Friday, October 23, 2015

GOOD HOCKEY STORIES. GOOD FUN.

One of the amazing aspects of team sports is the bond that develops between teammates. Through good and bad times the bond only seems to get stronger. It remains intact long after the last game has been played and the next generation takes over. And a perfect example of this came in late August when former members of the Ottawa Nationals, Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls gathered for a reunion held at the home of Mike Wilson (The Ultimate Leafs Fan).

As Mike's spacious backyard slowly began to fill up it didn't take long for the chatter to begin. Strolling through the grounds one could stop and listen as teammates told their stories. Included in the interaction was plenty of laughing and backslapping.

I stopped in my tracks and watched as Gilles Gratton and Les Binkley, both goalies with the Nationals and Toros, crossed paths.

"'Binkey', is that you?" Gratton asked as he approached Les Binkley. In a matter of seconds they were catching up and reminiscing about their times between the pipes.

And that is what the occasion was all about. The air was saturated with their stories and what they were up to back in the day.



It was an exciting time for hockey as the World Hockey Association started to take hold and make an impact.

The glue that bonded the Nationals, Toros and Bulls together was supplied by one individual, Johnny F. Bassett. The young and innovative entrepreneur purchased the Ottawa team and moved them to Toronto after one year in Canada's national city. Then, the franchise shifted from Toronto to Birmingham, Alabama.

Thus, it was fitting that his son, John C. Bassett, played a major role in organizing and reaching out to the players to encourage their attendance. Decked out in a vintage Toronto Toros necktie, John brought framed team photos and they helped spark memories and conversations. Mike Wilson, Paul Patskou and Tom Large joined John in getting this event off the ground.


THE OTTAWA NATIONALS

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.
 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." - EXCERPT FROM HOCKEY THEN AND NOW, MARCH 23, 2015.

 "It was a little bit different from the NHL," Les Binkley told me about his impression of the quality of play in the WHA. "In the NHL you played with better players and it was more organized.

One memory stands out for Binkley from when Ottawa played their first regular season game against the Alberta Oilers. "The first game we played was on TV. I had just come from the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL) and Billy Hickie was playing with me in Pittsburgh. He got a penalty shot for the Oilers and I knew what he was going to do and he knew what I was going to. He scored."

Bob Charlebois, a native of Cornwall, Ontario, spent one season with the Ottawa Nationals.

'I played the whole first year in Ottawa and I have fond memories," Charlebois said. "I ended-up playing in the initial WHA All-Star Game and ultimately, I think that got me traded. I had a good game that night and my play caught the eye of Whalers coach, Jack Kelley. In year two when the team moved to Toronto, I was traded to the New England Whalers for Brit Selby."

While disappointed to leave his teammates there was a silver-lining for Charlebois in the trade. 

"I had an automatic three year contract extension," Charlebois revealed.

Although Charlebois didn't spend the next season with the Toros he did come to Toronto with the Nationals for the 1973 playoffs.

"The players were told a couple of days earlier that we were going to move (for the post-season) overnight. The story goes that buses moved into the Civic Centre and the equipment was loaded. We were told that our families were moving into a hotel in downtown Toronto."

Rick Sentes, also an original Ottawa National, commented on the WHA's impact on the game.

"I played in the American Hockey League and led my team in scoring. I was owned by the Detroit Red Wings and didn't get called up for a single game. They had the worst record in the entire NHL. The WHA came along, so I jumped to play in the league."

Sentes provided his view on why the Nationals departed from Ottawa.

"I think it was for the better. The crowds weren't that good in Ottawa. It was struggling attendance wise."

One individual not happy about leaving Ottawa for the '73 playoffs was Gilles Gratton.

"We started in Ottawa, then suddenly, moved to Toronto for the playoffs That was a real bummer. We got to Toronto and there's like 2,000 people watching the game. It was a downer."

THE TORONTO TOROS

"GOOD HOCKEY. GOOD FUN." (Team Motto)

 On May 2, 1973, Johnny F. Bassett and his Can Sports group purchased the Ottawa Nationals with the intention of keeping them in Toronto.
 Two important tasks awaited the new owner of Toronto's second professional hockey team - a place to call home and a name.
 Eventually, Bassett settled on Varsity Arena, with Sunday nights being reserved for WHA hockey.
 The second job consisted of finding a name.
 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.
 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. - EXCERPT FROM HOCKEY THEN AND NOW, MARCH 23, 2015 

One of the first arrivals at the reunion was Frank Mahovlich. "The Big M" was one of several players to play for both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Toros. Former Leafs and Toros also on-hand for the reunion were Wayne Carleton, Paul Henderson and Jim Dorey. No longer with us from the  Leafs-Toros group are Carl Brewer and Guy Trottier. Representing Brewer at the reunion was his partner, Sue Foster.

During his tour of Mike Wilson's stunning collection, Mahovlich told a story about his centreman with the Toros, Gavin Kirk. He remembered Kirk, "placing passes between my skates."

A story that Kirk also couldn't resist telling.

"I remember the third game we were playing and I had Frank Mahovlich and Mark Napier as my wingers," Kirk said as he began dishing-out the details.

"We were in Chicago and halfway through the second period, Frank turns to me and says, 'Gav, you're the worst centreman I've ever played with.' I didn't think that was very funny, but Frank laughed and I got mad."

Later, Mahovlich explained to Kirk why he made that comment.

"We had a discussion," and as Kirk noted, "Mahovlich said, 'by the way the only other centremen I played with were Davey Keon (Maple Leafs), Alex Delvecchio (Red Wings) and Jean Beliveau (Canadiens).' So, I was okay with that comment."

Vaclav Nedomansky (R) with Frank Mahovlich

Besides Mahovlich and Henderson, another big-fish landed by the Toros was Vaclav Nedomansky. In 1974, Nedomansky fled Czechoslovakia via Switzerland. Having escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, Nedomansky's new surroundings in Canada made the transition go smoother.

"I felt like home here (Toronto) and it was a hockey town, which made it easier for me to come here as a hockey player," said 'Big Ned', who subsequently played in the NHL with Detroit, St. Louis and the New York Rangers.

Asked about the differences between playing back home and in North America, he replied, "there was a smaller rink and the games were based on individual players and the toughness of players."

Nedomansky fondly looked back at his time living in Toronto.

"I loved it and I thought it was going to be my home. We lived in North York and when we moved in '76 (to Birmingham) I was sad. I lived here (in the off-season) until 1979, and then we moved to Detroit."

Still connected with the game as a pro scout with the Nashville Predators, Nedomansky gave his take on the current crop of players.

"They are physically better and they are faster. The top players are very skilled and it is enjoyable to watch."

One of the big thrills for those transplanted from Ottawa to to Toronto was the opportunity to eventually play in Maple Leaf Gardens. But first, they called Varsity Arena, which is located in downtown Toronto, their home.

"Varsity Arena at the time was a real barn," Rick Sentes recalled. "It was dark and cold. The boards had no give in them. I remember one night running at Larry Hillman and when he moved, I hit my shoulder against the boards and suffered a seperation."

In year two, the Toros made their way to Maple Leaf Gardens.

"I loved playing at the Gardens because when you played for an American team there wasn't much TV coverage," Les Binkley pointed out. "The people back home knew you played hockey, but didn't see you play much. With the Toros, all my friends got to see the games and that was important to me."

On the other hand, Gilles Gratton had a different point of view.

"We were at Varsity Arena and it was cool. I liked it better than Maple Leaf Gardens. Varsity had 4,000 seats and it was a great atmosphere. I always thought the Gardens was dead."

A free spirit, Gratton wasn't your conventional hockey player on or off the ice.

"I was kind of a flake you could say," Gratton told me. "When I left Toronto I was angry because they fired our coach, Billy Harris. He was like a father figure to me. That is why I left Toronto."

Then, came Gratton's brief 47 game gig in the National Hockey League.

"I went to St. Louis and played six games. I got into a fight with the coach (Gary Young) and left. My last year in New York I just hated it. It was a year in hell. I decided that year I wouldn't play hockey anymore. I just left."

Commenting on the difference in play between the WHA and NHL, Gratton stated, "the defence in the NHL was tighter. The WHA was more open because the defencemen came from the juniors or the American Hockey League. The WHA hockey was more entertaining for the crowds."

Gilles Gratton (R) with Les Binkley

On one occasion, Gratton and Binkley were called upon to participate in a unique publicity promotion. Between periods, Gratton was to face American daredevil Evel Knievel in a penalty shot competition. But at the last moment Gratton bailed.

"I wasn't suppose to take the shots, Gilles Gratton was to," Binkley stated. "But they couldn't find him. Knievel scored two goals and got ten-thousand dollars. I stopped two and got two-thousand dollars. We had our team party with that money."

Upon his retirement from the game, Gratton travelled the world seeking spiritual enlightenment and happiness. In 2006 The New York Times reported that Gratton, after hanging up his goalie pads for good, "...spent three years at ashrams in India and the next 20 or so moving around Europe."

THE BIRMINGHAM BULLS

 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. - EXCERPT FROM HOCKEY THEN AND NOW, MARCH 23, 2015

"When I got traded to Birmingham from Phoenix, I knew about Birmingham, but I quickly found out once I got there (1976-77) that it was a great city," Dave Gorman observed about his new hockey home. "The people were very hospitable and there were a bunch of great guys down there."

I was curious about the fan reaction to hockey in an area known for being a football hotbed.

"They weren't overly hockey knowledgeable, but they certainly had their heart and soul behind us. I was pleasantly surprised by the crowds we got."

In March 1979, news came of the NHL-WHA merger with Birmingham and Cincinnati not receiving an invitation. Asked if he was disappointed by this, Gorman's response didn't come as a surprise.

"Yes, very much so that Birmingham wasn't one of the teams. They certainly had the facility."

Gavin Kirk provided this appraisal of the situation.

"In Birmingham, Johnny Bassettt signed the 'Baby Bulls' to play with the likes of Mahovlich and Henderson. If they ever kept that team together we would have gone a long way."

The 'Baby Bulls' included such names as Rick Vaive, Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage, Pat Riggin, Craig Harrisburg, Gaston Gingras and Rob Langway.

Also weighing in on Birmingham's exclusion was Peter Marrin, who signed with the Toros after winning the Memorial Cup in 1973.

"I can't imagine what Birmingham would have been like if it had been brought in as well," Marrin said of the merger. "Even if we had to move north, pick a Canadian city that wouldn't like to have a start with those players."

Marrin made a bold prediction on how the Bulls would have faired in the new hockey landscape.

"John Bassett might not have been too far behind, and I dare say it, something like an Edmonton Oiler dynasty. We really had some great young players. If they were ever kept together, John was on the right track."

REMEMBERING JOHN F. BASSETT


A constant thread in the conversation at the reunion was the late John F. Bassett.

"I have to thank him for everything he did for me," Vaclav Nedomansky stated. "It was my first chance to play hockey professionally and come with my family to North America. It was always my dream to play here."

Steve King, who skated for the Nationals and Toros, stated that, "they (Bassett and his ownership group) treated us like royalty."

"A lot of time at practice, John would come down and we'd sit together on the bench," Les Binkley recalled. "He was just like one of us. He wanted to be around the sports guys and we appreciated what he did."

"For me and my wife, Heather, he paid the bills," Peter Marrin noted of the financial benefits of playing for an owner like John Bassett. "We really miss him. He was a sportsmen. I just can't imagine what the Toronto sports scene would be like with John Bassett on the scene."

Johnny F. Bassett

Great insight into John F. Bassett the man, husband and father was provided by his widow, Susan Bassett.

"Like anything he did in sports, John gave 100 percent," Susan noted of her husbands work ethic. "I just think it was in his blood. His father had been involved with the Maple Leafs and Argonauts. In John's case it was the next generation trying to carry it on."

Taking into account the demands on Bassett's time, I enquired what impact this had on the family.

"I'm sure it was probably an unusual family life," Susan replied. "The father wasn't at home having dinner every night and sometimes wouldn't be home for several weeks. But by today's standards it would be pretty normal."

One advantage to owning a sports franchise is the entire family can become involved.

"We went to all the games as a family when they were in Toronto and Birmingham," Susan said of the Bassett family tradition. "We lived in Birmingham and I loved it. It was a southern environment and the people were very hospitable and generous. They had never known the game of hockey, so it was a challenge. We loved it as a family."

There was speculation her husband had an interest in owning the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"He would have had to get Harold (Ballard) out of the way," Susan said with a chuckle. "Harold was as competitive as my husband Johnny, but they were a generation apart."

As Susan pointed out, roadblocks were already in place, which could have stopped a Bassett from gaining control of the historic hockey club and Maple Leaf Gardens.

"Harold and 'Big' John were also competitive," Susan explained in reference to her father-in-law's relationship with Harold Ballard. "There was a bit of a grudge carried into the next generation."

The "grudge" stemmed from a nasty boardroom feud, which led to John Sr. selling off his ownership interest in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. His partners were Ballard and Stafford Smythe.

When the end came for the Birmingham Bulls, Johnny F. Bassett couldn't help but be disappointed.

"He was equally disappointed when he had to leave Toronto and move the team to Birmingham," Susan added. "But he never looked backwards, he always moved forward."



























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