Monday, March 23, 2015

TORO, TORO, TORO

The second hockey talk session for 2015, hosted my Mike Wilson, focused on the Toronto Toros. Under the ownership of the colourful Johnny F. Bassett, they played in the World Hockey Association.


Here is a brief history tracing the locations where the club set-up shop.

 The club was first based in Ottawa, Ontario. The franchise was granted to Doug Michel, but Nick Trbovich took over as the majority owner. The team was called the Ottawa Nationals.

Former Toronto Maple Leaf, Billy Harris, was behind the bench when the Nationals played their first game on October 11, 1972. With the Civic Centre only half-filled, Ottawa fell 7-4 to the Alberta Oilers. The first goal for Ottawa came off the stick belonging to Bob Charlebois.



Hampered by low attendance during the 1972-73 campaign, Ottawa fled the nations capital when playoff time rolled around. Instead of playing in Ottawa, the Nationals landed in Toronto. They called Maple Leaf Gardens home for their opening series against the New England Whalers.

Billy Harris wasn't concerned that his team would be distracted by the move.

"Everyone seems to think this will bother our players, that they're thinking of moving instead of concentrating on hockey. Heck, earlier in the year they went through 5 weeks when they didn't know if they should buy groceries or not. We were suppose to be on our way to Milwaukee - so a little thing like this isn't going to affect us."

In competition with junior club in town, the Ottawa 67s (OHA), who had Dennis Potvin in their line-up, the Nationals couldn't gain a spot in the marketplace.

The nail in the coffin came when the city of Ottawa requested the club pay a $100,000 rental bond.

Buck Houle, general manager of the Nationals, could see the writing on-the-wall.

"To me, Ottawa seems like the kind of town in which it would take two or three years, at least, to get a following and then you couldn't be sure."

On May 2, 1973, Johnny F. Bassett and his Can Sports group purchased the Ottawa Nationals with the intention of keeping them in Toronto. At the time, John Bassett Sr. owned the Canadian Football League Toronto Argonauts. Also, in the 1960s, the elder Bassett held an ownership stake in the Toronto Maple Leafs along with Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard. After a prolonged battle in the boardroom, Ballard gained majority control of the National Hockey League team.


Two important tasks awaited the new owner of Toronto's second professional hockey team - a place to call home and a name.

Johnny F. Bassett first attempted to work out a deal with the city of Toronto to play in the Coliseum on the CNE grounds. His intention was to convert the facility into a hockey arena.

Although Bassett's plan didn't materialize in 1973, the concept did resurface in 2002. That's when the Coliseum was refitted and housed an American Hockey League team called the Toronto Roadrunners.

Eventually, Bassett settled on Varsity Arena, with Sunday nights being reserved for WHA hockey.

The second job consisted of finding a name. Bassett had the advertising firm of Vickers and Benson conduct research on these potential names - Metros, Blues, Yorks, Royals and Toros.

On June 11, 1973, Bassett welcomed the Toronto media and revealed the Toro name and sweater.



The Toronto Toros played their first game on October 7, 1973 at Varsity. The visitors were Pat Stapleton and the Chicago Cougars. A near capacity crowd watched as the Toros and Cougars skated to a 4-4 draw.



Toronto's roster was a mix of young and old. On the defence they had veteran Carl Brewer and up front an 18 year old underaged rookie by the name of Wayne Dillon.

Dillon, who was still in high school when he signed with the Toros, offered a unique excuse when he was late for a team flight. He told management he was held-up due to a detention at school! Upon hearing this, Buck Houle remarked, "I thought I had heard everything in pro hockey."

The honour of scoring the Toronto Toros first goal went to Tommy "Shotgun" Simpson. Noted for his skills on offence, Simpson went on to score 52 goals with the Toros in 1974-75.

A change of scenery occurred in 1974, when the Toros departed Varsity Arena for the spacious confines of Maple Leaf Gardens. This was a no-win situation for Bassett. He found himself saddled with a huge rental bill and enormous costs when it came to using the television lights at the Gardens. The lease terms at Carlton and Church were restrictive and didn't help the profit column.

After 2 years at the 'House Conn Smythe Built,' Bassett made an important decision. On June 10, 1976, he announced that the Toros were packing up and shipping out to Birmingham, Alabama. Clearly, Birmingham offered Bassett a fresh start. The city had a new arena and he would no longer be held for ransom by the owner of Maple Leaf Gardens. Just as important, his hockey club didn't have to live in the shadow of the Toronto Maple Leafs.


The Birmingham Bulls played their first regular season game in football country on October 8, 1976. As was the case in the Toros first contest, "Shotgun" Simpson rifled home the Bulls first goal.


It didn't come as a surprise when, in late March of 1979, the NHL and WHA merged. Four of the six remaining WHA franchises were invited to the dance, but Bassett's Birmingham Bulls were left out in the cold. They did, however, receive $2.85-million to go away.



The real fun of exploring the WHA comes when hearing the stories from those who worked or played in the league. And there were a number of stories told on a cold night in Toronto.

Here are some memorable quotes from the panel of  Gilles Leger, Brit Selby, Tom Martin and Rick Vaive. Another special guest was John Bassett, the son of the Toronto Toros owner, Johnny F. Bassett.

Back Row (L TO R): Brit Selby, Rick Vaive & Tom Martin. Seated at the front is Gilles Leger.
John Bassett and Gilles Leger share some memories.
Gilles Leger ('72-'73 to '78-'79 Front Office & Coaching Staff):"The franchise as a whole was like a ship going through the hockey market. It started out in Ottawa with Doug Michel. We weren't drawing extremely  well, so they decided to sell the team to Nick Trbovich, who lived in Buffalo. Then, Johnny F. Bassett bought the team and brought it to Toronto. They were a bunch of young entrepreneurs that wanted to own a hockey team. They wanted to do something different. John was the president. He was an innovator and a lot of his stuff is in the game today, like in marketing. I was an assistant coach to Billy Harris in Ottawa, and when we moved to Toronto, I became the director of player personnel."

"As we went along, the team went through cycles. I eventually became general manager of the Toros, and then, we moved the team to Birmingham."

"My player budget wouldn't pay one player today. The economy at that time was excellent to start a new league."

"These are guys who left NHL jobs to come and start a new league. They made it a good place for young players like Rick Vaive to come and play outside of junior hockey. I think the WHA as a whole really helped hockey."

Tom Martin ('72-'72 Ottawa/'73-'74 Toronto/'74-'75 Toronto): "I was in the Detroit organization playing in Fort Worth of the Central League. We started hearing rumours of this new league starting up. The NHL started to get a little worried, so they would send guys down to talk to us and they said, 'if you guys sign and it collapses, you're finished.' We all thought there was a lot of money to be made and maybe we should take a gamble. I'm proud that we took the chance. All our contracts were guaranteed in Ottawa. They signed us for three years and all our money was in the bank. It was a good gamble.

Brit Selby ('72-'73 Quebec & New England/'73-'74 Toronto/'74-'75 Toronto): "I was at the end of my career. I was 27. I was sent by the St. Louis Blues to Kansas City and I was finishing my career there. I had just about accepted a job in Switzerland in August 1972. I must have had my head in the sand as I knew nothing about the WHA. A friend of mine in Philadelphia called me and said there was a lawyer who could negotiate a deal for me in Ottawa."

"Buck Houle (the Ottawa GM) had been a big influence in my life from the time I was in pee-wee. He was the manager of our teams like the Toronto Marlboros. He knew me. I don't know if this is true or not, but I thought I was going to Ottawa. But the lawyer signed me with Quebec."

"We started out in Quebec and 'Rocket' Richard was the coach. He was so positive with the players. He was a good guy. One night I was coming home and there was a moving van. 'Rocket' and I lived in the same apartment building. I thought he was moving some stuff into his apartment. The next day, I found out he had quit. Around two weeks later, I was shipped to the New England Whalers. I ended up playing with Tommy Webster and Terry Caffery. I had more fun than any other season and we won the Avco Cup. For some reason, they traded me to the Toros."

"The WHA was wonderful to me. I probably wasn't the easiest player for management to put up with."

Rick Vaive ('78-'79 Birmingham): "I told Sherbrooke I was going to leave in my final year of junior and go to the WHA. It gave me the opportunity to play against men and try and get better as a hockey player in a better league. Sherbrooke was willing to match the $50,000 being offered by the WHA. I was absolutely shocked that they were willing to pay me that amount of money to play my final year of junior. I turned it down and took the contract in Birmingham. The best part of that was being with a bunch of other 19 year-olds (the other underaged players signed by Birmingham collectively  known as the Baby Bulls). I wasn't going into this all alone."

"Aside from the fact the year before I got there, they had all the tough guys, who beat the crap out of everybody. When they got rid of them and brought all of us in, it was revenge time for all the others."

Gilles Leger: "I got the young guys together and told them you got to have character. Hockey was very tough at that time. They started it in Philadelphia and we continued it in Birmingham. I told the kids one thing you do when you start fighting is grab on and duck a lot. Don't try and throw any punches."

Brit Selby: "If someone challenged you, you would never back-off. I got clobbered by John Ferguson and I fought Jerry Korab."

Rick Vaive: "John Brophy was our coach. One of the things he instilled in me was you have to stick-up for yourself. That will give you more room on the ice and a lot more respect around the league. But at times it didn't go every good. Dave Semenko suckered me and knocked me out cold. John Brophy asked our trainer, Larry Ashley, if I was okay and he said no. Brophy was screaming we should just send him home if we can't play!"

"I remember we were playing New England one night at home and we had a 1-0 lead. Brophy put me on the ice in the last minute with a faceoff in our zone. One of our guys cleared the puck and I wanted to beat the guy on the other team to avoid an icing call. I beat him to the puck and went around the net. As I came around the net, I turned and skated backwards. I was going to put the puck in the empty net. And that's all I remember. Next thing I know, I'm Bambie on the ice and I'm trying to get up and make it to the bench. The following day, I looked at the film and discovered it was Gordie Howe who hit me."


Tom Martin: "It was good fun when we heard that Evil Knievel was coming to one of our Toro games. We all laughed. He took some penalty shots at Les Binkley and the fans really loved it."

Gilles Leger: "I remember John telling me that Harold Ballard offered to sell him the Leafs for $50-million. That was a lot of money at that time."

Rick Vaive: "We had Bear Bryant Night in Birmingham and there were line-ups to get in. I told one of the guys we should have Bear Bryant Night every game. Football was king down there. I remember him coming in wearing his checkered hat."

Gilles Leger: "In Birmingham, we had three different kind of teams to initiate the people to hockey. The first year, we had a lot of superstars like Henderson Nedomansky and Mahovlich. The second year, we signed all those tough guys. Then, we really were the Birmingham Bulls. We signed guys like 'Bad News' Bilodeau. The third year, we had all the young guys that could actually play."

Gilles Leger: "One time, we were playing in the Boston Garden where the New England Whalers played their games. The night before the game, Tommy (Martin) went out to get a pizza. He got mugged on the way back."

Tommy Martin: "They had a gun and took my Memorial Cup ring. We were lined-up for the national anthem before the game the next night and all the guys on New England shaped their hands like a gun and were pointing at me."

Brit Selby: "When we played in New Jersey, we use to change into our uniform at the Holiday Inn, then take the bus to the rink."

Tommy Martin: (on the relationship between the Leafs & Toros) "There really wasn't much of relationship other than exchanging hello's."

Gilles Leger: "The Leafs never recovered after the WHA. They lost too many players. They lost Ricky Lee, Bernie Parent, Paul Henderson, Jimmy Harrison."

Tommy Martin: "They wouldn't pay anybody. Dave Keon went in and told the Leafs the WHA were offering "x" amount of dollars for him to jump. And Harold Ballard told him we're not going to pay you, get out of here and don't come back when it folds. Here's a guy who spent his whole career in Toronto and wanted to end it with the team he had been captain of."

Gilles Leger: "We found 'Bad News' Gilles Bilodeau in Quebec. A friend of mine told me about him. I went down to take a look at him and drafted him. We played Phoenix one night in Toronto and they really intimidated us. The next time we played in Quebec City, I called my friend and told him to send 'Bad News' to Quebec because we wanted to play him. He developed a reputation in the East Coast League. I started him with Nedomansky. When Nedomansky scored, I sat Giles down. Then, when I put him out about ten minutes later, Nedomansky scored again."

"I put 'Bad News' on the power play and told him to stand in front of the net. A Quebec defenceman tried to take him out, but Gilles hit him over the head and his helmet came down his face and he was bleeding. After the game, guys came up to me and asked, 'does he have any brothers?'"

Tommy Martin: "We had one guy they brought up and I won't mention his name. He was one of these guys that all he could do is fight. We won a game in New England and Billy Harris, our coach, was so happy he gave the guys some money for drinks. The fellow who was called up came with us to the bar. We were drinking from old-fashioned glasses. I looked around and asked him where his glasses were. He said he ate them! He devoured four off them and all that was left were stubs. The waitress came over and asked where his glasses were and we had to tell her that he ate them."

This amazing story, told by Tommy, topped-off a wonderful evening of Toronto Toros talk. I can't think of a better tale that captures the essence of the World Hockey Association. It definitley was a show-stopper.


















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