Monday, July 18, 2011
July by the Numbers visits the Windy City for jersey #18.
One of the founding member clubs of the World Hockey Association, the Chicago Cougars had a tremendous challenge ahead of them as they took on the established Chicago Black Hawks of the NHL on their own turf.
Unlike other WHA clubs who took on NHL teams by playing as tenants in the NHL's home arenas, such as the New York Raiders and Toronto Toros, the Cougars made the ancient International Amphitheater, built in 1934, their "temporary" home, with the hopes of relocating to the Rosemont Horizon when it was completed.
The Cougars opening game was a memorable affair, as the club hosted former Black Hawks standout Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets, who Chicago defeated by a score of 3-1. The remainder of the season proved to be tough going, as the club finished dead last in the WHA with a 26-50-2 record and just 54 points in the standings, 14 behind the Raiders. The team was led in scoring by Bob Sicinski with 88 points and Rosarie Paiement's team leading 33 goals.
With changes obviously needed, veteran leadership was provided by long time Montreal Canadien Ralph Backstrom who was lured away from the Black Hawks along with Pat Stapleton. Backstrom led the Cougars offensively with 33 goals, 50 assists and 83 points and Paiement also reached 30 goals once again while Stapleton had 52 assists from the blueline to lead the team in that category.
The signing of Ralph Backstrom
While the club improved in the standings to 81 points, it was only good for fourth in the Eastern Division, one point ahead of the Quebec Nordiques for the final playoff spot. Once in the playoffs, the Cougars upset the top seeded and defending champions the New England Whalers in seven games, including the final game on the road in Boston.
In one of the typically odd stories surrounding the WHA, the Cougars were unable to play their second round home playoff games against the Toronto Toros in the International Amphitheater due to a traveling production of "Peter Pan" with former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby in the title role having been booked into the arena.
An unsuccessful attempt was made to move the games to Chicago Stadium, home of the Black Hawks and the team settled on the undignified solution of playing it's games at a suburban shopping center in Randhurst, where they was a public skating rink called the Randhurst Twin Ice Arena which could hold only 2000 spectators!
The Cougars managed survive this indignity to win two of their three games in Randhurst and play well enough on the road to force a Game 7, which they won on the road to make a surprising appearance in the Avco Cup Finals.
With the Peter Pan show having concluded, the team expected to return to their home rink for the finals, only to find out they arena staff had melted the ice surface and the pipes used to chill the ice were being dismantled for the offseason! Apparently the arena and it's staff were not fans of the team and hadn't been following the Cougars progress against the Toros...
Forced to return to Randhurst, they were swept by Gordie Howe and the Houston Aeros in four straight where the Aeros took the title in the tiny arena next to the shopping mall. The bad publicity from the arena situation caused a sportswriter to come up with one of the all-time classic quotes, "The Cougars were beaten by the greatest lightweight of them all - Peter Pan."
Rookie Gary MacGregor led the 1974-75 Cougars with 42 goals and 76 points, two ahead of Paiement's 74. Dave Dryden came over from the NHL to tend goal. Things were not going well at the box office though, and the team was facing a major financial crisis which threatened to put the team out of business during the 1974-75 season, but the team's three major players, Backstrom, Stapleton and Dryden, purchased the team to keep it going through the end of the season in which the Cougars dropped to 12th place overall out of the 14 teams and failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the reality of the financial situation set in and the club folded following the season, ending their challenge to the superiority of the NHL's Black Hawks, as did every other WHA team who took on an NHL club in the same city, a scene repeated in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Toronto, Vancouver and Detroit, giving the NHL a perfect 9-0 record and causing the WHA to retreat to outposts such as Cincinnati, Birmingham, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Calgary and San Diego.
Incidentally, construction of the Rosemont Horizon would not begin until 1977, two years after the demise of the Cougars. It was eventually be completed in 1980 - after the WHA itself had ceased to exist - and has been home to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL since 1994.
Today's featured jersey is a 1972-73 Chicago Cougars Ron Anderson jersey as worn during the club's first season. It features the Cougars prowling cat logo contained in a rink shaped "C", somewhat reminiscent of the Vancouver Canucks original "stick in rink" logo. Additionally, the jerseys featured the player's number on the chest, predating the Buffalo Sabres use of chest numbers, which were hailed as "innovative", by a full 34 years!
The Cougars attractive multi-striped jerseys would remain unchanged through their three years of existence.
Our video section today features the 1973-74 Chicago Cougars in three parts in that classic 1970's style, which of course includes the soundtrack. Lots and lots of game action footage in this treasure trove of WHA video.
Don't miss the use of early rollerblades, or "street skates" in part two!