Silver Nuggets: Dreaming of an Alternate League? Remember the Nationals and Civics

I miss these guys - Bruce Bennett

A brief history of Ottawa's WHA teams

The lockout has many wishing there was an alternative to NHL hockey. A professional league with elite talent which could challenge the NHL and help stabilize top-level hockey in North America.

While such a league would certainly be interesting, there are several obstacles which would be difficult to overcome and many of the challenges faced by the WHA in the 1970s still exist.

This isn't a post about the WHA or the viability of rival leagues more generally. This is a post about two of Ottawa's forgotten teams: the Nationals and the Civics. Ottawa briefly had two professional hockey teams in the 1970s, all but forgotten now.

The first was the Ottawa Nationals, a member of the WHA during its inaugural season. In fact, the first game in the history of the league was played at Ottawa's Civic Centre on October 11, 1972 (two months before our captain was born). The Nationals played the Alberta Oilers (soon to be Edmonton Oilers) and the home team lost 7-4. Originally supposed to play in Toronto, the team's owners were unable to come to an agreement with Harold Ballard for the use of Maple Leaf Gardens, and despite Hamilton being a possible destination, the franchise settled in Ottawa.

While their logo looked like they were sponsored by a political party and their uniforms looked like something you would wear to a rec league game decades ago, the club's management dreamed big in the beginning. The team hired experienced NHL coach Billy Harris and drafted Brad Park, Eddie Shack and Dave Keon but were unable to sign any of them. However, the club did have future NHLer Gilles Gratton between the pipes (he would be best known for his mask).

While the club would make the playoffs that first season, attendance issues plagued the team. Never averaging higher than 3,000 fans a game, the team and city could not come to financial terms for the 1973-74 season; consequently, the club played their playoff games in Toronto as the Ontario Nationals. They would make the move permanent during the off-season and became the Toronto Toros.

Just two short years later the WHA was back in Ottawa; however, the city's second chance in the WHA was the least successful in the history of the league. The team existed for just fifteen days and seven games.

Originally, the franchise was located in Denver, was formed in 1968 and played in the Western Hockey League. The team moved to the WHA in 1975 but had attendance problems. In addition, rumours that the NHL was thinking about moving a club to Denver worried the club's owner, and one month into the season, Ivan Mullinex began negotiations with an Ottawa-based ownership group named the "Founders Club". Talks stalled until New Year's Eve, 1975 when the Founders Club agreed to continue negotiations if Mullinex moved the team to Ottawa immediately.

The team was moved to Ottawa on January 2, 1976 without so much as a press release and renamed after the arena the club would now play their home games in - the Ottawa Civic Centre. Legend has it that the players were informed of the move during their next road game - when the Canadian anthem was played. The club won just one game as the Ottawa Civics, a road game against Minnesota, a 5-2 victory. The club even switched divisions in the middle of the season, from the Western to the Canadian Division.

Attendance was not as much of a problem for the Civics. 8,500 fans watched the Civics lose their home-opener to the Whalers. In their second and final home game, the Civics lost in OT to Gordie Howe's Houston Aeros, in front of a sold-out crowd of 9,355. Prior to the final game, the Founders Club announced negotiations had been canceled while owner Mullinex quickly sold the team's players. Subsequently, the team was disbanded.

As bad as the Nationals' logo and uniforms were, the Civics' were worse. Because of the rushed nature of the relocation, the team did not design a new logo or change colours. Instead, they simply wore their Spurs uniforms with the logo removed!

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