Monday, July 11, 2011
July by the Numbers visits the Hockey Capital of the World for jersey #11.
The story of the Toronto Toros begins 400 kilometers up the highway in Ottawa. Sort of.
The franchise was originally meant to play in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens for the inaugural World Hockey Association season of 1972-73, but a suitable lease deal could not be arranged with the Maple Leafs. After a failed attempt to locate the team in Hamilton, Ontario down the road from Toronto, the team finally found a home in Ottawa where it was named the Ottawa Nationals.
The club drew poorly, averaging around 3,000 fans per game in the 10,000 seat Ottawa Civic Center while finishing fourth in the WHA's Eastern Division with a 35-39-4 record, which was good enough to qualify for the playoffs. However...
...the City of Ottawa demanded a payment of $100,000 to secure dates for the following season prior to the playoffs, which prompted the club's ownership to consider their options which resulted in them choosing to move all their "home" playoff games to Toronto!
After being known as the Ontario Nationals during the playoffs, the club was sold to new ownership who made Toronto their permanent home and renamed the team the Toronto Toros in June of 1973. Still, the club needed a place to call home, and while the the son of the Maple Leafs owner wanted the team to move into Maple Leaf Gardens, the Toros ownership wanted to move into an upgraded CNE Coliseum at Exhibition Place, so naturally in the absurd world of the WHA, the team ended up at the 4,800 seat Varsity Arena in downtown which was built way back in 1926!
The Toros made waves by signing Pat Hickey and Wayne Dillon to compliment 42 goal scorer Wayne Carleton from the first season as the Nationals. Carleton again led the team in scoring while Dillion hit the 30 goal mark. The Toros record improved to 41-33-4, which again qualified the franchise for the postseason where they won the franchise's first and only playoff series with a five game defeat of the Cleveland Crusaders before falling in seven games to the Chicago Cougars.
Toros goaltender Gilles Gratton
Off the ice, the Toros made the move to Maple Leaf Gardens for the 1974-75 season, but unfortunately for the Toros, the Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard was now out of prison and back in control of the arena, and Ballard, as cantankerous a man who ever lived, hated the rival WHA for signing away many of his players. Hated it. And that hatred was taken out on the Toros at every opportunity.
For example, the lease called for the Toros to pay $15,000 per game to play at the Gardens, but when the first game came, the arena was quite dark and Ballard then demanded and additional $3,500 for the use of the lights! He also denied the team access to the Maple Leaf's locker room, forcing the Toros to build their own at a cost of $55,000. Ballard even took the cushions off of the players bench, saying the Toros could buy their own!
The Toros still gave it their best effort despite the off-ice headaches, and signed Canadian hero Paul Henderson away from the Maple Leafs, obviously earning no favors from his previous employer Ballard, as well as former Maple Leaf and Canadian star Frank Mahovlich and Czechoslovakian defector Vaclav Nedomansky. While the team's record remained essentially the same at 43-33-2, their attendance rose to 10,000 fans a game. Dillion led the team in scoring in 1974-75 with 95 points to set a new franchise high, followed by Mahovlich at 82 and Nedomansky at 81 and Tom Simpson at 80, which included a team high 52 goals. It was all for naught however, as the Toros were dumped in the opening round of the playoffs by the San Diego Mariners in six games.
For the 1975-76 season, the Toros signed underage junior Mark Napier as a tactic to obtain the best young players before the NHL could, as the established league had rules in place that did not allow players under the age of 20. Nedomansky set Toros records with 56 goals and 98 points in 1975-76, while Napier shown with 43 goals and 93 points, followed by Mahovlich's 34 goals and 89 points. The positive news ended there however, as the team dropped like a rock in the standings, finishing a dismal 24-52-5, last in the Canadian Division and one of two of 12 teams to finish the season to not qualify for the playoffs.
The poor performance on the ice resulted in a 20% attendance drop, which combined with the difficulties in dealing with their landlord Ballard, caused ownership to make the bizarre choice to relocate the team once more, only this time to the deep south of the United States to Birmingham, Alabama of all places, a city with zero previous hockey history or connections.
The club was renamed the Birmingham Bulls, which allowed it to keep the same logo, and was best known for it's policy of signing yet more underage players, which earned it the nickname of the "Baby Bulls", as well as their players frequent use of their fists. The Bulls failed to post a winning record in it's three seasons in Alabama, but knew what the public wanted, as it led the WHA in penalty minutes twice, most often earned in increments of 5 and 10 minutes at a time.
Eventually the WHA shrank to six clubs at the conclusion of the 1978-79 season and an agreement was made to admit four of the desirable WHA survivors into the NHL, Edmonton, Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford, which meant the end of the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls. Sort of.
The Bulls actually remained in business and joined the Central Hockey League for a season and two-thirds before disbanding before the 1980-81 season was complete.
Today's featured jersey is a 1973-74 Toronto Toros Gavin Kirk jersey. This attractive sweater has the distinctive Toros logo on the chest as well as the Toros wordmark on the sleeves, a unique feature we're surprised more teams have not done. This particular jersey also sports an assistant captain's "A", which has an unusual, large serif across the top.
While sharing a building with the Maple Leafs, we must wonder why the decision was made to feature blue as the main team color, when another hue would have given them a unique identity in the Toronto market.
During the Toros three seasons in Toronto, Kirk was the club's leading scorer with 63 goals and 144 assists for 207 points.
Bonus Jersey: Today's bonus jersey is a 1972-73 Toronto Toros Gavin Kirk jersey. This white home jersey has had the name removed, but still has the unusual assistant captain's "A" still intact.
Today's video highlight is Mahovlich scoring four goals for the club, however this footage is from after the team's move to Birmingham.