had a 1-6 record and were outscored 30-24. Ralph Backstrom would go on to collect 33 points in 38 games with the Whalers and play one more season with them before retiring. Daryl Mags would settle in nicely with Indianapolis and be named to the 1st All-Star team on Defence the following year. He would finish his career playing 5 games for the Maple Leafs in 1979/80. Brian Lavender retired from hockey when the Civics folded.  Gary MacGregor would play play until 1982 finishing with a season in Mannheim Germany. MacGregor died of a heart attack in 1995. Jean-Guy Talbot would coach the New York Rangers for the 1977/78 campaign, posting 73 points and losing in the first round of the playoffs.

The city of Ottawa certainly did answer the question of whether they would support professional hockey with two near sell-outs of the Civic Centre. However, it would have to wait another 16 years until getting another chance to support a big league team.
Lineup in the program from the last game of the Ottawa Civics





1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a REAL pity the Ottawa Civics weren't allowed to continue. Why the Denver owner didn't take the $1 million for his bankrupt, losing, team is totally beyond me. It's probably over 10 times what he got from selling players & team assets. Moron!

The league should have ponied up/loaned the difference between the Spurs & The Founders. At the very least, the WHA should've repeated what they did with the Michigan Stags. When the Stags folded, the league picked up the pieces & put them in Baltimore. The attempt ultimately failed. But it kept those players paid & in the WHA fold. It also served as a low-risk test-run for another market. If The Founders weren't quite ready, the league should have taken over the players' contracts and run the team until season's end. If Ottawa fans showed enough support, the WHA could have given The Founders a 76-77 expansion team already stocked with players.

The big problem was Denver's owner started selling off players. Getting their hands on Ottawa's best players gave certain owners motivation to let Ottawa's bid die. I think the Civic's still-birth was THE "negative turning point" for the WHA. From that moment on, it was a contracting league (Minnesota folded just weeks later) with owners who were increasingly less interested in league viability and increasingly more interested in ensuring THEIR team would be part of an NHL merger.

Meanwhile, a successful Ottawa franchise would've really helped WHA stability. Hailing from the hated national capital, there would be a natural, mutually benefitial rivalry with other Canadian Division teams. Having such a natural rival might have convinced the Toros' owners to stay in Toronto for another season. (Their move to Birmingham over returning to Ottawa is also a mystery.)

I'm sure skeptics will point to the Ottawa National's mediocre attendance. However, in 72-73, the Nationals were a new team in a brand new league. They were also playing opposite the well-known-&-loved Ottawa 67's. This Leo Boivin coached team had future superstar, Denis Potvin, AND Ian Turnbull, Gary McAdam, Blake Dunlop, Peter Lee & other players with long NHL/pro careers. They had 5 players with over 100 points and put on a serious show for a Junior A team. The only reason they didn't win the championship was because they lost to the Toronto Marlies, a team that 2/3 of their lineup would become regulars/stars in the NHL/WHA. (inc. 2 Howes) There probably hasn't been a better Junior lineup since...Er, where was I?...Right...If not for that, the Ottawa Nationals may have made it. But having the temptation of Toronto just down the road made it much easier to move.

If the Civics were given the opportunity, I'd say they had a 90% chance of making it to season's end and a 75% chance of making it beyond that. By 75-76, the WHA was a known entity with known stars and the 67's weren't the same team they were in 72-73. More importantly, the Spurs were a dodgy, bankrupt, team with an AWFUL record that wasn't going to improve anytime soon. Despite that, they still got 2 mid-season (near) sellouts! That demonstrates a legitimate chance of success. Certainly FAR better than Denver had. The WHA made the wrong move with the Spurs/Civics and it ultimately cost them.

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