Image: James Lewcun, 1976: The Globe and Mail.
Image: Ice Hockey Wiki
The Toronto Toros – history city.
An Emerging World Hockey Association
The World Hockey Association (WHA) had its inaugural season in 1972 and ambitiously established itself as a competitor to the National Hockey League (NHL) by trying to be more accessible to fans and players. For fans, they would bring teams to mid-level markets in Canada and the United States. For players, they would offer higher salaries and offer fewer restrictions than the NHL such as, the reserve clause, which in effect bound players to the same team for their entire careers, which would lure in NHL players such as superstar, Bobby Hull.
One of the markets the WHA established a team in was Ottawa after the WHA granted Doug Michel the right to own a team in Ontario. Originally it was thought that Hamilton would be the destination, but the franchise landed in our nation’s capital. After an inaugural season that saw the Ottawa Nationals rack up debt mainly caused by poor attendance, the team folded and was sold to John F. Bassett. Bassett would bring the Toros to Toronto, who were already home to not just a team, but a Toronto institution in the Maple Leafs.
The Appeal of The Toronto Toros
So how do you compete with such a beloved franchise? For The Toros, a big part of their push was to connect a team to the city, and they’d do so by going local, investing resources in players who had a connection to Toronto.
A 1973 advertisement posted in the Toronto Star would state that, “The Toros are an eager, aggressive, hard skating group of young hockey players. Almost every one of them has more than just a playing interest in Toronto, because they’re Toronto and district boys. Players who have a desire to win for Toronto because they are Toronto.”
Butting Heads with the Maple Leafs
The Toros would play their first season at Varsity Arena, which bothered Maple Leaf and Maple Leaf Gardens owner, Bill Ballard and his son Harold. Ballard, who unsuccessfully bid for the franchise, also wanted The Toros to rent the Gardens. Toros owner John F. Bassett declined the invitation explaining to the Globe that he’d “…rather play somewhere else, even with less seats, where we could establish ourselves. When people think of the Gardens they think of the Leafs.” Unfortunately, that snub from Bassett would eventually come back to bite the Toros.
Source: Ice Hockey Wiki
In their first season the Toros franchise would “light the lamp” both figuratively and literally, making it all the way to the conference finals. The Toros quickly reached a point where they outgrew the 4,900 capacity Varsity Arena. Their success as a team saw them end up playing their playoff games in Maple Leafs Gardens.
The following year Bassett would move past his initial hesitation for the team to play in Maple Leaf Gardens, and relocate there for more room. They would add Hall-of-Famer Frank Mahovlich and 1972 Summit Series hero Paul Henderson to their roster. The Toros would return to the playoffs, and their success would continue drawing larger crowds. While the team was poised for continued success, drama behind the scenes took hold.
Battling for Space
As The Toros sought out an arena to fight their growing fan base, Harold Ballard, who resented the WHA, charged The Toros excessive rent, removed the bench cushions before their games, and denied them access to the Leafs dressing room, making them build their own dressing room instead. This made life difficult, and ultimately was the beginning of the end for the young franchise. Many people said Ballard had a bone to pick with the team because of his unsuccessful bid for the franchise, other reasons people cited was the Toros aggressive pursuit of Toronto Maple Leaf players and the mere existence of the WHA.
In the end, a mixture of high rent, players leaving, and dropping attendance would lead to the Toros curtain call, and in 1976 they would relocate the Birmingham, Alabama and be renamed the Birmingham Bulls.
The WHA itself stuck around until they merged with the NHL 1979. The merger brought in teams such as the New England Whalers (who became the Hartford Whalers, and now the Carolina Hurricanes), the Winnipeg Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes), the Edmonton Oilers, and the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche).
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library