A Forgotten Anniversary: Ottawa's Short-Lived WHA Franchise
45 years ago this month, we saw Ottawa hockey history as Gordie Howe played a regular season game at the Civic Centre. It's true! How it came about is a bit convoluted but it actually did happen.
It was January 15, 1976 and the owner of the WHA's Denver Spurs was looking to sell his team and move it. But the story actually began weeks before. A group of investors from Ottawa thought they had what it took to acquire the team and bring it to the nation’s capital.
Ivan Mullenix was a St. Louis real estate developer and the owner of the beleaguered franchise. Attendance had not been what he had hoped for in Denver and he had a pile of debt that he wanted to wipe out. And by the end of December, he was presented with a new tax lien of just under $50,000. So he figured he would sell the team and pay off said debt.
Enter the Founders’ Club, a group of local men who wanted to buy a team and claim the mantle of bringing pro hockey back to Ottawa. Two of the principals in the group were clothing retailer Henry Feller and local musician Ron Sparling. The only problem for them was...money.
The negotiations were serious enough that the team name was changed from the Denver Spurs to the Ottawa Civics on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1975. The only problem was that no one had informed the players. They only began to find out about it when, while standing before a game in Cincinnati on January 2, 1976, both the American AND the Canadian anthems were played.
Immediately, some players were not happy. Spurs’ forward and leading scorer Ralph Backstrom declared himself a free agent right away saying that he would not be playing for the team if they were not based in Denver. Nonetheless, he continued to play for the Spurs/Civics. On January 4, they got a 5-2 win against the equally financially-precarious Minnesota Fighting Saints.
They played their first “home” game on January 7 at the Ottawa Civic Centre against the New England Whalers. But the team’s future was anything but certain. Mullenix stated that the sale of the team should be finalized by the end of the month, even though he still owed plenty of money back in Denver. Ottawa mayor Lorry Greenberg promised no help from the city. Backstrom was still unhappy saying he was “tired” of gambling on the future of the team and the league and was threatened with suspension by the league if he didn’t play.
The game in Ottawa was hastily arranged but 8,457 fans showed up in the arena that held just under 10,000. Traffic jams along the roads into the Civic Centre delayed people from being able to get into the rink. By the time the opening ceremony was held, those fans in the building gave the team a massive standing ovation. They stood and cheered again at the end of the game even though the Civics lost 2-1. Ottawa Citizen columnist Bob Mellor called it “the most memorable night of sport I’ve ever seen in this supposedly cold, standoffish government town”.
But negotiations being what they are, they ebb and flow. Mullenix gave the Ottawa group a 10-day ultimatum to get the money together. The Founders’ Club held a press conference on January 9 to seek out new investors. The back and forth was wearing on some fans and media people in Ottawa.
Meanwhile, the team was on the road losing more games.
January 15, the Civic Centre was sold out. I was 15 years old then and was there with my Dad, my brother and one of our friends. The Civics were playing against the Houston Aeros. The stars of the Aeros were the Howe men: Father Gordie and sons Mark and Marty. The Civics, no doubt spurred on by the boisterous crowd, outshot the visitors 55-25. But, they lost 5-4 in overtime.
Earlier that day, Mullenix was supposed to engage in a phone call with The Founders’ Club. No call took place. Mullenix didn’t make payroll and when the Ottawa group couldn’t come up with the $1.5 million that the Spurs/Civics owner was asking for the team, the deal fell through and the Civics were folded immediately. Players on the team were dispersed throughout the league. And the city of Ottawa was not the home of a professional hockey team again until the Senators came to town.
As far as Denver fans were concerned, they didn’t have to wait as long for a pro hockey team. The Kansas City Scouts, who had played in the NHL in the 1974-75 and 1975-76 season, moved to Denver and became the Colorado Rockies before the 1976-77 hockey year. The Rockies lasted there until the end of the 1981-82 season and then moved to New Jersey and became the Devils.
Where is David Puddy when you need him?
I will let the esteemed Ottawa Journal columnist Eddie MacCabe have the last word on this subject. He wrote, “Ottawa’s torrid romance with the World Hockey Association, which thousands of fans looked to as an enduring marriage, was nothing but a two-night stand.”
By Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey