One win, six losses.
During their two-week existence in January 1976, the Ottawa Civics did not set the professional hockey world on fire. Of the many teams that came and went during the seven-year war between the National Hockey League and the rival World Hockey Association, the Civics had the shortest on-ice life — but packed in plenty of off-ice drama.
Ottawa had deep roots in professional hockey: the original Senators won four Stanley Cups after joining the NHL in 1917. But the combination of the Great Depression and being in the league’s smallest market led to the team’s demise in 1934. When the WHA launched in 1972, it placed a franchise in Ottawa after failing to establish itself in Toronto or Hamilton. The Ottawa Nationals drew few fans and had rocky relations with city officials and the local press. The team moved its playoff games to Toronto and then, after being sold, remained there as the Toros.
When the WHA’s Michigan Stags moved to Baltimore in the middle of the 1974-75 season, hockey fans asked Ottawa Citizen columnist Bob Mellor why Ottawa hadn’t been considered. In his January 17, 1975, column, Mellor suggested that community ownership would bring in another team. After talking to local investors, Mellor said that $100,000 could be secured through 100 pledges of $1,000 each. He then claimed that “two guys” had already gathered 25 potential shareholders and that mayor Lorry Greenberg was receptive to the idea. He had also called WHA president Dennis Murphy to sell Ottawa’s potential. “This town could do it, if it wants to,” Mellor stressed.
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A so-called Founders’ Club was formed. Two weeks later, on January 31, a luncheon organized at a downtown hotel by Mellor, retailer Henry Feller, and musician Ron Sparling drew more than 400 people. The keynote speaker was Chicago Cougars centre Ralph Backstrom, who had enjoyed junior success in Ottawa before spending a decade with the Montreal Canadiens. Backstrom was all too familiar with the shakiness of the WHA, having bought into the Cougars with two teammates to keep the team afloat. He felt that Ottawa had plenty of potential but suggested that the Founders’ Club should try to buy an existing team.
After talks to buy the Cougars proved unsuccessful, the Founders’ Club applied for an expansion team. The WHA asked for $1.4 million: $700,000 up front, with the remainder paid over the next five years. Mellor hinted in his columns that there were anonymous investors who could raise the cash, but the application was quickly rejected.
While the WHA rejected Ottawa, it accepted another franchise for the 1975-76 season — one with a checkered past. After the minor Western Hockey League dissolved in June 1974, the NHL offered conditional franchises to the owners of the Denver Spurs and the Seattle Totems for the 1976-77 season. The NHL encouraged Spurs owner Ivan Mullenix, a St. Louis real-estate developer, to purchase the struggling California Golden Seals. That fell through, as did the financing for the Seattle franchise, ending that city’s NHL prospects until the recent creation of the Kraken. The league decided to add the Spurs one season ahead of schedule. Mullenix was increasingly unhappy with the NHL arrangement —the poor first-season performances of expansions teams in Kansas City and Washington, the $6 million entry fee, and other matters that led to an anti-trust lawsuit.
On May 19, 1975, the Spurs joined the WHA for $2.5 million. Mullenix told the press that the WHA was full of “men of stature, dedicated to the continuing excitement that this league has brought to hockey.” The NHL shrugged. “God bless him,” NHL president Clarence Campbell told the press. “But I can’t wish him luck.” When the Cougars disbanded soon after, the Spurs acquired 14 of its players, including Backstrom and former Cornwall junior star Gary MacGregor.
Playing in the brand-new 16,400-seat McNichols Arena, the Spurs drew, on average, only 3,500 fans each game. By December 1975, they were sitting near the bottom of the league. City officials acted as middlemen between Mullenix and the First National Bank of Denver, which had loaned him up to $2 million. Cutting ticket prices in half didn’t help, nor did a $47,000 tax lien. Mullenix began looking elsewhere to save the team.
On New Year’s Eve, there were numerous phone calls between Mullenix, members of the Founders’ Club, the Ottawa Civic Centre, and WHA officials. When 1976 arrived, the Spurs were on their way to Ottawa. The team was temporarily renamed the Civics but kept the Spurs’ orange uniforms. While they were expected to finish the season in their new home, only the next two home games were guaranteed. Many thought that Mullenix would sell the team to the Founders’ Club.
“It has happened so fast, we’re not set on very much of anything now and we just hope the Ottawa fans will understand that,” Sparling told the Ottawa Journal. “All we know now is that we can have the team here if the people want it.”
Trouble arose quickly. After the Civics lost their first game on the road in Cincinnati on January 2, Backstrom, citing a clause in his contract that involved team relocation, declared himself a free agent. While he said he had fond memories of Ottawa — his wife’s hometown — he wanted to continue playing in the United States and didn’t feel like moving his family again in the event the franchise faltered.
The Civics earned their only win on January 4 against the Minnesota Fighting Saints, who had missed their last payroll. The star of the game was 33-year-old rookie goalie Lynn Zimmerman, who stopped 38 shots in the 5-2 win. Zimmerman was on a five-game tryout after having toiled for years in the minors.
As the team prepared for its home debut against the New England Whalers on January 7, its future remained uncertain. Mullenix claimed the sale would be finished within the month, but he owed plenty of money in Denver. Ottawa mayor Lorry Greenberg refused to offer any municipal assistance, and the Civic Arena demanded $1,200 upfront for rental fees. Backstrom continued dithering, stating he was “tired of gambling on the future of the club.” The league threatened to suspend him if he didn’t play. A Journal editorial mocked the team’s name, suggesting that “it sounds so much like a high school course that the team sponsors may want to find a new name rather quickly.”
The 8,457 fans who attended the home opener caused traffic jams. Fans gave a standing ovation during the opening ceremony and again at the end of the game, even though the Civics lost 2-1. The players appreciated the response after the lukewarm reaction they had received in Denver. “When that first guy went out there under that spotlight,” left-winger Rick Morris told the Citizen, “it was totally unbelievable. I think it took us about 10 minutes to recover.” Among those in the lineup was Backstrom, who had decided to play for now. Mellor declared that the game had been “the most memorable night of sport I’ve ever seen in this town” thanks to “the loudest, warmest reception that’s ever happened in this supposedly cold, stand-offish government town.”
The glow was short-lived. Rumours spread that Mullenix had given the Founders’ Club a 10-day ultimatum to buy the team. At a January 9 press conference, the Founders’ Club proposed incorporating as a non-profit, community-owned corporation with two levels of membership for those who contributed above or below $1,000. Too many questions remained as to how long it would take to raise the money and the exact conditions of any deal with Mullenix or the WHA. Some fans and journalists tired of the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” attitude of the Founders’ Club, which implied that all that was required to keep the team afloat was a positive attitude and unquestioning loyalty. An angry letter to the Citizen accused Mellor of conflict of interest due to his advisory role with (and excessive boosterism of) the Founders’ Club. The paper responded that it wanted to avoid being accused of having damaged the team, which had happened in relation to the Nationals.
Back on the road, the team dropped one game after another, usually by a goal. Players were tired of living with uncertainty. “It’s like being on one continuous road trip,” forward Brian Lavender told the Citizen. You’re living in the hotel all the time, and you don’t really know where the hell you’re at.”
The Civic Centre sold out for the team’s second home game, on January 15, against 47-year-old Gordie Howe and the Houston Aeros. Despite outshooting the Aeros 55-25, the Civics lost in overtime 5-4. There are differing accounts of a key announcement made late in the game. The Citizen reported that fans were told the league would be holding an emergency meeting two days later to discuss the franchise’s future. The Journal reported that, in between periods, Feller had announced to the crowd that they were watching the final Civics game but that the Founders’ Club would continue pursuing a club.
Whatever happened, it capped a bad day for the Civics. Mullenix failed to cover the payroll, then skipped a 2 p.m. call he was supposed to make to the Founders’ Club. When the two sides finally talked, there was no deal. Mullenix wanted up to $1.5 million, while the Founders’ Club was willing to pay only $1 million. The bank refused to approve a deal. After the game, it was announced that Backstrom had been traded to the Whalers for future considerations.
The next day, it was announced that six more players had been traded, suggesting that a fire sale was on. In Denver, city officials auctioned seized furniture and equipment. Details — including the revelations that the Founders’ Club had only $55,000 in pledges and that Mullenix wanted $125,000 up front — emerged about the breakdown of the sale. The league refused to provide financial assistance to the team. Mellor wrote that the WHA should give the city another chance and that, ultimately, “their loss is at least as great as ours.” By 4:30 p.m., all of the Civics had checked out of their temporary home at the El Mirador Hotel.
The league approved only the Backstrom deal and cancelled the next road game in San Diego. Officials declared Mullenix in default, denied permission to sell any more players, and gave him three days to meet payroll or the franchise would be cancelled. At the emergency meeting on January 17, the league decided to let all the deals go ahead and allowed Mullenix to release the remaining players, making them free agents.
Mullenix claimed that the Founders’ Club didn’t want to put any money down, had demanded one payroll deferment, wanted all of the gate receipts from the final home game, and had asked to be given until the end of April to raise $600,000. The Founders’ Club countered by claiming that Mullenix had forced a deal long before it was ready and that it was prepared to work with him for the rest of the season. Mullenix was sued by season-ticket holders in Denver for falsely promising them a contending team.
Denver hockey fans didn’t have to wait long for another pro hockey team, as the NHL’s Kansas City Scouts became the Colorado Rockies prior to the 1976-77 season. Ottawa returned to the NHL when the new Senators began play in 1992.
As Journal columnist Eddie MacCabe summed up the Civics, “Ottawa’s torrid romance with the World Hockey Association, which thousands of fans looked to as an enduring marriage, was nothing after all but a two-night stand.”
Sources: the May 20, 1975, edition of the Calgary Herald; the June 13, 1974, March 12, 1975, May 20, 1975, January 5, 1976, January 17, 1976, January 19, 1976, and January 21, 1976, editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 17, 1975, February 1, 1975, April 8, 1975, May 1, 1975, January 2, 1976, January 5, 1976, January 8, 1976, January 9, 1976, January 10, 1976, January 13, 1976, January 14, 1976, January 16, 1976, and April 6, 1976, editions of the Ottawa Citizen; the January 2, 1976, January 3, 1976, January 6, 1976, January 7, 1976, January 8, 1976, and January 16, 1976, editions of the Ottawa Journal; the January 3, 1976, edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle; the May 2, 1975, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; the May 19, 1975, and May 23, 1975, editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 5, 1975, edition of the Vancouver Sun.
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