Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Born on this date in 1942, Bill Speer played his junior hockey with the St. Catharines Teepees for the 1959-60 season. A defenseman, Speer scored 1 goal and 6 assists in 43 games. He added a single assist in 16 OHA playoff games before shocking everyone with 4 goals in during the Memorial Cup playoffs as the Teepees defeated the Edmonton Oil Kings 4 games to 2.
The would play two additional seasons for St. Catharines with somewhat more offensive contributions of 27 and then 30 points. After the conclusion of his junior career, Speer, who also operated his own barbershop, began the customary trek through the minors in an effort to make it to the NHL, with his first stop coming in Knoxville, Tennessee with the Knights of the Eastern Hockey League for the 1962-63 campaign. He acclimated himself to the professional game in sort order, scoring a career high 10 goals and 44 assists for 54 points.
He earned a step up the ladder for the 1963-64 season, joining the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League, but was limited to just 28 games that season. For 1964-65, Speer became a member of the Cleveland Barons, where he played all but three games over the course of the next two seasons, which included an appearance in the Calder Cup finals in 1966.
Speer while a member of the Barons
His next stop was with the Buffalo Bisons, where he had a fine offensive season with 31 points, the second highest of his career at any level. It was at this point that the hockey world would undergo an upheaval unlike any other, as the NHL expanded from is longstanding six franchises to now a dozen for the 1967-68 season, creating roughly 250 more jobs for players at the game's highest level.
The expansion Pittsburgh Penguins signed Speer for one of those roster spots and he seized the opportunity, playing in 68 of their inaugural season. Also during 1967-68, Speer suited up five times for the Baltimore Clippers of the AHL, registering 5 assists.
NHL rookie Bill Speer
His 1968-69 season was an unsettled one, which saw him play 34 games for the Penguins, 13 games for the Clippers and 7 games for the Amarillo Wranglers of the Central Hockey League.
Prior to the start of the 1969-70 season, fate smiled on Speer, as he was selected by the Boston Bruins in the intra-League draft, joining a defensive corps which also included Bobby Orr, who happens to share a birthday with Speer, having been born on the same date three years later.
While Speer did play 19 games with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the Western Hockey League that season, he was with the Bruins for 27 regular season games as well as 8 of the Bruins 14 postseason games as they defeated the New York Rangers in 6 games prior to sweeping the Chicago Black Hawks and St. Louis Blues to capture the Stanley Cup.
The 1970 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins
Speer would spend quite nearly his entire 1970-71 season in the AHL, dividing his time between the Hershey Bears (27 games) and the Providence Reds (25 games) as well as one game with the Bruins. He played in the postseason with the Reds, who made it to the Calder Cup finals for the second time in his career.
It was back to Boston for the 1971-72 season, only this time with the Boston Braves of the AHL, with whom Speer skated for 7 games, but he was back with Providence for the bulk of the season, 52 games in all, as well as five in the post season.
Fate once again smiled in Speer in a fashion, as the 1972-73 season once again saw the world of professional hockey expand in a way never seen before with the creation of the World Hockey Association, which gave Speer a second chance to escape the minors to play at a top level, although he had the somewhat misfortunate luck to land a job with the New York Raiders, who forced to play their games at a nearly empty Madison Square Garden, a situation not helped by sharing an arena with the long-established Rangers, as well as competition from the expansion New York Islanders of the NHL, who were able to gain a lease at the Nassau County Coliseum, the Raiders first preference for where they wanted to play, but were rejected by the powers that be who did not consider the WHA to be a major league.
While their ownership situation was far from settled, with the league taking over ownership of the franchise midway through their first season, Speer saw plenty of ice time, appearing in 69 games and scoring 26 points, second among defensemen on the Raiders.
For the 1973-74 season, new ownership was in place, as was a new team name, the New York Golden Blades. 20 games into the season, drawing a mere 500 fans in an 18,000 seat arena, the franchise was turned over to the league once again after just 20 games. The league then found the wisdom to move the team out of Manhattan to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just across the river from Philadelphia, where the team was named the New Jersey Knights.
There, the Knights were forced to endure playing in perhaps the least suitable arena ever inhabited by a professional hockey team, as the visiting teams had to leave the arena in their still wet gear to change into their clothes back at their hotel because of the inadequate situation with the locker rooms there. Worse, the ice surface sloped uphill toward one end and a hump in the ice would cause a sliding puck to suddenly leap up and take flight, reportedly knocking out one Knights player who was nailed between the eyes by a unexpectedly airborne puck!
Rumor has it that the franchise was named the "Knights" because that was the only jersey style a local sporting good store had enough stock on hand following the team's sudden relocation from Manhattan.
Despite all the uncertainty and upheaval, Speer played 66 games with the Golden Blades/Knights, putting up a fine season of 26 points. For the 1974-75 season, the troubled franchise took flight for San Diego, California, but Speer played one season of senior hockey in southern Ontario rather than southern California before calling it a career.
In all, Speer played 130 NHL games and 135 more in the WHA, scoring 9 goals and 46 assists for 149 points and won a Stanley Cup while with the Bruins in 1970.
Remembered for giving his teammates haircuts in the locker room, Speer sadly died young when his snowmobile plunged through thin ice when he was 46.
Today's featured jersey is a 1967-68 Pittsburgh Penguins Bill Speer jersey as worn during the Penguins inaugural season of play in the NHL. The Penguins would only wear this style sweater for a single season, completely revamping their jerseys for their second season, changing the striping, logo and unique font for the numbers, retaining very little beyond the light blue color and navy lace-up collar and cuffs.
While the jersey was only used for one season, being the first Penguins sweater, it does have a place of honor in team history and has been an influence on future designs on more than one occasion, the first being in 1992-93, when the diagonal "Pittsburgh" cresting was revived for the team's striking new black road jerseys as worn by stars Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
This jersey was also the basis of the Penguins Winter Classic jersey worn when they acted as hosts for the event in 2011. While the colors were reversed, but the multiple "radiator" stripes were brought back, as well as the unique drop shadowed font for the numbers. This sweater was paired with an early version of the Penguins logo with the bird wearing a scarf, never before used on a jersey. This jersey remained in use after the event as an alternate jersey beginning in 2011-12.